Liberia: Chief Zanzan Karwo Hates Democracy

Chief Zanzan Kawor, Chairman of the National Traditional Council of Liberia, delivers the National Independence Day oration at the Centennial Pavilion on Ashmun Street on July 26, 2023.

Chief Zanzan Karwor, Chairman of the National Traditional Council of Liberia, has used what should be the nation’s most unifying platform — to sow seeds of division while attempting to use the rhetoric of unity. 

While serving as National Independence Day Orator on July 26, Karwo accused the political opposition of “[fighting] the President”, while endorsing the second-term bid of President George Manneh Weah, touting him as “the one who feeds the people”.

Just those two phrases alone from the country’s chief traditional leader have revealed his displeasure with democratic governance. The phrase “fighting the President” could imply a range of actions and language depending on one’s perception. Any president of any country should expect an opposition – especially one that is issues-based and non-violent.

If Karwo was to be fair to the opposition and honest with himself, he would acknowledge the notable acts of physical violence and intimidation meted out against members of the political opposition by loyalists of the Weah administration in nearly every legislative election since 2019.  

But the Chief is pleased with the President because he (Weah) “is the one who feeds the people”. No, Chief Karwo, President Weah doesn’t feed the people; he feeds you, which is why you would use such a platform to endorse his 2nd term bid for the presidency. 

To be clear, we would not be opposed to Karwo’s endorsement of President Weah if he had done so in his personal capacity — certainly not during the National Independence Day celebration. But should we be surprised? At such a high-profile event, the President would want to hear good things spoken about his leadership and not be in the slightest way critiqued to potential embarrassment. But the template used by Chief Karwor is all too familiar. 

But need we cry over spilled milk? We could not expect less from the Chief of Chiefs. As head of the National Traditional Council of Liberia, Karwor has entrenched himself in this position to ensure that he remains at the helm of the Council for life. He has struck down every opposition to his dictatorship of the Council that is supposed to change leadership through an electoral process.  

Simply put, the Chief hates democracy. If it were up to Chief Karwo, George Manneh Weah himself would be president for life. 

Perhaps the Chief has forgotten or never heard this proverb: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for life. The people of Liberia need a president who creates the enabling environment for entrepreneurship, innovation, investment, and business to thrive — thereby enabling everyone to feed themselves. 

Moreover, Chief Karwo’s statements represent a significant departure from the principles that underpin traditional leadership. His role as Chairman of the Liberia Traditional Council is to act as a unifying figure, stand above partisan politics, be the custodian of culture, and be an impartial advisor to national leaders. 

His actions, therefore, have placed him at odds with his responsibility to serve as a unifying figure and as a source of guidance and impartiality, especially during politically charged periods.  But most importantly, it opens doors for other traditional leaders to start endorsing political candidates openly, placing tradition and culture at the center of patronage politics, where leaders feel obligated to repay favors with undue influence once in power. This undermines the very essence of traditional leadership as a symbol of unity and neutrality.

Karwo as custodian of Liberia’s rich cultural heritage should know this but it is disappointing that he happily went on to disrespect the sacred trust which, it is now clear, he traded for political favors.   Traditionally, the Chairman of the Liberia Traditional Council holds a significant place in Liberian society.  His primary responsibility is to uphold and safeguard the rich heritage and customs that have been passed down through generations. 

The Chair’s credibility is based on impartiality, which allows him to act in the best interests of all Liberians, and provide unbiased counsel irrespective of their political affiliations.

But Karwo, as a chief custodian of the country's culture, has for political reasons decided to cross a line that compromises the Council's non-partisan nature. What Karwo has done indicates that the Council, for which he has refused to hold an election, is no longer unbiased but rather a place for advancing political agendas.

His decision has jeopardized the delicate balance between the government and the Council, as well as eroding the sanctity of any important political decision from the Council.  

The independence of Karwo and the Traditional Council from politics is essential to ensure the fair representation of all citizens and prevent the exploitation of cultural institutions for political gain. This is why Karwo’s foray into politics not only taints the Council’s image but sows doubt in the minds of many Liberians about the sincerity of his leadership and its commitment to upholding the nation's values above political interests.

The Council has long been revered as a pillar of Liberia's cultural identity and a unifying force in times of political turbulence. 

But Karwo, in a bid to appease the President who reportedly asked former Grand Bassa Superintendent, Janjay Baikpeh, not to contest against Mary Karwo, the Chief’s wife, for the legislative seat of Grand Bassa County electoral district #2, decided to become political and bad mouth the opposition in a bid to win over support for Weah who is facing a serious challenge for the presidency comes October 10.

Additionally, the timing of Chief Karwo’s endorsement is a problem. Utilizing the prestigious occasion of the Independence Day Oration to endorse a political candidate seems opportunistic and inappropriate.

The focus of such an event should be on celebrating Liberia’s rich history and culture, not on promoting the agenda of a particular politician. This misstep reflects poorly on the Chief's judgment and understanding of the significance of national events. 

The Independence Day celebration was a momentous occasion where Liberians from all walks of life came together to commemorate their nation's history and diversity. Instead of utilizing this unifying platform to promote national cohesion,  Karwo undermined the solemnity of the occasion and has now made him of lesser importance in preserving its non-political nature and the future role it has to play in fostering unity and cohesion within the nation.

It is crucial for Karwo to reconsider his partisan position which clearly indicates that he is more interested in politics than cultural preservation and promotion in the midst of numerous threats facing the moral fabric of the country.

As the chief custodian of Liberia’s traditions, the country and its people need him to uphold a clear demarcation between the realms of politics and tradition, so as to preserve the checks and balances necessary for a functional democracy. 

But, at this point, can he? Will he? As a leopard is known by its spots, it takes one to know one. Besides, how do you oppose “the one who feeds” you?