ANALYSIS – Liberia: Accountability Measure Greets President Weah’s Ambitious State of Emergency Plan
Monrovia – When members of both houses of the national legislature begin their debate over President George Weah’s ambitious plan for his State of Emergency Declaration Wednesday, issues of transparency and accountability will likely be the order of the day as some lawmakers are already expressing their readiness to put their oversight responsibility to the test.
“With a struggling economy, transparency and accountability must be the focus of our oversight responsibilities,” says Sen. Nyonblee Karnga-Lawrence(Liberty Party, Grand Bassa).
The highlight of the President’s plan features a US$25 million to support food distribution to households in designated affected counties for the period of 60 days, an electricity and water support during Stay-at-Home Program; a Market Women and Small Informal Petty Traders Bank Loan Program, a government domestic debt program and a President’s Tax Policy and Administration Stimulus Program.
Last week, the World Bank committed US$15 million to help the government fight the COVID-19 pandemic. The Bank has already made available US$1.5 million to help the government to start the fight against the coronavirus while they are working on making available in total US$6 million that is expected to be in the country within six days.
Big Push for Donor Money
Realizing the trickle-down effect of the pandemic on the economy, the Weah administration is making efforts in hopes that some of those funds will come Liberia’s way.
Additionally, President Weah in his letter to the legislature said multilateral partners are generously coming to Liberia’s aid. “The World Bank is providing $17 million to partly finance the National Response Plan. The European Union is moving to rapidly disburse at different stages almost $15 million from both pre-COVID-19 budget support and reallocations. The Government is working with the African Development Bank to determine the Bank’s support to Liberia under AfDB’s recently announced $10 billion COVID-19 support to African countries.”
On Monday, Ms. Kristalina Georgieva, Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF)announced that the bank’s Executive Board approved immediate debt service relief to 25 of the IMF’s member countries under the IMF’s revamped Catastrophe Containment and Relief Trust (CCRT) as part of the Fund’s response to help address the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. “This provides grants to our poorest and most vulnerable members to cover their IMF debt obligations for an initial phase over the next six months and will help them channel more of their scarce financial resources towards vital emergency medical and other relief efforts.
“The CCRT can currently provide about US$500 million in grant-based debt service relief, including the recent US$185 million pledge by the U.K. and US$100 million provided by Japan as immediately available resources. Others, including China and the Netherlands, are also stepping forward with important contributions. I urge other donors to help us replenish the Trust’s resources and boost further our ability to provide additional debt service relief for a full two years to our poorest member countries.”
Liberia is amongst a shortlist of countries that includes: Afghanistan, Benin, Burkina Faso, Central African Republic, Chad, Comoros, Congo, D.R., The Gambia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Haiti, , Madagascar, Malawi, Mali, Mozambique, Nepal, Niger, Rwanda, São Tomé and Príncipe, Sierra Leone, Solomon Islands, Tajikistan, Togo, and Yemen.
FPA has learned that the money may not be directed to the countries directly but could be utilized as a grant that IMF is making to itself in the name of the countries to service outstanding debts they owe to the Fund since they aren’t in the position to service their debts.
With the debt, countries are limited by what they can borrow from the IMF. The debt relief will remove that limitation. So effectively, we are capable of borrowing higher amounts which may be needed to fight Covid 19.
Considering that the pandemic is global, the kinds and levels of support that may have been available before may not exist this time around. So, countries may have to borrow to fund their Covid 19 fight.
The Weah administration says it has already requested support under the CRR Trust.
New Phase of Pandemic Pose Challenges
“Today, the Liberian Senate received the communication on the Declaration of a State of Emergency by His Excellency President George Manneh Weah. The President highlighted: Food Support for Affected Households; Electricity and water support during Stay-at-Home Campaign; Market women and small/ petty traders loan programs; Government domestic debt program and Tax policy and Administration Stimulus Program. Unfortunately, there was absolutely nothing -no plan presented – to deal with the actual health threat! Mr. President, the reason for the State of Emergency is the presenting threat to public health.”Senator Nyonblee Karngar-Lawrence(Liberty Party, Grand Bassa)
But even as the administration moves to mobilize resources and engage development partners to support our National Response and Economic Recovery Plans, and even as health teams have worked assiduously on testing, contact tracing, community outreach and on various aspects of national response, the President said, the COVID-19 has now entered a new phase in Liberia and requires an enhanced and elevated national response. “The evolution of the disease in communities means that the dynamics of our management of the disease has to significantly change, requiring much stronger additional measures to delay and contain the spread of this highly contagious virus, in order to keep our people safe.”
For the immediate future, the administration appears to be concerned about spurts of violence and breach of stay-at-home orders which have greeted the State of Emergency.
Under the declared State of Emergency, all 15 counties in the Republic of Liberia are under quarantine from 11:59 p.m. on Friday, April 10, 2020, until further notice.
This means, movements between counties are strictly prohibited and no person shall be permitted to enter or leave or in any way cross the borders of one county into another, except for Montserrado County and Margibi County which are quarantined as a single unit.
As a further measure under this State of Emergency, all Liberians and residents within the borders of Montserrado County, Margibi County, Nimba County, and Grand Kru County are to STAY AT HOME for the next 14 days, beginning at 11:59 p.m. on Friday, April 10, 2020.
Concerns Over Lockdown Breach
In a statement Tuesday, the Ministry of Information, Culture Affairs and Tourism said: “These transgressions run contrary to the expressed intent of the State of Emergency. Going forward, only health workers and their support staff, accredited journalists on duty, members of the house of representatives, senate and judiciary would be exempted. The government urges everyone to respect the security apparatus, including the Monrovia and Paynesville City Police which are part of the security network as the coronavirus, while also maintaining city ordinance.”
For many Liberians, the 6am to 3am curfew is not enough time to run after food and basic necessities to support their families. This, some say is leading to the many to run afoul of the law.
Aides to the President say, it is against this backdrop that he intends to roll out an ambitious package to aid families and loved ones during the lockdown.
Senator: Actual Health Care Threat Omitted
As bold as the president’s plan appears on paper, Senator Lawrence believes the plan falls short.
“Today, the Liberian Senate received the communication on the Declaration of a State of Emergency by His Excellency President George Manneh Weah. The President highlighted: Food Support for Affected Households; Electricity and water support during Stay-at-Home Campaign; Market women and small/ petty traders loan programs; Government domestic debt program and Tax policy and Administration Stimulus Program. Unfortunately, there was absolutely nothing -no plan presented – to deal with the actual health threat! Mr. President, the reason for the State of Emergency is the presenting threat to public health.”
The Senator wonders how can hospitals be made ready for the treatment of the infected?
The Grand Bassa County lawmaker also has concerns about contact tracing, quarantine, incentives and payments for health workers, security control of the enforcement of the lockdown measures and the effectiveness of commencement of lockdown at 3pm.
In a major headway, the Senator was able to amend the final motion for action in the Senate, to include request for interventions from the Health, Ways, Means & Finance, Judiciary, Defense and Internal Affairs Committees.
These interventions, she says, will help to put an actual National Coronavirus Response Plan together and ensure that the financial analysis and costing is presented by the Ministry of Finance.
Senator Abraham Darius Dillon(Liberty Party, Montserrado) said the President’s plan, to a large extent, addresses most of the concerns he and others have been raising. However, he adds: “We would be left to modify the President’s submission so as to address and possibly include other issues like advanced payment of civil servants salaries and set in place specific security protocols to be applied during the period of the state of emergency. When these and others are finally concluded and endorsed by the Legislature, it would then be the decision of the Legislature for the President to carryout, not the decision of any one person; and the money that would be used to fulfil these decisions would be taxpayers’ money, not any one person’s money.”
Ambitious Plan Laid Out
“We would be left to modify the President’s submission so as to address and possibly include other issues like advanced payment of civil servants salaries and set in place specific security protocols to be applied during the period of the state of emergency. When these and others are finally concluded and endorsed by the Legislature, it would then be the decision of the Legislature for the President to carryout, not the decision of any one person; and the money that would be used to fulfil these decisions would be taxpayers’ money, not any one person’s money.”Senator Abraham Darius Dillon(Liberty Party, Grand Bassa)
Expanding on his plan, the President averred in his letter to the both houses of the legislature that the State of Emergency has imposed necessary economic costs on Liberians and the broader economy in order to achieve a public health and a public safety objective. “Depending on the course of events in the coming weeks and months, even our constitutional electoral processes may be impacted, an outcome that would require due consideration from your Honorable selves. These COVID-19 costs may well undermine the public health and public safety aims of the State of Emergency if the costs are not addressed, making it necessary to bring to the attention of the Honorable National Legislature some measures and programs that are necessary to complement measures announced in the State of Emergency.”
Under the plan, the Food Support for Affected Households entails that for the remainder of FY 2019/20 the National Legislature re-appropriate the amount of US$25 million to support food distribution to households in designated affected counties for the period of 60 days. “The full costing to cover this period in affected and other areas may add up to around $40 million. The World Bank has agreed to finance this gap off-budget to the tune of US$10 million, using resources reallocated from existing projects,” the President said.
The most contentious issue on the floor of the legislative debate will likely be the electricity and water support during Stay-at-Home Program.
The plan aims to provide free electricity for residents of Monrovia. “A few days ago, the Liberia Electricity Corporation (LEC) received a check of US$4 million dollars, representing a significant settlement of Government arrears to the entity. This is one of the largest single payments on Government electric bill in years. The LEC has submitted a COVID-19 electricity program that will be funded by this money. I propose to the Honorable Legislature that Government takes up the electricity bill of households in the affected counties for the duration of the STAY-AT-HOME order. I propose a similar support for the Liberia Water and Sewer Corporation.”
The Market Women and Small Informal Petty Traders Bank Loan Program aims to give a break to market women and small informal petty traders, who have loans with commercial banks and other creditors.
“A few days ago, the Liberia Electricity Corporation (LEC) received a check of US$4 million dollars, representing a significant settlement of Government arrears to the entity. This is one of the largest single payments on Government electric bill in years. The LEC has submitted a COVID-19 electricity program that will be funded by this money. I propose to the Honorable Legislature that Government takes up the electricity bill of households in the affected counties for the duration of the STAY-AT-HOME order. I propose a similar support for the Liberia Water and Sewer Corporation.”President George Manneh Weah
According to the President, these small businesses are likely to endure the most suffering from the loss of number of selling and trading days occasioned by the Stay-At-Home order. “The Government is working with lenders to show some understanding to our vulnerable borrowers. In this direction, I propose to the Honorable Legislature that the Government fully pays the loans owed by market women, and petty and small traders in affected counties as part of the requested budgetary reallocation. This will be a strong stimulus to these individuals. They have built their businesses from scratch with little or no help from the Government and deserve protection during these trying times. This program will further help the banks to increase lending to new borrowers.”
The government domestic debt program aims to address the large stock of domestic debt spanning more than a decade. “Servicing this debt has always been a challenge for Government and is a drag on the economy. In the current budget, we do not have appropriation to service these obligations. Prior to COVID-19, the Government was developing a program to reconcile and validate the existing stock of domestic debt.”
The President says his administration has reached a consensus with the IMF under the IMF-supported Program that the payment of domestic arrears owed to vendors and suppliers of Government should be of high priority amid COVID-19’s impact on the economy, and is a form of economic stimulus. “Considering the tight fiscal space for the remainder of the current fiscal year, I propose that the National Legislature appropriates at least US$ 15 million in the FY 2020/21 National Budget to begin servicing these arrears incurred in the last several years. Rules around servicing the recognized and validated stock of domestic debt under this program will be developed by the Government in collaboration with the IMF, as part of the request under the Rapid Credit Facility currently under consideration.”
Under the proposal for the President’s Tax Policy and Administration Stimulus Program, the administration aims to suspend for the period of six months the Surcharge Regulation that imposes an additional charge on imported goods that are also manufactured in Liberia. “When instituted, this will encourage more importation without the additional cost that the surcharge imposes. The Government is also immediately suspending the Pre-Shipment Inspections (PSI) penalty until otherwise notified. PSI requires importers to do an assessment of their consignment overseas (pre-shipment inspection) before importation.”
As Senators debate the President’s plan, diplomatic observers and Senator Lawrence are keen to some aspects of the plan that would include widespread testing like was done in Korea and other south-east Asian countries, which could prove pivotal to helping Liberia beat the pandemic.
In the President’s own words, “evidence of community spread means our people face a very serious risk in their day-to-day interactions, since the one fact that is known about the disease is that it is spread mainly through person-to-person interaction. Densely populated urban centers and market places where a mass of people interact daily are a dreadful recipe for transmission and have to be avoided for a period of time. COVID-19 is more contagious than Ebola, so the level of human interactions permitted during Ebola cannot be allowed to go in the current crisis.”