Liberia: We Deserve A Better Government; The CPP Might Not Give Us That
They say you always remember your first time. When I cast my vote in 2023, I will remember it more as a strong renunciation and rebuke of George Weah than an enthusiastic embrace and endorsement of the Collaborating Political Parties (CPP), a coalition of four parties. Compared to President Weah, Messrs. Joseph Boakai and Alexander Cummings, the candidates vying to lead the CPP, are not the lesser of two evils. They have a greater understanding of policy issues, more passion for public service, and a better temperament to serve as president. However, I am worried that the CPP has not shown any objective evidence that their leadership will be fundamentally transformative.
By James Earl Kiawoin, Contributing Writer
First, my biggest fear is that the CPP will struggle to govern its own ranks. Unlike the current governing coalition, where Mr. Weah’s party was the strongest and the other parties were willing to get in line, the parties in the CPP feel they all have similar strengths. Whereas George Weah was the most popular candidate in that coalition or the only one with any real chance of winning an election, it is unclear who has the best shot in the CPP. This has been the source of the in-fighting around who gets to head the coalition. UP feels it is a no-brainer given their recent performance. ANC feels that Mr. Cummings has gained ground given his cross-country canvassing.
In recent months, the CPP has foreshadowed what governing will look like: deep distrust among advisors, backstabbing, lying, finger-pointing, and manipulating key documents. Watch interviews of its key advisors or follow their social media activities, and it is clear that they despise each other, which will only grow after the primaries and, if successful, the initial allocation of government jobs, the designation of who’s who in the decision-making rooms.
I am a fan of careful debates and deliberations, even if they are heated and acrimonious. But I am afraid what we will get with the CPP will be nasty and unproductive, leaving the fate of Liberians bogged down amid petty disagreements and counterproductive infighting. For a group that claims they can be the adults we have sorely lacked under the current administration, their mistakes and fights are childish and embarrassing. In any scenario where they ran against a sitting government that George Weah did not lead, their chances of electoral success would be virtually nonexistent.
Over the last few months, the public and persistent nature of the CPP’s fights have filled many with dread that the CPP will either disintegrate before the elections or will select candidates unable to unseat president Weah. The UP and ALP’s proposal for bloc voting among delegates has been met with disdain and ridicule. The ANC has criticized UP’s decision to endorse Mr. Boakai to be its standard-bearer. The ALP’s dislike for the ANC is an open secret. LP is split on whom to support for the presidency and was recently angered by ANC’s decision to walk out of the meeting of party leaders.
Second, the CPP has a cast of leaders without exemplary character and track record to play a leading role in national politics and policy. The visibility and influence of these leaders in their respective parties mean they will have an outsized role in the government, even if they are not in cabinet positions. They will call the shots on who gets appointed, what policy options are considered, and influence critical voting decisions. In fact, the April 2020 version of the CPP Framework Document states that the president shall submit their legislative agenda to the National Executive Committee, and when deliberated on and endorsed, the agenda will be binding on all CPP legislators! While I cannot see a viable pathway to enforce this, I am worried that this policy will entrust this Committee with big decisions and limit legislative debates. While a President and the legislators in their party can share broad alignment on core policy issues, it is dangerous to compel them to vote on a wholesale agenda. It is dangerous that a closed-door committee, and not constituents, will dictate the terms of their vote. The constituent parties of the CPP have shown that their loyalties and allegiances to their own causes trump any kind of unified policy regime. There will be many a quid pro quo, and some will involve making deals with people who have inflicted damage on this country through their greed and corruption.
While Liberian voters have shown worrying amnesia of character assessment by rewarding heinous and corrupt people with public office, this time has to be different. Mr. Cummings has consistently reminded us that we cannot continue to do the same things and expect different results.
The character and track record of some CPP leaders leave much to be desired. Character is not destiny but should be a relevant factor in evaluating people and their quest for power. We cannot elevate or prioritize mere political victories over moral considerations. We must not allow the CPP to overlook the record of some of its senior leaders in the name of a marriage of convenience. While anybody but Weah is a convenient strategy to gloss over past abuses, we need to elevate ourselves to higher standards.
Third, the CPP has not presented clear, detailed policy proposals and reforms. The leading candidates have outlined some ideas on what they will do, but they are not expansive or fresh. They rehash the usual trope of expanding the economy, focusing on agriculture, improving education, and change. In his second attempt at the presidency, Mr. Boakai has evolved from a single-issue candidate focused on “roads, roads, roads” to “agriculture, roads, tourism, and sanitation,” or ARTS. Mr. Cummings has continued to promise a dramatic expansion of the national budget. Whether these candidates have plans for improving education and school-to-work transition, bolstering the civil service, protecting women and girls, climate change adaptation and mitigation, strengthening health systems or tax administration, among others, is anybody’s guess.
The ideas presented so far are light on scale and specifics. The CPP can argue that it is too early to have the depth I am requesting, but it is not. As the CPP prepares for consensus or the primaries, it is reasonable to ask for key policy proposals– the how, the why, and how much of each. If not, then what will the delegates be voting on or for?
I have heard many people argue that the average Liberian voter does not care about policy specifics or big, bold ideas. This argument is wrong and insulting. But even if the voters do not care, the parties need to have these plans prepared before the elections, so they have a blueprint to work from on the day they get into office. In 2017, George Weah did not anchor his campaign on a policy agenda. In fact, he barely mentioned what his policies were and did not show up to the presidential debates to explain them. We saw the outcomes: a government without targets for its first 100 days, plans or personnel to fill critical positions, and a hastily assembled national agenda presented many months into its tenure.
We can only hope the CPP addresses the original flaws left unattended at its original foundation to make it to the general elections and win. After that, we can only hope they have a cohesive and ambitious policy plan and cordial working relationships to govern Liberia successfully.