The year 2016 has come and gone, and like many other years, it recorded its happier times and moments of grief for families and societies. It seems the key moments of the year were marred by numbing surprises like Brexit and US 2016 elections; and miseries for humanity and societies as many tragedies were recorded. Some, like the earthquake in Ecuador, and the Zika epidemic among numerous other disasters, were beyond human imaginations.
While the disasters may be natural, there are arguments that poor environmental governance has led to human vulnerabilities. Yet others, like the ongoing carnage in Syria, South Sudan, and the numerous failings of the states and the economies in Africa can partly be attributed to of lack of social order, and failing political leaderships.
Citizens have reacted to these events and failings of their states by using accountability mechanisms available to them worldwide. Strike actions and protests have increased. In some parts of Africa electoral democracy took a different shape. Electoral systems seem to be gaining legitimacy and reliability as was seen in South Africa, The Gambia and Ghana. In these countries campaigns were marred by tough competitions in an environment of uncertainties for the electoral outcomes, and ruling parties were punished for their failings. In some countries like Niger and Zambia ruling parties were rewarded by voters. These are credible credentials to build upon.
The situation in Liberia has been no different from the global collective. Liberia has been a victim of both natural disasters and break down of order, and together, it is strikingly clear that Liberia’s recent calamitous experience with the Ebola virus and the current state of a receding economy are symptoms of a weak state and failings of the national institutions.
Eleven years after the return to civilian rule, the country continues to ploddingly climb the ranks of the various development indices, but sadly, no progress has been made to migrate from the realm of the ‘lows’. For example, despite the numerous progresses made since 2005, Liberia has not moved beyond the category of Low Human Development on the Human Development Index of 2016.
On the measurement of state fragility, Liberia remains on the ALERT according to the Fragile States Index (FSI) of 2016. However, the Index shows that there was an improvement in 2016 compared to 2014 and 2015 when stability, apparently due to the social and political ramifications of the Ebola epidemic, was under threat. Two major factors continue to heighten the potential for instability according to the FSI: the unhealthy state of the economy and the uneven distribution of the outcome of this poor economy; i.e. uneven economic development. The latter shows that distribution of economic outputs in terms of social development remains skewed in favor of a minority segment of the population. A state on the ALERT in the FSI is a state that displays features indicating that the society and institutions are susceptible to failure.
Liberia’s overall governance score improved in 2016 on the Mo Ibrahim Index, compared with a poor rating in 2006. This means, the long-term stability (albeit fragile) has provided opportunities for the reorganization of the state and the society. This was also confirmed by the Corruption Perception Index released in January 2016 showing that perception of corruption among Liberians is on the decline. However, the figures show that perceptions in 2012 were far better than it is today.
Interestingly, the release of the CPI in January 2016 was followed a few months later by the busting of a corruption cartel operating at the highest echelon of the political leadership. Behind this cartel were hidden characters dubbed as Big-Boy1 and Big-Boy2 who only few days to the end of the year were discovered. A robust multi-agency taskforce comprising the Executive Mansion, the Liberia Anti-Corruption Commission and the Ministry of Justice has been working to probe this further. But these individuals operate in a larger cartel enabled by their positions in society and the weaknesses of the institutions they head. It cannot be gainsaid that this same cartel had a hand in the alleged corruption that led to the collapse of the National Oil Company of Liberia. It is this cartel that must be dismantled in its entirety to pave the way for Liberia’s promising future.
What then can we blame for such perennial weakness and fragility of the state more than a decade after the peace accord? How do we organize the state and the structures of power and authority to deal with corruption, solve our problems with the economy, and deliver basic services in healthcare, education and housing? As Liberia prepares for elections in 2017, these are questions that need to be at the front of the policy debates leading to the elections. The indices cited above, notwithstanding their limitations and scopes, are useful in guiding the debate and shaping the policy programs of the competing parties and interest groups in 2017.
But as we enter 2017 a review of the model of state-building that has left Liberia in a state of ‘arrested development’ needs to be done for reshaping the post-2017 development agenda. This is a greater responsibility of the policy committees of political parties and organizations mediating the 2017 debate. I have contested the present model of state-building pursued in Liberia over the last decade and I argue for a robust constitutional reform for the reordering of power and authority relations through decentralized governance. The current model has focused on perpetuating the centralized authority, and has engaged state-building with quick-fix approaches resulting in unsustainable gains in the economy and infrastructural development. Ignoring major state-building elements such as constitutional reform and national reconciliation, or the cavalier treatment of these two crucial issues, had left the numerous reforms and the investments in the economy and infrastructures on a shaky foundation.
The emerging patterns in international politics and developments in powerful countries are also relevant to the 2017 debate in Liberia. In the political West, the ideological far-right movement now dubbed as the ‘Alt-Right’ has gained momentum and winning resounding victories across Europe and North America. Their policies are based on conservative economic programs, closed society, racism and an end to immigration. In Britain, they succeeded in winning a referendum to leave the European Union, which has been founded on liberal social and economic values.
In the United States, they succeeded in electing Donald Trump thereby endorsing his messages of intolerance and racism and professed ultra-conservative agenda. They are mobilizing in Germany and France and with prospects of winning national elections this year. The dominant narrative explaining the electoral success of the ‘Alt-Right’ movement is the argument that an elite order is being overthrown by a revolutionary grassroots movement. I disagree with this narrative as I view this trend rather as a remobilization of elites exploiting anger against the liberalization of the world which promises social equality, increase in global trade, and the end of racial dominance.
These developments have greater ramifications for a country like Liberia. Liberia’s current economy, driven largely by foreign capital, development aid and remittances from emigrants is being sustained by the longstanding liberal policies and traditions of these western countries. The political success of these “alt-rights’ is premised on the overthrow of this liberal order. They threaten to withdraw their countries from liberal organizations promoting free trade and development aid; they intend to run a protected economy which could limit the flow of foreign direct investments to poor countries.
Liberia is vulnerable and could suffer immensely were these alt-rights to fulfil their electoral promises. How does Liberia position itself to build and sustain a viable economy and maintain a strong state in the face of these threats? How can Liberia engage the global economy as a meaningful actor, given its geographic position with a long coastline, abundant natural resources, vast arable land, virgin forests and dual currency regime? These are questions that should shape the ideological content of the debate in 2017. Whatever the outcomes of the debate maybe, a new line of thinking on the economy and the political leadership would be needed for Liberia to depart from its failed past and challenging present to embrace a promising future.
-In the Cause of Democracy and Social Justice the Pen Shall Never Run Dry
Ibrahim Al-bakri Nyei, Contributing Writer