"Response to a National Crisis: Social Discipline, Public Order, and Human Rights," by Professor Augustine Konneh, PhD

Prof. Augustine Konneh, PhD
Director General, Foreign Service Institute
Prof. Augustine Konneh, PhD Director General, Foreign Service Institute
Photo Credit: Public Affairs





The Ebola epidemic that is taken a toll on us is by any measure a national crisis, a national catastrophe that calls for a quick, vigorous, thoughtful, and comprehensive response.  The people of Liberia have been alerted to the danger of the virus and the measures needed to prevent its spread.  Some have heeded the cry for effective cooperation in stemming the virus while others have shrugged off the advise on sanitizing their hands from time to time, avoiding close personal contacts with others, and crowding.  They seem either to deny the presence of the virus or take a fatalistic view of it, by which they hold that it does not matter what one does; for those who are fated to contract it will do so and those that the good Lord wishes to protect will be saved from it.


Many of these people wish to continue living life as they have done before.  Some even explain the epidemic as caused by witch craft while others believe that it is the result of a nefarious experiment gone array.   Whatever the source of the virus, the first and foremost objective is to contain it by stemming its spread. This requires discipline among other things, a lack of which is obviously observed among us.


In fact, the lack of what one may call social discipline is a characteristic feature of Liberian society and one might add modern African society, with the growing exception of North African societies, where a modicum of such discipline is observed, whether at the bus station, post office, the bank, the market place, in the disposal of refuse to keep the street clean.


To be able to respond effectively to the catastrophe we face, we need to show discipline--social discipline.  What then is social discipline?  Social discipline is a characteristic of a society that readily observes rules and regulations that make for the smooth functioning of society.  It is ordered behavior that respects the right of others in public spaces and that readily gives consideration to others in their public interaction.  It is the willingness to cooperate with public authorities, starting from the municipal/counties to the national level. It is the requirement of everybody to act with a public conscience.  Social discipline enables us to anticipate the behavior of others generally, while others are able to anticipate our behavior in return.


Social discipline means appropriate behavior.  It provides the cues to maintain the right behavior in public settings.  Because of the lack of social discipline among us, a high probability of certainty about what to expect from others as well as what others can expect from us in our public interactions.


In societies where people have inculcated social discipline, people will tend to walk on the pavement meant for pedestrian not on the roads or streets meant for motor vehicle so as to avoid accidents, unnecessary casualties, waste of time and money.  In these societies streets are not littered, refuse is properly dispose of, people do not release themselves by the way side.  Dwellings and surroundings tend to be neatly kept; customers  cue at the post office, the bank and at other places of public service such as offices, restaurants, market places, shops and movie theatres no matter how much in a hurry they may be.  They will each take their turn.  People do not spit in public places as this may have the effect of spreading disease.


In the street or at a cook shop or market places they are polite to one another, if they should cross one's path, or bump into someone, they are quick to apologize for the mishap.  There is a great sense of courtesy and decorum.


Where there is social discipline people are inclined to go about their business, refusing to interfere in other people's affairs.  People are also more likely to employ themselves profitably rather than loaf around or loiter even when they may be officially unemployed.  There is always something to occupy them.


All of these patterns of behavior points to social discipline. This comes from a long process of socialization beginning in the home and carried on at school and by other social agencies.


In traditional African societies such socialization begin in the family, is carried by peer groups and so-called "secret societies," whose functions were largely educational and the training for adulthood and good citizenship.  For example, secret societies such as the Poro and Sande found some people in Liberia and other parts of West Africa, would plant prohibition poles at the banks of streams warning against pollution of the running water or against bathing in such streams at high tide to prevent drowning.  The inhabitants of villages and small towns are familiar with these norms and regulations and have tended to comply with them.  Such prohibitions have also been used to protect orchards and vegetable gardens from thieves.  Even in the absence of witnesses people are reluctant to disregard these injunctions by secret societies which have the authority to punish offenders according to their own judicial processes.


This is so because in traditional societies, people live in small communities and it was easy to monitor behavior, making people to follow public rules almost religiously.  There was order and discipline.  The public authorities reinforce this order in regular public rituals and ceremonies. This way people have no difficulty in remembering the cues of public behavior.


In many traditional African societies there were social critics appointed by those secret societies who would come out at night chanting hymns of serious misbehavior without naming anyone but provided a good description of the person or persons intended to discourage the repetition of such misbehavior.  This was an effective way of checking a social misbehavior in those society then.


Today, however, people live in urban settings where the traditional norms no longer hold sway.  People tend to live anonymous life in large urban setting.  They are no longer part of the closely knit extended family or secret societies that tended to influence their behavior both in the public and private spheres.  People today tend to see themselves as individuals and behave without regard for the community as a whole.


Hence, the need for new agencies of socialization beyond what the urban family does. such as schools, boys and girls club, volunteer mentors, the churches and the mosque.  Today, more than ever, These institutions need to devote themselves  to instilling public discipline in the society, particularly the young.  Civic organizations could address adult on the need for and requirements of social discipline.  We realize that such discipline is not achieved in a day.  It took Europe and the United States half a century or more to cultivate their rigorous norms of social discipline.  We have to work on developing such discipline overtime.


Our society can only progress if we show discipline in our social and public interaction and relations.  Social discipline is essential for public order.  What then is public order?  Public order is the existence of peace and tranquility in a country, more precisely in a society.  A society in which its citizens and other nationals are able to live without serious interruptions of violence, hooliganism, despoliation of public property, and in which people are conditioned or are incline to obey the law with regards to required conduct in public places such as video clubs, bars, nightclubs, restaurants, public offices, roads, protected forest or greens, public meetings, airports, seaports, to name a few.  Any conduct that is intended to create mischief or be perceived of causing an uproar or may be seen as public indecency or as incitements to action endangering the public violate the public order.


Public order laws and regulations are far reaching and are intended to provide safety, peace and tranquility to the public. Thus, for example, playing extremely loud music in the street or in other public places or protest demonstration without authorization from the police are all violations of public order.


If practiced, social discipline helps to ensure public order, security, safety and the human and civil rights of all.  At a time of a national crisis such as we have in Liberia today, social discipline can help to ensure public order, secure compliance with the ordinances of the state of emergency and the demands of a national curfew.  Such measures are instituted to save the lives of people.  So, there is no enjoyment in imposing such restrictions.  The restrictions are considered necessary to curb a virulent virus; therefore, so much is being done to alert people to the danger of the virus.  By now, people should be able to see for themselves the effect of the virus.  Why then do they continue to challenge the quarantine  and curfew orders?  It is no doubt not out of ignorance but a lack of social discipline.


It is the duty of the police to ensure public order. The laws and regulations for public order are enforced by them, and so far they have done a marvelous job. Yet in time of emergency such as this, the police cannot be expected to fully provide for public order nationally. Under the proclaimed state of emergency, the President has the right as Commander-in-chief of the Arm Forces of Liberia to call in the military for support in policing the nation, such as the quarantine locations, the national curfew as well as to help in the construction of the isolation facilities for the Ebola patients.  There is nothing unusual about this.  This happens in other countries, even in the United States of America, which we use as our model.


The military has not complained about this deployment.  It deems it a loyal and patriotic duty to serve the nation in times of a crises--particularly in a crisis such as this.  This can be seen in the decision of the United States Government to send three thousand (3000) military personnel to Liberia to help in the construction of isolation facilities and installation of medical equipment as its contribution to the fight to stop the virus from spreading or from increasing to an even more problematic strain.


Thus,  our military welcomes the service men and women of the United States who will join them in building the needed facilities and in establishing a more regimental environment for the treatment of Ebola patients by professional health workers and medical practitioners. In other words, contrary to some opinion out there, this is not an abuse of our military service men and women. They see it is a sacred duty in a war against a national enemy;  hence, it is natural for the military to be summoned to the task.


It is hoped that, as a result of this engagement, the military will consider establishing a school of science and technology as well as a military hospital. It must be realized that the military is one of the most modern institutions of our society. It  needs to be in the vanguard of development without usurping any other institution's authority.


Returning to the issue of how the security services have conducted themselves at the quarantine locations, the curfew and the nation as a whole, there is a need to comment on the relationship between their methods vis-a-vis the human rights and civil liberties of citizens and other nationals.


Acceptable under any government is the need to monitor through policing the conduct or behavior of the citizens and nationals of a society.  The difference between a Democratic and an Authoritarian government is the greater extent of the freedom afforded and enjoyed by the citizens and nationals in the former as opposed to the later.


In democratically governed societies, the theory and practices of democracy recognize the fundamental rights that have become known as Human Rights since 1948, when the declaration of Human Rights was adapted.  Before this there was a recognition of civil liberties informed by the political doctrine of liberalism. Liberalism assumed the existence of civil rights as either arising in the state of nature or after a social contract.


The following are the Human Rights and Civil Liberties recognized as binding. They include the protection given to individuals from arbitrary interference with or the curtailment of life, liberty and equal protection of the law by government or private individuals and groups.  These guarantees are embodied in the constitution and laws of states supplemented by international protection afforded by international conventions such as the Declaration of Human Rights, European Convention on Human Rights, Convention on Genocide and Slavery, to name a few.  The Declaration of Human Rights is intended as a yardstick for measuring the extent to which nations adhere to the standards proposed.  The notion of Human Rights include civil, economic, political, and cultural rights.  Some nations also believe in the right to employment, health protection and leisure.


Civil liberties recognized as protected by states usually include the freedom of assembly, association, speech, the press, property, religion and from arbitrary arrest as well as the rights to a fair trial through the due process of law.  Modern constitutions tend to include these rights as well as the rights of individuals and groups to be free from arbitrary interference by others in society.


Without respect of these rights, it is impossible for people to realize their full potential in the pursuit of a life of happiness.  Democratic theory holds some of these rights to be inalienable. Constitutionalism, the doctrine of political accountability and judicial independence as well as a free press combine to uphold these rights and liberty.  No government that fails to protect these slate of rights can genuinely claim to be democratic.


Yet these rights are not without limits; for to govern successfully, a government must have the authority to set limits to some of these rights.  The problem is the need to find an equilibrium between observing these rights and lawfully exercising authority when and where it is needed.  When people decide to violate the laws, particularly of public order, the government must be able to step in to exercise control. It  has the right to arrest and try offenders with due process. They may be detained if so ordered by the law or courts.


Curious is the attempts by external NGO's operating in Liberia to unduly criticize decisions and actions of our government in making sure that public order is maintained.  These unreasonable criticisms are unacceptable; for they tend to encourage lawlessness and a disrespect for public authority.  We certainly do not need a lecture on the strict observance of Human Rights particularly from representatives from countries which themselves are known to violate the rights of their own citizens and citizens of other countries.  We have no problem with such organization criticizing us fairly but they cannot make it an obsession to find fault with whatever steps we take.  The Government should not allow them to run our criminal justice system.  We must have a free hand in ensuring the control of our society.


In order to achieve success, in this national endeavor, we  require the following: expedition, thoughtfulness, expertise, decisiveness, determination; a statement of objective; a time for implementation of necessary measures; the provision of treatment in isolation facilities by train health workers; financial resources for compensating health workers and for procuring the medical and other supplies; and, just as important, the cooperation and patience of every Liberian in fighting the Ebola virus.


It is important to keep the above tally for the purpose of reviewing and adapting measures to achieve success.  Everyone must show discipline in cooperating with the Government in the effort to stamp out the virus. This requires synergy, a role that is effectively being exercised by the government in consultation with experts both here and from abroad.


"My People" Let us join hands in overcoming this tragedy!