Liberia: Ranting on Politics

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‘Minister Tweah, believes that any additional cuts will lead to heartache and disappointment to constituents who heavily rely on begging their lawmakers for money. Senator Dillon, however, says that “a governance system that is structured such that it works for and serves the needs of the citizens, keeps the citizens from begging for handouts.”’ (Robin Dopoe of Daily Observer writes)


By Dayugar Johnson, Contributing Writer


Like all political events, this debate took center-stage with all kinds of analysis in support and against both positions but has started to fizzle out. Before the last of the flames flicker out, I just wanted to explore a few points that have been swirling in my mind.

I want to start with Dillon’s argument. While I think that the idea of reducing salaries of legislators who have benefitted from huge salaries and other fringe benefits sound good and laudable, in my opinion it is tinged by a mélange of issues.

The first has to do with the timing of the proposition and the impact the politics of the timing will have on it. Already, even ordinary citizens are seeing it as a game of politics to prey on the condition of electorates in order to garner votes. This is not the first time that this government has discussed the issue of pay cuts. During the “harmonization”, some of us were of the opinion that the process went against the grain of the labor laws of this country and a legislative process was needed to amend and proffer new laws in order for the process to be both legitimized and institutionalized. But that was a missed opportunity for the legislature to take leadership on the matter.

Secondly, this issue of timing underscores another fundamental issue, which is the intent and sincerity of the proposition. Given that the legislature is a place of majority decision-making, one would want to build alliances, cultivate collaboration and cooperation in order to get numbers on one’s side when initiating such processes. But the fact that it was proffered in a manner that was considered belligerent, reinforces the accusations that the intent of the proposition is a political gimmick to garner votes for the pending elections.

Thirdly, a proposition that focusses on salary reduction alone, in my thinking, is weak and of no effect to the expressed purpose of cutting salaries. I would think that for the purpose of the proposition to be met other key systemic issues need to be considered. Key amongst those issues to be considered to complement the proposition are:

  1. The strengthening of oversight, an expressed and intrinsic function of the legislature that have been downplayed for personal interests and gains. If the legislature cannot hold the executive accountable for what is legislated in the budget each year of what good is a proposition to cut salaries?
  2. Strengthening the legislative process. I have always told people that the making of laws is not complete unless the process ends with budgeting for the operationalization of the law. For example, the Land Rights Law was made but we have to depend on development partners and nongovernmental organizations to begin the implementation of the law; similarly with the HIV/AIDS law where what is budgeted can only accommodate the salaries of the National AIDS Commission and we have to depend on GFATM to implement. Laws are made, according to the constitution, to benefit the citizenry and the budget is a tool to make that happen. Therefore, when lawmaking is complete through the budgeting process you can have the desired impact and also be able to hold the “responsibles” accountable.
  3. Improving representation: Those in the legislature represent the citizenry, not because they are qualified more than others to do so but because of the kind of democracy we have. According to Chapter 3 Article 17 of the 1986 Constitution of Liberia, “All persons…shall have the right to assemble and consult upon the common good, to instruct their representatives…” How effective is this relationship between the representatives and the represented? When do they receive “instructions” from their constituents? How many times do they meet with the people to consult upon the common good? This cardinal function of the legislature – representation – needs to be improved by building the necessary relationships with the constituencies with honesty and sincerity.

Additionally, there needs to be a clear iteration of how and for what purposes will amounts generated from the propose reduction be applied. Is there a clear strategy of how to go about this? Again, in the absence of a clear plan, there is no guarantee that the salary reduction will benefit the targeted population.

Looking at the other side of the debate that constituents will have a heartache and be disappointed because they rely heavily on begging their lawmakers for money is a weak argument that goes against the grain of the very constitution according to Chapter 2 Article 7: “The Republic shall, consistent with the principles of individual freedom and social justice enshrined in this Constitution, manage the national economy and the natural resources of Liberia in such manner as shall ensure the maximum feasible participation of Liberian citizens under conditions of equality as to advance the general welfare of the Liberian people and the economic development of Liberia”. This means that we all – Liberians – should participate in the economy and be able to cater to our general welfare as equals. We should not be depending on legislators to cater to our welfare. I can think of nowhere where begging has lifted anyone out of poverty; it only subjugates people and make them pawns in the grand scheme of things.

It is because of this very mentality of begging that “development” and the welfare of the constituents is largely tied to electioneering. Duty-bearers horde finances and other incentives meant for the citizenry until during elections season before releasing some of it to the unsuspecting constituents. This is patronage which is a deepened form of patriarchy. It makes individual government officials to appear richer than the entire state and “development” is hinged to their whims and caprices. This form of thinking and action which has inundated our political sphere is the very reason why the expressed functions of the executive branch of government has been usurped by the legislature. Imagine a legislator giving his annual report to his or her constituents and talks about the number of roads, bridges and market buildings built and not about the kind of laws that have been made to improve the lives of the constituents.

In my opinion, the argument to allow representatives continue with their huge salaries because people are going to beg them for handouts is disingenuous and intended to strengthen patronage and patriarchy. Equally so, it is not enough to proffer a bill to reduce salaries. This must be complemented by other concomitant actions of addressing systemic issues mentioned above including the menace of corruption and the attending impunity. It is only the full package of connected actions and commitments as well as a spirit of cooperation and collaboration that will yield the results that we desire, that is, improved welfare of the ordinary people of this nation through the provision of uninterrupted basic social services.

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