The presidential debate last Thursday was the first of its kind in our politics. It brought together major candidates to share their views on important national issues. Admirers of politicians and undecided voters were all glued to their radios and televisions to hear the candidates. They included All Liberian Party’s Benoni Urey; Alternative National Congress’ Alexander Cummings; Liberty Party’s Charles Brumskine; and Unity Party’s Joseph N. Boakai, Vice President of Liberia. We may safely say that many people keenly listened to or watched the debate to determine how well the candidates spoke English, how they articulated their various viewpoints on the questions asked, their thoughts on the issues and how assertive they were in their utterances. Others wanted to hear the candidates outlining what they considered their national priorities; while some were more interested in their own candidates attacking other candidates’ character in order to demean them and expose their weaknesses.
All of these are part of the political game.
However, as a poor and backward nation looking for leaders to lift Liberia and move her ahead, our consciousness to hear political candidates in these debates must go beyond the character of utterances and criticisms. Our thoughts should drive us toward knowing the issues and evaluating each candidate as to how well they know these issues and how effectively and wisely they understand and address them. There were four issues that the debate organizers brought to our presidential candidates in search for solutions. They were the Economy; Security and Rule of Law; Peace and Reconciliation; and Anti-Corruption.
On the economy, UP standard bearer Joseph Boakai spoke of the urgent need to build roads across the country in order to open up the economy; and to put into place fiscal discipline to reduce dependency on donors. Alexander Cummings of the ANC advocated cutting financial wastes, including public officials’ huge salaries and per diems, and privatizing infrastructures. Charles Brumskine of LP stressed alleviating poverty, getting Liberians involved in business, replacing subsistence farming with mechanized farming, and reducing salaries of public officials. Benoni Urey of ALP advocated making the Liberian economy agro-based and restoring the Agricultural Cooperative Development Bank (ACDB). Urey promised if elected to reduce his salary by 50%. On security, Urey spoke of establishing the Ministry of National Security to reduce the involvement of the President with security issues. Boakai contended that equality in education be improved, food security ensured and enforcement of rules be highly considered. Brumskine spoke of making the Ministry of Justice independent of interference of the President; while Cummings contended that the high rate of unemployment was responsible for insecurity and therefore youths should be given greater opportunities for employment.
Sexual and Gender-Based Violence (SGBV) was approached as another security issue. Cummings said his administration would employ 30% to 50% females in government to add value to development and enforce laws; while Boakai called for teaching girls to protect themselves and the enforcement of laws. Brumskine suggested that teachers involved in sex with students be jailed; while Urey called for the establishment of a fast-track rape court. The candidates discussed Peace and Reconciliation. Brumskine said there would be no impunity in his administration, and he would begin with the palava hut approach to reconciliation and get the perpetrators later. Cummings said retributive justice would divide the country. He suggested building monuments to honor or memorialize outstanding citizens; and expanding the economy as means of reconciling Liberians. Boakai suggested the South African approach and called for opening the economy that would enable people to build their lives; while Urey called for the pursuit of justice and the prosecution of perpetrators of war crimes.
On anti-corruption, Boakai said laws should be enforced and systems put into place to ensure accountability, expose givers and receivers of corrupt items. Urey said “Bad sores need bad medicine,” and a fast-track court should be established. Brumskine named what he called the 3S mechanism to fight corruption: a system of accountability, shaming the criminals and sanctions. In a blunt reaction, Cummings said there should be a corruption czar to oversee anti-corruption institutions, prosecute corrupt officials and jail them. He, like Urey, spoke of committing his salary to fighting corruption.
These different approaches and reactions now put us listeners and voters under obligation to decide which are realistic. We should determine not only how realistic they are, but how sincere and honest the candidates are. We, therefore, urge Liberians, regardless of whomever they support, to consider holistically the different views of the candidates, which among them is most capable to lift our beloved country and move it forward. We commend the debate organizers, the Deepening Democracy Coalition, for their efficient handling of this first debate, as we look forward to more debates involving all of the serious presidential candidates.