EDITORIAL: The Problem With Alex Cummings

It is no surprise that Liberian voters are fascinated by the political newcomer, Alexander Cummings. Almost everything Cummings says makes sense.

To be fair to his opponents, when you examine the substance of his statements, he’s not saying anything much different than the others – they all say they want to reduce waste in government, grow the economy, and improve the place of women in society and politics.

But what makes Cummings’ candidacy alluring is the mixture of an air of sincerity in his statements, the fact that he seems relatively knowledgeable and prepared to discuss issues, and his lack of history in any corruption cases or failed stints in government.

But this should not surprise anyone. For many years now, Cummings has played critical roles in a marketing juggernaut. Coca-Cola essentially sells colored sugar water and convinces people across the world to buy 1.9 million of those drinks every day. Such a feat takes serious marketing savvy, and for someone to rise to the upper echelons of an organization that has marketing so embedded in its DNA, he would also have to embody some of that marketing instinct.

But by now, Liberians should have learned that nicely polished promises and a sparkling image that’s palatable to international partners does not always translate to the outcomes they want.

After all, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf came to power with so many promises, including to electrify Monrovia and its surrounding areas. Almost 12 years later, and even with the Mt. Coffee Hydroelectric Power Plant operational, no more than six percent of Monrovia households have access to electricity from the grid.

And this has not been the president’s only area of failure. Sirleaf’s goal of making corruption public enemy number one has largely been abandoned after she acknowledged failure.

This is a president who had prior experience working in government and had worked in notoriously bureaucratic institutions like the World Bank. If even she could have been mistaken about her ability to push changes in government, how can we expect Cummings, with all his promises, to be able to do so? Liberians have reason to be concerned.

Transitioning from the business world to government is no small feat. An even bigger feat is making that transition to a government like Liberia’s, which lacks institutions that can operate independently of personalities.

Cummings would have to transition into working in an environment where the vast majority of employees lack the capacity to do their jobs to the best of their abilities. Cummings would have to contend with building institutions and ensuring that they can operate autonomously – no small feat.

While the allure of the businessman-turned-politician is certainly understandable, Liberians need only look across the ocean at the United States and its new president’s multiple fumbles with crafting policies to understand that sometimes, what works best in the business world doesn’t always translate easily to government.

His self-sabotaging tendencies aside, U.S. President Donald Trump’s handling of the multiple iterations of his travel ban was a true reflection of the difference between how governments and businesses operate. Unless a company operates in a tight regulatory space, decisions taken generally only have to be approved by the board before being implemented. For Trump, who ran a family-owned company, he failed to realize the need for his decisions to be vetted through various relevant government agencies and lawyers.

Are we sure Cummings is ready to make the transition to government and he would not make such mistakes?

It’s easy for Cummings to keep repeating one of his favorite phrases, “The best predictor of future performance and behavior is past performance and behavior.” That phrase benefits him the most because he is the highest profile candidate with the least amount of history in the Liberian public sphere. There is no known past performance or behavior in this setting. We haven’t seen him operate in this space long enough, so we must take him at his word.

Moreover, we have not seen Cummings thrust into an environment where he has to contend with corruption being thrown at him from all angles, in addition to having access to the types of resources at the disposal of the Liberian presidency.

However, if we are to judge him from decisions he has made within the short time he has been in the spotlight, his actions are a bit concerning.

Cummings pushed Jeremiah Sulunteh as a vice standard bearer on his ticket when he knew, as we all did, of the potential that Sulunteh would be rejected for violating the Code of Conduct. Why not just make a selection that was safe? It is likely because he knew other major candidates in the race would face similar issues and that the courts would not have the confidence to exercise independence to reject these major candidates.

While this is not corruption, it suggests a willingness to go with the flow when others are breaking the law. At a time when Liberians are seeking leaders with integrity, the episode does not reflect well on Cummings.

So, while Liberian voters seem attracted to the allure of a Cummings presidency because of the freshness of his candidacy, it makes total sense when voters say, “He looks like the leader Liberia needs, but he came too late.” What Liberians are saying is, “Let us scrutinize you over a longer period of time, now that we know you have presidential ambitions.”

If Cummings truly loves Liberia and wants to implement his vision for the country, he should stick around even in the likely eventuality that he loses. That will give him time to demonstrate his commitment to the country, while allowing him to pick up some years of experience in operating within this unique environment.

Featured photo by Arrington Ballah

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