A few months ago, a video in which a Yannah market boy blamed bad leadership for Liberia’s socio-economic problems, went viral on social media. He called for a mass dismissal of the country’s political elite, which in his opinion, would help combat corruption and unlock the country’s potential. His view echoes the inner and hidden sentiments many Liberians have about their leaders. The reasons for this are not hard to find. Liberian leaders have done little to improve the welfare of their very poor people while they, and their cronies, live in opulence.
The rot goes all the way through the political chain to elected and appointed public officers – starting with political parties. Party financiers and godfathers dictate who holds what public office without regard for competence and internal democracy. They ultimately dictate how state affairs and funds are managed with barely a distinction between public and private funds. So, elections don’t seem to help, mainly as the politicians are the same. Despite Liberian political parties espousing different ideologies or not and launching welfare manifestos like the pro-poor agenda, nothing changes when governments change.
Corruption is prevalent throughout Liberia. Tied to this is the fact that anti-corruption agency like LACC efforts fails because of a lack of honest and accountable leaders. Many have co-opted the democratic systems, such as regular elections, or they simply make up the rules as they go along to stay in power. Behind it all lies an insatiable appetite for money, and the realization that power can deliver untold wealth. In these scenarios, played out across Liberia, the state (and the people) are sacrificed to greed. And those who are brave enough to stand up and be counted are driven out, or murder– either literally or figuratively.
Every year about USD million is lost through illicit transfers. Not only does this hold back Liberia’s socio-economic progress, but it also threatens peace, security, and stability. Corruption facilitates the spread of crime – arm rubbery and induces 60% of the youth to engage in arm rubbery. Even though the ubiquity and repercussions of corruption in Liberia have been widely articulated, the fight against it seems to be a fleeting illusion.
Anti-corruption measures mainly revolve around legislating to tighten loopholes, strengthening anti-corruption institutions like LACC, and empowering the media and citizens to report or stand up against malfeasance. But the success of these measures depends on the often overlooked but crucial role of good leadership. Willing, able, and visionary leaders are required to push through sweeping reforms to curb corruption and augment public accountability. Unfortunately, such leadership is lacking in Liberia.
Liberia has become a home to despots and sit-in presidents who either abuse their power or allow abuses to be perpetrated. Liberia is run like a family property and political dynasties. Checks and balances are weak, dissent is crushed, and alternative views are discarded, culminating in low accountability which further deteriorates leadership and reinforces corruption.
One would expect multiparty democracy and its associated principles to produce visionary and effective leaders, but this is rarely the case in Liberia. While elections are held and leaders are changed at the ballot, things continue to remain the same. Oftentimes, policies and corrupt practices that were criticized by political leaders while in opposition suddenly become right and justifiable when they win power.
In essence, there may be new faces in government, but the status quo does not change. The big question is, why?
Politics in Liberia is synonymous with wealth, whether acquired legally or otherwise. Hence, the scramble for power can be intense and sometimes dangerous. The expectation of quick riches increases internal competition for party candidature, which often requires deal-making and vote-buying.
And failure to align with the party establishment can prevent members from ascending the party hierarchy.
Party members are socialized in the same way, mainly to do whatever is necessary to win power by fair or foul means, and those who dare to think or behave differently are sidelined, sabotaged, or expelled.
At the core of Liberia’s corruption and leadership, problems are opaque party financing. In Liberia, parties rely on private funding from individuals and organizations. But regulations on financial disclosure are either non-existent or ineffective, which allows wealthy individuals, known as godfathers, to wield significant influence, mainly for their benefit but to the detriment of the state. Even leaders perceived to be strong-willed can find it hard to withstand the pressures.
For example, President Weah ascended to the presidency through a deal brokered, with President Ellen Johnson not to audit her administration and prosecute members of her family and friends. Such a deal compromises the integrity of our political system and hurt the country immensely.
This example attests to how Liberian leaders can be controlled from behind the scenes by vested interests and crooked godfathers or godmothers. In some cases, the Liberian leader is incapable of addressing the excesses of their sponsors, leading to anarchy and recklessness.
There is a popular idiom: “do not bite the hands that feed you”. Indeed, anecdotal evidence suggests that this is true for Liberian leaders. There is a high chance that leaders who act against the interests of their party establishment, financiers, and godfathers, even for the benefit of the state, will not last long. The same applies to their policies.
So what’s the way forward? Liberia must regulate political party financing and strengthen state institutions such as electoral commissions to enforce compliance.
Until then, Liberian leaders will continue to be prone to capture and control by powerful and parochial godfathers or godmothers. And the looting of public funds won’t stop.
Main Photo: Ellen Sirleaf /Getty Images