Thursday, January 20, 2011

A Country for Sale: How and Why Poor Liberians are Selling the Country to the Bourgeoisie

Critical Issues of National Concern XIX

Ibrahim Al-bakri Nyei

A specter is haunting Liberia. This specter seems different from the ones that came in the 1970s, the 1990s, and the early 2000s. This time, it seems, having survived decades of poverty in harsh socio-economic conditions and hopelessness, many poor Liberians have resolved to sell their most powerful constitutional possession to those of their fellow countrymen that have become wealthier by preying on the state. The same people have over the years unleashed poverty, illiteracy and injustice in the country as a means of enhancing wealth and consolidating power bases.

Article One of the Constitution of Liberia states that ‘All power is inherent in the people. All free governments are instituted by their authority and for their benefit and they have the right to alter and reform the same when their safety and happiness so require. In order to ensure democratic government which responds to the wishes of the governed, the people shall have the right at such period, and in such manner as provided for under this Constitution, to cause their public servants to leave office and to fill vacancies by regular elections and appointments’. The powers discussed above are in the citizens’ vote, and petitions for impeachments of elected officials and petitions for legislations. In an emerging democracy like Liberia, the citizens exercise this power periodically, like after every six years or in the event of death of an elected official. Their ability to demand and evaluate the outputs of the government as part of the process of ‘assessing output legitimacy’ is weak due to manipulations, poverty, and mass illiteracy’.

Why are the people selling their constitutional power to vote? Many Liberians believe that whether they participate or not, they will remain disaffected by the state and its policies. Observations and experiences from travelling around Liberia indicate that effective state institutions for service delivery and security are absent in almost 90 percent of the country. The people have had limited roles and their power-to-vote comes just every six years, and the output legitimacy of successive governments have been very weak. Currently, the people have developed serious apathy towards the electoral process, and now they believe that their votes are only legitimate instruments of giving individuals power and wealth. This is being discussed in public transport vehicles, market areas and community squares. A young woman said openly on a taxi cab that she cannot ‘do voter registration free of charge’ when others are being paid to register. With about 68 percent of the population in abject poverty, it is assumed that only about ten percent enjoys real ‘wealth’, and that those wealth are directly traceable to the Government of Liberia. This means, those considered wealthy Liberians, must have either worked for the government, still works for the government, or are close relatives of former government officials. Some of them are in giant size businesses, which cannot survive without the support or manipulation of government officials. With a seemingly competitive democratic space, the cash must be spent to retain political seats that will ultimately give unfettered access to economic opportunities. The repetition of this process after every six years will keep the poor poorer, and make the rich grow richer. How this vote-buying market running and what are other motivating factors behind it?

Liberia is built on a system in which access to political power gives an individual dominance and influence in the economy. This is to say, the easiest way to economic fortune in Liberia, is to seek political power. This is why the bourgeoisie are doing all they can to retain their status, either by retaining electoral offices, or by graduating from presidential appointment to autonomy in the legislature, where they will by law, set their own salaries and benefits. There is a huge profit in this business: pay for votes with as low as 20 to 30 US dollars, donate bags of rice to poor people, and expect to get in return over US 5000.00 and hundreds of gallons of gasoline monthly, guardsmen, home servants, and high lobby fees.

This is a dramatic and ironic occurrence in our process of democratic development. After years of agitation for participation, the process has now been opened and we have a seemingly level playing field. Wealthy and influential Liberians, mainly government officials are taking people to legislative districts of their interests to register for the pending election. With voter registration on-going, thousands of people, mainly young voters (young people are over 60 percent of Liberia’s population) are transported from their communities to far away electoral districts by rich Liberian politicians, where they will be paid to register and in return vote for the same politicians. The prices vary per area and distance. In some places, you register and give your card to the rich Liberian and get 20 USD and make a promise that you will collect the card on voting day and mark a ballot in the favor of that rich Liberian. Consider after this transaction that your share of the country has been sold or permanently leased for six years. If socio-economic conditions remain the same, you may renew the lease agreement after another six years.

The justification they have for transporting voters is that they are facilitating citizens who wants to go back to their counties of origin to vote. Interestingly, these people did not transport citizens to their counties of origin during the 2008 census, something that might have recorded high populations for those areas and put them under considerations for development programs, if any. Doing this at the time of voter registration have exposed their selfish motives.

The long time effect of this on our country is that it will deepen systems of marginalization and promotes predatory regimes. Citizens’ frustrations with predatory and marginalized systems have been expressed aggressively around Africa. The civil war in Liberia has probably not revolutionized the country to the equitable advantage of all of its citizens. The secession of southern Sudan, the recent fall of the long time ruler of Tunisia, Ben Ali, the fall of the Marxist regime in Ethiopia (1990), were aggressive citizens’ actions that resulted from long time grievances and frustrations.

With the country being sold to the rich politicians, it is obvious that sincere individuals with advocacy and strong leadership backgrounds in communities will be effectively disenfranchised due to their financial impotencies. Political parties are scrutinizing aspirants on the basis of their financial power and their willingness to pay huge sums of money to buy votes. Instead of sitting and allow the poor people to unsuspectingly sell their rights, and by extension their country, the civil society must now take the lead to do massive civic education in communities. This civic education must consider among other things how to choose leaders, rights and duties under the constitution, and methods of scrutinizing certified candidates – this must also consider individual competence, integrity, leadership charisma and moral and criminal records. High schools and university instructors must also be involved in this process of civic education, because it is assumed that many first-time-voters are students.

-In the cause of democracy and social justice, the pen shall never run dry