Tamba D. Aghailas, Washington DC – Mr. Chairman of the organizing committee; Representatives of Government Agencies here present, Distinguished Leaders; Representatives of various Diaspora-based Liberian Organizations; Fellow guests, ladies and gentlemen.
I would to first of all thank my friends and comrades of the “All Liberian Diaspora Conference” organizing committee for inviting me here today to speak on the topic of Reform, Redress, and Reconciliation as it relates Security. These issues are central in our collective quest to rebuilding a cohesive nation and accelerating the kind of development needed to thrive in the 21st century, both as a country and as a people.
Liberia’s challenges of reform, redress and reconciliation are legacy issues which we have faced as a nation since our founding some 167 year ago. In order to understand some of these challenges, let me first begin by shedding light on some historical and contemporary issues that have greatly impacted our nation:
Since our founders declared independence in 1847, for over 130 years, Liberia’s political leadership structure remains fragile and without a solid foundation for a sustainable leadership transition process that transcends party lines and ethnicity. From the onset of its foundation, Liberia’s leadership structure had been fraught with personality cults, secrecy and unpreparedness on the part of those who have been thrust into positions of power. We must however acknowledge the noble intentions of the framers of our constitution, who modeled our Democracy after that of the United States, but yet Liberia remains one of the most underdeveloped countries because of weak leadership. And most often, in order to succeed, one must either be well connected with those in power, have the right family name or be a really good “talker or bull-shitter” to impress your way into a lucrative government job. This is not leadership with vision, but rather cronyism and nepotism at its best.
Let us fast forward to 1980:- On April 12, Master Sergeant Samuel K. Doe seized power through a bloody coup d’état; a coup that put Liberia back on the world map by its sheer brutality. Yet many had hoped that the coup had so much potential to change the socio-political landscape of our nation. After close to a decade of trials and errors, the government of President Doe had missed an opportunity to alter the direction of a country still hurting from the decades of discrimination meted against a segment of its own population by the ruling class.
Once again, issues of reform, redress and reconciliation were put on the backburner, which eventually led us into an all-out civil war planned by Liberia’s very own educated elites (the Johnsons, Sirleaf, Taylor, Greaves, Woewiyu, etc). With the right kind of leadership reform and a reform of our sociopolitical systems, could we have avoided a war that killed more than a quarter million people and maimed thousands of children and women?
The recent Presidency of Charles Taylor (1997 -2003) was short-lived because of missteps and miscalculations on key strategy decisions on reconciliation and reform of our political system by Taylor and his lieutenants. Faced with a leadership crisis and unable to reconcile a nation marred in bloodshed and atrocities, Taylor ruled with an iron fist, forcing his critics to either shut-up or go into exile or be killed. Insecurity became the order of the day and Liberia slipped right back into chaos and mayhem, with atrocities meted against innocent civilians by various warring factions. Unable to reform a government and unwilling to reconcile a nation torn apart a war, Taylor was forced into exile by his opponents and those whose interests surpassed the interest of any one individual.
Today, Liberia has reached another milestone in its political and development history: – Firstly, we must applaud the people of Liberian for electing the first female President of sub-Saharan Africa, in Madam Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. However, in an era of vast financial investments in the nation’s natural resource and agriculture sectors (according to the Executive Mansion’s estimates, more than $17 billon USD has been invested to date), yet poverty remains widespread amongst the majority poor, who neither have the skills nor the opportunities to upgrade their skills for jobs that are hard to come by.
Our economy is dominated by foreigners and profiteers who have little roots in the country. This is another classic example of government failure to redress the same old policies of the past that have kept ordinary people in poverty, thus breading resentment and apathy for hard work and excellence.
Liberia remains a nation of conundrums. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) report is currently lingering and catching dust somewhere in the Executive Mansion (or precisely somewhere in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where the President remains an “internally displaced.” Former warlords have been promoted (elected) to the ranks of lawmakers, while war financiers are being rewarded with lucrative government portfolios. The current administration has received the largest and most generous financial support to date than any previous administration, yet Education, to quote the President, “is in a mess;” “corruption is now a vampire” difficult to eradicate; lawmakers who have been elected to make laws that would benefit the people, are making laws to benefit themselves; the and the judicial/court system continues to be challenged by allegations of bribery; some called it “justice for sale.” The recent Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) outbreak also exposed a healthcare delivery system that is fragile and in a sad state, with limited resources and trained human capital.
In order to understand some of these challenges I have discussed above, we must also put into perspective how the lack of reform, redress and reconciliation continue to contribute to some of the worst statistics in terms of human development as complied by the United Nations and the U.S. CIA world fact book: 64% or more of Liberia’s population still lives in poverty, yet corruption has been reported almost in every branch and level of government, while impunity reigns. Liberia was ranked as the most corrupt country in the world in 2013 by Transparency International Global Corruption Barometer.
Infant mortality rates are alarming both for new born babies and for bothers: 70 deaths for every 1,000 births; for mothers, 770 deaths for 100,000 births.
Illiteracy rate is high: 40% of people cannot read or write, yet we spend less than 3% of GDP on education (est., 2008; rate 147/173 in the world).
From Joseph Jenkins Roberts to Samuel K. Doe to Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, our nation has faced tremendous challenges in terms of government reform, redress and reconciliation. We, who are here today and many others with similar aspirations must make a bold move and seize this great opportunity to alter the course of Liberia both as the next generation of leaders and as patriots, destined to inherit the challenges facing our nation. We must make a commitment to ourselves and to our people that we can and will do better.
Through reform, redress and reconciliation, we can build our nation to last for generations to come. And for this to be possible, we must be willing to get out of our comfort zones and “shock the status quo.” For reform, redress and reconciliation to be genuine, we must begin to address some of the underlying structural and systemic core areas: Education, healthcare, energy sectors, youth and women empowerment, the judiciary, and government administration.
Leadership: We must shock the status quo in Monrovia and throughout Liberia. Liberia needs leaders with vision and an “extraordinary commitment to cause,” who will put the needs of citizens above tribe, clan and/or political party. We must begin to educate and inform the voting population on the importance of electing people with a track record of “doing good” by their people in their community. We must also begin discussions around preparing our future leaders through a plan that would ensure a commitment to train, vet, and test pubic officials before they inherit the mantle of leadership. Liberians must begin to elect people with impeccable moral character; people who have the skills and abilities to affect meaningful change.
Education and Healthcare are human rights: As history teaches us, “a nation that does not educate its citizens is unable to efficiently manage its own affairs.” Foreigners and profiteers are quick to seize the opportunity because of a vacuum created by the lack of trained, qualified and empowered national human capital. We must reform the education sector and invest more in improving a system that is meant to prepare the future leaders of Liberia by creating programs geared at technical training in construction, engineering, technology, amongst others. We have the power of numbers to compel our government and development partners to do so. Our nation’s greatest resources are its human capital – if harnessed to its fullest potential, we can help create wealth while gradually alleviating poverty.
I witnessed firsthand the mayhem and suffering imposed on our people by the outbreak of deadly Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) in 2014. The outbreak exposed the fragile and sad state of the country’s health delivery system. We must never allow a repeat of such a health crisis – never again. Like education, we must reform and invest more in our primary healthcare system, including mental health as well as water and sanitation, building blocks of a healthy nation.
Enforce the rule of law = end corruption: There have been a number of audit reports in which some very powerful and well-connected Minsters and Aides (some now former) were found to have either mismanaged or embezzled public funds. These reports are still gathering dust on the shelves of the Executive Branch of Government, notably the Justice Department and the Executive Mansion. There have been other recent reports by the Liberian Anti-Corruption Commission as well (see Mathilda Parker, NPA case, the Ebola fund, etc.). To show Liberians and the world that we are serious about enforcing the rule of law, we can start by prioritizing these reports and begin to prosecute individuals who have been cited for abuse of power and corrupt acts. This would instill some level of fear in those entrusted with power and set precedence.
Streamlined/adopt smart government address waste and abuse. By doing so, we will reduce waste in resources allocation (like gas lips, scratch cards, equipment, etc.) and minimize the allure to corruption. For example, create “one-stop centers” at every agency of government providing a service to the public, with a window for the Treasury Department that would collect taxes and fees. For example, a “land/deeds court and processing center” will eliminate the need to have multiple agencies of government handle the sale/resale of land/real estate, thus curbing the practice of bribing/tipping judges to probate deeds, even though they may be fraudulent, or prevent the archives center from registering a fake deed because someone is receiving a tip/bribe in the process. “One-stop-centers” at the Ministries of Finance, Commerce, Lands & Mines, Transport, Labor, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, etc. will significantly curb corrupt practices by “runners” and “middle men,” who facilitate corrupt deeds for higher-ups hiding behind their office desks. A smart government will Eliminate waste and put that money to better use.
Job creation: Unemployment remains the biggest challenge facing the country today and it is a ticking time-bomb. Some sources estimate Liberia’s unemployment rate at more than 65%. Although these figures include people who may not have the requisite marketable job skills to land gainful employment in the service or engineering sectors, many young educated Liberians are jobless. Government may not be the sole creator of jobs, but given Liberia’s recent violent history that saw the emergency of what I term “gun jobs” – young people taking up arms in lieu of gainful employment, the Liberian Government owes its people that much to champion economic policies that create a favorable environment that spurs job creation for at least the formally educated class. For example, we can invest in a program that recruits young people who are unemployed and have little employable skills and structure them into “Agriculture Corps” across various counties to invest in the nation’s quest for food security. We must also diversify our economy – gradually investing in value-added industries in iron ore and rubber products, agriculture, textiles, tourism, etc. By doing this, our economy will be able to curb capital flight while reducing unemployment and improving national economic growth.
End Impunity to reconcile a divided a nation: Liberia must bring closure to the civil war chapter for both perpetrators and victims who are seeking justice. For genuine reconciliation to take hold, justice must be served for the most heinous crimes committed during the country’s 14 year civil war (1989-2003). This has always been a difficult topic, but Liberia must hold accountable war criminals who committed “heinous crimes” so as not to risk repeating the same mistakes.
We must also honor the memory of those who died and those who were summarily executed, without due process, to as appease the spirit of our ancestors.
We must never revert to a military coup d’état as we’ve done in the past, for conflict breads more chaos and suffering. We must commit ourselves to ensuring that we engender a Liberia, where there is rule of law; where everyone gets a fair shot of opportunities and share in the resources; and where we educate new generations to put nation above tribe or ethnic group.
The above recommendations are not exhaustive, but rather a glimpse into our vision as to where we intend to take Liberia. This will require a selfless leadership with vision that champions development, transparency, and accountability. It is only then that we Liberians can l live in a “land of liberty and justice for all.”
I thank you -.
About Tamba D. Aghailas