Liberia’s bi-cameral legislature comprises of 73 members of the lower house, called the House of Representatives and 30 members of the upper house, called the Senate. In 2014, Liberians will go to the polls to elect 15 of the 30 Senators for a tenure of nine years. These ‘mid-term’ elections are a constitutional requirement that ensures that all the Senate seats are not vacant at the same time. In this piece, I argue that elections should be a growth industry where best ideas and character flourish above cash and false promises.
That post-war Liberia is a poor country is a fact undisputed by the evidence on the ground subject to the various data and statistics. In Sachs’ assessment of poverty, it is when ‘the margin of survival is extraordinarily narrow; sometimes it closes entirely’ and common activities such as attending school becomes a ‘hit-and-miss affair’. Poverty in its extreme means ‘households cannot meet basic needs for survival, they are chronically hungry, unable to access health care, lack the amenities of safe drinking water and sanitation, cannot afford education for some or all of the children, and perhaps lack rudimentary shelter[i]’ (Sachs, 2005; page 20).
There are many Liberians in their daily lives that will relate to the above situation and more. It is the need for change in the above situation that makes the elections process such a high stake for too many.
In such situation where large portion of the population exists in extreme poverty, the demands on elected representatives to meet basic needs such as school fees, meals, basic accommodation, and medical bills grow. The cost for elections also grows. Persons contesting positions have to demonstrate prior to being elected that they can meet these costs. As such, elections become a growth industry for the wrong reasons, an industry where cash not ideas flourish. The situation is not helped by the prevailing notion, sustained through practice feeding on very absent civic education that legislators should solve day-to-day problems of members of their constituencies.
Seating Senator Nyonblee Karnga-Lawrence of Grand Bassa County addressing the Senate of Pennsylvania in the United States of America concurred with this prevailing view ‘because of poverty, the lack of education and the absence of good governance over a protracted period, the perceived responsibilities of a legislator have shifted to feeding the hungry, providing scholarships, building schools, building markets, building roads, youth empowerment programs, macro-credit for petty traders and market women; all of these are done by lawmakers from their personal resources[ii].’ (Frontpage Africa, 10 December 2013)
Personal resources these elected representatives do have. The elected representatives have the tendency to reward themselves with handsome benefit package in salaries, allowances and expenses.
In the absence of a functioning welfare system that provides systematic and institutionalized support to people in need – housing, meals, school fees etc. A de facto welfare system pervades. One managed without accountability by individuals using political power and public resources to dish out cash, jobs and loans in exchange for future votes – votes which in such system can only bring the individuals closer to the economic resources.
Promises unfulfilled abound, since they are easier to make. Unfulfilled promises turned into lies. These lies do not morphed into truths because they are told over and over again. The truth remains that lies repeated simply erode people’s trust in the political system.
In the absence of a healthy debate that scrutinizes the ideas and character of those wanting to represent the people, it is obvious that the notion of election is distorted. The focus must therefore be on the electors. It is support to the electors to better understand the implications of their votes, the use of their votes, how to make their votes translate into better outcomes. Voters have obligations to themselves and to future generations. For how long would they sacrifice the future in exchange for hand-outs to meet day to day needs?
Collier poignantly notes that ‘change in the societies at the very bottom, must come from within.’ In all these societies there are ‘struggles between brave people wanting change[iii]’ and vested interests opposing change. Each Liberian has to sacrifice something, to be counted as part of the brave people wanting change. This can be manifested when one votes or chooses not to vote, when one gives, receives bribe or chooses not to, when one appoints friends, relatives into public offices or chooses not to, when one chooses not to assign public resources into personal use. It is the implication to others and the future generation that must underpin these decisions.
An army of the brave struggling for change can truly triumph over the few vested interests opposing such change. Each must distinguish him or herself, not on the basis of what he or she takes, but how much he or she gives in his or her examples and services, to contribute to a functional society, where institutions fulfil their mandates and are held accountable for doing so; where roads leads to markets, to towns, to villages to neighborhoods; where clean water flows in homes, schools, communities; where education harnesses the creativity and inventiveness of every child and youth.
Charles Tye Lawrence lives and works in Liberia and writes in his personal capacity.
[i] Sachs, Jeffery ’The End of Poverty How We can Make It Happen in Our Life Time’ (2005)
[ii] Marten, Danesious ’Liberia: Life a ’Monumental Challenge’ in Liberia, Senator Lawrence Addresses Penn Senate, Frontpage Africa, 10 December 2013
[iii] Collier, Paul ’The Bottom Billion’ (2008)