Liberia Trumped? Unclear U.S. Policy Toward Africa Has Implications on Upcoming Elections


Washington – If US President Donald Trump has a plan for Africa, he and his aides are holding it pretty close to their chest.

Report by Rodney D. Sieh, [email protected]

“The United States has been our longstanding partner throughout history. Each administration determines what its priorities are.

While it is true that any significant cuts in development assistance might affect us; we, as a sovereign nation should become inspired to raise revenue locally to support our own development agenda. We remain grateful to the United States for its continued support”  – President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf

Liberia, Africa’s oldest republic in particular which has been a key beneficiary of US assistance since independence finds itself in a state of uncertainty as it prepares for what many say is the most important elections in its history.

At the end of the civil war, the U.S. pumped millions of dollars in aid toward education, security, construction and disease prevention.

Direct U.S. aid has totalled more than $750 million since the war ended. 

When President Bush came to power in 2001, the US spent $1.4bn a year on humanitarian and development aid in Africa but by 2006, the figure had quadrupled to $5.6bn a year.

Royce: Committed Partner Key for Aid

A 2016 FrontPageAfrica investigative report found that support from the United States to Liberia from the period 2009 to 2017 had shown a decline in US assistance to Liberia by more than 50 percent from $224.02 million in 2009 to $110.89 million commitment in 2017, according to the United States Foreign Aid data, transaction data which represents every individual financial record in an agency’s accounting system that has been processed in the given time period for program work with implementing partners and other administrative expenses.

Aid concerns aside, the most pressing issue heading into elections later this year is how Washington is weighing on inarguably its oldest African ally.

A New York Times report in January offered perhaps the earliest hint at the direction the administration was aiming.

The paper published a four-paged list of Africa related question from President Trump’s transition staff asking among other things: How does US businesses compete with other nations in Africa amid fears that the US is losing out to China.

Concerns were also raised about humanitarian aid and riveting issues regarding corruption and stolen funds intended to aid the poor and needy.

Quite mysteriously, the administration’s early query raised questions about why the US was even involved in aiding Nigeria’s battle against Boko Haram insurgents.

For Liberia, the further away America drifts from these burning issues with enormous implications for the continent, the more pressing worries are likely to emerge.

Domestically, eyebrows were raised in the aftermath of the elections over Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf’s initial reaction to the election of Mr. Trump.

Sirleaf had enjoyed immense with the past two administrations – George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

Sirleaf, in an interview with the BBC said she was extremely saddened by what she called a missed opportunity on the part of the people of the United States to join smaller democracies in ending the marginalisation of women.”

Many of the President’s critics pounced on the comment as a rejection of the Trump presidency. But Sirleaf later explained: “I said the American people lost the opportunity to do what smaller democracies have done to reverse the marginalization of women.”

By smaller democracies, she said, she was making reference to Liberia for electing her as the first female leader and that of Africa to refute the claim of leadership being only effective when men are in charge.

By implication, the President said she meant that had the world’s super power elected a woman as its president, it would have carried a strong, positive message to the rest of the world that could have helped greatly to reverse the marginalization of women in patriarchal societies, that confine women to the kitchen.”

The early silence of the Trump administration and its Africa policy is giving rise to a lot of speculations and insinuation regarding the direction of the administration.

Rep. Ed Royce(R-Calif) and a former Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, who has been a strong ally for Liberia on the Hill, acknowledges that foreign aid to Liberia is likely under review but Liberia could be the master of its own fate, particularly in the area of corruption by whoever succeeds Sirleaf in the upcoming elections.

“With all U.S. Foreign Assistance under review, the future of U.S.-Liberia relations will be determined in large part by Liberia itself, Rep. Royce told FrontPageAfrica. 

“Aid is most effective when and where you have a committed partner. 

It is my hope that elections in Liberia will be free, fair and transparent, and that the next Liberian administration will work aggressively to combat corruption, strengthen democratic institutions and be responsive to the needs of the Liberian people.”

‘We should be Inspired, EJS Says

Sirleaf when contacted for this report acknowledged that the expected cuts under the Trump presidency should serve as a motivation for Liberia to begin learning to stand on its own.

“The United States has been our longstanding partner throughout history.

Each administration determines what its priorities are.

While it is true that any significant cuts in development assistance might affect us; we, as a sovereign nation should become inspired to raise revenue locally to support our own development agenda. We remain grateful to the United States for its continued support.”  

Gilpin Outlines Policy Shift Predicament

Dr. Raymond Gilpin, Dean of Academic Affairs at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, a U.S. Department of Defense institution established and funded by Congress for the study of security issues relating to Africa believes it is reasonable to anticipate a policy the Trump administration but in the same vein as Rep. Royce points out, the fate lies in the leadership. 

“It is incumbent on all African countries to start taking concrete steps to pre-empt any potentially adverse effects of any policy shift by seriously addressing the challenges, and formulating strategies to capitalize upon existing opportunities to the benefit of all citizens. 

Dr. Gilpin adds: “Policies developed outside Africa must complement, not supplement, good African policy. 

Any shifts in US policy must be viewed in this vein.  African governments and Africa’s citizens must work to leverage opportunities.  The continent must not always be in receive mode.”

For Liberia, which has been in receiving mode from the US for years, it may not be that simple.

Riva Levinson, founder, President and CEO of KRL International LLC which has been lobbying for the Sirleaf administration on The Hill as the country’s key advocate amongst US movers and shakers, hints of how the Trump administration is leaning could be found in the recently-released budget, the first for the administration.

Policy Shift a Given, Levinson Says

Says Levinson: “Policies always change with Administrations. It is a given, and US policy toward Liberia will be no exception.

Our best insight into President Donald Trump’s priorities can be found in his 2018 Fiscal Year budget, which proposes substantial cuts to foreign assistance, and the elimination of agencies like the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) and the US Trade and Development Agency.”

The budget is likely to undercut gains cited by Rep. Royce.

“I’ve long fought to advance democratic and economic development in the region, and Liberia in particular.  And I’m proud of the progress that’s been made. 

War criminal Charles Taylor has been brought to justice.  The African Growth and Opportunity Act and Electrify Africa Act are now U.S. law –promoting economic growth, health and education in Africa. 

These policies are a win-win for the U.S. and Africa.  And I am looking forward to working with the administration to strengthen these important programs.”

But Levinson explains that while the Trump administration final budget will be decided by the US Congress, it is clear that there will be reductions to foreign aid and development programs, and that these changes will impact Africa and Liberia.

“Further, President Trump’s clampdown on immigration will result in stricter vetting procedures which will likely impact visa applicants.”

Just last week, organizers of an annual African trade summit in California reported that sixty participants from Africa did not show up because they were all denied visas.

The three-day African Global Economic and Development Summit typically brings delegations from across Africa to meet with business leaders in the US in an effort to foster partnerships.

Applicants who were rejected came from Liberia’s next door neighbors, Sierra Leone, Guinea, Ghana, Nigeria, Cameroon, Angola, Ethiopia and South.

Trump’s travel ban covers Somalia, Sudan and Libya in Africa, and citizens from those countries did not seek visas for the event.

Despite the threats of aid and silence over the Trump policy toward Africa, Levinson is hopeful.

“On Liberia, specifically, the country has strong bicameral and bipartisan support in the United States Congress, so there will continue to be advocates protecting Liberia’s interests throughout the budget process, ensuring that its priorities are front and center, particularly in this historical election year.”

2017 Elections ‘Critical Juncture’, US Embassy Says

Paul A. Hinshaw, Public Affairs Officer at the U.S. Embassy in Monrovia cautions against early speculations regarding the direction of the Trump administration.

“The new administration is still formulating its policies. While we can’t speculate on future policy decisions and positions, we can say that the special relationship between Liberia and the United States has endured since the founding of Liberia and through various changes in administrations on both sides.” 

Mr. Hinshaw says the 2017 general elections will be a critical juncture for Liberia’s fragile post-war democracy. 

“We have full faith that Liberia will conduct these elections in a free and transparent manner, as it has already done three times in the recent past for national-level elections.

Because peaceful and transparent elections are important, the United States has provided broad civic education and elections programming to support the Liberian National Elections Commission (NEC), civil society organizations, and media outlets in the run-up to the 2017 elections.  We are also working with the civilian security forces on election security planning.”

A successful election would mark a transition point for Sirleaf who, according to Levinson, was a formidable force for Liberia in the eyes of Washington.

“The Liberian people have had no greater champion in the United States for their priorities than President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who was walking the corridors of power, advocating for Liberia’s peace and democracy, decades before she ever became President. “

The goodwill build by Sirleaf, according to Levinson, was commercialized for the Liberian people into unparalleled bilateral assistance.

“America’s response to the Ebola outbreak must be seen within this context. But now it is up to the next generation of leaders, and support cannot be assumed but must be earned.”

But even amid the signs of hope, challenges linger, according to Dr. Gilpin, who says while Africa as a whole continues to present a number of global opportunities, much of those potentials are being undermined by corruption and domestic woes. 

“Economic inequality and pervasive corruption threaten to shred the fabric of African society.  Weak governance and unaccountability in way too many African countries undermine progress.  Bad governance and endemic state fragility frustrate reform efforts and make African communities, countries and regions vulnerable to violent extremist groups.”

Dr. Gilpin explains that consistent economic growth holds great promise for eventual broad-based improvements in socio-economic welfare and expanding trade.  “Ongoing demographic transitions portend a significantly growing consumer market and marked workforce potential. 

Tendencies towards more representative and participatory forms of governance, and succession through credible electoral processes, give hope for increased stability and reduced civil strife.  Africa’s regional responses to violent conflict perpetrated by violent extremist groups also elicit some optimism.  But there are as many challenges as there are green shoots of hope.”

2017 Ballot: Hope Amid Despair

Recent elections in Nigeria, Ghana and The Gambia which saw a somewhat eventful transition from one democratically-elected government to the next is offering a glimmer of hope for Africa’s oldest republic could be on the verge of a history-making feat which could see a smooth transition of power.

It is the reality that Levinson says, could test Liberia’s resolve after already survived a deadly civil war and a bout of a deadly Ebola virus outbreak as the world, and the US in particular take notice.

“I think that Washington policy makers have high hopes and high expectations for Liberia. They see a Liberian population empowered through peace, education, hope – the same people who persevered, fought and won the battle against the Ebola Virus Disease.

Further, they are hopeful that the 2017 presidential and parliamentarian elections will be fair, transparent and peaceful, that the Liberian people will make informed choices, and that they will demand the best of their leaders.

Washington is very proud of Liberia’s progress, from a failed state, fraught with violence and feeding regional conflict, to a peaceful nation, who just led the successful intervention of ECOWAS in support of democracy and the rule of law in The Gambia.”

If the eyes of the world are paying attention on Liberia, the reasons are obvious.

The proximity of a volatile West African sub-region which remains very much fragile and vulnerable to threats from extremists raises the stakes for Liberia’s upcoming elections.

It is because of such concerns that Republican lawmakers like Royce, an advocate for Liberia, continue to stress to the Trump administration, the importance of not turning its backs on Liberia. “I am concerned about the spread of radicalism across Africa.  This is a threat that impacts us all. 

And as a former Africa Subcommittee Chairman, I’ve seen first-hand how the governments in West Africa are out-gunned by Islamist terrorists seeking sanctuary in the area.  The U.S. must continue to work with its partners in the region and around the world to disrupt these terrorist networks.”

Dr. Gilpin agrees: “Although some positives strides have been made since the end of hostilities and the return to democracy a little over a decade ago, Liberia is still fragile.  Potential triggers of violent conflict still exist within Liberia and in the sub-region. 

This is why it is important for the upcoming elections to be both credible and peaceful.  This is not just the task of the government, or the electoral commission, or the international community.”

Dr. Gilpin says it is important for every patriotic Liberian citizen, organization and institution to have a role to play in ensuring an orderly, violence-free and transparent electoral process. 

“It may be reasonable to expect traditional U.S. support for the upcoming Liberian elections.  Now may be the time for Liberia to start initiate dialogue with the U.S. on this vital matter. 

It is worth noting that the link between electoral violence and the spread of extremism in Liberia is tenuous, at best.  Violent civil strife is what Liberia must guard against.”

Beneath the pitfalls of what many see as a rather important presidential election in Liberia, political observers say there could be some silver lining for countries like Liberia although it is unlikely that the country could see an upsurge in USAID.

Ironically, President Trump’s predecessors were fond of paying homage to historical ties between the two countries.

A nation founded by the American Colonization Society, a group of white Americans–including some slaveholder in the 1800s, Liberia’s relations with the U.S. dates back to 1819, when the US Congress appropriated $100,000 for the establishment of what would is regarded today as Africa’s oldest republic.

The United States officially recognized Liberia in 1862, 15 years after its establishment as a sovereign nation, and the two nations shared very close diplomatic, economic, and military ties until the 1990s.

But judging from recent past where aid has continued to drop and the stingy outlook of the Trump administration’s budget so far, many see the downward trend to continue for the duration of the Trump administration.

Declining Aid Paints a Picture

For example, the first year of Sirleaf regime saw the US providing $106.00 million in 2006 and $147.08 Million in 2007. In 2010, Liberia managed to get debt waiver of over US$4.6 billion from international institutions including the World, Bank, International Monetary Fund and donors countries, something Madam Sirleaf used as one of her major achievements in the entire history of her now nearly 11 years leadership.

By 2009 the US assistance to Liberia increased to $224.02 million and again jumped to $230.51 million in 2010.

In 2011 under the regime of President Barrack Obama, United States support to Liberia started to decline with $216.30 million committed that year to the country.

Since 2011, the United States support to Liberia has been dropping with only $211.07 million committed in 2012 down, by $5.23 million from 2011.

The United States support to Liberia began to fall greatly from the year 2013 with the US providing only $190.06 million and in the year 2014, the United States support again went downward to $175.83 million.

During 2015 the United States provided a bare minimum $104.69 million to Liberia and during the current year-2016, the United States has committed just $125.37 million to Liberia.

Prior to the Trump administration coming in, it was projected that Liberia would in 2017 see the least support by the United States to Liberia since the country returned from civil wars in 2003 with the US projecting that it will commit only $110.89 million to all its ongoing programs in the country including Health, Environment, Economic Development, peace and Security, Education and Social Services, Democracy, Human Rights and Governance, amongst others, according to the report.

While the United States support to Liberia has been declining the US has increased its support to countries such as Rwanda, Ghana and others.

From 2013, the United States has provided more support to Rwanda and Ghana for example than Liberia.

In 2013, the United States provided $203,583,000 to Rwanda and in 2014 it also provided $187,522,000 to that country, far more than what was provided to Liberia.

The United States in 2015 provided $177,709,000 to Rwanda and in 2016 also provided $160,935,000 with a projected $137,680,000 in 2017.

Over the last three years the United States has provided more support Ghana which has closer tie with Great Britain than Liberia which is believed to be stepchild to the United States.

In 2015, the United States provided $140,297,000 to Ghana $36 million more than Liberia which was provided $104.69 million during the same year.

During the current 2016 year, the United States is providing Ghana $146,347,000 and in 2017 the US will be committing $146,504,000 to that country far more than what Liberia will be receiving.

Even neighboring Ivory Coast which has long standing ties with France has been getting more support from the United States than Liberia in 2015 and is getting more in 2016 onward to 2017.

Ivory Coast received $141,244,000 from the United States in 2015 while Liberia only received $104.69 million. In the current years 2016 Ivory Coast is receiving $145,685,000 from the United States while Liberia is only getting $125.37 million.

During the ensuing year 2017, Ivory Coast will received $145,745,000 while Liberia is expected to only get $110.89 million one of the lowest in recent years.

A Ponder Point for Liberia

Nevertheless, in the absence of a clear and articulated Africa policy, Dr. Gilpin, like Levinson, agrees that it is clear from the recent budget submission that financial resources devoted to development assistance (aid) will be reduced, significantly. 

“This will definitely have an impact on countries like Liberia.  In addition to the reduction in the amount of aid provided, there will also most likely be a review of the ways in which aid is provided, and an evaluation of the anticipated benefit for the donor (U.S.) and the recipients (e.g. Liberia). 

While this might sound draconian, there might be a silver lining. 

First, countries like Liberia could use this as a strategic pause during which the government and people could analyze the role aid has played (and could play) in their country’s national development. 

A question so often on the lips of so many African citizens is, “Where does all the foreign assistance go?” 

This could be an opportunity to revisit this question and provide some clarity for both policy and the people.  Second, countries like Liberia could take this opportunity to think beyond aid. 

Trade is a more reliable and sustainable engine for economic growth, job creation and socio-economic welfare.  The Trump Administration is focused on trade.  This might be another area in which both countries could forge a mutually beneficial partnership.”

Adds Dr. Gilpin: “There are some worrying signs regarding future trends with U.S. aid. 

The February 1, 2017 “Aid to Allies Act,” introduced by U.S. Congressman Mark Meadows (Republican, North Carolina) aims to “prohibit Senegal from receiving certain forms of development assistance for a two-year period” because Senegal co-sponsored United Nations Security Council Resolution 2334. 

Dr. Gilpin says some analysts have expressed some concern about predicating the receipt of development almost exclusively on interests, rather than values or need.  “This is obviously something Liberia would need to consider carefully.”

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