Opinion: Reflecting on Liberia’s Moment of Reckoning
A little over 36 years ago, a well-known sage, a statesman of impeccable character directly spoke to the Liberian people, most especially to those who were then at the apex of State power. The occasion itself was festive, meticulously laced with the spectacular grandiosity of pomp and pageantry.
Throngs of celebrants, revelers elegantly decked in their “Sunday best” had swarmed the venue. Immaculately decorated floats, magnificently emblazoned with the banners of the existing counties and territories had been mounted. Multiple units of the various divisions of the Armed Forces of Liberia had also been mounted, royally attired in their most luxurious regalia.
The pivotal venue of that monumental occasion was the Barclay Training Center, opposite the Rally Time Market on the United Nations Drive in Monrovia. The glittering occasion was the first anniversary of the coup d’état that had toppled the William Richard Tolbert administration, just a year earlier; the ruling junta—People’s Redemption Council (PRC)–had christened it National Redemption Day. Initially, the new military leader had suggested that the date be considered as the authentic independence day of the country, but his suggestion didn’t get much traction.
The well-known statesman who spoke those historic words of wisdom to the Liberian people on that occasion was Honorable Henry Boima Fahnbulleh, Sr., a veteran diplomat and a seasoned lawyer. Elder Fahnbulleh, along with three other leading intellectuals of indigenous ancestry, had been victimized in the late ‘60s by William Tubman’s paranoid autocracy.
In fact, he had remained in Tubman’s jail until the aging autocrat’s demise in a London clinic on July 23, 1971. In other words, because of his vast experience and intellectual prowess, when the PRC announced Elder Fahnbulleh as the first national orator for the very first National Redemption Day festivities, most Liberians were anticipating that the veteran diplomat would dish out some prudently crafted food for thought for his fellow compatriots.
Indeed, reassuringly as anticipated, Elder Fahnbulleh, whose son, Dr. H. Boima Fahnbulleh, Jr. then served as Education Minister in the PRC regime, did not disappoint his compatriots. I must admit that close to four decades after that historic oration, the two short stories/parables narrated by renowned statesman still resonate in my memory and so, I decided to share the most relevant one with my fellow compatriots at this point in time.
I share Elder Fahnbulleh’s parable with my fellow Liberians today because I strongly believe that the Tuesday, October 10, 2017 general and presidential elections are a moment of reckoning in our nation’s history, which is bound to have durable ramifications on the future of Liberia.
According to Elder Fahnbulleh, once upon a time, there were two mischievous boys who had concocted to fool a famous wise man, as a means of proving to the community that the old man was not as wise as people thought. He said the two boys had a little bird, which was in the hand of one of them. And then they clandestinely planned to go to the Wise Oldman ask him whether the little bird was alive or dead.
The secret plan was that if the Wise Oldman says the little bird is alive, the boy who had the little bird in his palm would squeeze it to death, in order to prove to the whole world that the Wise Oldman was wrong, or better still, if he says the little bird is dead, the boy holding the little bird would open his hand and let the bird fly away. They believed that such scenario would prove to the community that the Oldman was not as wise as he was reputed to be.
The boys then went to the Wise Oldman’s residence and told him that they had a delicate question for him. At once, the Wise Oldman gave them the go-ahead. Then one of the boys began: “Mr. Wise Oldman, my friend has a little bird in his hand. Please tell us whether the little bird is dead or alive.”
As the veteran diplomat further noted that day, the Wise Oldman looked straight up to the heavens and then looked straight in the eyes of the two boys. He then solemnly said, “I don’t know whether the little bird in your hand is dead or alive. But what I know is that the life or death of the little bird is in your hands!”
From there, the two mischievous lads began giggling, their plot to undermine the reputation and integrity of the Wise Oldman having failed. It then dawned on them that the Wise Oldman was actually wise.
Like the Wise Oldman in Elder Fahnbulleh’s story, I, too, don’t know what fate has in store in the aftermath of the October 10, 2017 elections; I absolutely have no inkling whether multiparty democracy will glitter or gloom in the aftermath of the October 10th election. However, what I do know with certainty is that the future stability, national cohesion and eventual development of the Republic of Liberia are almost exclusively hinged on the transparent and impartial conduct of this particular electoral process.
To begin with, if these elections are conducted freely and fairly, devoid of all kinds of clandestine chicaneries and manipulations and a new president is inaugurated in January of 2018, that will constitute the first peaceful transfer of power from one administration to another in 74 consecutive years! I therefore, need not over-emphasize that the ensuing vote casting and its aftermath will definitely mark a pivotal moment in our nation’s history; it will be a moment of reckoning in contemporary Liberian history, because it will provide abundant opportunities for us all, especially power brokers to reassess our commitment to pluralistic democracy.
As many of my compatriots might recall, most of the socio-economic, political problems we have had in this country have been associated– directly or indirectly–with issues surrounding elections and its aftermath. The mob action of October 26, 1871, which later resulted in the ignoble death of President Edward James Roye; Charles D.B. King’s and Allen N. Yancy’s resignations of 1930 amid international disgrace, whereby scions of people who had for centuries, been victimized by slavery were themselves accused of engaging in such despicable practices; the horror of 1951 in which D. Twe was hunted like a common criminal; the callous bloodbath of 1955 in which the Colemans were slaughtered were all linked to electoral disputes.
Even in our most recent history, one cannot convincingly the dispute the fact that the 14-year upheaval that plagued Liberia and decimated the country had some electoral links. For example, if the Liberia Action Party (LAP), of former Senator Jackson Fiah Doe had been declared the winner of the October 15, 1985 elections, based on the actual mandate of the Liberian people, as reflected by their votes, Mr. Charles Taylor would have most probably found it very difficult to convince Felix Houphouet-Boigny to open his border for armed insurrection by the National Patriotic Front of Liberia.
But because the incumbent head of state, General Samuel Kanyon Doe became a biased referee in an electoral game in which he was also a player, he grossly circumvented the existing election laws by appointing 50 top officials of his regime, to proceed to the Unity Conference Center and “recount” the ballots.
Obviously, the fiasco that derived from that farce helped in legitimizing Charles Taylor’s egocentric onslaughts on the peace-loving people of Liberia and the rest is history. Now, coming from such bleak background of electoral disputes punctuated by conflicts, it’s an under-statement to say that power brokers must exert every effort in ensuring maximum transparency in the October 10th elections.
Considering the claims and counter-claims, rumors and allegations that are steadily streaming through the screens of social media and other media platforms, regarding the ongoing electoral process, it is as if one is hearing an echo of the two mischievous boys asking, “Is the little bird dead or alive?” When I hear persistent rumors of incumbent biases in favor of certain candidate(s); rumors questioning the citizenship of the Election Commission Chairman; rumors alleging that the chairman had been in the employ of one of the presidential candidates and therefore, he’s a lackey of that candidate; rumors about late night presidential meeting(s) with election magistrates; rumors about some data disappearing on NEC’s data base; rumors about excess ballot papers being printed; rumors about some an unannounced recruitment of some Kenyan election “experts” when the Kenyan elections remain inconclusive and many more, it’s as if someone is asking, is the integrity of this particular electoral process still intact?
Our compatriots seem to be wondering and worrying whether their collective political decisions will actually be reflected in the outcome of the October 10th election results. To be clear, such doubts are NOT associated with the legislative elections; it is only on the presidential competition that one tends to hear such seeping rumors and suspicions.
As I see it, a huge question today hangs over Liberian democracy. It seems that our democracy has reached its “Is the little bird dead or alive” moment. If the National Elections Commission (NEC) headed by Counselor Jerome Korkoyah is allowed to operate independently, in consonance with the letter and intent of the relevant electoral laws, the Johnson-Sirleaf administration will be proving beyond all reasonable doubts that Liberian democracy is, indeed, alive and kicking and its future is starkly vibrant.
Put another way, the mountain of doubts and suspicions surrounding this electoral process present a grandiose opportunity for President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and her appointees at the National Elections Commission to unimpeachably prove the skeptics and cynics wrong once and for all. In spite of the rumors, in spite of the saturating perceptions, President Sirleaf and Chairman Korkoyah must deem it imperative to demonstrate to the Liberian people and the global community that their unshakable commitment to the principles and best practices of multiparty democracy remain formidable and unassailable.
The onus is singularly on these two compatriots, who have simultaneously been lobbed into the orbit of history, to convincingly prove to everyone that those rumors, as persistent as they are, are absolutely without any foundation, whatsoever. Every effort must be made aimed at removing whatever iota of doubt that might otherwise inadvertently engender an undesirable outcome in the aftermath of this electoral process.
President Sirleaf and Chairman Korkoyah have the singular patriotic obligation to rise to the exigency of this herculean occasion. In the case of President Sirleaf, she’s already an international celebrity, a unique political brand on the African continent who has won countless national and international accolades, including the covetous Nobel Peace Prize. However, it must be pointed out that any notoriety growing out of glaring electoral malpractices, unfortunately, has the potential of supersonically deleting and discarding whatever preceding achievements one might have accomplished, in terms of the indelible blight it tends to impute on an otherwise noble character.
Despite her numerous prestigious laurels and praises in global circles, President Sirleaf as a politician, still needs to unequivocally convince the global community and most especially the Liberian people, that her clamoring, her agitations and activisms over the years have not solely about personally wielding power and its seemingly temptations trappings; that her past critical diagnostics of our socio-economic, political process, which first gained public attention as back as 1972, have all along, been firmly rooted in a genuine desire on her on part to erect a lasting democratic architecture in Liberia. Moreover, as a retiring incumbent, she ought to be expending the remnants of her political capital on ensuring the blossoming of a stable Liberia.
As for Counselor Korkoyah, who still has a huge batch of obscurity surrounding his public service, this is a once-in-a-life-time opportunity for him to famously immortalize the ancestral surname he bears, or permanently plunge such sainted ancestral name into the abyss of notoriety, depending on how he and his fellow commissioners conduct this generational transition process.
If he and his fellow election commissioners prove beyond all reasonable doubts that they’re principled compatriots who owe loyalty to none other than the Republic of Liberia and demonstrably resist whatever pressure and shenanigan from whatever quarter, to ensure that the results of Tuesday’s votes are exactly based on how the Liberian people had marked their ballots, they will be carving out an exemplary niche for themselves in human history.
Despite the persistent rumors, Korkoyah and colleagues must prove that they can’t be manipulated by anyone. Despite the persistent rumors, they must convince the world that not even the appointing authority has an undue leverage over them. This is imperative, because the Liberian People have suffered for too long and we all need a respite from any form of anxiety. The ultimate national interests must supersede whatever parochial interests. May the God of our Fathers continue to guide us in the years ahead.
About the Author:
Columnist Joe Bartuah studied English (BA), Political Science (BA) and Conflict Resolution, Public Policy and International Relations (MSc.) at the University of Massachusetts – Boston and its McCormack Graduate School of Public Policy and Global Studies. His forthcoming book is entitled, “An Agenda for a Better Liberia—A Common Sense Approach to Nation-Building.” He formerly edited The News newspaper in Monrovia. Bartuah is accessible on Facebook, LinkedIn and other social media. [email protected] or [email protected]