— Balancing issues of survival and of the future of a Nation
By William G. Nyanue
For the better part of two decades, several friends of mine and I have been engaged in a conversation about Liberia’s challenges. We often widened the conversation to include the whole continent. Why do we rank so low on the development ladder—infrastructural, educational, economic, technological, etcetera—and our people so poor despite our rich natural endowments and decades of interactions with the developed world, has been the question that we have been grappling with.
During the last four to five decades, several countries, particularly in Asia, made the successful march from dirt-poor-third-world status to the developed or developing country status. Today, the world is celebrating what may be called the China miracle. A third world country a few decades ago, China is today a rising superpower that is giving the West jitters and that has become most of Africa’s destination for investment and development aid.
What makes one nation succeed where so many others are failing is a complex question, but that political leadership plays a critical role cannot be in dispute. And by leadership I do not just mean the guy at the top; I have in mind a team, that collective that conceives policies and plans and directs programs. The Chinese philosopher Confucius taught that people are like the grass and their leaders are like the wind. Whichever direction the wind would blow, he said, there the grass would bend. Translation: as the people’s leaders go, so go the people!
In democracies, the question of political leadership is answered by the people; they determine through their votes who should be their leaders. In today’s Liberia, it is what the youths say on this question that matters most since they constitute more than sixty percent of the electorates. So, it seems to me, a serious conversation about Liberia’s challenges and future requires a civil conversation with Liberia’s youths, thus my reason for writing this piece. I write simply to stimulate a non-partisan conversation with and amongst Liberia’s youths about how we might move our country to a better place.
By virtue of their numbers and our new democratic dispensation, Liberia’s youths practically hold the future of the country in their hands. Where they sit on our ship of state impacts its center of gravity and thus determines whether the sailing would be smooth or turbulent. This is an enormous responsibility, even a burden! Unfortunately, I learned from my interacting with and observing some of our young people during the last more than seven years that it is difficult for many of them to focus on this big picture—that the decisions they make on the issue of political leadership, local and national, do actually impact the future of the country.
One of the major blinders—the one thing that often prevents many from focusing on the big-picture issues—is not educated vs uneducated but rather the high level of poverty in our country. Because so many of our people live in poverty, they are continually occupied with survival issues—money for school fees, food for today, rent for next month, etcetera — leaving little or no time to think deeply about big national issues.
Poverty is not a new phenomenon in Liberia. I, for example, was one of the lucky few who lived on the University of Liberia’s men’s dorm on capitol hill when I was attending the university in the 1970s. At that time, I attended the First Baptist Church of Oldest Congo Town, located on the Congo Town back road. Many Sundays I did not have the 10-cents (20 LD) bus fare to go from the campus to church. I also remember several colleagues who went through the university shacking with friends on the dorm because they had no stable place to live in Monrovia.
But three related things have made poverty a dangerous blinder today for so many. The first is its sheer level; the civil war and the non-strategic management and investment of public resources since the war ended greatly increased the level of poverty in the country. Second, the economy contracted for the same reasons, thus reducing most of the available employment opportunities to government jobs. And third, the number of persons competing for those few government jobs has increased astronomically, making it difficult for many of the young people entering the job market today to get gainful employment.
We, the young people of my time, persevered through our poverty to get an education because we were reasonably sure of a better life after graduation. About thirty days after receiving our engineering degrees, two friends of mine and I, for example, cashed our first salary checks at the then branch of the National Housing and Savings Bank on Bushord Island, located at the UN Drive and Caldwell Road junction. Many of our liberal arts colleagues also quickly got employed. Today, the situation is starkly different.
So, understandably, many of the young people today have been compelled to turn to politics, the one thing that has been shown to give them a fighting chance to survive, get an education and pursue their dreams. However, this outlet, which has now become the surest path to wealth and luxury for a lucky few, requires a political patron—a political officeholder who will “push” the young person through to a government job. That sponsorship often comes with a shackle that literally makes the patron the owner of the young person. Where the patrons are unprincipled, the beneficiary young people are mentored/conditioned to often act against their long-term self-interest as they do their patrons’ biddings. It must be this phenomenon that the Nobel Laurate, Oluwole Soyinka, had in mind when he said, “Only in Africa will thieves be regrouping to loot again and the youths whose future is being stolen will be celebrating it.”
In the seventies, many of the young people who followed Bacchus Matthews’ PAL and Tipoteh’s MOJA, the two main advocates for social and economic justice at the time, did so mainly on ideological grounds; they believed that they were working and sacrificing to change the Liberian society for the better; their leaders had no money to reward them with. They too were poor, but they apparently managed to look beyond their poverty to see the “better place” that their patrons advocated for. Unfortunately, because that effort was aborted, all one can do today is to speculate whether their patrons could have brought them to this “better place.”
So, what is today’s young person to do, particularly those who truly desire to give attention to the big-picture issues—expanding the economy so as to create more employment opportunities, making sure the country’s resources are wisely managed and deployed, improving the quality of education and healthcare, combating public corruption, etcetera? How does a young person act today in a way that attends to his/her legitimate need to survive—get an education, pay rent, put food on the table, support a young family—and at the same time support our collective need for a country that lifts all its people? On the one hand, the former requires the young person to be loyal to a political patron, often with little or no consideration for the requirements of the latter. On the other hand, focusing on the latter often means losing survival support since it would mean being more attentive to issues that disqualify his/her patron for public office, such issues as qualification, competence, capability, etcetera. The situation is made even more difficult because the young person today sees little or no evidence that focusing on the big-picture issues actually brings benefits since many of the “qualified” adults who talked this talk in the most recent past only lined their own pockets when they were given the opportunity to lead. I concede that this is a difficult position to be in but let me share a few points that I suggest every young person consider as he/she thinks about this dilemma:
First, IT IS A FACT that the political patronage route, which we have been on now for quite some time, will only lift a lucky few out of poverty. Any young person who doubts this needs only to look around and will see the number of people who continue to struggle without a job after investing time and energy doing their patrons’ biddings, often including badmouthing their patrons’ competitors on social media. During the last more than seven years, I came to know many fine, smart and capable young people in the country, several blessed with quality university education, who were subsisting on the generosity of friends and family in foreign parts because either they had no patrons or their patrons could not secure for them a government job. Others were in this helpless, dependent state because some insecure political officeholder saw them as potential competitors who needed to be suppressed.
Second, IT IS A FACT that the lucky few who the current dispensation lifts out of poverty become, as it were, islands of prosperity. And islands of prosperity in an ocean of poverty will always be vulnerable to tidal waves of instability. Thus, the political patronage route threatens our long-term security.
Third, IT IS A FACT that moving our country to that better place requires certain minimum qualifications, we deny this FACT at our own peril. Unfortunately, we often limit our definition of these qualifications to holding university degrees. As I use the word here, I have in mind more than just academic credentials, as important as these are; I am also talking about a proven track record of integrity (doing the right thing even when no one is looking), transparency, trustworthiness, fair-mindedness, empathy (putting one’s self in other people’s shoes), hatred of public corruption, and a servant spirit. I am not suggesting perfection, only a serious consideration for things that make for effective, accountable, and responsive leadership.
Fourth, IT IS A FACT that while it is true we do not have many adult leaders in our most recent past who exemplified the aspects of qualification alluded to above, people who possess these qualities do exist in our society; they might “bubble” to the surface if we put premium on these qualities when considering who we might support to be our leaders—local and national.
Lastly, IT IS A FACT that we will continue to linger in this wilderness of despair and wishful thinking until we realize, and act accordingly, that our redemption lies with our getting our most able to lead the effort to bring our country to a better place.
I realize that the issue of qualification for leadership is a difficult, complex one, but one upon which the future of any country rests. The choices we make every time we are confronted with this question impact the future of the country, for better or for worse.
In today’s Liberia, the burden to get this thing right rests more heavily on the youths because of their electoral weight. Their opting to focus on the big-picture issues may require some sacrifice in the form of possible loss of support. But sacrificing to get our country to a better place will be well worth it, provided the choices made are based on demonstrated evidence of real qualification, as discussed earlier, and not just on sentiments.