By Abdoulaye W. Dukulé
President George M. Weah has, in his own word, inherited a “broke” country. The economy has been in free fall for a few months, even before Mr. Weah’s inauguration. For the first time in almost twelve years, the out-going Sirleaf administration had difficulties meeting the payroll. The budgetary shortfall had become a yearly trend.
With the slowdown in foreign investment, the withdrawal of many major companies and the departure of the UN system as well as the uncertainties linked to a new administration coming to power, Mr. Weah was faced with many challenges that included a “messy educational system,” an uncertain post-war reconciliation, a high level of corruption in every sector of government, a lack of basic infrastructure that paralyzes many parts of the country for months and of course youth unemployment and so on.
These are issues facing every leader in the world today. In Europe, China, the USA one could transpose the same problems, with the difference that those countries have structures in place that keep them going. Therefore, although the US national budget is $4 trillion and has a debt of $24 trillion, it can still borrow at will. Same for Côte d’Ivoire next door or France or Germany. With no strong institutions, financial discipline and accountability, Liberia cannot borrow to finance its needs.
With a history of state collapse as recently as twenty years ago, the nation still has problems inspiring confidence. However difficult these hurdles may be, they are not unsurmountable and pale in in comparison to the challenges that past presidents in this generation had to deal with. Those leaders had to overcome issues that could not be resolved overnight. Looking back to the post-Tubman era, every president faced a major existential challenge that determined their place in history. William R. Tolbert (1971-1980), now recognized by many as the most progressive President of Liberia, was trapped between a rock and hard place.
He rose to power when a young generation of Liberians were openly challenging the old political system. While he espoused some of the ideas of the growing dissenting youth, both in and outside of his party, he was so beholding to the old system that became hesitant and almost inept. Many good slogans and a few political steps marked his tenure . In the height of the Cold War, he tried to dance on a thin line and finally lost his balance.
Master Sergeant Samuel Doe’s came on the political scene in the middle of the night in April 1980, with a boom and left amid a fracas in September 1990. He and his companions of the People Redemption Council did not ask anyone if they should take over the nation. They shot their way into the Executive Mansion and would only be removed by death, one after the other. During his third cabinet meeting, Head of State Doe said to his ministers: “I don’t know anything about politics and I am not educated like you. This is your work, you have to guide me.”
He was misguided. What started as a national redemptive movement and a fight against rampant corruption and inequality in 1980, soon turned into a military dictatorship, with heightened corruption, ethno-politics and state violence, especially after the imbroglio of the 1985 elections and the attempted military coup. By the time Mr. Charles Taylor launched his invasion in 1989, the country had given up on “redemption.” Mr. Taylor waged a war against corruption and human rights violation.
In 1997, Liberians and the entire sub-region had reached the conclusion that without Mr. Taylor in the mansion, there would be no peace in Liberia and the sub-region. Being a successful warlord and a peace time President are two very different things. Mr. Taylor could not manage the peace as well as he conducted the war. By the time he left the country to go into exile in 2003, Liberians wanted nothing to do with him.
Although not an elected president, Dr. Amos Sawyer (1991-1994) had a big impact on the peace process. Using the backing of leaders of the sub-region, and with the moral support of the Interfaith Mediation Committee who had drafted the peace accord of 1990, he fought to ensure that no warlord would take power without going through elections. The seeds he planted burgeoned under the following transitional leaders. “We will never again allow the biggest gun to take over this country, you will have to go through elections.”
And that stayed true and the same recipe was used in Accra in 2003 to end the war. Fast forward to 2006. Ms. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf took over a broken country, in total shamble. Just deciding what priority to tackle presented a challenge. Liberia was indebted beyond imagination. The country had been the poster child of instability for so long that its name evoked war and barbarism. The US and the international community came along, paved the way for a recovery.
Slowly, one at the time, institutions were built, homes were reconstructed, and some roads were paved. Refugees and displaced people returned home. But social problems and corruption were brought to the surface as governance evolved. Liberia had “hit rock-bottom” as US Secretary of State Madeline Albright said after visiting Monrovia in the mid-1990s. However, by 2017, the nation was breathing some oxygen, with its head above the ground.
President George M. Weah has inherited the gains and sacrifices of all previous leaders. Mr. Tolbert opened Liberia to another dimension of world politics, adopting truly-non-aligned policies and engaged fully in regional politics. President Doe put an end to an oligarchy that had bled the nation for a century. President Charles Taylor ended a military dictatorship. President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf brought Liberia into the comity of nations, shone its image and put it in leadership position in the international community.
In many areas, President Weah does not have to re-invent the wheel. The theoretical basis to build a new nation on solid foundations is already there to be implemented. Riding on a wave of populism, President Weah takes over a country that has grown past the pains of birth. Liberia has surmounted the most difficult times a nation can face and has reached a cruising altitude. And there comes the first challenge for President Weah: will Liberia continue the same path? Could it go higher and faster or will it crash-land somewhere and crumble again?
The biggest burden that President Weah faces is the expectation gap. What can he deliver and how soon? Will he strengthen or weaken the many integrity institutions created to keep government in check? Will he fight corruption as he promised? Will he have zero tolerance for nepotism and professional discrimination? Will he be able to decipher the messages and avoid the trappings of power which lead to failure? Will he learn from the mistakes of the past? Liberia is at peace, but still fragile.
Compared to other presidents of modern Liberia, another burden of President Weah’s is his popularity. In politics, popularity is like a yo-yo, it goes up and can crash quick. As leader of the youngest generation to ever run this country, Mr. Weah must keep his troops in check and ensure that the peace, democratic process, the budging accountability process not only survive but are strengthened.
His other challenge is to go from opposition mindset to that of governing. Liberia has greatly changed and things that were acceptable twenty years ago can no longer be tolerated. Mr. Weah may be the luckiest of the presidents of this generation. Can he be the most successful? Liberia is now on a highway, economic difficulties notwithstanding. President Weah’s task is to ensure that it doesn’t stray into the bush again.
The rest will come in time, Monrovia was not built in one day. But keeping an army of young enthusiastic followers expecting everything to happen overnight may be the highest mountain to climb.