By Abdoulaye W. Dukulé
Like everyone watching the political scene, I was excited about and looked forward to the political forum the President had convened, to have a heart-to-heart with the opposition. As the old man said, it doesn’t matter if people agree or not, if they are talking, everyone is safe. The forum was a positive step to diffuse the tense political atmosphere that was developing between the President and his surrogates on one side and the opposition and the media on the other.
Many expected the debate to go live, so that we could all hear what the President and the politicians were about to discuss. This was a first political event in our history. Allowing the people of Liberia to listen in directly would have given everyone a sense of where the country stands, politically. When the microphones went off after the introductions, everything was left to speculations.
Questions abound about what would be discussed. Would the President apologize for calling some Liberians “enemy of the nation” for disagreeing with him? Would the President offer jobs to some vocal opposition members? Will the opposition stand up to the President and ask him why the delay in declaring his assets, why there seems to be no movement to get others in his government to declare their assets? What was he going to do about the referendum on key-issues? What about the Ebomaf and ETON loans? What happened to the report of the special commission set up to investigate payments of bonus by a private company to government officials negotiating on behalf of the republic?
At the end of the meeting, several political leaders felt the need to issue statements about what they said. This is what happened when the public is not given direct access to what their leaders are saying or thinking.
Besides the “media blackout”, the forum was successful just for being held. It would be naïve to expect anything substantive. The administration has a responsibility to keep the national debate at a civil level. With the instruments at its disposal – security, financial, media – the administration yields extreme powers and can easily intimidate, instill fear into or simply silence dissents. It can use that power to protect the people and the political process or use it to stifle dissenting voices. The recent conflicts were caused not simply because of poverty, but mostly because of oppression.
The administration could have had one major agenda to fulfill at that meeting: apologize for the names calling, promise to maintain the political discourse free of fear and intimidation and personal attacks when people disagree with its policies and maintain the highest level of transparency. Patriotism is not and must not be defined by how much one loves a leader. The opposition has no obligation to provide to the administration policy suggestions that would make the government’s job easier. That does not make them “enemy of the people/nation.”
The people of Liberia may not necessarily want that the opposition and the administration agree on everything and become too cozy. That’s the definition of one-party-system. The opposition must be strong and free enough to speak on behalf of the voiceless.
President Weah has a big task at hand. When he says that he would not blame anyone for the past and the next day one of his highest spokesperson threatens to take former President Sirleaf to court for economic crimes, he cannot remain silent. When Representative Acarious Gray starts an impeachment process against Associate Justice Kabineh Ja’neh and says the Party has nothing with it, the President who is the leader of the party cannot remain silent unless he is condoning it. Silence breeds suspicion.
There are important areas of dialogue that the opposition and the administration can and must agree upon: a civil, non-divisive political discourse, free of fear, of intimidation or coercion of any sort. As I wrote in a different piece, the job of the opposition is to oppose the government. The opposition looks at what the administration does and provides its own alternative interpretation to its members. The administration and the opposition do not have to agree on anything. The administration has no obligation to talk to or try to please the opposition. It came to power based on an agenda that the people bought into and that is what it needs to implement and talk about.
There is no suggestion here that there shouldn’t be exchanges between the administration and the opposition, to the contrary. As President Weah said in his opening, “We [politicians] all know each other.” But not too long ago, Liberians forgot that they knew one another and started to call each other names. People who disagreed with the presidents were treated as “enemies of the people” and the rest is history. In this new democratic dispensation, the number one interlocutor of the government is the people, not the opposition.
Hopefully, someday, there would be a national conference, with all stakeholders to discuss some crucial issues that are up for a referendum and many others.