When people and nations are faced with difficulties and challenges, there is usually a default option that is chosen based on comfort and plenty of experience, whether that option is a good one or (more often) a bad one. We may term these default options “the old ways,” some of which are revered traditions, some of which are automatic patterns of behavior, and some of which are ways that one is dissatisfied with but does not know other options or have the courage to try them out. While I could give personal examples about this phenomenon from my own life, I would rather examine them from a larger perspective and show how the personal and the political meet.
Today I would like to talk about the often-neglected African nation of Liberia, a nation whose founding elite were African Americans freed from slavery who basically acted like the plantation owners of the antebellum South when they were given their own nation to run. At any rate, Liberia has some “old ways” that include nepotism and a failure to fully profit from natural resources and to channel that wealth to the common people . When Liberian government officials sought to receive encouragement and support from Liberia’s diaspora, what they found instead was a great deal of frustration at how present behavior seems to meet bad old patterns in Liberia’s troubled past.
There are two elements of Liberia’s old ways that are particularly troubling. For one, Liberia’s political history is full of presidents appointing their children (and other family members) to plum positions in state-owned enterprises to enrich their own elite families. In this case, the president’s son has been chosen by his mother to be in charge of a new state oil company, and he is serving “pro bono,” the meaning of that is far different in Africa than it is in the United States, it would seem. The problem here is one of trust–a nation does not appear to trust its leaders when they appoint their family members to good positions because of the (justifiable) concerns of corruption. As natural resources promise the potential of great wealth, it is of the highest concern to make sure that wealth is not concentrated into elite hands, and the appointing of family to run such state-owned businesses promises exactly that corrupt end.
It is a deep problem for a nation like Liberia to ensure that the natural resources it possesses (if it possesses oil in large enough quantities to be worthwhile to exploit) serve to benefit the people at large. To give but one example, for more than a century Liberia was a major source of rubber for Firestone, but Firestone elected to build its tire factories in South Africa instead of Liberia, which meant that the (better) jobs in manufacturing were not held by Liberians, but by others, while Liberians merely performed the physical labor of harvesting the rubber trees, a much less desirable task. A few decades ago, Liberia gave out a bunch of mining concessions, and ended up with a lot of holes in its earth and not a lot to show for it for the people of Liberia. Understandably, the people of Liberia are concerned that this cycle of exploitation of resources for the profit of others will simply continue again.
That is the fundamental problem when one lives by the old ways. There is no trust between most people and their leaders, or even between people and others, because of past wrongs that have not been either forgiven or forgotten. And when actions follow the same patterns over and over again, both the people and the leaders seem stuck in the old ways, unable to move on or find some new and better way of discourse and behavior. For example, instead of complaining about government behavior, it would be more productive for people who are concerned about leaders to make proposals about how the Liberian government could better serve the people through funneling oil wealth into education (to give but one example) rather than shoveling it into the pockets of corrupt elites. Likewise, governments around the world would be well-served to remember the mistrust and suspicion of their people and avoid even the appearance of nepotism and corruption, even if it is not technically illegal. Let us remember that insider trading is not technically illegal for US Congressmen, but that does not make it any less corrupt.
If one wants to get out of the old ways, especially old ways that one wants to reject and overcome, the road is a difficult one. First, one has to learn about new ways of living. But learning about new ways is easy. Practicing them, and getting to the point where the old ways are not a default any longer, is a much more difficult task. If one wants to build good relationships, whether politically or personally, mutual trust is required. Only when that trust is built, and when the confidence is built to leave the old ways behind, can one build a more perfect future.