Liberia’s Leadership Challenges: Lessons from Great Leaders
By Tamba D. Aghailas | September 18, 2013
New York – If Liberians must dream of a new nation that is prosperous, united in diversity, and where “everyone gets a fair shot” at success regardless of ethnic background or political affiliation, the government and people of Liberia should ask themselves, “after 15 years of war, how do we rebuild a nation that puts the needs of citizens above party or ethnic affiliation?”
When “Vision 2030” was unveiled in December of 2012 by the current administration of Nobel Laureate Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, I warned then that the new strategy risked setting high hopes, but would be short on the delivery of basic services like clean running water, quality education, healthcare, among other pressing needs.
Today, the current administration seems to be losing the “war on corruption” and the president seemed at times unprepared in dealing with Liberia’s never ending problems: poor performance in government, nepotism, slow pace of development, insecurity, illiteracy, and a host of other ills. Several of these factors can be attributed to the lack of leadership and the unpreparedness of people who currently find themselves in positions on authority, yet have been unable to perform or deliver.
Liberia’s leadership challenges remain central in our nation’s ability to rebuilding and accelerating the kind of change needed to thrive in the 21st century as a nation and as a people.
Let me first began by shedding light on some of the challenges the people of Liberia have faced as a nation over the last century:
- After the nation’s founders declared independence in 1847, for over 130 years, Liberia’s political leadership structure has been without a solid foundation for a sustainable leadership transition process that transcends party lines, ethnicity and generations. From the onset of its foundation, Liberia’s leadership structure had been fraught with personality cults, secrecy and unpreparedness on the part of those who were thrust into positions of power. The framers had noble intentions to model our Democracy after that of the United States, but yet after 166 years of independence, our country remains underdeveloped and its citizens remain poor and illiterate. Even our capital city, Monrovia does not represent a modern city and the rest of the country is almost forgotten.
- Let us fast forward to 1980 – when Master Sergeant Samuel K. Doe seized political power through a bloody coup d’état on April 12th; a coup that had so much potential to change the leadership landscape of our nation. After close to a decade of trials and errors, the government of Samuel Doe had missed another opportunity to alter the leadership direction of a nation still reeling from decades of hurt and discrimination against a segment of its population. This leadership void, coupled with Doe’s dictatorial leadership rule, led the country into an all out civil war planned by Liberia’s very own educated elites. With the right kind of leadership, could we have avoided a war that killed more than a quarter million people and maimed thousands of children and women?
- The recent Presidency of Charles Taylor (1997-2003) was short-lived due to missteps and miscalculations on key strategy decisions by Taylor and his lieutenants. Faced with a leadership crisis, Taylor ruled with an iron fist and forced his critics to either shut-up or go into exile or be killed. Some of his decisions led to a quasi-war with a neighboring country, Sierra Leone, where his rebel partner’s Revolutionary United Front (RUF) of Foday Sankoh (late) maimed thousands of innocent civilians. Would Taylor have been a successful President with the right kind of leadership? Here again, we can learn a lesson or two on pitfalls and challenges of leadership in times of crisis.
Today, Liberia is at another crossroad – in an era of vast financial investments in the nation’s natural resource and agriculture sectors ($16 billon USD investment reported to date), yet untold suffering and poverty remain prevalent amongst the majority of citizens, who neither have the skills nor the opportunities to upgrade their skills for jobs that would match those limited skills.
Liberia leadership void continues to hamper the creation of wealth by its citizens, thus hampering the emergence of a middle class at home. Some of the below stats emphasize how poor and unprepared we are as a nation:
- Infant mortality: 70 deaths for every 1,000 births; for mothers, 770 deaths for 100,000 births.
- Illiteracy rate is high: 40% of people cannot read or write, yet we spend less than 3% of GDP on education (est, 2008; rate 147/173 in the world).
- 64% or more of the population still lives in poverty, yet corruption has been reported almost in every branch and level of government. Liberia recently ranked the second most corrupt country in the world. (Cia.gov/Liberia)
Too often, those who are thrust in the corridors of power in Liberia have not been vetted and/or are ill prepared for the challenges at hand, reason why many Liberian government officials are either afraid to appear incompetent or are not ready for the responsibilities they are assigned.
From Joseph Jenkins Roberts to Samuel K. Doe to Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, our nation continues to face a tremendous challenge in terms of leadership development. Yet, today we have a great opportunity to change the course of Liberia, both as the next generation of leaders, who could be asked by our people to take the helm of State Leadership, thus inheriting the many challenges facing our nation.
To understand the challenges at hand and the opportunities ahead we must learn from leaders who have shown the world and have taught us lessons of great leadership in times of crisis. And from those lessons, we have learned that if we put our people first and exercise a selfless desire in making a difference, we can also change Liberia for the better. We can build our nation that last – for generations to come.
In a recent speech titled, “Crisis Leadership: Lessons for Here and Now,” Harvard Business School historian Nancy Koehn spoke of lessons we can learn about leadership from experiences from Abraham Lincoln and other great leaders. Another great icon – Nelson Mandela’s leadership experience in times of crisis in South Africa teaches us a lesson on effective leadership.
As Ms. Kohen teaches, “Effective leaders are individuals who help us overcome the limitations of our own selfishness and weaknesses and fears and get us to do harder, better, more important things than we can get ourselves to do on our own” – David Foster.
The lessons these leaders teach us span centuries and generations and still remain true today. Examples of these two men (Abraham Lincoln and Nelson Mandela) – from different regions of the world, have a wonderfully similar story: they “helped their respective nations overcome the limits of selfishness and weakness.”
The one leader, Lincoln, caught in the middle of America’s civil war between 1861- 1865, knew his limitations, yet he had a vision of what he wanted to accomplish – to end the civil war and hold the Union together. With a cause and a purpose, he provided the leadership needed at the time and united his country with one purpose. And today the Union of the United States of America remains as strong as ever.
Another Icon, Mandela, prevented the outbreak of an all-out civil war in South Africa despite being jailed for 27 years and his people being subjected to inhuman treatment and segregation. Mandela’s leadership and vision united his nation and set it on a path to reconciliation and prosperity through development programs focused on alleviating poverty, fostering equality, and a free nation for people of all colors.
We could also take a page from our neighbor, The Republic of Ghana. Jerry Rawlings, of course was a military man when he seized power in 1979 (and later in 1981).
But he was a visionary who had had it with the status quo and took action to set his nation on course to compete in the 21st century. His organization “The PNDC (The Provisional National Defense Council) policies reflected a revolutionary government yet pragmatic in its approach. The economic objectives of the PNDC were to halt the economic decay, stabilize the economy and consequently stimulate economic growth. Politically, its goal was to establish structures that would effectively allow the people to express their political will.” Wikipedia.org
Today Ghana is a success story in both Africa and the rest of the world – as a country that has not only invested in its most previous resource (the people); but in infrastructure, government systems to check-mate corruption, and economic policies that champion ordinary Ghanaians.
These men were not immune from fear – fear of setback or failure; fear of what their families would say of them after they left power. Both Mandela and Lincoln, through their “extraordinary commitment to cause” and love for their respective nations and people, held their countries together for the greater good.
Liberia is in need of this kind of leadership today with “extraordinary commitment to cause,” that will put the needs of its citizens above tribe, clan and/or political party.
Liberians from all walks of life should begin earnest discussions around preparing our future leaders through a plan that would ensure a commitment to train, prepare, and vet our leaders before they inherit the mantle of leadership.
The time is now to put in place comprehensive leadership development and training programs. A few ideas will get us all thinking outside of the box. As go forth in these deliberations, we should think big.
- Education: As history teaches us, “a nation that does not educate its citizens is unable to efficiently manage its own affairs.” We should start by investing more in education and improving our education system. We have the power of numbers to compel our government and development partners to do so. Our nation’s greatest resources – it human capital – if harnessed to its fullest potential, can help alleviate poverty in a very short period.
- ECCD – Quality Early Childhood Care and Development is critical to future success. Such an investment will address poor performance every level within our education system as children would be better prepared to meet the challenges of the 21st century.
- Repats Give-back (brain-gain): Initiate a Liberian Professionals volunteer program – for a few weeks a year and Liberian professionals in the Diaspora could return home and give back to their community – for examples, doctors and nurses could work in a hospital; PhD holders could teach in schools; public service professionals could work with community associations;
- Loan repayment assistance: Institute a program that guarantees the reimbursement of student loans for advanced degree holders (Engineers with Masters, PhDs, etc) and/or students in the process of obtaining advanced degrees in key sectors that will spur development. This would enable qualified and skilled Liberians to return home to help in the development process.
We will NOT revert to a military coup d’état any more like Ghana did in the past. But we have the resolve and commitment to educate, train and prepare the future leaders of Liberia – those who have a patriotic duty to improve the living conditions of our fellow Liberians through selfless leadership that engenders development, transparency, and accountability.
Our time is now – the next generation of Liberia’s Leaders; we have the power to make a difference through a selfless and nation-centered leadership.
The author is an advocate, a leader, and a committed development professional. Founder of The Voice of Liberia, he has written extensively on his country’s recent past history. He can be reached via email (firstname.lastname@example.org), Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.