On May 16, 2014, the Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) launched a $500 million dollars fundraising campaign. HKS claimed the funds will “allow HKS to provide a new level of leadership and innovation while bringing meaningful and positive change to the world.” HKS invited its super star, Liberian President, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to showcase its global leadership model. While President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has done many important things for Liberia and Africa for which she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, her two-term record on democratic leadership disqualifies her as an envoy of Kennedy’s values of public service and democracy on the world stage. It is important for HKS not only to train “exceptional public leaders”, HKS must also model on the global stage its values by associating only with leaders committed to strengthening democracy-no matter who they are and even if such a move hurts fundraising efforts.
John F. Kennedy is known worldwide for strengthening democratic institutions, empowering ordinary folks through the Peace Corps and public service, evidenced by President Kennedy’s favorite quote, “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, on the other hand, has demonstrated an extraordinary contempt for democracy by usurping the authority of citizens to vote for local government officials.
The Liberian constitution gives the president vast powers, including the power to appoint all cabinet members and their deputies, heads of all government agencies and public corporations and governors of all political sub-divisions in the entire country.
In 2009, President Sirleaf struck a devastating blow at the very core of the republican form of democracy by seeking new powers to exclude citizens from electing local government officials who control many basic aspects of their lives. President Sirleaf argued and won the authority to appoint all mayors and city councilors, adding to her already vast powers. This act by HKS super star and outstanding fundraiser has rendered the republic impotent by usurping the powers of citizens to vote. It is incomprehensible and unjustifiable for an elected official who sought the vote of Liberian citizens to effectively disenfranchise voters immediately after they voted to make her Africa’s first female president.
This undemocratic act in a republic, not a monarchy, jeopardizes security, justice and access to equal opportunities. For example, in obtaining the power to appoint government officials in nearly all aspects of government, President Sirleaf has worked to establish undue powers in her own hands and in the hands of the elite few, including her sons, friends and family members.
Considering the many top government officials recruited from HKS, including the dismissed Airport Manager and other relatives and friends of the president represented in high-salaried positions within the Sirleaf Administration, one can conclude that the administration has done more to enrich members of the elite, her sons and family members than it has done to improve the quality of life for ordinary Liberians.
The administration set its own standards for who can work in government (including educational requirements that would be unavailable to ordinary Liberians) as well as corresponding salaries and benefits that far exceed those paid to public servants across America. For an impoverished post-conflict country with an annual budget of $583 million, Liberian representatives earn at least $84,000 per year while cabinet ministers and heads of public corporations can take home up to $180,000 excluding benefits such as gas slips, medical benefits, and housing privileges. Compare that to salaries earned in Massachusetts, where the annual budget is $36 billion dollars, lawmakers earn $62,000 yearly. In New Hampshire with a budget of $11 billion dollars, senators and representatives earn $100 yearly. In both cases, lawmakers receive no cars, gas slips, no armed body guards, or other tangible benefits. Liberian citizens live on less than one dollar a day but the elite officials’ excessive and costly travels include first class airline tickets. The Sirleaf administration’s standards are unrealistic, given the revenues generated by Liberia. The high salaries and benefits, in practice, only benefit the Liberian elite and these policies are helping to create an elite ruling class and permanently sowing the seeds of discord and more political instability.
According to Photius.com, Liberia has 85% unemployment. Most citizens lack access to electricity, running water and basic services. In fact, Liberia, a country of 43,000 sq. miles has only one registry of motor vehicle located in the capital city Monrovia, where the 4.5 million citizens must travel up to 300 miles go to get driver’s licenses and register their vehicles. Imagine how Americans would feel if President Obama appointed all governors, including Governor Patrick of Massachusetts, all mayors and directors of public transit such as Massport. Imagine living in a country so centralized that every citizen must travel to one office to get a driver’s license and vehicle registration. In Liberia, citizens must also travel to the centralized post office to mail letters and every citizen must rent mail boxes because the Liberian Postal Service does not deliver to homes. President Sirleaf wields more powers in Liberia than the queen of England who rules over a monarchy, not a republic and who lacks the powers to appoint all mayors, including the mayor of London.
According to the May 16, 2014 Harvard Crimson article, President Johnson Sirleaf was very clear about her primary role. “My first role is to inspire women,” she said. “You must accept the fact that there will be vulnerability in response to (disaffected citizens’) needs… and that’s part of what leadership is all about.” After benefiting from the ballot cast by Liberian citizens, the president immediately began to undermine the voting powers of citizens in a country where bullets, not ballot determined the leaders in the past two decades.
Irving Christo said: “Democracy does not guarantee equality of conditions; it guarantees equality of opportunities.” By concentrating undue powers in her own hands and in the hands of her children, family and friends, systematically widening the gap between filthy rich Liberians and dirt poor citizens, by closing all avenues of opportunities for Liberians without access to American colleges and universities and deliberately eroding democratic institutions through unjustifiable disenfranchisement, President Sirleaf earned for herself a seat at Harvard’s fundraising table. However, I am surprised that the HKS has betrayed the values of President Kennedy by turning a blind eye to President Sirleaf’s actions designed to weaken democracy and snatch ballot powers from citizens who have struggled for two decades to transition from bullets for ballots.
Torli H. Krua is founder of the Universal Human Rights International (UHRI). UHRI promotes democracy and citizens’ initiatives in Africa and refugee rights in the United States of America. Krua, a resident of Brockton, MA is a native of Liberia and pastor of Dorchester-based Ziah Mission Church. Please send comments to: [email protected]