In a little more than 700 days, Liberians will be facing a year of decision, one that will determine if the country turns the corner from its ugly past or enters a period where an elected president will be turning power over to another one. Not since 1944, more than 70 years ago, when Edwin J. Barclay turned power over to Williams V. S. Tubman, has there been an orderly transition in Liberia from one living elected president to the other. Although the circumstances surrounding Barclay’s “retirement” are murky, yet historians consider it an orderly transition.
After 70 years of a tumultuous history, one of wars, coup, attempted coups, several transitional leaderships, Liberia has a chance to change from its recent ugly past to become a responsible nation that values a democratic and orderly transition. In order for that transition to happen smoothly in 2017, much work lies ahead and the political and social elites in Liberia should be mindful of the pitfalls and minefields along the path. The greatest responsibility in determining a smooth transition rests with the current Liberian leadership, under the mantle of Africa’s first freely elected female president.
President Sirleaf can govern for the next two years as if the country is in a holding pattern, as an aircraft does in bad weather over an airport, or she can aggressively pursue her development agenda, with realistic goals. Governing as a lame duck and biding her time would be disastrous as the social consequences would be unfathomable. The President must govern as if she is running for reelection. Too much is riding on her leadership and we’ve lost too much time to Ebola and political inertia. She must turn around the negative narrative that her administration has failed. The President needs one memorable legacy project or two that will silence her critics and make her relevant in the stark choices for 2017. If the President fails to be fully engaged in development over the next two years and gets distracted by politics as usual, Liberia runs the risk of falling back into conflict. I believe the President can change the narrative and increase her influence in the choices we make in 2017 and beyond.
Liberia is faced with several developmental challenges, including mass poverty and hunger, being exacerbated by a virulent Ebola virus that is undermining the modest socioeconomic gains made over the 9 years of democratic governance. Although the percentage of the population living under the national poverty line (one US dollar at purchasing power parity), has decreased from 63.8 percent in 2007 to 56.3 percent in 2010, with further reductions being made until Ebola hit in March of 2014, Liberia is still one of the poorest countries in Sub Saharan Africa. At 1.25 US dollar per day, the international poverty line, nearly 70 percent of Liberians live in extreme poverty with all of the multi-dimensions in poor health, food insecurity and low educational attainment. 77 percent of those employed toil in vulnerable employment, subsistence agriculture or petty trading. These are people living on the margins of society, working every day to eke out a meager existence and they too have a vested interest in ensuring a smooth transition in 2017.
One aspect of poverty that has the potential to undermine social cohesion is the huge level of income inequality with only 2.4 percent of Liberians in the highest wealth quintile. This means only 80 thousand Liberians, or about 15,000 families are doing reasonably well, while the rest are not doing so well. Obviously two years is not enough time to dramatically reverse income equality, but the choices for 2017 must accompany more robust and aggressive efforts to make some improvements in livelihoods. Failure to do so could result in Liberians voting their fears and not their hopes and aspirations, and demagoguery could overshadow responsible choices, thereby putting an orderly transition into jeopardy.
Liberians cannot treat the 2017 election as a “do or die” proposition, with those in leadership believing that turning over power would indicate the end of their ability to influence what happens in the country, with no access to the desirables of life, while those on the outside wishing to accede to power believing that this is their last and only chance to sit in the citadel of power to reap the rewards. Both mindsets are dangerous and could portend for a mindless struggle for power that may disintegrate into violence and make political coexistence impossible. A mass exodus of technocrats from the current administration out of Liberia could further increase the country’s lack of capacity and make improving livelihoods even more difficult. Therefore, it is clear that coalitions and compromises are required for a successful transition in 2017.
How we accomplish that will be determined by the kinds of efforts we make, including engaging each other and encouraging those with vested interests to influence politicians to abide by simple rules of decency. Losers cannot feel further alienated from the political center, fearing that their livelihoods will be threatened by the other side being victorious. The election must be seen as a win-win scenario for all Liberians. The process to ensure an orderly transition must begin now.
In a few short months, the cacophony of electioneering, with the tastes and allure of power would be too intoxicating for politicians to make reasoned decisions to protect the national interest. This has been the history of Liberia and has resulted in our current state of development. We can change that narrative by working together. I am optimistic that we can accomplish this feat. And so it goes.