The Next Liberian President Must Make Education A Priority

Source: The Liberian Dialogue

TQ Harris Jr.
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Ellen Johnso-Sirleaf

As information technology and the forces of globalization reshapes the political landscapes of governments and world economies, the role of the president in aligning the domestic agenda with the international environment is becoming even more complex. Therefore, education as one of the essential elements in preparing an individual to meet the critical challenges of this all-important office must be underscored.

Many in our society today, believe that the presidency is a realm of commonsense, and that it requires no formal education. Upon one’s ascendancy to the rein of power, an individual could only depend on others for the smooth functioning of government. Notwithstanding, in this day and time, this proposition is dangerous, incredibly absurd, frightening, and at the height of myopia. I say this because of the complex nature of the office.

With the advent of information technology and the forces of globalization, every major decision-making including budgetary appropriations and expenditures, and policy pronouncement and execution must be carefully planned and weighed against a backdrop of many external factors and forces.

Permit me to cite two case scenarios to support this position.

Case in point: Quite recently, the Internet and other major news outlets were filled with information concerning the International Monetary Fund (IMF) dropping Liberia’s debt burden in the tone of $4.6 billion. According to the news story, Liberia was reaping this benefit, as a result of the efforts of President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and Mr. John S. Morlu, II, Liberia’s auditing general. As the news continued, they and other astute personalities at the Finance Ministry have proven to the IMF and other multilateral organizations that in the midst of the budgetary dilemma, they are determined to tackle the fiscal insanity, fraud, waste, and abuse that have run amok in our country for decades.

Another case in point: The issue of human rights cannot be ignored. An expert speaking at a recent conference stated that information technology is changing the world at a pace that it seems like we now live in a “Digital Democracy.” This is because governments that are committing crimes against humanity and concealing them are now being exposed by reconnaissance satellites. Moreover, with the introduction of broadband technology, the work of watchdog organizations such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Democracy Now, and the United Nations has become less hectic, since these organizations can receive information from remote Internet bloggers instantaneously.

Bloggers are capable of reporting crisis, conducting video-conferencing and web casting, as well as transmitting and receiving humongous documents and images stored in gigabytes. Moreover, cell phones and other mobile devices are now retrofitted with Internet capabilities that enable them to transmit and receive videos and documents from anywhere and at anytime.

What are the lessons? The lessons here are that any government that desires to acquire loans to undertake capital projects nowadays must demonstrate to the international community their ability to tackle fiscal profligacy and the prudent use of its nation’s natural resources, and must respect the human rights of its citizens. Governments that behave to the contrary will stand to face the wrath of multilateral organizations in the form of sanctions, embargoes, and loan denials. Sanctions are not foreign to Liberia, as their imposition during the Charles Taylor’s regime brought absolute paralysis to the development of that country.

Nevertheless, there are opportunists, who would often pretend to promote the president’s agenda or interests, whereas, they have their own political dreams in the pipeline. To be real, it is impossible in this day and time when education is constantly evolving to expect an aspiring presidential candidate to specialize in every discipline. On the other hand, this cannot be used as an alibi for the individual not to have the requisite education, the analytical and critical thinking skills, which equips one to delegate authority and effectively monitor the roles of appointed ministers and government bureaucrats.

A legend that has circulated within the Liberian society for over two decades says that the late President Samuel Kanyon Doe was ill-advised by a renowned economist to raise the wages of soldiers by 100%. According to this legend, the president yielded to the advice without ascertaining whether such policy implementation would have been sustainable, because he (Mr. Doe) was uneducated and inexperienced.

In a rumor-based society such as ours, it would be fruitless to dwell on the veracity or falsehood of a legend. Notwithstanding there are definitely valuable lessons to be learned from it. The presidency is a position that calls for an individual of high intellectual caliber and cognitive flexibility, who is able to diagnose as well as comprehend the synthesis and analysis of complex issues, problems, and challenges which may be of profound significance to the nation.

A president who lacks this level of sophistication and depth of knowledge is extremely gullible, and is usually a victim of some defunct economic theory or demagoguery.

A speaker at a major commencement address once said years ago that our society was tittering on the brink of breeding its own Frankenstein. He was relating to our educational system and the need for government to invest in the improvement of schools and incentives to train and attract qualified instructors, because a multitude of Liberian youths were either socially promoted or graduated with dysfunctional education.

We can say today without a shadow of doubt that his words have become a prophetic implication, as we see individuals vying for the highest office in the land who do not have the least superficial insight on the perspectives of constitutional law, economics, political science, or finance, as the nation is now harvesting the crops of a degenerated educational system. One of the major challenges of the 21st century facing Liberia is illiteracy reduction. According to the latest statistical data, Liberia’s illiteracy rate is 75%, which is alarmingly high!

Another story that circulated during the 2005 presidential election was about a particular football star, who became a leading presidential candidate. The football star was asked whether he could debate then-presidential candidate Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf at the time. As the story goes, he designated the late Gabriel Baccus Matthews as his proxy. This event sparked rumors that the football star’s refusal to participate in a debate was due to incompetence and a lack of education.

Furthermore, there was a prevailing belief that his political ambition did not register well with the university students and ‘educated elites.’ This belief added to the deep-seated apprehension and fear that if he had clenched power, his improprieties would have made him vulnerable, and consequently an easy target for predatory and insidious politicians to exploit his inadequacies. This chain of events would have then reverted Liberia to the dark and ominous days of the military dictatorship.

Nevertheless, debates play paramount roles in the vetting processes of democratic societies, as candidates must prove that they can both “talk the talk, and walk the walk”. Critics of presidential debates say that the media often demonstrates biases in favor of certain candidates. Nonetheless, most electorates feel that it is a good exercise. For one thing, it gives the voters the opportunity to understand an aspiring presidential candidate’s level of tolerance, temperament and judgment, because nobody wants to elect a president who would eventually prove to be an iron-fisted dictator or a megalomaniac.

Next, the responses from the candidates clearly give voters the chance to know who is knowledgeable, enlightened, and has the grasp of the contemporaneous issues. Last, electorates do not want to buy “apples in the bags”. Therefore they regard debates as a way of checking whether candidates for the office possess the mental capacity or ability to articulate a vision, and execute the extraordinary duties and responsibilities that are required of the office.

What most members of the informed public would like to see today is for the Elections Commission of Liberia to craft a new paradigm shift within our political dialogue. Such a paradigm shift should be devoid of character assassination, ethnic discord, exaggeration and sarcasms. Instead, it should set the tone for debates and social discourses that are issue-oriented. The debates should engender the viewpoints of all Liberians including those on the other side of the political spectrum.

For example as the country prepares for another election in 2011, Liberians who are concerned about the direction of our country might want to know from the standpoint of an opened debate the stance of the presidential aspirants on issues like:

• Improving the dysfunctional educational system,

• Overhauling the abnormal legal system,

• Reducing poverty and ensuring an equitable distribution of wealth

• Assisting our farmers in developing cash crops and boosting agricultural yields,

• Combating crimes,

• Improving the health care delivery system,

• Aligning the Liberian economy to be in sync with the dynamics of the global economy

• Reshaping the military to become capable of engaging in civil construction and being responsive to disastrous situations,

• Confronting child prostitution,

• Reconstructing our economic infrastructure,

• Revisiting the eligibility requirements for elective positions,

• Combating corruption,

• Improving our farm to market roads, etc.

The 2011 election will be a litmus test of how well Liberia proceeds through this decade and into the next. Most importantly, it will depend on the participation of all Liberians irrespective of their social class, political indoctrination, ethnic background and religious affiliations, etc. The tasks of restoring our country back to a level of respectability, and projecting her once again among the comity of nations as a beacon of hope in Africa will depend on the courage we summon, and the vision we cast in electing a president with the education, breadth of experience, moral character, and the will and tenacity to lead.
Written by: Paul Jeebah Albert,
North Carolina.


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