As the nation approaches transition to a new political era, Liberians across all divides must plant a new ethos that cultivates hope. At a time when most of us have pessimistically concluded that our society is broken and our domestic problems are insurmountable, my aim is to show that in spite of the frightening obstacles, the next president can learn many lessons from the successes and challenges of the present one. I will be the first to admit my naïve optimistic faith in the power of the Liberian people working together collectively and achieving unmatched ends.
When Liberians unleashed every ones’ creative energies, talents, and potential during the Ebola outbreak, we became second to none in fighting a mysterious disease that nearly brought down the state as the civil war did. The threat which Ebola posed became our greatest source of innovation. That Liberians possess such a limitless resource and can harness it in difficult times is my source of hope. We can build on that collective creativity to forge ahead. The stage is set for deep-seated change to occur. We must set aside trivial politics and conventional ways of thinking. We must get bold, creative, decisive, and think bigger than we have ever thought about Liberia’s possibilities.
Liberia has gone through its own periods of unprecedented decline. But the tide turned with the emergence of democracy. Of course, it is true that the wind is not fully behind its sail. But the needed structures and institutions are in place, each needing strengthening to make them effective. True, several obstacles remain, which must be overcome to enable sustained success. When a nation fails as Liberia did so abysmally for a protracted period, it is unrealistic to think that it would be rebuilt in two political terms. Rebuilding the country to overcome some of its perennial challenges would take a few generations. It would be a false expectation to imagine that after the levels of human and institutional destruction that occurred during the conflict and Ebola, the ruins would be remedied in 12 years.
When you receive only half of your paycheck during the holiday season or ride on unpaved roads frequently than paved ones; or when you are being bumped around seeking space on crowded taxis, you are reminded of the grim realities of living in a fragile society still on the mend.
When your children return from school and the bowls are still empty, food yet to be cooked, it is fair to be dismayed that the prospects for the future are dim. It is true that most indicators point to the economy in recession, and there are worries that it might not improve in the next year, when the current government’s term will be over. By now, Liberians should know that good times are never everlasting. Every society, even the most established democracies and wealthy nations go through their own mood swings socially, politically and economically. Progress does not mean that hard times will be erased completely. We must thrive by overcoming challenges individually and collectively. Liberia is no exception. The country is better off than 12 years ago.
Over the holidays, I have watched cash-strapped Liberians stop buying enthusiastically as they did during previous holiday seasons. Some of the doors of stores and entertainment centers along the Robertsfield Highway where I live have been closed, but new stores are also being opened in larger numbers. Some friends and neighbors have cut back on expenses and others have increased theirs. In the political arena, we have seen the fall of existing leaders and the rise of new ones. And we have also witnessed the persistence of some perennial national ills: unemployment, inequality, corruption, mediocrity, political gridlock, underperformance and religious, ethnic and class animosities. No one will dispute that corruption has cast a shadow on the accomplishments of this administration. But equally so, even its critics will admit that the levels of development achieved during the period especially considering the problems that it inherited are unprecedented. Some of these problems have moderated and others have maintained status quo, or even exacerbated. The defining characteristic is that economic growth, which is the underlying measure of whether or not people’s wellbeing is improving, has tumbled. Corruption more than any other variable, has made economic growth its greatest casualty. But governance is not an abstract preposition or activity. It has limits and constraints. Leaders are given political capital, which they must spend based on the existing realities. Citizens make demands and leaders make deals within democracies.
In response, we will need elected and appointed leaders who inspire hope and make it the catalyst for new and equal opportunities. Those aspiring for leadership who spread messages of doom and fear should be viewed with suspicion, if not, ostracized. Disenfranchised Liberians do not need an added stress, but rather a platform for transformation that unifies rather than divides us. Aspirants should ask themselves and describe to the Liberian people how they will build on the achievements of the current leaders and lessons that they have learned from their shortcomings. In the next phase of Liberia’s development, it will require a leader who can bring all members of the society together to fully optimize our human capacities and rich natural resources.
We can endure against all odds. We must believe that whatever is described as the “old order” has collapsed and a new order has begun, however sparsely. As steep as our difficulties may look, a new political and economic order is gaining foothold. But it will not do us any good to sit on this epoch of transformation to point fingers and look for winners and losers. This will only amplify the cleavages that already exist. We should never allow the recovery to be interrupted. Instead, the speed should be accelerated by making a new social compact amongst ourselves and acting as a cohesive whole. A new Liberian order will not simply or automatically emerge into existence because we elect new leaders. It will require as people say elsewhere: “all hands on deck.” It will require all citizens playing their respective parts.
Leaders alone cannot be expected to transform a society when the citizens are moving in the opposite direction. Greater innovation and solidarity will take us to where we are destined to reach. But we each must be given stake in society or claim it. We must shift from values that align with meeting selfish purposes to ones that stress communal goals. Being citizens of a newly emergent democratic state, perhaps we do not have a full grasp of the kind of society that we aspire to build. We may be hesitant to uphold the responsibilities of democratic citizenship. But the time has come for us to evolve from an unstructured group of self-directed, low achieving individuals to a more cohesive, and high performing collective. This is crucial because despite our differences, we share vital interests and concerns. In the end, our new and old leaders together will need to give Liberians an inspiring account of the future, which ordinary Liberians find meaning in, identify with, and fully embrace.