“When you look at the way things are going now,” began the whispering WhatsApp voice message on my Phone, “you, yourself will have a serious problem with it. The country is getting tough and we are being mocked in the street corners,”, exhausted and frustrated, the husky voice began. It was the first message I saw on my phone on that drowsy December morning. The message came from a senior Liberian government official I met on one of my flights to Mauritius. He was attending a government sponsored training in Nairobi, Kenya.
Quiet as a dove, he was the complete opposite of the flashy government officials I usually meet on Kenya Airways. I flew with him from the Roberts International Airport in Monrovia to Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi. Simple in appearance, I was moved by the weightlessness and buoyancy with which he carried himself. Unlike our regular government officials who are usually flibbertigibbets and whose outfits announce their positions, nothing on this official revealed anything about his employment with the government as a senior official. His modest appearance belied his position. He had on a casual short sleeve button down shirt, khaki shorts with a pair of leather flip-flops. Given the way he appeared, I thought he was one of Liberia’s international students in Kenya who, just like me, was returning after the summer break. With this assumption, I struck a conversation with him and it was only after we had conversed for some minutes, I discovered he works for the government. He was calm, collected and composed.
The Official was one of the key members of Weah’s presidential campaign. The president owes his power to individuals like him. Inspired by the president’s ‘grass to grace’ story, he genuinely believed Weah understood the economic, psychological and physical pain of people like him, born with nothing and have had to climb the social ladder based on the soil under his feet, not the blood in his veins. With this belief, he had used his mobilization skills and canvassed for votes in the “trenches” as he said, to make the “country giant” president. And once president Weah was sworn in office, the Official thought the beginning of the end of Liberia’s economic and social woes was finally insight. And instead of fighting to secure a lucrative position for himself (He got one later though), like many others in his new ruling party, The Congress for Democratic Coalition(CDC), the Official now became a passionate campaigner for the coming prosperity and progress in his community. He spent months urging his impatient, hungry- for- change supporters for a little more patience, to wait a little longer for the new government to roll out and transform the lives of the people he cares about the most, people who have long been ‘the below of Liberia’- ordinary people, he said. Even with no official role in the beginning, he voluntarily became a harbinger of patience, peace and prosperity.
The Official had ‘fought’ in the opposition along with the president for 12 years and was deeply committed to the idea of ‘Change for Hope.’, the ruling party’s campaign maxim. He sincerely thought President Weah represented something, a hope for people like him who had long been victims of structural violence and neglect under elite leaderships. He also believed in the transformative vision of his party whose members represent Fanon’s ‘Wretched of the Earth’, the poor of the poor. This Official struck me as a patriot filled with a dream of a different, a better kind of Liberia, especially for people like him. It was all in his conversation, all in the way he spoke of Liberia and this new leadership, the “people’s government”, as he insisted on several occasions during our trip.
He was a believer to a fault and maybe that was his problem--the naiveté of an absolute faith in an individual. Perhaps, he was blind to the dangers and to the rising new populism across the globe--charismatic and celebrity leaders who usually come to power based on nothing else but fame and often leave things worse than they already were. I hope President Weah is different.
Besides, the Official seemed like someone whose love for Liberia was only eclipsed by his interest in Liberians. I saw this in action. When we arrived at Kenyatta’s Airport in Nairobi in the next morning, he offered me breakfast, but I declined as my flight to Mauritius was just a few minutes away. Few people (including those in government now) had shared so much optimism in the future of Liberia under this leadership in the beginning other than this Official and this is why I couldn’t ignore his message, his frustrations, and disappointments with how the leadership is currently proceeding.
I would not have been moved had the message come from one of the opponents who declared themselves enemies of the administration even before it was inaugurated. But coming from a disciple who grew up in the trenches, “fought for this” change and would have literary soccer punched anyone who doubted the ability of the ‘country giant’ to lead Liberia to a better future, a few months back, I could not afford to ignore his message.
It meant something, something for Liberians and the world to know and I felt it as a duty to convey it:
“Technocrats that are supposed to run the country are not being given the chance. We fought for this. We fought for change. We fought for bringing wealth to our people. We fought for empowering our people, creating avenues for Liberians. But you see this time, things have changed.” The WhatsApp voice message from the Official continued. “Things have changed” for sure. This is not the same man I met sometimes back on Kenya Airways. He was so hopeful then. To say that he believed this new leadership was synonymous with a better Liberia would be an understatement. But while he may have realized the changes the day he sent me the message, they didn’t start on that day. As a keen observer of Liberian politics, I began witnessing the growing discontent among the public, especially the youth, most of whom voted for President Weah months ago when I was on the ground as a summer intern.
I saw it in the streets, the general hardship permeating the air, the declining economy, the devaluation of the Liberian currency and the accompanying surge in the prices of goods, the emptied shelves in the stores at ‘waterside’ and ‘red-light’ markets, the pile of garbage across the city, the buzzing flies, the vacant and surly stares of the numerous young people hanging out with nothing useful to do, the sheer nothingness of it all. It was all there, so conspicuous, so visible, so dull and so out in the open.
But while many people are growing discontent, public opinion remained polarized. Diehard supporters of the government blame the past leaderships, especially that of President Sirleaf‘s, for the present troubles. Critics who opposed the election of President Weah hold him responsible and believe the ‘economic apocalypse’ is only just beginning. Dissatisfied loyalists like the Official are now beginning to question their decision for voting him into power, claiming what they saw glittering was not gold afterall.
It’s true that President Weah shares most of the responsibilities for the current economic crisis in the country, but he is certainly not the only one responsible as most critics claim. As the distinguished Liberian Academic, Robtel Pailey eloquently put in her recent interview with Aljazeera News after the mass protest last June against the Liberian leader , “it is not just about the leadership of Weah, it’s the leadership of the entire governance ecosystem” including the legislature and the judiciary that should be blamed for the widespread government theft, corruption and mis- management. Both the Legislature and the Judiciary have a responsibility to hold the Executive accountable for excesses. Besides, it is also fair to argue that some of the problems like the evidently declining economy and corruption were inherited by the CDC led government as mentioned by the former Education Minister of Liberia Mr. George Werner , in one of his Facebook Posts, although they may have gotten worse now.
However, what remains most troubling and perhaps disappointing to many Liberians, especially the President's supporters are his lack of leadership and the absence of moral courage to minimize /fight corruption, run an inclusive government and hire Liberians with the technical knowledge to revitalize the economy and help Liberians and Liberia move forward.The president’s failure to aggressively tackle these issues have not only disappointed his many supporters, they have shamed some of his former loyalists whom, just like the Official now see themselves as laughing-stocks in their communities. And if the recent defeat of the ruling party in the senatorial bi-election in Montserrado county, the president’s strongest constituent base is something to go by, then we can be sure the president is losing the people’s mandate:
“Our friends ask us…ooooh your said your needed change, yor (your) needed this, yor needed that (but) up to this time we can’t see anything from you people. These things bring shame so it’s better to go out, mop (map) out and see what I can do in terms of awh, beginning with an NGO work and see what I can do to change some of the messes in government out of government. But it is a big shame for we (us) that really fought for this.” The Voice message concluded.
It’s really sad and ironic that seemingly well-intentioned people like the Official think that the only place to help government, his people and community is ‘out of government’. This is wishful thinking and an excuse to escape from the real battle of confronting the challenges within the government as an insider. While there is no doubt that NGOs do make a lot of difference in a nation, systemic, structural and sustained change can only come from the government offices, the policies they enact, laws they make and reforms they introduce. To witness real change, good citizens (including those in this government) must be willing to challenge the agencies and structures that delay progress, keep people in poverty and destitution. This is how terrible systems are changed – good leadership encouraged and bad leadership discouraged.
Societies are built when citizens see their government as an edifice that can be reimagined, restructured and reformed to empower its people live better lives. But this can only be done when seemingly good people like the Official muster the courage to confront terrible practices and poor leadership within the very system they work.
This is how systemic change is introduced: challenging the status quo, not running away from it.