It has been one week since Liberia’s President George Weah delivered his State of the Nation address. In the absence of a comprehensive response from an opposition political party or civil society group, this op-ed is meant to fill that void and provide a response on behalf of millions of Liberians who are voiceless and are hurting.
The response is in no way a rebuttal to the President’s address or a policy prescription to the Coalition for Democratic Change (CDC)-led government pro-poor governance agenda. The op-ed is meant to critique some of the policy prescriptions advanced by the President and contribute to the ongoing dialogue as to how we can move our beloved Liberia forward.
On the eve of Liberia’s 2017 general elections, I penned an op-ed in the FrontPageAfrica newspaper, “The Great Ones are yet to Ascend” in which I laid out the history of Liberia’s past Presidents; underperforming achievers of the last 170 years.
And if I may ask the question that is on the lips of many today:- Will President George Weah rise to the occasion and become a “true great President” or will he repeat the sins of his predecessors?
The role of government
In articulating (reading) his understanding of the constitution of Liberia and the role of government during his first national address since inauguration, President Weah challenged his colleagues (appointed and elected officials) of the role of government and their duty to the people of Liberia.
As the President rhetorically asked his colleagues, “What is expected of us [those], who have been elected by our people to govern them? What is really expected of those of us who have been entrusted with the responsibility to lead them?” He found answers to his questions in chapter two of the Liberian Constitution.
After 15 years of a bloody civil war and 12 years of state-sanctioned mismanagement and pillage under the Unity Party-led government, how do we rebuild a nation that puts the needs of ordinary citizens above political party and ethnicity or tribe? Finding an answer to this question should be the bedrock upon which the new government should base its policy decisions.
In his state of nation address, President Weah also reported on the state of the economy and “revenues collected in calendar year 2017 amounted to 489.1 million US Dollars, which is a 13 percent decline over revenue collected in 2016, which was 565.1 million.” He however acknowledged that being President for only “one week” that he could not “vouch for the accuracy or completeness of this information, in the absence of verification by a full and proper audit conducted by a competent authority.” Granted.
As a democratically elected President, the President Weah has all right and authority to commission a full audit of all revenues collected and government expenditures and to ascertain the veracity of the report submitted by his predecessor. It will be a new beginning for transparency and accountability and it will reassure bilateral and multilateral partners of the CDC-led government resolve to hold officials of government to account.
Every Liberian in this day and age is eager to escape the trappings of poverty and to live in a nation that is prosperous, united in diversity, and where “everyone gets a fair shot” at success regardless of ethnic background or political affiliation. The Liberian People will not expect anything less from the new government.
If we are to truly make inroads with a pro-poor governance agenda, the CDC-led government must proffer both short-term and long term economic development programs that will not only dismantle (without crippling the local economy), the monopoly of Liberia's economy by foreigners, but the GOL pro-poor agenda must also open doors of opportunities for Liberians to participate in their nation’s economy and natural resource wealth.
Back in 2012, I offered some insight on the Unity Party-led government “Vision 2030,” which set high expectations. However, former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and the UP-led government were unable to truly deliver for the Liberian People.
In that piece, I advanced that "Small businesses are at the mercy of big corporations in Liberia [including foreigners’ monopoly on our economy. Small businesses are the engines of growth in many prosperous economies like those of the United States, Europe, Ghana and Senegal, just to name a few." Some of the suggestions made in “Liberia “Vision 2030” sets high hopes for the country. Can it live up to the hype?” are still relevant today.
The CDC-led Government should explore the development of pools of Liberian-owned enterprises through micro-finance initiatives and partnership with Diaspora-based Liberian communities. Many Diaspora-based Liberians are returning home to create businesses, transfer skills, and build local capacity.
Invest in programs that will expand the local economy and create opportunities for joint-ventures, local manufacturing, and jobs creation.
The CDC-led administration must endeavor to expand the local economy by investing in untapped sectors such as agriculture, poultry, livestock, and other value-adding products. For example, the livestock sector has untapped potential and can help Liberians rise out of poverty.
Below is a link to a livestock policy that was drafted by the Ministry of Agriculture through the assistance of a local non-governmental organization, BracLiberia, and has since been passed into Law, – “Liberia National Livestock Policy and Veterinary & Anima Law.”
Justice, reconciliation, & peace
In the President address, he briefly touched on the third pillar of his agenda, “sustaining peace.” His plan to pass new legislations and taking measures to ensure that people are “fully reconciled” is encouraging, but not comprehensive enough. Legislation and processes alone, Mr. President, cannot ensure reconciliation. It will require action and an end to the culture of impunity that permeates Liberian society. Our nation’s “challenges of reform, redress and reconciliation are legacy issues which we have faced” since independence. At an all Liberian Conference held in Washington DC in April of 2015, I served as one of the keynote speakers and I presented on this very theme. The recommendations made at that conference have been set in motion by your election as President of Liberia, thus shocking the status-quo of Liberia’s political class.
We must now go a step further, Mr. President: “End Impunity to reconcile a divided a nation: [the CDC-led government] must bring closure to the civil war chapter for both perpetrators and victims who are [still] seeking justice” and closure.
For genuine reconciliation to take hold, justice must be served for the most heinous crimes committed during the country’s 14 year civil war (1989-2003). This has always been a difficult topic, but Liberia must hold accountable war criminals who committed “heinous crimes” so as not to risk repeating the same mistakes.” Read full article, Reform, Redress and Reconciliation Are Key To Moving Liberia Forward, on “The Voice of Liberia” website
Decentralization, transparency and accountability
The President’s plan to work with the Legislature to decentralize central government is a step in the right direction. The decentralization efforts must however be bold and go beyond schematics.
The CDC-led government must pursue justice against officials of government accused of embezzling public funds and if convicted, trace and recover any/all stolen wealth stashed away in foreign bank accounts and use those returned monies for development programs. Such a bold action will send a clear message to corrupt officials that there is no safe haven on earth to hide their stolen wealth.
The issue of dual citizenship has been on the minds of Liberians now for several decades.
As the President indicated in his address to the nation, “The framers of the 1847 constitution may have had every reason and justification to include these restrictions in that historic document.”
He went further by quoting Liberian’s founding fathers whose “…great object of forming these Colonies [Liberia], being to provide a home for the dispersed and oppressed children of Africa, and to regenerate and enlighten this benighted continent, none but persons of colour shall be admitted to citizenship in this Republic.” The President alluded that Liberia’s formation was meant to provide a refuge for former slaves.
Mr. President, Liberia’s formation was also due in part to the fear by White Americans of the spread of the seed of black people as slaves were being freed in the 1800's. The American Colonization Society was formed and sponsored by the then U.S. government to find an outpost in Africa to return former slaves. The land (Ducor, which was later named Monrovia) initially acquired, was a dumping ground for former slaves.
Notwithstanding, Liberia has always had its indigenous populations (tribes) who inhabited the land long before the arrival of the “settlers,” as the former slaves were called. And the majority of those impacted by the civil war were ordinary indigenous Liberians whose socioeconomic status has been stagnant for more than century.
Since the cessation of hostilities after the civil war (1989-2003), many Liberians who were forced into exile remain in refugee camps around West Africa. The war efforts also forced many into exile in Europe, America and in Asia, not of their own volition. Many have today acquired citizenship in their respective countries of refuge.
Mr. President, dual citizenship should be opened to all these Liberians (and especially those were forced into exile) and want to return home to contribute their quota.
Liberia should also extend dual citizenship to all people of color, with guidelines and laws put in place to safeguard the sovereignty of Liberia.
We should first welcome our black brothers and sisters, especially those of the United States of America and the United Kingdom, who are still to this date, subjected to discrimination in a predominantly Caucasian-controlled society. Citizenship to non-blacks Mr. President should not be rushed. Such a policy may have a net positive impact in the short-term, but could have huge negative ramifications as it pertains to land ownership and the economy. I urge the CDC-led government to commission a study throughout the breadth and depth of Liberia; to understand the unintended consequences of such a law before proceeding with amending our laws.
Reducing waste in government
On the issue of salaries of government officials, the President took a bold step by announcing a 25% cut to his salary and benefits. We must commend President Weah for his goodwill in leading the way in bringing about austerity measures. However, a 25% reduction in the President’s annual base salary of less than $100,000 and benefits is not enough. The reduction in pay must be made across the board for all cabinet-level roles (Ministers, Deputy Ministers, and Boards) of government and for lawmakers.
With an economy that seems to be in free-fall and with inflation on the rise, ordinary Liberians will continue to bear the brunt of the nation’s suffering for the foreseeable future if President Weah’s CDC-led government does not take bold and decisive actions.
These austerity measures must also be inclusive all non-essential expenditures, including non-essential travel and allowances.
In conclusion, Liberians are wary of bold face false promises. They have been bamboozled with one false promise after another for the last 170 years by successive governments. Mr. President, your administration must change course. Your governance must on based concrete reforms and accountability.
With an overwhelming majority that voted for the CDC in the general elections, an entire nation is cheering on the new CDC-led government to succeed. The government must now get to work and take bold and concrete actions that will quickly turn the tide in favor of our people, who are amongst the poorest in the world today, amid immense natural resource wealth.