Political Science

Department Spotlight

Versions of this commentary were published in the July 22, 2003, issue of The Seattle Times and the July 18, 2003, issue of The Spokesman-Review.

Culture of Patronage the Real Foe in Liberia

By John C. Yoder, Ph.D.
Professor of Political Studies
Whitworth University

The case for U.S. action in Liberia is compelling. The task is manageable, the Liberian people are pleading for American involvement, and the dangers of continued regional destabilization and misery if the U.S. does not act are real. At a time when the U.S. wants to change its image from that of international cowboy to one of global citizen, Liberia offers a low-risk opportunity. In spite of some warnings, Liberia is not Somalia, Afghanistan, or Iraq. American soldiers will face little risk of being ambushed or denounced. Washington policymakers will not be forced to spin information to conceal their rationale for engagement. Most important, the overall strategy seems obvious both to Americans and Liberians: military stabilization, the removal of Charles Taylor, humanitarian relief, and a quick return to democratic rule.

However, Americans may underestimate the challenge of going to Liberia. Contrary to what most people -- including a majority of Liberians -- believe, establishing order, removing Charles Taylor, offering humanitarian aid, and holding elections will not solve Liberia's deepest problems. Taylor is a symptom, not the cause, of Liberia's malaise. The sources of tragedy in Liberia are multiple and cannot be pinned on an individual tyrant. More treacherous than Charles Taylor is the internal political culture that has long influenced all government policies and actions in Liberia.

Because Liberia's political culture (the habits, expectations, hopes and fears that mold political behavior) is shared by the vast majority of the populace, removing a tyrant will bring only temporary and partial improvement to the country. Just as toppling the Taliban and Saddam Hussein did not guarantee peace and democracy to Afghanistan or Iraq, getting rid of Taylor may not fundamentally improve life in Liberia. In 1980, Liberians executed President William Tolbert, and in 1990 they repeated the exercise with Samuel K. Doe. Both leaders were corrupt and ineffective. Yet the aftermath of both removals was a spiral into more trouble. The relief expected with the end of Taylor's regime could prove equally elusive.

If Liberia is to enter a new era of stability and prosperity, the political habits that have marked the nation for more than 150 years must be recognized, challenged and modified. The predominant reality of Liberian politics is a patronage system that affects every aspect of public life. In Liberia, the "Big Person" at the top controls all rewards and punishments. For individuals, the rewards include social honor, appointments to secure government jobs, and protection against arrest and punishment. For businesses, the rewards are measured in terms of government contracts (signed after an appropriate kickback) and assistance in navigating through opaque and onerous government regulations and penalties. In Liberia, the subordinates (the "little people") are expected to be grateful, loyal and deferential. Even the church and the media are treated as clients whose right to speak is a government-extended privilege. Political criticism from the press or pulpit is regarded as an expression of disrespect, ingratitude and disloyalty. Needless to say, the system is hostile to good governance, economic progress and civil stability.

Many observers have mistakenly blamed Liberia's problems on the venality of the elite. However, because ordinary citizens benefit from and are protected by patronage, they also support the system. They consider their own Big Man or patron a friend, not an exploiter. Thus, the corruption of patronage will not be rooted out or changed by a contingent of U.S. Marines sent to oust Taylor and subdue the warlords. Even "free and fair" elections will not solve Liberia's ills if they only place a new patron in office.

Should the U.S. intervene in Liberia? Yes, absolutely. But Americans must recognize that fixing Liberia cannot be accomplished by a generic, made-in-Washington model for peacekeeping (designed in the Pentagon and giving highest priority to a display of American power and to a quick exit date) or by implementing current ideas about nation building and elections (promoted in the State Department by those who favor concord over confrontation).

U.S. policymakers must carefully consider ways to address the political culture of patronage that has crippled Liberia. Instead of turning only to American military experts, planners should assemble a team of Liberian specialists -- including scholars, experienced diplomats, and some of the many able Liberians living in Africa and America -- to outline a robust and realistic political agenda.

For every Marine dispatched to stop the shooting, the U.S. should send an accountant to stem the fiscal hemorrhaging. For every logistical expert who determines how many Humvees and hamburgers are needed, the U.S. should deploy a political analyst who understands the intricacies of Liberian pork-barrel politics. As a counterpart to the colonel in command of peacekeeping, the U.S. should position a diplomat with the authority to insist on budgetary transparency and freedom for the press.

Unless these steps are taken, Liberia's tragedy will continue.

John Yoder is professor of political studies at Whitworth University and is the author of the forthcoming book, Popular Political Culture, Civil Society and State Crisis in Liberia (The Edwin Mellen Press). Professor Yoder conducted the initial research for the book while teaching as a Fulbright scholar in Liberia at both the University of Liberia and Cuttington University College. He conducted additional research in Liberia under a research grant from the Pew Scholars Program. Professor Yoder has also taught African studies at Daystar University and in summer 2001 he organized a conflict-resolution conference in Kenya. He holds a Ph.D. in African history from Northwestern University.

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