GONGLOE BREAKS WITH ELLEN: On Leave Minister Cites Dictatorship, Imperialism

Tiawan S. Gongloe

 Tiawan S. Gongloe, Contributing Writer, Minister of Labor, RL

Source: Front Page Africa

Ladies and gentlemen of the Press, my friends of Cenpid and all Hatai shops and intellectual clubs across the Republic of Liberia, fellow citizens.

On Wednesday, November 3, 2010, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf gave compulsory “administrative leave “to her entire cabinet, with the exception of the Minister of State, Hon. Edward McLain, whom the President designated to chair the cabinet of acting ministers while she was away from Liberia. This decision shocked me and I believe many, if not most , or all of my Cabinet colleagues. It must have been shocking to most of our citizens, partners of Liberia and many persons in the international community concerned about Liberia’s speedy recovery and development. At the time of this presidential decision, I was in Geneva, Switzerland on a delegation headed by the Minister of Justice, with representation from the ministries of Foreign Affairs, Education, Gender and Development, the Law Reform Commission and the Liberia Mission in Geneva to represent Liberia’s human rights record at the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of the human rights record of member countries of the United Nations, which takes place every four years in Geneva. Fortunately, for me and I believe for the Minister of Justice, our assignment in Geneva was over before the Presidential decision to send all cabinet ministers on leave was made. Otherwise, a question about the legality of our continuous representation could have been asked by the UN or other delegates. This could have been embarrassing for our delegation.

PLEADING WITH PREZ: “I am appealing to her publicly, since I am not actively in government at this time, to stop and not continue this pattern. It is not good for our country. Such actions have the appearance of arbitrariness which can only be associated with autocracy, dictatorship and imperial presidency. History has shown that dictatorship comes gradually and in different forms and that even a well-meaning leader can become a dictator without planning to be one.”

Taiwan Gongloe, On-Leave Minister of Labor, Republic of Liberia

I do not question the constitutionality or legality of the President’s decision to send her entire cabinet on compulsory “administrative leave”. Everyone who agrees to serve as a cabinet minister in Liberia should be aware that under Liberian law, those who serve as cabinet ministers in Liberia do so at the will and pleasure of the President . The definitions of will and pleasure are left to the discretion of the President under Liberian law. All of the elements that constitute the will and pleasure are left to be determined by the president under the law. Historically, in Liberia, the exercise of this discretionary power has been largely limited to appointments and dismissals and in a few cases to suspensions and reinstatements of political appointees. The decision to send cabinet ministers on compulsory administrative leaf is, therefore, a new addition to the form and manner in which the presidential discretionary powers of the will and pleasure of the president has been exercised. It is a landmark case in the exercise of presidential discretionary powers. Whether it is a good case that could be used by future presidents to make similar decisions depends upon the facts and circumstances that led to this very serious action of the president. Without knowing the facts and circumstances that led to the president’s decision, I am constrained to presume that, given the enormity and urgency of the tasks of national reconstruction and laying a firm foundation for good governance in this country, following years of civil crisis, the president’s decision to instruct her cabinet ministers to stay away from work must have been based on a very serious national consideration and the public good.

What I am concerned about is the level to which the president’s decision has opened all cabinet ministers to all kinds of speculations. One speculation that I have heard is that the President want to form a new cabinet with only members of the UP.

This would be a strange development for Liberia because even past Liberian governments that have been categorized as bad governments have brought in government competent people who were not from the ruling party to serve the Liberian people.

President Samuel K. Doe, for example, appointed Mr. David Farhat a member of the Liberia Action Party to the position of Minister of Finance and President Charles Taylor appointed Eli Selebi Minister of Finance and Dr. Evelyn Kandakai Minister of Education, amongst others. Therefore, if she were to choose an all UP cabinet she would be making Doe and Taylor appear better in the eyes of political observers and historians. Let those who advocate this narrow-minded political strategy be mindful of this historical reality. Also, by sending all of the cabinet ministers on compulsory administrative leave at the time that there is a general perception that there is a high level of corruption in government, the probability of the public viewing all affected ministers as corrupt officials exists. This for me is painful. On the basis of this public perception, there are debates taking place at street corners, on radio and television stations and newspapers regarding which cabinet minister is likely to stay home permanently or be recalled to service. In those debates the characters of cabinet ministers are being examined, sometimes based on credible information and sometimes, if not most often, based on gossips.

While citizens have the right to constantly examine the characters of their public officials, I am concerned about the power of gossip in information-sharing in Liberia because gossip has left a negative mark on this country. In 1980, the widely spread gossip that a group of political detainees in jail led by Baccus Matthews would be executed on April 14, 1980, contributed to a military take-over of the government that was suspected of planning the execution. I was a senior student at the University of Liberia at the time and remember that the three leaders of the coup were connected to three of the detainees in the following manner: Master sergent Samuel K. Doe, a Krahn to detainee Dr. George Boley, a Krahn,; Staff Sergent Thomas Wehsen, a Sarpo, to detainee Oscar Jaryee Quiah , a Sarpo and Staff Sergent, Thomas Quiwonkpa, a Gio to detainee D. K Wonsehleay, a Gio.

The gossip was that officials of the True Whig Party and top officials of the three branches of government had signed a resolution for the execution of the political detainees on April 14, 1980, the anniversary of the April 14, 1979 demonstration against an increase in the price of rice. Yet from 1980 to present, nobody has found a copy of the resolution that was allegedly signed for the execution of the political detainees.

It is because of the power of gossip in Liberia that I want to speak about myself regarding the speculation that the President took the decision to send her cabinet on compulsory leave because the entire cabinet is corrupt. I want to publicly declare that my only source of earnings as solicitor general and minister has been through authorized earnings from government. I have tried to live by the three parameters that the President identified during the transitional period, following her election, for appointments in government. They are competence, good human rights record and good anti-corruption record. At that time, the president also said that she would not entertain a situation where any member of her government would be doing a private business, while occupying government positions and therefore, those who wanted to do so should rather choose between being full-time businessmen or full-time government officials. Although, the code of conduct to transform this policy into law has not been passed by the legislature, I believe this policy to be correct and have lived by it. Therefore, I have no private business, not even a private law practice and have no share in any law office or any private business at the moment. I believe that owning a private business or having a share in a private business creates the potential for conflict of interest and the lack of full commitment to public service.

Hence, it is inconsistent with the president‘s policy to hold a cabinet level post or be a presidential advisor and at the same time be employed by a private business, or own a private business or have a share in one. Avoiding a conflict of interest is a major step in strengthening government’s integrity.

My friends of Cenpid, I find no other way to do justice to myself , my family, friends, admirers and those who have stood with me over the years, even in difficult times, than to speak publicly in my defense against the evolving public perception generated by the President’s decision to send her cabinet on compulsory leave. If speaking publicly will caused the president to make a decision that I stay permanently on “administrative leave”, so be it. I have been ready for this from the time she called me to serve in her government. All those who know me well are aware of the fact that I have never in my life been deterred by the possibility of losing an opportunity, my liberty or my life from speaking about national issues.

I subscribe to the motto of the University Spokesman, that once powerful magazine of the University of Liberia Students Union that says “Even if bullet to our breast we shall speak the truth.” So even if bullet to my breast I shall speak the truth. I was a member of the editorial team of the Spokesman with then Editor-in –chief, Jimmy Fromayan and have kept its motto as an advocacy tool. At age 22 in 1978, I was among six University of Liberia student leaders who were detained by the government of President Tolbert for opposing the visit of President Jimmy Carter of the United States because the day was declared a holiday just for a planned stop –over visit at the Roberts International Airport. We opposed the action of government because nations treat each others on the basis of reciprocity and there was no record that a holiday had ever been declared in Washington DC for the visit of a Liberian President. In 1984, I was severely beaten by soldiers who invaded the Campus of the University of Liberia on August 22, 1984 and subsequently dismissed as teaching assistant along with Jimmy Fromayan, another teaching assistant at the time, on the orders of President Doe because we were founding members of the Liberia People’s Party (LPP), then headed by Prof. Amos Sawyer, who was in detention for political reasons. On April 25, 2002, I was detained and severely tortured on the orders of President Taylor for speaking out on national issues. Therefore, silence has never been a part of my character.

I want to assure the public that I will always remain the person whom I have always been known to be, standing for what is right and speaking truth to power. I am always guided in my public life by the fact that what I considered to be wrong yesterday are wrong today and I dare not cross the line. I have found nothing in government to change me from the person that I have always been. It is because I have not crossed the line that I have not stopped coming to Cenpid ,since we established it in 1991.

President Sirleaf came to power because some of us went the extra mile in campaigning for her. Many of you saw me here on Carry Street with my bullhorn, read my writings and heard me on the radio campaigning during the 2005 campaign.

We did so because we believed then in her ability to restore this country from a failed state to a normal functioning state and to lay a firm foundation for good governance, speedy national recovery and socioeconomic development. As a campaigner in the 2005 elections, I can safely say that she has , thus far, justified the confidence reposed in her. She did so by putting together a strong team in 2006 and that team has done very well. Today, the president is respected all over the world and has received a lot of honors because the team she put together in 2006 has worked well. Government work is necessarily a team work and a government is only effective when most of its functionaries perform well.

Certainly, the President could not have achieved all that she is currently praised for alone. She and everyone knows this to be the indisputable fact.

In spite of the fact that President Sirleaf has generally done well as head of government, her recent decision to send her entire cabinet on leave is a bit troubling.

Besides the fact that it has cast dark cloud on the reputation of all affected cabinet ministers, it has the potential of slowing down activities at the various ministries , as it has the probability of creating a wait and see attitude on the part of employees of the various ministries and those who interact with the ministries. Given the urgent task of national reconstruction, every minute of government work is very important at this time. If there are ministers that are corrupt or are performing below expectation or in whom the president has lost complete confidence, she should dismiss them out rightly. But to send the entire cabinet on leave slows down government.

The decision to send the entire cabinet on compulsory administrative leave, appears like the strategy used by autocratic and undemocratic leaders to shift blame on their cabinet ministers by dismissing all of them and replacing them in order to gain favor with the public. Therefore, the statement by some supporters of this decision that other presidents have done so is no justification. This government is expected by the Liberian people who elected it to follow only international best practices. Certainly, the decision to send the entire cabinet on compulsory “administrative leave” is not an international best practice.

The people of Liberia, after the death of three hundred thousand people, certainly do not expect their president to follow any bad example of leadership from any source. This is the second time that the president has taken an action against a category of executive appointees. The first time was when the President asked all commissioners of the Liberia Telecommunication Authority to resign, when the only person being accused at the time of impropriety was the chairman of the authority. The commissioners yielded and resigned. This time the president has asked the entire cabinet to go on a compulsory administrative leave. According to the press release from the President’s office, she intends to take similar action against heads of autonomous agencies. This, I believe has sent fear and caused anxiety amongst those categories of political appointees.

I am appealing to her publicly, since I am not actively in government at this time, to stop and not continue this pattern. It is not good for our country. Such actions have the appearance of arbitrariness which can only be associated with autocracy, dictatorship and imperial presidency. History has shown that dictatorship comes gradually and in different forms and that even a well-meaning leader can become a dictator without planning to be one.

I know that there are whispers in governmental circle about the president’s decision, but I do not know how to whisper about my country.

Whispering about the decision of a leader is an indication of fear of the leader. Liberia needs no more leaders that create fear. Liberia only needs leaders that inspire respect. For me, I have never feared a leader. Therefore, I have taken the liberty to speak out in order to prevent the granting of further compulsory administrative leave by the president. I have taken this action because I respect her and want her to succeed. I cannot say that I respect her and pretend that all is well when I know that in every corner people are troubled by her decision to send her entire cabinet on compulsory administrative leave.

Whether or not I stay in government, let it be known that my expression of public opinion is not an indication that I am shifting support away from the 2005 UP ticket.

Although I am not a member of the UP,I find the UP ticket still better than other tickets that I have heard of, so far. That is why I was pleased that partisans of the UP decided to maintain the same ticket. However, it is important for the president to take care not to make it difficult for us to face the Liberian people in our effort to campaign for the ticket. History will certainly judge her harsher if the quality of decisions, such as the one taken against the cabinet, leads to mass protest votes against her and place Liberia again into the hands of another draconian leader.

Am I personally offended by the President’s decision? Yes I am. There are many reasons for this. First, in addition to the reservations that I have already expressed, thus far, I campaigned for her on the agenda of good governance, given her education and experience, especially her most recent experience then as Chair of the Good Governance Commission. I expect nothing less than the best decisions from her. The second is more personal. I know that I went the extra mile to get her elected and I know that I have done everything within the limits of my ability to promote what she has publicly proclaim she wants for the Liberian people-a government that does not abuse the public trust. For example, unlike some who in 2005, tickets were bought for to come Liberia and hotel bills paid for to campaign, I came on my own and took care of my own expenses to campaign for candidate Ellen Sirleaf. I did so because she was the best for Liberia, among the candidates.

I was among the first ten appointees of government. When I got to the Ministry of Justice, I was earning four hundred United States Dollars as allowance and a little over hundred United States Dollars paid in Liberian dollars as my basic salary. Later my allowance was improved to Nine hundred United States Dollars. About a year later, with the effort of some of my colleagues in government, the President placed me on the tokten for United States three thousand a month for a total period of eighteen months. Although, others like me who came from abroad at the time were automatically placed on tokten or other special arrangements under the government’s program to attract Liberian professionals from abroad. By the time I left the Ministry of Justice, I was earning about United States one thousand six hundred dollars as allowance and less than two hundred United States Dollars as basic salary.

Today, I earn United States two thousand one hundred and change. And for these amounts people come every day for school fees , rents etc. I have publicly stated my salary to disabuse the public of the notion that every minister is making five thousand United States Dollars and above.

Circuit judges make more than this amount. As a lawyer I could have been doing better economically, since 2006.

But I chose to accept public office to make a difference since I have been one of the critics of governments over the years. I have enjoyed it because I have proven that you can enter government and remain the same.

I have corrected in my assignments what I felt were wrong and I have not developed the arrogance of power that make people to sometimes look down on old friends. That is why I am always with my old friends of the Cenpid and other Haitai shops. I am also offended by the fact that the President publicly ordered ministers on compulsory “administrative leave” to park their vehicles. It was humiliating and made all ministers to look like suspects of abuse of public property. Why tell ministers to park their cars while on vacation, when legislators are using their government provided pickups while on vacation or when judges of subordinate courts and justices of the Supreme Court use their government assigned vehicles when their courts are on recess? Yet legislators and judges can easily get loans from banks to purchase their own vehicle because they have security of tenure.

Banks find ministers risky and unreliable customers because they can be appointed in the morning and dismissed in the afternoon. So, if the ministers were on vacation and not dismissed why were they ordered to park their vehicles? One of the tenants of good governance is equal treatment of all senior officials of government.

Let me end by saying that I thank all persons who have visited me and called on me not to worry because I would be called back to service that I am not the least worried about going back.

I am a lawyer who over the years have learned to live by his profession. Everyone in Liberia knows me better as Counsellor Gongloe than minister Gongloe. Besides, I am not a job-seeker and have never been one. Following the election of the president she asked me to serve in her government. At first, I turned down the offer. Later after she had made some offers, I accepted to serve in her government as Solicitor General. The reason I decided to serve as solicitor general was to reform the prosecution and to bring a human rights dimension to prosecution because without it prosecution is persecution. Having dealt with that office as a young lawyer in the late 1980s and during most part of the civil crisis I wanted to improve the situation there.

I am proud that I accomplished my dream at the Ministry of Justice. As acting minister of Justice in 2006, I closed down the underground police holding cell that had been at the Ministry of Justice for decades- a cell from which I once freed journalists Sando Moore, amongst others. For the first time since 1847, I recruited only law school trained lawyers as county attorneys. Following my performance as solicitor general, I was elevated to the position of Minister of Labor. My promise to the Liberian people during my confirmation hearing was that my principal objective of accepting the president’s offer to be Labor Minister was to promote the Liberalization policy in employment through the scrupulous adherence to the Labor Law. Not long after I got to the Ministry of Labor, I issued a regulation, increasing work permit fees from four hundred fifty United States Dollars to one thousand United States dollars. This decision became controversial and those affected carried my complaint to the President and to the House of Representatives. The President supported my decision but the House opposed it. In any case the decision was not changed and all qualified non-Liberian employees are paying one thousand United States dollars as work permit fees.

Today, the Ministry of Labor has not only for the first time in its history raised over two million United States Dollars but has created many jobs occasioned by the departure of non-Liberians who cannot pay the current work permit fee. Just look at the supermarkets in Monrovia, for example.

Unlike before, when cashiers were mostly non-Liberians, almost all of the cashiers today are young Liberians. The Regulation is therefore, satisfying the President’s desire to create jobs for young people.

We have also developed a counterpart program and an internship program linked to the granting of work permits as avenues for our young people to improve their skills and chances of getting job. We have an effectively functioning National Bureau of employment that coordinates all employment programs. I have kept strikes down through the policy of following early warning signs. I have made these achievements at the Ministry of Labor with the support of the strong team that I met at the ministry. If I am not called back I can say that I am happy with the benchmarks that I have already created in government. I accepted to be a minister being fully aware that I was subject to dismissal at anytime without cause. I am prepared to resume my work as a lawyer and an active participant in the civil society today. Therefore, let me say that I am not one of those ministers who some suspect of worrying or begging to stay on.

Some have asked me whether I have called the President to find out whether or not I will go back. My answer is no and the reason is the responsibility to call is hers not mine.

I thank you.


2 Responses to GONGLOE BREAKS WITH ELLEN: On Leave Minister Cites Dictatorship, Imperialism

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