All over the world, politicians seeking office make promises. This is presumably done with the tacit conviction that such promises will bring about improvement in the current status quo and alter voters’ beliefs about the policies the politician will implement, if elected as well as the capabilities of the politician. However, as we have seen elsewhere and in Liberia, promises can only be credible and worthy as long as reputation has a value. Unfortunately, in a country like ours with high illiterate population, staggering poverty level and minimal critical minds to objectively analyse and scrutinise, politicians have learned to exploit these missing links by using tribal affiliations, ‘cash violence’, patrimonial ties and deception to ascend to political power. Political candidates and elected officials have consistently demonstrated the lack of nationalism but apply predatory politics thereby leaving the vulnerable at the mercy of the honourables.
Ideally, elections are important because they allow the electorates freedom to actively participate in selecting their leaders. While this is an important tenant of modern democracy, anecdote evidence in Liberia suggests that politicians who make great promises and big lies, easily get through than those who campaign on honesty and objectivity. Election promises are patterns of representative democracy’s yet also most controversial, elements. On the one hand, politicians’ promises create hope and expectations while on the other hand, election promises are associated with feelings of disappointment and suspicion. Patterns of our electoral politics and voting behavioural call for a shift and new conversation between the politicians and electorates.
The question is can political campaign promises made by politicians during elections be effective tool to gauge politicians? In the Liberian context, I would find it difficult because political leadership is not based on morality and professionalism but exploitation and fake promises- the latter are not obligatory but can always be broken, especially when they are in the interest of the politician to do so. Likewise, promises are only kept when they are strategically necessary or in the interest of the politician. So, it remains a fact that political campaign promises are simply what they are and nothing to gauge political commitments. Former President Charles Taylor coined a good way to put it “my mouth is not pray book”- meaning nobody can indict or hold him for not implementing his promises. Taylor reneged on several promises and skillfully played on the gullibility and vulnerability of Liberians without any consequence. Lies and deceptions are integral part of Liberian body politics and this explains why we have not seen any politician resigning from office based on failure to fulfill what was promised during election.
But this problem is not limited to Liberia as politicians in advanced democracies also do not keep their promises. However, compared to our context, citizens in advanced democracies have a culture congenial to democracy and can therefore easily vote out or impeach any leader who transgresses his her constitutional mandate. Also morality can sometime serve as self-evaluative tool than in our context where opportunists turned politicians are worshipped and celebrated. All these make citizens and experts to generally hold negative views on the extent to which politicians keep their promises. The International Social Survey Programme conducted a survey in 33 democracies in 2006, containing an item that asked respondents whether they agree or disagree with the general statement that “People we elect as MPs try to keep the promises they have made during the election”. Respondents had five substantive answer categories from strongly agree to strongly disagree. In 31 of the 33 countries covered, more respondents disagreed with the statement than agreed with it. Like sales agents, politicians make promises to only sell themselves even if their agenda is not realistic and achievable. After they are elected, it’s when electorates become confronted with twists and turns.
Example, in the late 1990’s, when George H.W. Bush, Sr. was campaigning for presidency, he promised to not raise taxes because his opponent Steve Forbes was campaigning on running a flat tax platform. So, President Bush insisted that he would not raise tax. However, when he got into office, he broke his campaign promise and increased taxes in an effort to reduce the budget deficit and provide needed funding.
Decade later President Barack Obama also promised during his campaign that he would end the Bush era tax cut which gave breaks to some of the richest Americans. But after being voted into office, he temporarily extended the tax cuts in exchange for extending the unemployment benefits and reduction of Social Security taxes. Again, before the 2012 election, he pledged that Americans getting less than $250,000 would not see any form of tax increase. But sixteen days into his presidency, Obama signed into law and increase excise tax on tobacco.
Similarly, in Africa we also see leaders twisting and turning platforms and reneging on their campaign promises. The current Nigerian Muhammadu Buhari made a lot of promises to Nigerians and his party the All Progressive Congress (APC) during his campaign. He promised to change Nigeria which people believed also thought he would transform it as they were tired of PDP. He also promised to reduce fuel, free education, increase minimum wage, place every graduate on a salary for one year after their youth service, to crush Boko Haram in his first three months in office. Although President Buhari has made some gains, he has yet to fulfil a good number of his campaign promises.
The late President of Kenya, Mr Daniel Arap Moi, also made several campaigns promises during his era. Some of the key promises were his administration would not condone drunkenness, tribalism, corruption and smuggling. But when he ascend to power, his major concentration was on neutralizing those he perceived to be against his leadership. He began to centralise and personalise power. He wanted ordinary Kenyans to perceive him as a true nationalist in his own rights. The Kenyan African National Union was formed to bar him from taking over the presidency but could not succeed. Arap Moi later became president and introduced a life style that supported centralisation and personalisation of power. This gradually laid a foundation for dictatorship innumerable human rights violation.
During her campaign in 2005, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf made several promises. Example, she will not run for two terms, she will abolish corruption, cronyism and nepotism. However, when elected, we saw that she did not only negate her promise of one term but appointed cronies and family members in high places while admitting that corruption is ‘ vampire’, which could not be killed.
Although too early to judge, President Weah promised to ‘Change’ Liberia through his pro-poor agenda. However, in order to measure and track his promises, right groups have been asking the President to firstly declare his assets so that other members of his cabinet will follow. Unfortunately until now, we have yet to see his assets declared or a draft pro- poor document. Delay in executing some of his campaign promises could undermine his credibility and could even come back to haunt him, if he has plan for re-election. The phenomenon of my month not being pray book is a common axiom in Liberia and forms part of the psyche of our society. Understanding this psyche and our disposition toward work is critical in driving any reform hence a need to go beyond Western approach in measuring democratic accountability.
In Liberia as in many African countries there is an attitude that we work to live but not live to work. This is often manifested in our love for parties and free gifts rather than what we acquire through honest and hard labor. The high rate of illiteracy makes it difficult for most Liberians to read and understand the Constitution talk less of advocate for their basic human rights. In his book, beyond plunder toward democratic government in Liberia, Sawyer rightfully pointed out that ‘an individual’s possibilities of acquiring the capabilities to fully exercise the prerogatives of citizenship are greatly reduced without literacy and education’. That is why literacy and education must be considered among the fundamental public policy to be pursued in Liberia….’ Indeed, I can not agree more with Liberia’s most outstanding political scientist. So many times state and non- state actors tend to adopt an essentialist approach in trying to address perennial problem without any consideration for the underlining cause. Once people cannot read and comprehend, they remain susceptible to making choices based on myopic judgment.
Sociability is a cardinal virtue of human beings and Liberians conviviality has historically been exploited by even former free slaves and today this hospitable generosity continuous to be abused by politicians. Politicians have mastered the game and often use our love for celebration, be it birthday, marriages, baby naming ceremony, baptisms, promotion, moving into a new house, promotion and even election to influence electorates by making grandiose offers and contributions while their foot soldiers rain praises on their developmental agenda. Obviously, during such festive occasions, people eat and drink and there are no time to critically question aspirant’s agenda and development manifestos. As a result, impression left in the minds of potential electorates influence the choice of votes.
Election promises are one of representative democracy’s most natural, yet also most controversial, elements. On the one hand, politicians’ promises create hope and expectations. On the other hand, election promises are associated with feelings of disappointment and suspicion. One of the best ways to hold politicians to book is to prepare communities, particularly those constituencies where they hail from or attempting to represent, by investing and empowering communities to be able to critically examine potential candidates on the basis of communities developed agenda. With a self-developed community agenda, which contains communities basic needs, any politician who wants to take over the helm of leadership will be meticulously crosses examined not on the basis of ethnicity but demonstrated competence and integrity. Without such initiative, communities voting pattern will be influenced by politicians who respond to their ‘bellies’ and not the collective aspirations of people living within the community. Influential gate keepers as we often see in Liberia will present themselves as important stakeholders and amass wealth at the detriment of others. Presenting communities with what politicians promised after they have already assumed political power will not change the situation and may serve little or no importance in an environment like ours where politicians often say, my mouth is not pray book. The word “election promise” is itself loaded with mistrust. In fact, it is difficult as we have demonstrated above to find any context, or any group of people, where the positive reviews of campaign promises outweigh the negative.
**Jimmy Suah Shilue is the Director of Platform for Dialogue and Peace (P4DP) & Chair CSO Consortium, National Resource Management (NRM) in Liberia.