Reinforcing Negative Behaviors: Common Practice in Liberian Politics


By: Moses D. Sandy
L-R: Sen. Prince Johnson, Min. Lewis G. Brown
Internationally, the designation Prince Yado Johnson (P.Y.J.) is synonymous to terrible human rights records. The name depicts controversy and ruthlessness. In Liberia with the exception of Nimba County where Prince Yado Johnson is adored as a “liberator or freedom fighter”, the initials PYJ also, represent a psychopath, someone, who shows no empathy or, remorse for others.

Mr. Johnson is known for erratic behaviors. He’s is Nimba Senior Senator and a former warlord. He led the dissolved rebel faction, Independent National Patriotic Front of Liberia (INPFL). INPFL was one of several notorious warring groups that destabilized Liberia in the 1990’s.

In the June 2009 final report of the dissolved Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which was established as part of the 2003 peace deal, the Commission recommended Johnson in a list of 50 names of people that should be “specifically barred from holding public offices; elected or appointed for a period of thirty years” for their past roles and association with warring factions.

During the civil war, Senator Johnson was a “stern, often draconian, disciplinarian”, who acted on his impulse. Because of his eruptible temperament, he is reported to have killed scores of innocent Liberians including his own fighters on insubstantial accounts. On September 9, 1990, he was seen sipping a Budweiser in a video tape while his rebel soldiers sliced-off the ears of the late Liberian President Samuel K. Doe, who INPF rebel fighters captured at the headquarters of the erstwhile Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group (ECOMOG) formerly based at the Free Port of Monrovia.

He fled Liberia in 1992 in the wake of the ex-National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) onslaught on Monrovia code named, Operation Octopus to the West African State of Nigeria for asylum. In 2005 he returned home. Upon arrival in the country, he and several prominent and educated sons of Nimba contested the 2005 legislative election as senatorial hopefuls. Despite the ex-general mediocre education, unpredictable personality, and awful human rights records, Nimba citizens to the amazement of Liberians overwhelmingly picked him as their Senior Senator.

The senatorial victory put the former General on the political pedestal irrespective of his leadership inadequacies. Although since his election the Senator is yet to make any significant impact in the Senate, he in 2011 declared his candidacy for the highest office in Liberia, the presidency. When he made the pronouncement, many of his detractors thought he was being delusional; out of touch with reality.

But he remained persistent. In October 2011, he was one of the 16 aspirants that participated in the first round of the presidential election. He ran on the ticket of the National Union for Democratic Progress (NUDP) as standard bearer. Following the election, the people of Nimba again, surprised the world when they in preponderance opted to reward him with their votes. According to the National Elections Commission (NEC), Senator Johnson won approximately 99 percent (108, 495 ballots) of the 171,989 votes cast in Nimba. He came third winning a little over 11 percent of the nationwide presidential ballots. His victory catapulted him to the rank of kingmaker.

Reinforcing Negative Behaviors

Nimba County mass support for the former warlord turned politician in 2005 and 2011 regardless of his ghastly human rights records and political inexperience, equates to what the American behaviorist, who fathered the discipline, Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), B.F. Skinner, called reinforcing negative or maladaptive behaviors. According to Skinner, negative reinforcement is the strengthening of inimical deportments by un-punishing or rewarding wrong doers; culture of impunity. Examples: 1. a student, who may misbehave in order to be sent out of a class he dislikes. 2. A gentleman, who often gives his wife monetary or material rewards whenever she displays tantrums. 3. Someone, who manipulates violence for gaining political relevance, instead of facing prosecution, he or she is elevated to a senior government portfolio either via election or political appointment.

Common Practice

In Liberia, Senator Johnson is not the only politician or individual with dreadful human rights records that remains scot-free or promoted to high offices in government. There are several Liberians with such records that continued to be recycled or elevated in the public sector. The bolstering of negative behaviors is an aged-old problem in Liberia. It dates back as far as the founding era of the country. It is a tradition. During the late President Samuel K. Doe administration and the successive transitional regimes that governed Liberia throughout the 14 years of civil wars, negative reinforcement as a “model” for reconciliation was also, widely utilized. 

Many individuals including the late Isaac Musah and George Dweh, who rained terror on Liberia under the guise of “liberation” instead of standing trials for crimes committed against humanity were promoted to prominent offices in government; they became heroes overnight. In 1997 during the ECOWAS-UN backed special elections, Liberians in majority also, enhanced negative behaviors when they awarded the Liberian presidency to the former NPFL Leader Charles Taylor regardless of the human degradation the nation suffered at the hands of his ragtag soldiers. He won the special election with more than 75 percent of the countrywide presidential votes. 

Currently, the Ellen Johnson Sirleaf administration has also, adopted the same standard for fostering “reconciliation” or silencing opponents or critics of the government. Since coming to power, the administration at the expense of Liberian tax payers has conspicuously exerted efforts in bringing its opponents into submission by recruiting individuals with overt records of pseudo human rights advocacy, political opportunism, dishonesty, incompetence, and ruined human rights records. The recent appointment of Mr. Lewis Brown, a former czar of the dissolved NPFL as Minister of Information, Culture Affairs, and Tourism is a case in point. 

Before July 2011, Mr. Brown selfishly paraded locally and abroad bashing Mrs. Sirleaf and her administration for what he then referred to as the government “failed” socio-economic policies. In one of his famous speeches titled “We Are Too Smart to Stubbornly Repeat the Wrongs of Yester Years,” delivered at a commencement convocation held at the University of Liberia in 2010, Mr. Brown, the self- styled “man of the people” questioned the honesty of the Johnson-Sirleaf government in catering to the destitute in Liberia when he cried out “Majority swim daily in a sea of poverty and hopelessness in a country blessed with plenty-a country where a few sacrificed with fabulous salaries and others are downsized because they come from another party, or from another parts of the country.” 

But disappointingly, President Johnson Sirleaf on January 24, 2012 named Mr. Brown as the Liberian government Chief Spokesman despite his shady public records. Prior to Mr. Brown’s preferment, Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf also, in September 2009 extended similar gesture to one of her former decriers, Mr. Milton Teahjay formerly of the Congress for Democratic Change (CDC) and the United Peoples Party (UPP). She appointed Mr. Teahjay to the position of Superintendent, Sinoe County. Before the appointment, Mr. Teahjay was one of Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf’s notable opponents in Liberia. In 2005, when the NEC declared her winner of the run-off presidential contest, which pitted her against the CDC ex-presidential candidate George Oppong Weah, Mr. Teahjay and the CDC leadership protested and caused political upheaval in Monrovia. 

Mr. Teahjay, who was then political advisor to Mr. Weah, in Liberian parlance pontificated, “Let hair grow in my palm if, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf becomes president.” Despite Mr. Teahjay and the CDC refusal to accept Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf as winner of the presidency, the result of the election remained unchanged. However, Mr. Teahjay was cowed in taking his words back when he accepted a junior post in government from the President. Since then, the Sinoe County Superintendent has joined the Johnson-Sirleaf choir of praise singers.

US based Liberian journalist Nagbe Sloh is also, one of several individuals, who have benefited from the Johnson- Sirleaf regime desperate attempts aimed at maintaining the status quo or bringing so-called critics of the President into the fold. Three years ago, before being enlisted by the administration as one of its praise singers, Mr. Sloh was one of several Liberians in the Americas that gained disrepute for ripping the Liberian Chief Executive apart on the Internet. On July 13, 2009, Mr. Sloh, who now calls himself “friend of the president” in one of his critical write-ups captioned: Fussing over Morlu-Obama Meeting, claimed US President Barrack Obama from the unset of his administration refused to meet with Mrs. Johnson-Sir leaf despite several endeavors because her administration is corrupt. He then, wrote “Rampant corruption is the order of the day in Liberia.” But in today’s Liberia, journalist Sloh is one of the quasi social justice advocates that continue to receive monthly or sporadic compensations from the Liberian government that he once despised for executing undefined duties.

The pace at which negative behaviors are being strengthened in Johnson-Sirleaf’s Liberia is so high, that the former Vice President of Liberia in the slain William Tolbert regime, Bishop Bennie Warner, in a radio interview aired on February 20, 2012 in Monrovia, Liberia, was constrained to remark “This place called Liberia is the only country on this planet that rewards criminals for their participation in the destruction of our land, properties, and the death of 250,000 people in thin air.”

Ramifications

Research showed that rewarding negative behaviors or individuals, who purposely manipulative violence for gaining political relevance through political patronage as seen in today’s Liberia sets a bad precedence; it emboldens maladaptive deportments. The practice undercuts the system of accountability and meritocracy. It promotes mediocrity and the manipulation of violence for socio-economic advancement as acceptable way of life. 

Furthermore, it conveys a wrong message to the younger generation that to succeed in Liberia, all an individual needs is the ability to instigate chaos or cause the loudest noise to be heard. Such standard as adopted by Mrs. Johnson-Sir leaf and her cronies for quieting her opponents is inimical to the peace and stability of the country. It breeds discontentment and solidifies the culture of impunity, which partly laid the basis for the outburst of the 1989 civil war. 

Conclusion

Negative reinforcement is an enemy of progress and accountability. It sets a wrong primacy and encourages bad governance. It dampens the future of the younger generation by fostering malfeasances in the public sector as a way of life, culture. What Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf and her loyalists are doing by recycling individuals, with manifest records of dishonesty and controversies in the public sector is causing more harm to Liberia than good. What Liberia needs now is a political leadership that would hold individuals accountable for their deeds in society than an administration that turns blind eyes to ruined human rights records, corruption, inefficiency, and ineptitude just to win political approbation from so-called critics. 

About the Author: Moses D. Sandy is a US based Liberian Journalist. He resides in the State of Delaware. He is former Editor-in-Chief of the State owned Liberia Broadcasting System (LBS). He holds a graduate degree, Masters in Social Work (MSW) from Temple University located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He currently works for a non-profit organization in Philadelphia as an entry level manager
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