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Making the Choice: Only a Small Step in a Democracy

By Theodore T. Hodge

Liberia has been independent longer than any other African country, yet the country is about to enter a truly exciting stage of democratic interplay --- Liberia is about to hold its first meaningful "free and fair" elections in its national history. A great deal of its citizens will have an opportunity to vote for the first time in their lives, going down that wondrous path many societies in the world take for granted: making free choices among genuine competitors in national political races.

To Liberia's credit, it must be emphasized that elections have long taken place in the country. But for the first century and half of national existence, elections were not based on the concept of universal suffrage, making the phrase "free and fair" null and void, and essentially, meaningless. The last major national elections were held under the threat of violence. The man who carried the biggest gun won; he is currently a fugitive, though technically he enjoys a "temporary asylum" in a neighboring country. (The one before that was stolen in broad daylight by a soldier-turned-politician-dictator).

Although it holds on to the dubious title of "Africa's oldest republic", Liberia is about to take baby steps in the democratic arena. What makes this upcoming election such a promising lesson in democracy is the unusual absence of the threat of imminent violence. This election will be held under the watchful eyes of the international community, the UN's largest current peacekeeping force is stationed in Liberia. This constant presence of foreign soldiers, has quelled the possible uprisings of ragtag armies led by warlords, and given the ordinary Liberian hope.

But we don't live a fairy tale where 'everyone will live happily ever after'. We are cautioned not to invest our destiny in Hope at the expense of ignoring practical realities around us. For example, we must ask ourselves some tough questions, such as: Why is Liberia, although the oldest independent country on the continent, still taking baby steps now while other countries on the continent are taking giant steps? Why have we become so demoralized that we now epitomize the term "failed state"? Why is our historical capital, Monrovia, once the pride of Africa, now one of only two capital cities in the world to be without running water and electricity? (I understand the only other capital city to share this dubious distinction with us is Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia). Can we build a strong and viable society this time around, given the obvious fact that we've failed for so long? How do we do so? With whom do our best chances lie as we prepare for elections?

These questions are necessary for the deepest contemplation because elections are not an end, but the means to an end. Yes, we shall all be thrilled once the people of Liberia have gone to the polls and elected their popular choice to head the new government. If Liberians flock to the poll, without the threat of violence, and elect their choice it will be a great victory for democracy. But where do we go from there? A wise people will ponder the long journey before one single step is taken.

For those upon whom the end result is lost, please consider this: Holding a free and fair election is only a single step towards the ultimate destiny of democratization. Along the way, we must also consider building a culture of tolerance. We must build a society in which the rule of law is respected. We must make women's rights and the rights of minority groups a reality. We must create a culture of transparency, accountability and a respect for the division of authority, instead of endowing too much power in the presidency, thereby creating a dictatorship. All of these factors must be thought about as building blocks along the way instead of deluding ourselves into believing that a free election means democracy. After having said this, the next major question is to ask: Which of the present candidates has the ability to lead us down this desired path in building a democratic society; a democratic and pluralistic society with respect for all?

According to news and press reports from Monrovia, discussed among Liberians here, the race is now between two leading candidates, Mr. George Weah and Mrs. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. (It is not my intention to disrespect or disregard the other candidates in the race. But for the sake of this demonstration, let us focus on these two candidates hypothetically). George Weah is a distinguished soccer player who has won at the highest levels of the game. A very handsome and dashing man, as described by many, and an accomplished philanthropist, at least so we are told. It can easily be deduced that many believe that this young man represents Liberia's Hope, our charming prince who could kiss and wake the dying country up… If only we were living a fairytale.

On the other hand is Mrs. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, a woman of vast managerial and political experience, in other words, a seasoned veteran in the business of government and administration. She was once a cabinet member during the Late William Tolbert's administration, which was overthrown by Sergeant S.K. Doe. She barely escaped death at the hands of the dictatorship, but she became Doe's political nemesis, speaking out against his regime at every turn. Beside her high profile on the national scene, where she has won the distinction of "Iron Lady" in Liberian political circles, she is a very well known international figure. She has served as an official of the World Bank and in other international corporate capacities.

This race is shaping up to be the most exciting not only in Liberia's history but it is as exciting as it gets anywhere, for that matter. George Weah is a man versus Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, a woman; this is the ultimate clash of the species: man versus woman. This may not sound that spectacular, but how many times do you ever have such a match-up anywhere these days? Women are usually sidelined to less important races and positions; they are usually relegated to positions of tokenism. Just having a female candidate at this stage in the game makes it exciting, one must admit. But Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf is not just a token, she is the real deal, many call her the nation's conscience.

While Mr. George Weah, at 38 is barely reaching the peak of his life, Mrs. Sirleaf is described by many as 'reaching her twilight years', though she shows no signs of decline and is unwilling to be relegated to obscurity; no wonder they call her the "Iron Lady". According to many observers, she still has a lot of gumption; this fighting spirit and vast experience, combined with that motherly nurture, may just be what Liberia needs now.

George Weah makes us all proud to be Liberians. He retired with distinction in the halls of soccer and is recognized the world over as a distinguished Liberian. But in the arena of politics, he is clearly a novice. He has never run an enterprise successfully and has never demonstrated leadership anywhere but on a soccer pitch. Liberians need to wake up and smell reality. Mr. Weah is running a campaign based on his physical traits: He is tall, strong and dashing and he calls himself "noble"; his followers call him "king". But is he prepared in anyway to take on this arduous task? Are we not taking too much of a chance by entrusting the fate of our country onto the hands of a novice? Mr. Weah may have the charisma and charming personality along with the fabulous story of rags-to riches. Does that qualify him for the position he seeks? When did being a novice become an advantage?

Liberia, as a nation-state can be likened to the fabled Humpty Dumpty. Liberia has slipped, not fallen. All its pieces are not completely broken and shattered, but it stands badly cracked and bruised. Which one of these two candidates can gingerly heal us? Is it the self-proclaimed noble athlete with great agility, speed and ambition or the nurturing, battle-tested mother with distinguished accolades? The answer should be simple. But in Liberia, nothing is simple; it is seemingly our nature to over-complicate issues.

Liberia has been an independent country since 1847, yet she is learning to take baby steps again after a debilitating paralysis. To whom would you entrust Liberia's recovery, to the accomplished athlete, who brings no experience to this venue, or to the caring, sensuous, devoted and capable mother, who also happens to be a renowned and tested technocrat?

The Liberian society has been a paternalistic, chauvinistic society operating at half its natural capacity; its government has operated almost as an exclusive male-club, without its female population. Although women make up about half the population and have gained as much formal education as men, there has never been a female president or vice-president. There has been one female chief justice and few token senators and a female cabinet minister here there. To become a truly democratic country, it is time to shift the balance by fully involving our female counterparts - our better halves. It is an idea whose time has come.

Liberia has another great opportunity to become another "first" in Africa, to elect the first female president. With a candidate as intellectually endowed as Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, a woman who has been in the trenches and has proven resilient, Liberia may just have the best opportunity to make history again. This time it will be in the name of democracy. It is a decision that should make the Liberian nation proud and win us international respect among the community of nations. It is time for the men of Liberia to give our women a chance after blundering for so long, dragging us from conflict to conflict. It is never too late to begin all over again. Is Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf Liberia's best choice or is it George Weah? Either way it goes, making this choice is a small step. Much work lies ahead.