(Internews’ Liberia Media Development Program organized the Community Media Forum, in collaboration with the Liberia Media Initiative.)
By Alpha Daffae Senkpeni
Monrovia – Four United States lawmakers have reminded Liberian legislators about some of the major tenets of representative democracy that would strengthen good governance in the West African nation.
The US Congressional delegation, which includes members of House Democracy Partnership (HDP), engaged members of the House of Representatives of Liberia on Tuesday, October 8.
The US Legislators are in Monrovia to promote responsive and effective government and to strengthen democratic institutions by assisting legislatures in emerging democracies like Liberia.
They are led by Congressman David Price of North Carolina, who is the head of the HDP.
Other members are Congressman Markwayne Mullin of Oklahoma, Congresswoman Barbara Lee of California, Congresswoman Diana DeGette of Colorado, and Congresswoman Alma S. Adams of North Carolina.
Congressman Price told a jam-packed Community Media Forum held at the YMCA in Monrovia hours after holding a closed door engagement with their Liberian counterparts at the Capitol Building that the partnership between the two legislative bodies have lasted for 12 years.
These exchanges have also seen several Liberian lawmakers visiting the United States Congress over the years.
Central to their work is peer-to-peer cooperation to build technical expertise in partner legislatures and enhance accountability, transparency, legislative independence, access to information, and government oversight.
The HDP initiated a legislative partnership with the Legislature of Liberia in July 2006 to deepen bilateral relations and foster collaboration between U.S. and Liberian legislators on issues common to both countries.
But it was the engagement with a hall full of Liberians from diverse walk of life including two Liberian lawmakers that saw the US Congress people recounting their political experiences and how they work to uphold the principles of democracy back home.
Stressing the significance of the legislative politics in the US, Congressman Price told the two Liberian lawmakers attending the forum and the audience that they have a “common commitment” to their constituents, whom he inferred do not hold back their punches when lawmakers slack in their functions.
“We speak for our constituents and when we don’t speak for them they let us know about it and there’s plenty of way that they can let us know,” said Price, who is the representative of North Carolina’s Fourth District.
He was quick to disclose that they also face political differences like Liberia but handle their situation with a bi-partisan approach.
“That is independent of who our president might be and what kind of party is in control,” he said.
Bipartisanship is when two political parties, like in the context of the United States, put their respective party interest aside and find a common ground through compromise to deal with a particular political situation.
In Liberia, there’s a sharp contrast with the legislature due to a multiparty system that sees the president practically amassing unregulated power.
Many Liberian political pundits have argued that the legislature, per its constitutional power, has the clout to checkmate the President’s power but it flops.
“The ultimate rules of our democracy are not the presidents, not senators, not representatives, not elected leaders but the citizens of our country,” said Congresswoman Alma S. Adams of North Carolina.
‘Everyone Has to Be Served’
“I believe we’ve got to pay attention to the least of these – that everyone has to be served … and I believe that we have to be accountable and accessible to every single person who has gone out and taken a vote for us.”
And Congressman Markwyne Mullin of Oklahoma’s second congressional district called on Liberians to be critical when making decision about whom they elect.
“So, if you want a true democracy you got to elect people that come from us, that speak for us and that can represent us,” he urged.
“I hope I encourage someone here today that will do the same thing I did to stand up and say ‘you know what, I’m fed up too; we can do this different and I’m going to represent my value’.”
Meanwhile, Congresswoman Barbara Lee, the first African woman to be elected from North California, told the audience how US-Liberia historic relationship is important for the peoples.
She too outlined the huge responsibility that comes along with representing women and other minority communities.
“Much of what representative democracy means for me is speaking for those who do not have the voice but also making sure that I am held accountable. And so, constituents’ services show that I represent and meet the needs of my constituents,” she said.
‘More Women’ Need In Legislature
For Congresswoman Diana Degette of Colorado who recently joined the HDP and is visiting Liberia for the first, she had to give up lawyering for politics in order to help “right the laws” to help her people.
“I have written laws expanding medical research, health care; I’ve written environmental laws and all the time I’ve still raised two daughters… so, I just want to tell you that it can be done [especially] for the women out there,” she said, while calling for “some more women in your legislature here”.
“I spent my time working with my constituents, listening to my constituents, and working on laws that I know will improve all of their lives.”
“You do need more women in your Legislature,” added Congresswoman Adams, who also echoed the importance of electing more women in the Legislature.
Liberia has just 10 female lawmakers with the Senate accounting for only one after the death of Senator Geraldine Doe- Sheriff. Her seat is now being occupied by a male politician.
With chances becoming increasingly limited for female politicians in the country, many feminists and female politicians have increased calls for an affirmative action law that will allot specific seats for women and minority communities. However, some pundits think this is farfetched.
Lawmakers Exchange Views
Later during the forum, the two lawmakers attending, Representatives Melvin Cole of Bong County and Larry Younquoi of Nimba County interacted with their US counterparts. They asked questions geared toward enlightening their perspectives of representative democracy in the US.
Amongst several questions, Hon. Cole asked Congresswoman Lee about challenges African-American female politicians face during election campaigns.
In response, she said “raising funds to run for elections” is a difficult challenge based on the historical barrels that limit female politicians.
However, she was able to “fight that battle to be able to raise money and organized volunteers.”
She added: “Not everything is about money; it’s about people’s power… I maintain a volunteer base in my constituency and they can work with me on different issues.
“I care about what they care about, I listen to them because I’m working with them every day and I take their ideas back to Washington D.C and then work on laws that will impact their lives.”
Responding to a question from Hon. Younquoi about the success of the partnership between the two nations’ legislative bodies, Congressman Price said “a lot has changed for the good” since the end of the second civil war and the inception of an elected Liberian legislature.
“But we realized how the country’s economy is still a problem and not serving all the people and the legislature has a lot of progress to make,” he said while also hailing the legislature for being “better organized”.
He lauded the regular interactions Liberian lawmakers have with their constituents but he stressed that they need to be more accountable and make sure their constituents are aware of their votes at the Capitol.
“There also needs to be a sense within the Legislature of working very hard…what really matters is how hard you work; how much you stay in touch with your people and how you contribute to the work of legislature,” he said.
Speaking of the US Congress ties with Liberia, Congresswoman Lee added: “We look at what you’ve accomplished, what you want to accomplish and how this partnership can help… whatever it is that we can strengthen your parliament.”