How Amos Sawyer Shaped Governance and Political Developments in Modern Liberia
By Ibrahim Al-bakri Nyei
Professor Amos Claudius Sawyer lived for 77 years, with 50 of those years committed to scholarly inquiry on the African society — particularly his native Liberia — and a struggle to end poverty, build democracy, educate, and deliver peace, reconciliation, and prosperity in Liberia. He did not live to see the Liberia he envisioned.
His lofty ideals sometimes made him a utopian thinker to others, but he believed they were possible. He wanted sound political and economic governance, social justice, and equitable access to public services and opportunities. He believed these could only be made possible through deeper reforms of the unjust political and economic system he grew up in.
He committed a lifetime of scholarship, activism, political leadership, and public service to these causes — even at the peril of his life. Through his work as a scholar-activist and political leader, he made remarkable contributions that shaped and transformed Liberia toward constitutional democracy.
However, Sawyer did not realize how deeply he had influenced and shaped modern Liberia through his half-a-century quest for understanding and engagement with the political and socio-economic issues of Liberia. As we commemorate his 77th birth anniversary, today June 15, 2022, I reflect on how his lifelong work for democracy, social justice, and prosperity shaped political developments in modern Liberia.
The attainment of universal suffrage
Before 1979, suffrage (the right to vote in public elections) was not universal. It was a privilege reserved for the landowners, literate/western educated and mostly urban dwellers of Liberia. Sawyer took a personal interest in understanding this voting system that required a citizen to own a land (with title deed) before qualifying to vote in a public election.
His inquiry exposed the fault lines in the system, and he persuasively argued that such a system was unconstitutional and grossly undemocratic; hence it needed to be reformed for greater inclusivity. To achieve this, he decided to register as an independent candidate to challenge the True Whig Party (TWP) in the mayoral election of 1979. Though Liberia claimed to be a democracy then, an open challenge to the TWP’s claim to power was seen by the ruling class as an abominable offense, punishable by death or many years of imprisonment. This was the fate that befell the leaders of the Independent True Whig Party (ITWP) — the last known opposition to the TWP before the progressive movements of the 1970s — after the 1955 election.
Sawyer demanded an inclusive and open election. His campaign mobilized the urban poor and reignited opposition politics. This was the first major challenge to the True Whig Party since 1955. Hence, Sawyer’s candidacy was seen by many as an act of heresy. He advocated for a reform of the election law to remove the property ownership qualification and provide for universal adult suffrage. His message resonated well among the urban poor. The campaign gained huge support and even attracted liberal elements from within the ruling class.
The TWP eventually found out that they could not defeat Sawyer in an open and fair election, or could they entirely ignore or suppress the popular demand for universal adult suffrage. Consequently, President William R. Tolbert accepted the proposal for universal adult suffrage and declared support for the required changes in the election law. The mayoral campaign was therefore suspended to allow for the constitutional referendum. As the legislature prepared to pass the referendum bill, the military staged a putsch on April 12, 1980, toppled the Tolbert administration, and dismantled the TWP hegemony. Sawyer was offered the post of mayor by the military leader immediately after the coup, but he declined the offer, insisting that he could only occupy such a position through a competitive democratic process.
For Sawyer, it was not about the position of mayor and the perks associated with it. It was a campaign for genuine political change and inclusive politics. Sawyer attained victory in this campaign when the rest of the population learned about their right to vote and decided to stand for that right. This victory was confirmed when the government accepted the proposal and initiated plans for a plebiscite on the issue. It was a victory for his people, for his country, and for democracy.
Laying the foundation for constitutional democracy
Though brutal and incompetent, the juntas that seized power in 1980 and their civilian backers wanted to establish a constitutional order to add a veneer of legitimacy to their claim to power. Sawyer was appointed to head a constitution drafting committee which eventually wrote one of Africa’s most progressive constitutions of the late 20th century. His approach involved mass public participation and consultations on issues for inclusion in the new constitution. As a result, the constitution-making process of the early 1980s was highly inclusive and the final draft was popularly accepted by Liberians of all political formations. The lofty democratic ideals espoused in what popularly became known as the ‘Sawyer’s draft’ were found antithetical to the political ambitions of the military leaders, who did not only want to prolong their rule but also wanted to govern with limited accountability and constitutional constraints.
In response, they established an ‘advisory council’ that revised the ‘Sawyer’s draft’ making it possible for the military head of state to participate in the first post-coup election of 1985. They also granted blanket amnesty to the perpetrators of the 1980 coup. Even though the ‘advisory council’ made changes that essentially provided legal shield for the coup leaders and increased the powers of the president, most of Sawyer’s foundational ideas for a free and democratic order were retained in what became the Constitution of Liberia of 1986 (the current constitution).
As it turned out, the ‘advisory’ council’s main objective was to facilitate the transition of the juntas to civilian leaders through the new constitution. Therefore, they made little or no changes to the original provisions of the bill of rights, and the general principles guiding the development of national policies: national integration and unity, participation, equality of access to opportunities, zero-tolerance for corruption and nepotism, and sound economic management — which were all advanced by the Sawyer commission.
Even though successive administrations, since 1986, continue to fall short of governing on these principles, they (principles) provide the benchmarks and set the standards against which the citizens can hold the government to account. It is against this backdrop that some Liberians rightfully describe Sawyer as the father of modern constitutional democracy in Liberia.
Laying the foundations for peace and political dialogue
When civil war broke out in Liberia, Sawyer was appointed by Liberian stakeholders at a peace conference in the Gambia, in 1990, to head an Interim Government of National Unity (IGNU). This decision was made after stakeholders had realized that neither the rebels National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) and Independent National Patriotic Front of Liberia (INPFL) nor the Government of Samuel K. Doe were prepared for dialogue and a peaceful settlement.
It was also obvious that neither could lead the country out of violence and deliver peace. Professor Sawyer, who commanded enormous respect for his public integrity and democratic credentials, became the obvious choice to lead the charge for dialogue and a peaceful settlement. He also had a mandate to organize democratic elections that would return the country to constitutional rule.
His approach was broader consultation and inclusive politics. Despite resistance from warring factions, determined to seize power at all costs, Sawyer managed to establish channels for dialogues and communications. These efforts made it possible for Liberian civil society, including women's movements, religious groups, and all political factions to attain greater stakes in the search for peace. By the time he left power in 1994 the conflict was still raging, but the search for peace had gained new impetus due to the channels he established and the number of interested actors engaging and mediating the warring factions for a peaceful settlement. As a result, after his interim administration, Liberians from all walks of life were engaged in various peace dialogues and community engagement programs even when the warring factions were not available to engage.
The ’architect of governance reform’
After years of scholarly inquiries on governance and institution building at the Ostrom Workshop on Political Theory and Policy Analysis at Indiana University (Bloomington), Professor Sawyer returned to public service in 2007. He committed his last few years of public service to reform and strengthening governance institutions in Liberia and across Africa.
At the Ostrom Workshop, Sawyer and his colleagues interrogated questions of self-governance, local institutional mechanisms, and rules for governing common-pool resources and building institutions for good governance. The ideas generated at the Workshop immensely shaped his intellectual thinking and understanding of institutional mechanisms, possibilities, and challenges. Thus, his transition from interrogating and articulating governance theories to implementing them was seamless. Liberia’s post-war environment, then wanting of crucial reforms, needed his talent, popular appeal, and convening power among stakeholders. He availed himself, and President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf appointed him to head the Governance Reform Commission (which later became the Governance Commission).
To him, durable peace and prosperity could not be attained without the building of more democratic, accountable, and responsive public institutions. To achieve these, he led numerous reform projects and drafted policy papers with insightful recommendations to the government of President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf.
During his leadership at the Governance Commission, he championed decentralization reform, reconciliation and social cohesion, land reform, public sector reform, and constitutional reform, among others. Consequently, there is a Local Government Act for decentralization, a Land Rights Act and a Liberia Land Authority to implement its provisions, an autonomous Liberia Revenue Authority, a Liberia Anti-Corruption Commission, and a Roadmap for National Reconciliation, among others. Although Liberia still struggles with institutional challenges that make it nearly impossible for these progressive laws and policies to translate into good governance and prosperity for the people, Sawyer’s achievements lie in putting those issues on the policy agenda and establishing foundational laws for them.
His unremitting courage, engagement, and commitment to the cause of reform and institution building made President Sirleaf describe him, in 2011, as “the architect of governance reform in Liberia” who was “consistent in principle, consistent in courage, and consistent in commitment”. Thus, in the immediate post-war era, while President Sirleaf provided political leadership, Sawyer emerged as the intellectual leader of the state-building project.
After retiring from the Governance Commission in 2017, Professor Sawyer continued his work on building democracy in Liberia. He focused his attention on civic awareness and consciousness among young Liberians. This new inquiry led to a project on writing a series of civics textbooks for Liberian schools. The books have been posthumously published and launched by the Ministry of Education of Liberia.
Upon his death in February 2022, Former President Sirleaf announced that “Liberia mourns deeply with the passing of one of its eminent sons and moral compass”. Many other African leaders and ordinary citizens mourned his passing and hailed his contributions to the cause of good governance. For Goodluck Jonathan of Nigeria, Sawyer was “a lone voice in the fight for good governance in Africa”, while former President Ernest Bai Koroma of Sierra Leone mourned that “ECOWAS and Liberia have lost a great patriot but should take comfort from his solid legacy of peace and political tolerance”. In a statement, the AU-African Peer Review Mechanism recounted ‘his dedication to good governance, public service and servant leadership in both Liberia and Africa.”
The challenge/task for the new generation
During his final years on earth, Professor Sawyer became deeply concerned that his country was not at the level of prosperity and democratic progress he and his comrades had spent a lifetime trying to achieve. He bemoaned the dysfunction and corruption in the public sector and the growing level of poverty among Liberians.
The challenge for contemporary Liberian leaders is to address these problems and deliver good governance by scrupulously implementing the progressive laws and policies (some listed above) that have already been adopted by the government, and as society evolves, make appropriate iterations in response to the demands of the time. And the challenge for the generations of scholars and activists after Sawyer is to, as Frantz Fanon instructed, define a mission, and fulfill that mission. Sawyer and his comrades fulfilled their mission.
Thus, despite the current state of political decay, mediocrity, and apparent paralysis of state institutions, our hope still clutches onto the fact that the ideological basis of freedom and prosperity that shaped the modern Liberian state and the institutional mechanisms for making them a reality have been forcefully and clearly articulated over the years by Sawyer and his comrades. It is that hope that keeps the struggle for good governance and prosperity alive!