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Putting a politically convenient spin on nepotism in the Sirleaf administration

By Tewroh-Wehtoe Sungbeh    

Nepotism is a word Liberians often throws around to make a point about the Ellen Johnson Sirleaf administration’s hiring practice that favors her family members.

Sirleaf did not invent the use or practice of nepotism in Liberian politics. In fact, previous Liberian presidents, as is already known engaged in similar act in the past when they too hired their family members to work in government, without bothering to gauge public sentiments as to whether the practice benefited the people or the Liberian nation.

The president believe she did not engage in nepotism when she hired her sons, but added new meaning to this divisive issue when she ignored calls from Liberians to end the practice, and replace it with a merit-based system that values the qualifications of all applicants.

If the former opposition presidential candidate Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who happens to be the current president is on record for criticizing her opponent for engaging in nepotism in the past, is it not fair for others to point fingers at her for doing the same?

What’s the difference between the practice that then-opposition leader Ellen Johnson Sirleaf criticized her opponents for in the past, and the one she’s engaged in today? So, it is  ‘nepotism’ only when Sirleaf criticized her opponents for hiring their family members in government, but ‘democratic pluralism’ today when others point fingers at her for being a hypocrite?

The practice of nepotism in the Sirleaf administration is not only a sensitive issue in a country with record unemployment as high as the sky, but a distraction that invites criticism and resistance when a sitting president hires her children and then downplays those criticisms as frivolous.

However, it is common practice during times of intense debate for opponents and proponents to throw around good and bad arguments to support their points. What is so unique about such exercise is its deliberativeness, which is a healthy part of the democratic process.

And in order to bring credibility to the individuals and the issues, all angles has to be debated exhaustively and in good faith to find common ground. What is problematic about this issue and other issues is when some tends to spin and obfuscate the real issue in order to push an agenda, which does not help the process, the people and nation building; but is tilted towards the individual’s selfish interests in a country where survivable politics are the defining objectives of a person’s existence.

Sirleaf supporter, Rufus D. Neufville, who is also a government official, and a contributor to The Liberian Dialogue argued that nepotism is nepotism only when a president’s relatives are in ‘direct line of succession.’

Neufville did not focus on the literal meaning of the word to have an honest debate that could possibly help to clean up the mess of nepotism, but delves into a forgetable ancient narrative of the “historicity of nepotism,” which he fervently believe is based on the catholic popes and bishops of the Middle Ages whom, according to him were prevented from having children so as not to elevate their nephews at the expense of others.

Another of Neufville’s unrestrained defense of nepotism is the way he shamelessly accelerated its usage in a misleading way by tying the odious policy to ‘democratic pluralism,’ which is not only bogus but also profoundly self-serving.

Because while it is true that democratic pluralism is about diversity and reaching out to others with different backgrounds and interests to co-exist peacefully, it is also about fairness and equality.

The truth is any president who appoints his or her family members to senior positions without putting those individuals through the merit-based civil service process that ordinary citizens have to go through daily, obviously violates the principles of democratic pluralism.

So if the hiring of a family member by a President is not nepotism, what is it? Did Robert and Charles gained unfair advantage and got their jobs through the undue influence of their politically powerful mother, who is President of Liberia? Did the president’s children compete for their respective jobs, and did their mother play a role in the hiring process? Who supervises them, any?

The president’s supporters are fond of arguing that Robert and Charles Sirleaf are qualified to work in their mother’s administration. Most Liberians believe just that. Those Liberians also believe they should also be given a chance to compete for jobs in their own country, and that presidential children shouldn’t be given preferential treatment.

Time after time Sirleaf has shown insensitivity when this issue and other national issues are brought to her attention. At the end of the day, presidential reticence and arrogance often rules in a society that encourages its political leaders to be unaccountable to the people.

Is it fair to wrestle over semantics while the true meaning of nepotism flares up whenever there is a new leader who wants to continue the sickening tradition; while ordinary Liberians and their children are unemployed and hungry everyday?

Liberians cannot continue to blindly support a sitting president to win favors at the expense of the entire population. Doing so will only repeat the mistakes of the past that created the monumental mess in the first place.

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