Vince Crawley's Africa Blog

Democracy Can Be a Bit Embarrassing; My Outreach Trip to Liberia Cut Short by U.S. Govt Shutdown

Posted in Uncategorized by Vince Crawley on October 11, 2013

By Vince Crawley

We are now 10 days into a shutdown of the U.S. government that has affected a great number of Americans, from those trying to visit national parks and monuments to those unable to apply for new retirement or disability benefits to stricken families of military personnel killed in Afghanistan unable to receive timely death benefits. But Americans aren’t the only ones impacted – the shutdown has deeply affected U.S. relations overseas and diplomatic initiatives large and small.

The road between Monrovia and Roberts International Airport - It's currently the rainy season

The road between Monrovia and Roberts International Airport – It’s currently the rainy season

On the larger side, President Obama had to skip the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) summit this week in Bali. On the smaller side, last week I was leading a modest three-day Africa Center outreach visit to Liberia that had to be canceled as soon as we arrived.

The several Liberian colleagues we briefly met with were very understanding of our government turmoil and extremely appreciative that we had attempted the program, even if it was thwarted. To some extent, it’s a telling example of democracy at both its best and worst… there was no autocratic leader to wave a hand and tell us to continue our mission because abandoning it in mid-course would be foolish or embarrassing. Instead, we were left to explain to our would-be hosts that, because democracy means there sometimes is vehement disagreement, we were being recalled home and would try to reschedule as soon as current events would allow. Just a couple mornings ago I was listening to a radio talk show, and conservative columnist George Will spoke of the U.S. government shutdown as “bruising, untidy, and utterly democratic.” The United States, he explained, has precisely the kind of government envisioned by founding father James Madison. It was Madison who lobbied hard and successfully for the “power of the purse” – government finances – to reside in the Congress to ensure a separation and balance of powers, making it especially difficult by design to get laws passes, ensuring compromise as the president struggles with the Congress for money to fund government programs, resulting in neither being able to assume totalitarian powers.

Still, it was humbling to find myself on the receiving end of this Madisonian dysfunction. We’d been planning the visit for more than half a year. As part of our ongoing outreach programs at ACSS (Africa Center for Strategic Studies), we visit one- to two-dozen African countries a year with a three- or four-person team. We meet with U.S. Embassy officials and with alumni of past ACSS programs, many of whom are current or future leaders within their governments or civil society. Our outreach visits then culminate with a daylong symposium, conducted in partnership with the Embassy and local alumni community, and focusing on wide-ranging candid discussions of security topics of importance to both the host nation and the United States. This directly supports U.S. policy for Africa, which can best be summed up as enabling African security organizations to be as self-sufficient as possible while operating under civilian control and adhering to international principles. For Liberia, we were planning a daylong symposium on Security Sector Reform, to include discussions on sharing best practices from across West Africa, as well as a session on collaboration between national police and the military in border security. Interestingly, border policing has been a major part in the long history of U.S.-Liberia relations; it was in 1912 – 101 years ago – that the United States sent a contingent of five African American U.S. soldiers to Liberia to help reorganize the Liberian Frontier Force, which had the mission of border patrols in an era when the small nation founded by African Americans was surrounded by colonial powers. More recently, after the 2003 conclusion of Liberia’s devastating civil war, the United States played a major role in helping to build a new Armed Forces of Liberia, which numbers 2,000 troops and continues to be mentored by a small number of visiting U.S. soldiers.

Main street in downtown Monrovia

Main street in downtown Monrovia

We’d also scheduled a separate half-day workshop on the strategic role of the media in security sector reform. This would have invited journalists and military officials to sit together and better understand each other’s roles in defending a society, as well as the importance of the military understanding the professional ethnics of journalists and vice versa. The contracted adjunct faculty for the program is a former Liberian journalist now working in the United States. This is to be a pilot program for a module that we hope to work into our programs across Africa. In our travels we often encounter mutual mistrust and misunderstanding between the military, the national police, and journalists, and there aren’t a lot of programs that bring these groups together in a collaborative fashion.

As I said, the program was planned for close to a year and also would involve the launch of an Africa Center Community Chapter in Monrovia, the 33rd such professional organization in Africa.

We departed from Washington, D.C., the afternoon of Monday, Sept. 30. There was obviously a lot of swirling talk of a potential U.S. government shutdown. Our tickets were already purchased using fiscal 2013 funds, and it seemed like our travel schedule would allow two full days of congressional negotiation before our program was actually in jeopardy. Besides, a last minute cancellation would have been difficult to explain if, as many of us expected, our lawmakers achieved a midnight deal that would keep the government of the United States of America functioning.

Didn’t happen. We arrived in Monrovia at sunset the next day, Oct. 1, and learned not only was the government shut down, but there were no genuine quid-pro-quo negotiations taking place to restore it. The home office in D.C., all of whom were being furloughed except for two military officers and our sole enlisted member, left instructions to postpone the Liberia program and return home in an orderly manner to begin our furloughs. It’s not necessarily easy to immediately depart Monrovia, so we rebooked our tickets for a departure the next evening on a direct Delta Airlines flight to New York, a 13-hour trip with a two-hour layover in Accra, Ghana. We found ourselves back in D.C. by lunchtime Thursday, when we signed out on furlough.

During our 22-hour stopover I saw just enough of Monrovia and the people who live there that I’m eager to return and try again. Hopefully, the government will have a funded budget soon enough that we’ll be able to reschedule, and our fascinating, embarrassing Madisonian experiment will draw to a close.

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