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Liberia’s Democracy is not Young

I hear a lot of people, Liberians included, refer to Liberia’s system of government as “Liberia’s young democracy,” "new democracy," “infant democracy,” or “our young democracy” so to speak. Those who refer to Liberia as “young democracy” have fallen short of mentioning just how young or how old is this so-called young democracy. What they have implied though is that the age of this “baby” democracy began with the election of Mrs. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Such analogy is misleading looking at how far the country has moved through the years in its practice of what we call democracy. To set the records straight, this so-called young democracy must be explained with in the context of what democracy means and what litmus tests are required for its validation. If the Liberian democracy means the election of a female president in Africa, then I am prepared to join others in referring to Liberia as a young democracy. Anything less than that definition is just an unfortunate characterization of what is taking place in Liberia. This is pure baby-sitting for Africa’s first Republic because what we have now is not different from what we had before: multiparty elections, parliamentary government, and multiplicity of news organs, political parties, pressure groups, religious institutions, etc.

Experts have defined or explained democracy in terms of essential procedures governing the election and behavior of government officials. This definition leads them to divide democracy into semi-democracy and full democracy. Semi-democracy, also called electoral democracy succeeds in conducting elections but represses civil liberties. The elections may be relatively free like the 1985, 1997, or 2005 elections in Liberia but the societies are not free. Full democracy on the other hand demands more than free or fair elections. They are largely free of fraud, outside manipulation; general civil liberties are respected including free speech and free press or a press devoid of  manipulations especially through “karto” and other gifts. Some even take it further that real democracy requires much higher standards than free/fair elections, free speech and free press. A true and substantive democracy should require citizens to have equal access to the country’s resources including educational opportunities, health, and clean water regardless of class, ethnicity, or any form of discrimination.

When it comes to “Liberia’s young democracy” you wonder just what kind of democracy they are talking about-partial, full, or substantive. Let’s assume the least form because what we are experiencing now in Liberia is not new or different from what we had before Mrs. sirleaf came to power. Talking about multiparty elections, we had them before: those ones that brought president Doe, Taylor and Sirleaf to powers. In all three elections, oppositions or losing candidates cried foul. Unlike the elections which brought Doe to power, the other two were held without first taking a nation wide census and a proper or accurate voters’ registration. I am not saying that the elections which brought Doe to power were more democratic than the other two but that all three met the requisite standards to put Liberia in a position of being referred to as an electoral democracy or a democratic state.

While the levels at which those three leaders (Doe, Taylor, Sirleaf) dealt/deal with the politics of the day varied, this does not suggest that Liberia was not a democratic nation under those elected leaders who Mrs. Sirleaf succeeded. Others put the date of our democracy far beyond Doe and Tolbert and I think they are right to some extent especially considering Liberia's role in champaioning the cause of indepence for other African countries in the 1960's. Democracy is not without problems or challenges. I am sure we don’t start counting the age of democracy in the United States after 1919 when females were given the right to vote, 1965 for African Americans, or after the civil rights movements made strides in stopping or minimizing the lynching of Blacks.

I know fully well that fellow Liberians and others who think Liberia’s democracy began with the election of Mrs. Sirleaf, do not question the United States as being a model of democracy because of the wide spread elections fraud in Florida and other places during the 2000 presidential elections. Or because of the foul play in the firing of the 8 US attorneys, proponents of “our young democracy” theory do not use the same measurement to argue that America’s democracy just got started. You will agree that not because our past leaders went wrong in some areas, just as the United States leadership does some times, that we begin to propound that the country is no longer a democracy or just emerged as a young democracy after the crisis. That being the case, many countries including the United States of America would have been stripped off their democratic statuses or would be in on/off states majority of the time.

Like many other democracies in the West, Liberia's democracy is not young or new. It is old enough but has only been through a lot of crises.

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