Liberian Democracy and the Scourge of Political Patronage

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By Joe Bartuah

“All power is inherent in the people. All free governments are instituted by their authority and for their benefit and they have the right to alter and reform the same when their safety and happiness so require. In order to ensure democratic government which responds to the wishes of the governed, the people shall have the right at such period, and in such manner as provided for under this Constitution, to cause their public servants to leave office and to fill vacancies by regular elections and appointments,” Article 1, Liberian Constitution of 1986.

“I heard of his reputation as a jolly, backslapping, finger-snapping fellow, who could carry his liquor well, popular with women of a certain type, and a careless spender of his own and other people’s money…We did not move in the same direction.

“I gave my support to a candidate with whose personal characteristics I was unacquainted, whose real intellectual attitude towards government was unknown to me and whose interpretation of government’s obligation to society I was ignorant. I took him on trust from reports of his friends and from what I afterwards learned, were his hypocritical letters to me,” Former President Edwin James Barclay’s acceptance speech on August 27, 1954 as standard-bearer of the Independent True Whig Party (ITWP). (Wreh, p. 59:1976)

The 2017 general and presidential elections slated for the second Tuesday in October, as mandated by our organic law, will offer an almost unprecedented moment for power brokers in the country and the  Liberian electorate at large, to be manifestly assured, or to assure themselves, that every bona fide citizen of the country who has attained the requisite age, qualification and competence, actually has an equal opportunity in seeking the presidency, irrespective of one’s socioeconomic, political, or ethnic background, if such person is preferred by a majority of the voters, as might be reflected in their vote. To begin with, this will be the very first incumbent-free presidential election in 74 years, whereby the elected president, who is actually administering the entire territorial confines of the country, is expected to transfer authority to a successor without being a candidate in the election.

If my recollection is accurate, the last time such pivotal political moment availed itself was in May of 1943, when the de facto one-party True Whig Party hegemony was still in full swing. In other words, not only that the incumbent president will herself not be a candidate in the impending presidential election, but also the election will, unlike in the True Whig Party era, be held in a multiparty environment, which evokes the intrigues of competing interests. In the 1943 “election,” it was the erudite Edwin James Barclay who was retiring after 14 years on the throne, having been dramatically thrust to the mantle of state power in the melee of the Fernando Po opprobrium in December 1930.

Now, 74 years after that monumental occasion, I dare say that the 1943-44 fiasco was not an exemplary transfer of power. It must therefore serve as an instructive historical guide for ALL LIBERIANS—power brokers as well as the down-trodden masses—to avoid repeating such colossal mistake in the annals of our history. To put it candidly, the authentic political will of majority of the Liberian people must impartially be allowed to prevail at the ballot box in the impending presidential election, rather than a certain small group of people arrogating the privilege of deciding who becomes the next president to themselves, supposedly on behalf of the vast majority of our people.

When Barclay was relinquishing the presidential chair, most Liberians were still being disenfranchised by the ruling elites; only so-called property owners were allowed to vote at the time. Likewise, women did have the right to vote then. In short, the prevailing political culture was a sort of token democracy among the coastal settlers, even though the pauperized citizens of the rest of the country were being taxed without a say in the government. Even at that, intense rivalries prevailed among the political elites within the TWP. For example, during the 1943 transitional period, Messrs James F. Cooper, a well-known rubber farming tycoon and Counselor Clarence L. Simpson, Sr. were interested in seeking the presidency, but Barclay, the outgoing president basically hand-picked his successor, against the popular will of the TWP permitted electorate at the time. The pre-eminent president’s argument, which probably convinced some TWP stalwarts was that Montserrado had dominated the presidential stage for a long time and so, it was time for the ruling elites to give chance to someone from the “leeward counties.” It was through such unmeritorious argument that Edwin Barclay effectively quashed any modicum of competition and imposed the autocratic William Vacanarat Shadrach Tubman on the unsuspecting Liberian people.

From a public policy perspective, Barclay’s decision to hand-pick Tubman was myopic, because the outcome subsequently turned out to be disastrous, not only for Liberia, but also very tragic for the former president himself. Barclay’s anointing of Tubman reeked of nepotism, because four years after Tubman took over the mantle of state power, he married Antoinette Padmore, Barclay’s niece, who was for all practical purposes, his foster daughter. The future first lady, along with her younger brother, the late Ambassador George A. Padmore, had been orphaned as a result of their parents drowning when their canoe capsized on the Saint Paul River. The two kids, then 9 and 7 years respectively, had been raised by their maternal uncle, the future President Edwin Barclay. What is not clear is whether Ms. Padmore and Mr. Tubman had had a courtship prior his assumption of the presidency, or he (Tubman) was simply practicalizing a quid pro quo arrangement with his predecessor.

The tragedy for the country was that seven years after Tubman ascended to the presidency, he manipulated the feeble TWP Legislature to abrogate a key constitutional provision, which limited the presidential tenure to an eight-year one term. His 1951 incredulous amendment to the constitution reads, “No President may be elected for two consecutive terms of eight years, but should a majority of the ballots cast a second or any other succeeding election by all of the electors voting thereat elect him, his second or any other succeeding term of office shall be for four years.”

It was through such comical amendment of a very crucial constitutional provision that William Tubman fiercely embarked on his epic decimation, degradation of the country’s political process. When the eminent Didwho Twe and the Reformation Party/United People Party coalition attempted to challenge him, Tubman brutally resorted to jungle justice and chased the Harvard-trained statesman into exile. There is no doubt that by 1954 or thereabout, Barclay himself was profoundly regretting the costly political blunder he had made 11 years earlier. However, being a politician, the former president didn’t want to take the blame. When he realized that the autocrat whose formal educated had ended at a Cape Palmas seminary, had no intention of peacefully transferring power to a successor, he teamed up with some forward-looking political stalwarts of the TWP in minting the Independent True Whig Party (ITWP) to wrestle power from Tubman.

Unfortunately, it was too late! Tubman had, by then, formidably entrenched himself into power to the extent that it was now extremely difficult, if not impossible, to democratically dislodge him from power. It was against this backdrop that ex-president Barclay made these assertions in 1954, in his capacity as the newly nominated standard-bearer of the ITWP: I heard of his reputation as a jolly, backslapping, finger-snapping fellow, who could carry his liquor well, popular with women of certain type, and a careless spender of his own and other people’ money…We did not move in the same direction.

The question here is: Do such weirdly colorful characteristics in any way, portray a basic aptitude of suitability for the presidency of a country? If Barclay actually knew that Tubman was a boozing, womanizing socialite, as clearly indicated in the quoted statements above, why did Edwin Barclay, one of Liberia’s foremost intellectual presidents, impose this apprenticed lawyer with such checkered characteristics from Cape Palmas on the unsuspecting Liberian people?

In his desperate attempt to absolve himself of the ominous political situation that was, by then unfolding in the country, Barclay further noted, I gave my support to a candidate with whose personal characteristics I was unacquainted, whose real intellectual attitude towards government was unknown to me; and of whose interpretation of government’s obligation to society I was ignorant. I took him on trust from reports of his friends and from what I afterwards learned, were his hypocritical letters to me. From my layman’s assessment, either the well-learned Barclay was such an inept human resources manager when it came to recruiting a qualified, highly competent and capable person to exemplarily administer the executive authority of the country, or he was being disingenuously dishonest about his nepotistic anointment of William Tubman at the expense of our strategic national interest. It is astoundingly incredible that Barclay, a former Attorney-General, a former Secretary of State (Foreign Minister) well entrenched in the highest echelon of the domineering Monrovia power elites, claimed that he didn’t know the political attitude and aptitude of Tubman, a former Senator from Maryland County, a former Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of Liberia, a fellow lawyer.

More importantly, when Barclay delivered the above quoted speech on August 27, 1954, Tubman had already been his nephew-in-law for six years, the gentleman having married, Ms. Antoinette Padmore (Barclay’s late sister’s daughter) in 1948. Against this backdrop, was it not laughable for the former president to claim that he was not au courant with the political rectitude of his foster daughter’s husband? Apart from Barclay’s close marital relationship to Tubman, Edwin Barclay, then as Secretary of State, his uncle, former president Arthur Barclay (by then operating a very powerful post-presidential law firm in Monrovia), then Speaker Samuel A. Ross of Sinoe County, Vice President Allen Yancy of Maryland County, President Charles D.B. King and then Senator William V.S. Tubman of Maryland County had all been accomplices in the disgraceful 20th century slavery enterprise on the Spanish island of Fernando Po (now Equitorial Guinea), which was later euphemistically tagged as a “forced labor” episode by the League of Nations, precursor of the United Nations.

The only distinction is that Arthur Barclay, Tubman and Edwin Barclay on the one hand, were the white-collar accomplices while then President King and his vice president were identified by the League of Nations as the primary blue-collar culprits, hence they had to resign in disgrace. When indigenous Liberian boys were being shipped to Fernando Po for as low as $9 per person, to intensely work and die in inhumane, degrading conditions on Spanish coffee plantations at the beginning of the 20th century, Arthur and Edwin Barclay’s law firm vigorously represented the interests of the Spanish companies involved in such reprehensible human trafficking. Moreover, as Secretary of State, Edwin Barclay’s State Department (now Foreign Ministry) was responsible for issuing the final clearance for the captured slaves, or the slave ships to depart Liberia.

Of course, when this mind-boggling human degradation was brought to the attention of the international community and the League of Nations subsequently set up a commission of inquiry to probe this disturbing issue, William Tubman “resigned” as Senator of Maryland County to represent Yancy and King, even though at some points in time, he (Tubman) and Yancy, a fellow Marylander, had fiercely collaborated in raiding villages and capturing young boys in the southeastern region of the country to be sold to Fernando Po slave traders. Following the initial verdict, when Speaker Ross was outmaneuvered by the Monrovia cabal with the appointment of Secretary of State Edwin Barclay as president, he swiftly appointed William Tubman as Associate Justice, a sort of big thank you for defending the status quo. In short, the lengthy collaboration of Tubman and Barclay prior to their political fallout of 1954-55 has already been well documented in numerous publications.

What I, however, want to stress here is that political patronage is not only a nefarious attempt at egregiously undermining any burgeoning democratic process, but also a gross disservice to the strategic interests of any country. The highly anticipated October elections in Liberia present a grandiose opportunity for us, as a people, to test our unequivocal commitment to majoritarian democracy. Because as a nation, we had in the past, unwillingly gone down the treacherous valley of political patronage, this time around, Liberians must say an emphatic NO to any form of tele-guided, or remote-controlled democracy, however camouflaged, or sugar-coated it might be. In the 1943-44 True Whig Party “elections”, when Edwin Barclay hook-winked the political establishment and imposed Tubman on the country, it proved to be dangerous, even for those who had preferred to supinely sit on the fence at the time. Now that we are in this 21st century of unprecedented enlightenment, we must all prudently heed the instructive lessons of history, by ensuring that the actual political will of the Liberian people is reflected in the results of the October 10th elections.

The forthcoming elections must serve as a moment for Liberia to shed its deficient political past for the betterment of the country. The dismal sub-culture of manipulating the electoral process through all sorts of chicaneries, rampantly putting state resources at the disposal of certain politicians, political party(ies), or stipulating bizarre laws designed to hijack the popular will of the people must be discontinued forthwith. Liberia’s ethnic mosaic must be open-mindedly seen as an asset, rather than parochially perceiving it as a sort of liability. Those sordid political chicaneries in the past, whereby certain people were denied the right to seek the presidency, or whereby self-appointed power brokers blatantly hijacked the will of the people in a brazen, shameless fashion must now be things of the past. The conduct of this election must be utterly transparent, free and fair in order to send an unambiguous message to all of our compatriots that indeed, this country actually belongs to all of its citizens, irrespective of one’s ethnicity or surname.

Political patronage smacks of myopic arrogance and elitist snobbery. Hand-picking a successor is tantamount to saying that all the people in the whole country are stupid; that the people lack the basic capacity to freely decide for themselves. As a people, our last experience with a hand-picked successor was extremely tragic. Seven years after a hand-picked successor was sworn in, Didwho Twe was mercilessly flushed into exile; eleven years afterwards, Samuel David Coleman, once Tubman’s buddy in the Senate, was brutally butchered along with his highly educated son. Likewise, on November 6th of the same 1955, Tubman’s primary benefactor, for President Edwin Barclay was dead. Although his death was said to be “natural,” one cannot rule out the heart-wrenching bloodletting surrounding the deaths of the Colemans and others as part of the causalities.

In other words, usurping an orderly process, just to insert a detestable political patronage therein had in the past, not served the best interests of Liberia. Having been severely victimized by a hand-picked political imposition in the past, this time around, all Liberians must resolutely reject any form of political patronage. Having gone through 14 years of fratricidal upheaval, which snatched the precious lives of over 250,000 compatriots and foreign residents, having endured famines, starvations, diseases, and all other forms of human degradation, dehumanization, we have already seen some of the worst can befall us; we have already been through hell-holes as a people. Our steely character having been collectively molded by the intensity of those memorable calamities, we must not allow ourselves to be cowed into a subservient submission by shamelessly selling our fundamental birthrights for worthless alms and crumbs. On October 10, 2017, we all must collectively assure ourselves and posterity that indeed, “All power is inherent in the people,” as sacredly enshrined in the very first article of our constitution, by conscientiously voting for a virile, resolute leader with the requisite gallantry to move LIBERIA forward.

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 Liberia 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. His email: [email protected] or [email protected]

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