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Election 2005: A Journey Marred In Confusion Or Bigotry?

By Nat Galarea Gbessagee (Oct 3rd 2005)

"...are Liberians such a backward and naïve people that they lack the intelligence, political maturity, and insight to choose one candidate from a list of 22 presidential candidates, or two candidates each from a list of about 600 legislative candidates? I doubt so seriously!..."


Liberians are set to begin a new political journey on October 11, 2005 by going to the polls to elect a new president, a new vice present, and a new group of legislators—members of Liberian Senate and House of Representatives. The October 11 elections will be the third direct national elections for national leaders in Liberia in not only the past 20 years beginning in 1985, but also the third direct national elections in the last 135 years beginning with the ascendancy of True Whig Party (TWP) to state power in Liberia in 1870. The first direct elections in 1985 were made possible five years after the dethronement of the True Whig Party political hegemony in a military coup in 1980, as during its 130-year rule of Liberia (1870-1980), the True Whig Party operated a patronage system that embraced party caucuses rather than direct elections in choosing national leaders in Liberia.

The second direct elections in 1997, albeit through a system of propositional representation, were made possible as a direct result of a series of national peace initiatives to end the civil war of 1989-1997, initiated by the first military invasion of Liberia by Liberians in 1989. The third direct elections scheduled for October 11 are equally part of national peace initiatives aimed at ending the second Liberian civil war of 1999-2003, which resulted from the military invasion of Liberia in 1999 by another group of Liberians. In 1985, four political parties out of 12 formed participated in that year’s general elections, and 13 political parties participated in the 1997 special elections. In 2005, 22 political parties are scheduled to participate in the elections.

On average, of course, a minimum of 15 political parties were formed in the wake of each of the three general elections, and on October 11, 2005, an average of 13 political parties would have participated in each general elections since 1985. Yet, as the date for the 2005 elections draws near, some of my learned Liberian compatriots have undertaken concerted efforts by way of sweeping generalizations to suggest that the Liberian people lack the capacity to evaluate the list of presidential and legislative candidates from 22 political parties and elect a president or legislator of their choice. But are Liberians such a backward and naïve people that they lack the intelligence, political maturity, and insight to choose one candidate from a list of 22 presidential candidates, or two candidates each from a list of about 600 legislative candidates? I doubt so seriously! I think it is pure political cynicism and social or intellectual bigotry for anyone to suggest that a people who survived 14 years of two brutal civil wars on their own initiatives would suddenly lack the intelligence to choose between 22 people. Hence, I would present my arguments on the subject later, but let us first examine the arguments put forth by some of those persons who think the Liberian people lack the ability to intelligently choose between 22 candidates for the post of president of Liberia.

The Worrying Leap About Common Sense and Confusion

Writing in The Perspective, Liberian lawyer Taiwan S. Gongloe (2005) dismisses the idea that “common sense” is an instinctive human attribute that drives individual actions and decisions on any number of given issues. For Gongloe, “common sense” must be regulated and harnessed for societal good, such that in order for Liberian voters to effectively exercise their constitutional rights in choosing a candidate of their choice during the October Elections, they must first be placed in a reeducation camp to learn how to utilize their “common sense,” so as not to “confuse” themselves in selecting the most qualified candidates in the elections. And, as one of the principal architects and instructors of this reeducation camp, Gongloe developed a set of self-adulated rubrics that would require eligible Liberian voters wishing to participate in the October 11 elections to vote in a manner that conforms to Gongloe’s version of “common sense.”

Under Gongloe’s “common sense” rubrics, for example, the Liberian society would be seriously endangered and doomed if Liberian voters chose an “obscure or unknown person” as president or legislator during the October election because “To vote for an obscure or an unknown or little known person in politics or a person without established record in the management of public affairs is a very big risk to take with the future of a country” (Gongloe, 2005) such as Liberia. He recommends that “the factors that should guide the common sense of voters in choosing the next president of Liberia” must require that “One, the electorate must answer…whether the candidate was known to a larger number of the Liberian people before the current electoral process began [and] Two…whether the candidate has, for the past twenty-five years (since extending it [the timeline] to Tolbert regime would be difficult for the majority of the candidates) said or done anything in the interest of the Liberian people, [with regard to]…what was the person’s publicly known position on the high level of corruption and human rights abuses under the Doe and Taylor regimes.

Here, of course, Gongloe wants Liberian voters to overlook the activities of persons who served in the Liberian government from 1822-1980 or the interim government of 1990-1994 (in which he served) and concentrate only on the activities of persons who served in the Liberian governments of Doe and Taylor because extending the timeline beyond the Doe and Taylor governments to the “Tolbert regime would be difficult for the majority of the candidates.” In essence, in Gongloe’s worldview of “common sense,” any Liberian voters who seek to evaluate the public records of presidential and legislative candidates in the 2005 general elections in Liberia beyond the Doe and Taylor governments lack “common sense” and are ultimately confused. In addition, Gongole says, “The third factor that must guide the common sense of the Liberian voter is the proven ability of a candidate to manage people and public resources,” provided that such proven ability and public resource management skills do not extend to the roles candidates played in pre-1980 Liberian governments and the post-1980 government of Amos Sawyer from 1990-1994.

“If a candidate has not managed people and resources and accounted for doing so,” Gongloe explains, “a voter should not trust him or her with the people and resources of Liberia.” I do agree with Gongloe on this score, but then in a bizarre twist of common sense, he argues, “It is not sufficient for a candidate to say that he or she has managed a private business owned by him or her. The management of people and resources in a private business in which a candidate owns majority shares or which he or she owns exclusively is not a valid track record when it comes to public trust. It is not a good test of for public leadership” (Gongloe, 2005). Really! Perhaps Gongloe knows something about leadership and management that the rest of us don’t know to warrant exclusions. He insists, “…success in private business is not a sufficient reason to consider a person [as being capable] of leading a nation [because] an efficient businessman or businesswoman may not necessarily be an efficient president.” He says, “Silence and the failure to act in the midst of human suffering are both evidence of lack of good leadership and acceptance of the existing condition [by the 22 presidential candidates, for which] Such candidates must not be allowed to benefit from their display of gross indifference to human suffering.”

Of course, Gongloe doesn’t explain why he thinks a good businessman or woman cannot be an “efficient president,” or why public advocacy against the government is an attribute of “good leadership,” yet he still thinks Liberian voters who do not conform to his standards of “common sense” are “confused.” He argues, “In about three weeks, Liberians of voting age will collectively choose one of the 22 presidential candidates to lead Liberia for the next six years…Never before have Liberians being so confused about choosing a leader…Liberians have no choice but to make sense out of the confusion and cast votes that will show to the world that in the midst of the confused political situation, they still have common sense to make a decision in the best interest of…[themselves and country]. The decision of the Liberian voters on October 11, 2005 will be a test to show whether Liberian common sense is in harmony with universal common sense.” Again, Gongloe doesn’t explain what he means by “Never before have Liberians being [sic] so confused about choosing a leader,” and what exactly the “confusion” is. He doesn’t explain how 1.3 million voters choosing one candidate out of 22 may bring about “confusion,” especially where the same people had chosen one candidate out of four and one candidate out of 13 before? He even goes far afield about “Liberian common sense” being “in harmony with universal common sense” without explaining what he means. But welcome to “Liberian Political Rhetoric and Intellectual Misrepresentation 101.”

The Glaring Bigotry

In the article, “Liberia: Who Are We?” (The Perspective, 2002), I intimated that “Liberia has always been burdened by a serious crisis of identity, of class, of education, of culture, of politics, of governance, of leadership, and of religion [and that]…These problems still persist, and are most likely the root of our present predicament as a nation and people” today. The ongoing debate about who is qualified or not qualified to participate in the 2005 general elections are just a glaring example of the kind of bigotry that is at the heart of the division, underdevelopment, and lack of political progress in Liberia today. The 2005 general elections have, therefore, become the new fertile grounds for promoting the usual stereotype and bigotry about education, competence, and leadership in Liberia that continue to pit Liberians with college degree against Liberians without college degree, and Liberians with traditional education against Liberian with western education.

For instance, Gongloe thinks he has the right, as a college-educated lawyer, to tell Liberians without college degree not only how to vote in the October elections, but also how to use their “common sense” or judgments in the elections. Gongloe thinks, as an “educated Liberian” he has the right to question the educational background and activities of some of the candidates in the pending elections without being labeled “anti-Liberians without college degree,” but if Liberians without college degree questioned the past leadership and management activities of some of the 22 candidates running for president of Liberia, then they are “anti-educated Liberians.” Therefore, in Gongloe’s worldview of political maturity and astuteness, legitimate concerns by Liberians without college degree or western education regarding past failures by some of the presidential candidates and their key lieutenants in advancing and improving the social, economic, and political well-being of the Liberian people are a “propaganda against the educated and traditional politicians.”

To Gongloe, such legitimate concerns about the past leadership and management failures and activities of some of the presidential candidates can only result from “confusion” or the lack of “common sense” on the part of Liberians without college degree because he believes that leadership in any country is the “exclusive preserves” of only the so-called “educated” members of society, regardless of any past leadership failures and personal character flaws. Therefore, in spite of abundant evidence of leadership failures in every segment of the Liberian government and society since independence in 1847, Gongloe still argues, “Can an illiterate, semi-illiterate and inexperienced succeed where the educated and experienced have “failed”?…Can the non-politicians succeed where the politicians have “failed”? And he answers, in a rather obvious but self-serving manner, “By every stretch of reasoning, I find it difficult to find a yes answer to these questions, particularly in the case of Liberia.”

In deed, Gongloe makes the claims, without providing any proofs, that the “non-politician cannot succeed where the politicians have failed,” and that the “illiterate, semi-illiterate and inexperienced” cannot succeed where the “educated and experienced” have failed. He also makes the baseless claims that “the only persons who can lead Liberia are persons perceived to be “educated,” even if such persons showed gross ineptitudes at leadership and management in the past because to him, “Only the educated and experienced in any given sphere of life can be expected to correct the mistakes of other actors in that sphere.” By such stance, it would seem that Gongloe is confusing specialized education in a field to politics and leadership, although he doesn’t think “educated” Liberians who don’t meet his “common sense” rubrics can “correct the mistakes of other actors.” Therefore, he insists, “Those who have done nothing in the past, but remained silent or “neutral” in all the troubles that Liberia has been through do not deserve any vote from the Liberia people.”

Gongloe believes that the true pathway to leadership in Liberia lies in the ability of candidates to confront rather than negotiate with the government of Liberia on needed socio-economic and political reforms in Liberia. Therefore, he argues, “Any of the [22 presidential] candidates that have not demonstrated these attributes [confrontation with government on policies and programs] are not qualified for the vote of the Liberian people.” He argues, “…if a candidate was a businessman or businesswoman at the time [during the Doe and Taylor governments], did he give some financial assistance to victims of the two regimes? Did the candidates who were religious leaders at the time condemn the actions of these governments and comfort their victims? What about those who were lawyers-did they provide free legal services for people who were arbitrarily detained and subjected to inhumane and degrading treatment by the Doe and Taylor regimes?”

Perhaps, Gongloe has the exclusive right in Liberia to set the timeline by which candidates in the 2005 elections can be evaluated for their past activities, but whether or not one agrees with Gongloe’s “common sense” rubrics seriously, it is not difficult to detect the bigotry inherent in his rubrics. First, Gongloe believes that one must attain certain level of “education” before running for public office in Liberia, especially the position of president, even though as a lawyer he knows that Liberian laws set no such conditions. Second, if one satisfies Gongloe’s “education” criterion, that person would still not be qualified to run for president of Liberia unless that person has record of supporting or participating in the 1985 failed coup, the 1989,1999, and 2003 military invasions of Liberia, or has a record of some acts of public disobedience and defiance of the Liberian government. Of course, Gongloe’s third point is that if a voter or candidate fails to meet the first two criteria, then that person is “confused” about the current political situation in Liberia, which might be “cause [for] them to make a wrong decision” during the October 11 polls. Talk about bigotry and political manipulation in Liberia!

Liberian Peculiarity

I analyzed the Gongloe article to highlight some of the peculiarities of Liberians. But it was retired Liberian Army General Mansfield Yancy who first declared at a political rally back in 1984 that “Liberians are a funny and peculiar people.” At first, I had no clues about what the general meant, but as I grew much older and started interacting more closely with key players on the Liberian political scene from 1980 to the present, I have come to appreciate the depth of that statement. In deed, the peculiarity of Liberians is unmatched in anything I have seen in this world. In my estimation, Liberians are the only people I have known who take everything for granted and have no sense of national responsibility. During the 14 years civil war in Liberia, Liberians killed and maimed one another and tore apart their state institutions and national infrastructure as if there was no tomorrow. Liberians from the main NPFL rebel group in Gbarnga constantly traveled to Monrovia by night to socialize with members of the Sawyer interim government only to resume killing one another by day with machine guns, heavy mortars, and bombs. Even Gongloe once justified the bizarre and peculiar nature of such interaction during a period of war by explaining that the Sawyer government had obligation to pay “salary” to persons traveling back and forth between the rebels and government controlled areas. Peculiar, isn’t! Well, just figure out on your own and don’t ask me!

Another peculiarity in Liberia life and politics is the misconception that the “book people” (a Liberian parlance for persons with some kind of formalized education in a classroom setting, as opposed to education in a Liberian cultural setting) have overarching monopoly over knowledge, wisdom, understanding, and leadership skills in Liberia. And such misconception led to a recent reckless statement by Mr. Moses Geply that “One of the underlining factors for the enslavement and manipulation of the young boys and girls in Liberia by the various warlords for the past fifteen years to serve as their killing machines is illiteracy” (The Perspective 2005), as if the rank and file of the various rebel groups during the 14 year civil war in Liberia did not include college professors, college students, high school students, and professional in every field. In addition, Mr. Geply seems so oblivion to the domination of social, economic, and political power in Liberia by the “book people” for the last 158 years of Liberia’s existence as a nation that he now thinks, “Quite worryingly, in 2005 education seems not to be taken seriously in the election campaign, while “book people” (i.e., intellectuals) are indiscriminately becoming a target for abuses and unfounded allegations in Liberia…” (Geply 2005).

Here, it is difficult to tell what exactly Mr. Geply means by “intellectuals are indiscriminately becoming a target for abuses and unfounded allegations in Liberia,” but such is the peculiarity of Liberians. We tend to look at every aspect of development in our society from a perspective that supports only our individual interests without regard for the general good of society. I think it is time to get beyond this kind of self-interest and learn to design and implement policies and programs that seek to elevate every member of society before we deteriorate any farther in our national goals and priorities as a nation and people.

What the 2005 Elections Entail

Accordingly, the 2005 general elections in Liberia should not be about Mr. Gongloe’s brand of “common sense” or Mr. Geply’s concerns only for “intellectuals” but not “non-intellectuals” or all Liberians being the “target for abuses and unfounded allegations in Liberia.” The 2005 general elections should be about peace, reconciliation, unity, progress, development, and respect for both the individual and collective talents of all Liberians. I think one of the presidential candidates in the current elections, Mrs. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf ably articulated this sentiment in an interview with The Perspective (2003) on electoral fairness in Liberia when she said, “…the whole idea of bringing people together, uniting, getting away from division - we have our examples of failure by not coming together [during] the 1985 elections, and the 1997 elections - that experience teaches us that we can do something along the Kenyan line [reference to he Kenyan elections that year] to come together. But in my view, we need to come together first on the issues; we need to come together on the conditions for free and fair elections. We need to insist on things like a stabilization force to protect the safety of the people when they vote, in campaigning, in their political activities. We need to insist on some international supervision of the process to make sure that the playing field is level. If we do not address those issues, quite frankly, even if we do come together, we will all be participating in a process that's going to be fraudulent” (Johnson-Sirleaf). I think Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf made some salient points here about the fairness of the elections and level-playing field for every candidate, so I hope everyone will listen and enter the 2005 elections in the spirit of fairness to everyone.

Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf also said during the same interview, “Even if we had the condition that was right, and if those unfair, illegal provisions were imposed [perhaps the residency and property clauses in the 1986 Liberian constitution], I would want to rally around somebody who has the character, the integrity, the track record, and the principle that we can respect. And that that person must have the capacity to bring about the long standing changes that have been due in our society - for the total re-ordering of our society, a social re-ordering, a political re-ordering, and economic re-ordering. If I could not find such a person, I will just refrain. What I will not do, to put it in simple Liberian language, is to go for "the same taxi, different driver" (2003). Well, 2005 elections is a good test case of this resolve!

Interestingly, just as Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf had indicated, Liberian Lawyer Mohamedu F. Jones, unlike Lawyer Gongloe, saw free and fair elections in Liberia not as a matter of “common sense” and “confusion” weighted heavily against Liberians without college degree or Liberians with college degree who didn’t participate in insurrections in Liberia, but as a constitutional matter weighted heavily in favor of respect for the legal instruments and framework of the Liberian electoral process. Jones told a Liberian journalism association in 2002 that “In a democracy people [usually] compete in the elections to win public office to gain public power for the purpose of influencing public policy and the use of state resources,” but that “Historically, political leaders in Liberia have been more interested in the use of state resources than in influencing public policy for the national benefit.” that (Jones, The Perspective). Jones explained that “Electoral integrity is fundamental to the principles of a democracy and representative government, and [it] is an integral part of free, fair and reliable elections,” because “Electoral integrity speaks to transparency, accountability and accuracy of election administration, in addition to ethical electoral behavior and integrity monitoring systems.”

Jones said, “Without electoral integrity, there is no guarantee that the will of the voters will be reflected in the election results, or that the people will have an opportunity to dispense with a political administration or political party that they no longer wish to run the affairs of the country.” He said, “Integrity in any electoral process comprises a legal and ethical behavior, as well as a system of mechanisms adopted to protect the viability of the electoral process.” He defined the requirements of electoral integrity as 1) a generally accepted code of ethical behavior politics; 2) an electoral framework that is equitable and fair; 3) fair, transparent and impartial administration of the elections; 4) political freedom to participate freely and equally in an atmosphere without fear; 5) accountability of all participants; 6) built-in mechanisms, including monitoring by civil society and a free media, to safeguard integrity and assure accountability, and 7) enforcement (Jones 2002).

Jones’ speech was detailed in regard to other instruments of electoral integrity such as the roles of finance, personnel, logistics, public information and education in the successful outcome of any elections, which are not my concerns in this article, although Mr. Jones’ warning that “War as an instrument of political change in Liberia must be roundly and unequivocally rejected and condemned” needs to be heeded as we approach Elections 2005, so as not to create unnecessary tensions that may drag the nation into another civil war. It is also difficult not to agree with Jones that “No Liberian of goodwill, knowing and experiencing the despair, the desperation, and the deprivation that the people of Liberia have lived with for nearly 25 years can support war in Liberia.” And Jones is right that “ It is an act of crime against humanity to inflict war against the people of Liberia as an instrument of political change,” unless, of course, one believes in Gongloe’s “common sense” doctrine that “Public leadership sometimes requires taking risks with ones life and sacrificing ones happiness for the greater good of the people.”

Perhaps, Lawyer Gongloe believes in confronting the government and Lawyer Jones believes in negotiating with the government, but it is very clear that Lawyer Gongloe and Lawyer Jones have different definitions about “electoral integrity” in Liberia. Jones wants electoral integrity that accords every Liberian the right to seek public office in Liberian in tandem with the constitution, electoral laws, and other statutes of Liberia, while Gongloe wants the ““illiterate, semi-illiterate and inexperienced”,” as wells as persons with no experience in public insurrection and governmental overthrown to be rejected by Liberian voters at the polls. Clearly, these two Liberian lawyers are on a collision course as to what constitutes “electoral integrity” or “free and fair elections” in Liberia, but they are not alone. Many of us have our own expectations and requirements as to what constitutes “free and fair” elections in Liberia. But at the end of the day, “we need to come together first on the issues, [and] we need to come together on the conditions for free and fair elections” in Liberia as Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf correctly stated.

I believe without Liberians coming together to create the “conditions for free and fair elections” in Liberia, we might continue to create avenues for unnecessary confrontations amongst ourselves. I also think no distinctions exist between “Liberian voters” and “Liberian participants” in the 2005 elections, so it might be more practical to press for “electoral integrity,” as proposed by Lawyer Jones than “electoral exclusion” as proposed by Lawyer Gongloe. Otherwise, the 2005 elections would not be marred in “confusion” but egotistical bigotry. Therefore, we owe it to ourselves as a nation and people to oppose any form of political isolation and bigotry and endeavor to choose a path that will not divide but unite us in the rebuilding of our nation. Good luck to all on Election Day, October 11, 2005.


About the author:

Mr. Gbessagee is a former director of public affairs in the Liberian Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism. He resides in the Washington, DC metro area, and he can be reached at

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