Sunday 14 October 2007

The Iron Ladies of Liberia

Explaining practical democracy

This afternoon, I watch the Why Democracy? BBC Series with the title; “Iron Ladies of Liberia”. Now, one might be tempted to dismiss Liberia as a West African backwater hardly matching up to a Bantustan, but that would be to our great peril – Liberia through that one-hour showcase has a lot to show, to offer and to give in the emancipation of Africa in entirety.

14 years of civil war masterminded by the despotic tyrannical Charles Taylor who presently languishes in detention hardly 70 kilometres from my doorstep is a sign of great progress in a country that has suffered a lot and in dire need of strong progressive leadership lacking in a majority of countries of that continent.

The new revealed in Liberia

Fellow Liberians, the days of the imperial presidency of a domineering chief executive are over, I would talk to the women …

Women, indeed, women because on January 16, 2006, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf was inaugurated as the President of Liberia signalling a change, a hope, a new vision, a new direction and those were her first words as president.

Within weeks she had appointed ladies to the most senior positions in the police, commerce, finance and justice ministries; those ladies had their work cut out most especially the finance minister who eventually obtained a complete write-off of debts owed to the United States.

She reigns with wisdom

President Johnson-Sirleaf carries the authority, the gravitas and respect of not only a political leader but at 68 exudes the wisdom of a good mother and loving grand-mother – attributes that completely lacking in the persona of the Grand-Despot Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe.

She has to make political compromises as she struggles with her conscience – her words – but I noticed that she has an amazing grasp of her brief, she pays good attention to the detail and then crystallises each opportunity with effective direction and decisions made in the quality of the assessments she has made.

I am not aware of when the full video of this episode would be available, but there were examples over the 52 weeks of this documentary where she was able to diffuse tense situations and arrive at useful workable and implementable solutions.

The lady of the people

Rather than seclude herself in the corridors of power, she went out to engage the people and their concerns whilst demanding excellence from her ministers and reports.

She engaged the market women in the discourse that ensured market space was properly allocated and the roads were also free for transport, when the so-called veterans of the wars constituted themselves into a mob, she listened to their concerns but also juxtaposed their demands against the crimes the same veterans had committed against the more docile populace in the villages.

She extracted an undertaking from these men that they would no more cause tension in the country, but her brief is a difficult one; many would enjoyed the spoils of Charles Taylor’s despotic rulership are still about trying to foment trouble and unrest, she has to be on guard and ready to be quite decisive.

Especially when as the host of 3 heads of state last year, part of the Executive Mansion caught fire, arson could not be ruled out and ensured that all of her intimate security detail were screened again before they returned to their posts.

However, one part which epitomises how President Sirleaf-Johnson intends to run things in Liberia was where employees of Firestone National Rubber Company of Liberia had called a strike and the unrest had lead to the death of a few.

Firestorm at Firestone

Rather than pontificate from her Presidential throne, she first went out to see the people, where they lived and asked if their children went to school – the accommodation was appalling and the children did not go to school; armed with this information, she when into a meeting with the management and told them off big-time.

Her words appear below:

Firestone has been here since 1926

There is no reason for the workers in Firestone to live under the conditions they live

We are not going to accept it

We are not going to accept the fact that people live in houses that have no windows

That people live in houses where there is no schooling for their children

Firestone has made enough money in this country

To have treated the Liberian workers in a better way

Our responsibility as the government

Is to make sure that the workers rights are protected

That their benefits are fair

That they are treated properly

And this government is committed to that

Because that is the message we are taking to the workers

She went out to the workers and addressed them that accommodation and living standards would improve but the 30-something percent rise they have demanded may not be achievable. I thought that was pragmatic because the issue was about living conditions and amenities more than just having more pay, the muscle of a conglomerate would better achieve the elevation of standards than each individual trying to create those circumstances.

The lessons to be learnt

However, there are lessons contained in this simple telling-off and these should be the mantra of any government or representative of a developing or emerging economy.

  • Appreciate the facts on the ground before you enter into negotiations
  • Understand your responsibility to your constituency and exercise it judiciously
  • Determine clearly the terms that are non-negotiable and state them clearly, you can then negotiate on the other matters but the resolve and determination must be clear and enforced without resorting to blackmail or appropriation under duress.

These are the non-negotiable terms of governance, government, political leadership and corporate engagement.

  • Employees must be paid a living wage that allows then to live in affordable and decent housing whilst being able to send their children to school.
  • Workers’ rights must be clear, known and protected
  • Workers’ benefits must be fair especially when they contribute to the profitiability of the company they work for
  • The workers must be treated properly, as human-beings, as intelligent beings, humanely and with due consideration and respect.
  • Finally, the company in a community must engage and affect the community positively in amenities, resources and opportunities.

The responsibility of the government

Above all, within the responsibility of the government is the undertaking to be principled, trustworthy, honest and truthful in all their dealings – Utopian as these might sound, a government respected rather than feared because of tyranny and menace would always thrive with the goodwill of the people.

It is also not a socialist charter but economic development with raising the people above the poverty line especially when they are in the employ of a profitable concern or international conglomerate should be a firm commitment in any business dealings.

Again, it is not about looking for solutions which can be sold with a populist intent to grab attention and pecuniary political advantage but it is about connecting to the concerns and aspirations of the people.

If the issues in the Niger Delta were addressed with this kind of smart negotiation, I am sure things would have been a lot different from the despicable security situation we have in that place now.

In Liberia, the ladies are doing one fine job and the male chauvinistic pigs that rlue everywhere else had better start learning a few new tricks and giving some kicks too – to corruption, deadwood mandarins, ineffective administrators and most of all heads of government who condemn their people to unspeakable suffering just to bolster their political ends.

Then there is a lady called Olubanke Yetunde King-Akerele who is now the Foreign Minister of Liberia having once been the Commerce and Industry Minister of Liberia methinks she has a Yoruba heritage with three of those names; Yoruba is spoken in the South-West of Nigeria. A speech she gave at the WTO Public Forum 2007 a few days ago.

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