Liberia: Annual Message Preview – What Will Weah Say Amid Economic, Political Uncertainty?
Monrovia – In January 2018, a freshly-minted President George Manneh Weah used his first annual message to toe the line of controversy, trumpeting three key issues – Dual Citizenship – Limitation of Citizenship only to Black People and restriction of land ownership exclusively to citizens of Liberia.
Report by Rodney D. Sieh, [email protected]
A year later, the President used his 2019 Annual Message to lay the blame for the economic woes on the doorsteps of his predecessor, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. “When we came to power, we inherited a debt of $878.2 million United States dollars at the end of 2017. The debt stock now stands at $987.8 million in 2018 at the end of 2018. The increase in the debt stock of $109.6 million during the period under review is mainly on account of disbursements from borrowing external loan portfolios, including the World Bank, African Development Bank, BADEA and Saudi Arabia, which were ratified in 2017.”
Liberians Want ‘Bread & Butter Issues Addressed
in the aftermath of a nagging controversy over missing LD16 billion and US$25 million intended for infusion in the economy, the President went to great lengths assure Liberians that the administration was doing all it could to get to the bottom of the saga.
Hours before the President’s third annual message, very little has changed. The economy is in a freefall and a late intervention by the International Monetary Fund is poised to offer some semblance of hope of turnaround.
The US exchange rate to the local currency is rapidly creeping up again and consumers and motorists have been piling up for gasoline over the past few days amid denials from the Liberia Petroleum Refinery Company that the shortage is artificial.
It is such bread and butter issues that the likes of Fatoumata Konneh a merchant in Monrovia believes could go a long way in alleviating some of the problems facing the Weah-led government – and one she hopes the President will tackle when he addresses the nation. “I want the President to address the economic situation in the country. If we want for the economy to be stable and to sustain ourselves, agriculture is the key. If we are able to maintain ourselves and provide food for ourselves, everything will be ok. If you hold the stomach of the children, you can hold everything. If no food at all – even your wife at home, if there is no food in the home she will have no respect for you.”
This year, the economy – or President Weah’s interpretation of it – is likely to factor in as a nation bruised by rising inflation and rocketing exchange rate scramble for answers.
Draft Bills, Reforms Key, Spokesman Says
The government chief spokesman, Information Minister Lenn Eugene Nagbe told FrontPageAfrica Sunday, the issues most likely to drive the president’s message.
Says Nagbe: “The President will perform his constitutional responsibility and give his legislative agenda. This will focus on Draft Bills which focus more on infrastructure and economic growth – reforms in the monetary sector and consolidation of the key fiscal measures. Additionally, the President will focus on Agriculture which will also feature prominently as a key priority area for 2020. The President is expected to also speak in democracy, peace and national reconciliation.”
Coming off a year marred by protests and opposition chatters over the governance lapses, many political observers say, the administration, entering his third year, is on the brinks of its honey moon period.
The argument a year ago was the inheriting of a broken and broke nation left by a predecessor still being blamed for a lot of what is unfolding, now even some within the administration acknowledge that patience may be wearing thin. “Fortunately, any new government has a two-year grace period to step in, not in your second tenure but in your first because they realized that there will be some extraordinary things or promises that were made, that someone might need to fulfill,” Vice President Jewel Howard Taylor said in an exclusive interview with FrontPageAfrica last week.
In the first year or two, the VP averred, “there will be some real false, up and down. I think in year three going forward, whatever the shortfalls and the glitches are, must now be corrected. So, that we put the President’s agenda that he brought to the nation on the table, and that all of us can work to make it happen.”
Much of that agenda is expected to be laid out in the President’s Annual Message.
Presidential aides say the President will unveil what has been in the public domain for months, his administration’s plans to offer nine (9) blocks in a new bid round later in the year.
The Liberia Petroleum Regulatory Agency (LPRA), created by the Exploration & Production Law of 2014 (ratified in 2016), has reportedly advised the administration on offering the oil blocks on the bidding block.
The nine (9) blocks referenced by the Authority (LPRA) for sale are located in the highly prospective Harper Basin and include blocks 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31, 32 and 33.
The bid rounds (or licensing round as its sometimes referred to) allows a single oil company or a group of oil companies (joint venture) to apply for a Production Sharing Agreement (Petroleum License) in a competitive and transparent environment giving them the right to search for commercial deposits of oil. Liberia’s last bid round was concluded December of 2014 with over $60 million dollars in commitments but concluded unsuccessfully due to political wrangling between the Executive and Legislative branches of government.
Since the departure of Exxon and Chevron from Liberia in 2016/2017, there have been no exploration work offshore Liberia and the sector has been hanging on by a thread. Experts say the importance of Liberia’s next bid round cannot be overstated and will determine all future successes for Liberia’s fledgling oil sector. The decline of oil prices in 2014 resulted in billions of dollars lost for exploration programs worldwide but with the resurgence of new investment and development monies, Liberia’s bid round will be held in a very competitive environment of over sixty (60) countries offering blocks to only a handful of oil companies. Liberia will only have one opportunity to put its best foot forward.
“The President will perform his constitutional responsibility and give his legislative agenda. This will focus on Draft Bills which focus more on infrastructure and economic growth – reforms in the monetary sector and consolidation of the key fiscal measures. Additionally, the President will focus on Agriculture which will also feature prominently as a key priority area for 2020. The President is expected to also speak in democracy, peace and national reconciliation.”– Lenn Eugene Nagbe, Minister of Information, Culture and Tourism
Agriculture Likely to Have Big Play
On the economy, aides say the President will trumpet efforts in the past few weeks to regularize payroll for civil servants, a move which saw members of the Civil Servants Union of Liberia end their threat to stage protest over unpaid salary arrears.
Earlier this year, Finance and Economic Planning Minister Samuel Tweah was hopeful that Macroeconomic stability will be assured in the new year.
The President will likely also stress the point that strong fiscal policy is being contained regarding the deficit, particularly in the wake of last year’s missing money Central Bank saga. The government has since stopped the accumulation of arrears through a new fiscal regime that forces it to only spend what it has and end the massive borrowing from the CBL>
Aides say the President will also look to assure the nation that new interest rate monetary policy framework and new standards at CBL will improve effectiveness of fighting inflation through exchange rate stability.
Additionally, the President is expected to push his agenda on agriculture. The appointment of a new minister, Jeanine Cooper will likely be trumpeted as a sign of the President’s readiness to turn his government’s attention to a sector that has long been ignored.
Aides say, the government is planning to release some money through commercial banks to local rice producers. The current budget has some $1.7 million for public sector investment in agriculture. This money is intended to guarantee flexible lending to local rice and good crop growers. The government is working to scale up investment in agriculture beyond the 1.7 million and the World Bank has agreed to pull in more money for agriculture. Aides the say, the President will also trumpet and hit home the point that major investments and enhancements are expected in security sector with the current police force is short by some 8000 troops.
Other security institutions also have to be strengthened but the challenge is resources. The UN peace keeping troops had about 16000 personnel here. Current levels are too small for present challenges. Investments in security will be made as the budget is reformed.
Looking ahead, much of what the President unravels today will likely be hinged on the forecast of the economy.
A year ago, emphasis on the collapse of the country’s major export commodities’ prices on the global market, the UNMIL withdrawal, and the effect of the Ebola Virus Disease in 2014, is still in a struggling state, highlighted the woes associated with the economic stalemate.
What’s in a Promise?
Looking back on the past two Annual Messages, promises made have been somewhat mixed in terms of deliverables. The push to end the restriction of land ownership exclusively to citizens remains as daunting as the day the President brought it up, leaving many potential investors unsure about Liberia’s readiness to do business amid restrictions to land ownership.
So, too is the limitation of citizenship only to black people. The push, since it was announced by the President in his first Annual Message was greeted harshly in the public domain.
For President Weah: “The framers of the 1847 constitution may have had every reason and justification to include these restrictions in that historic document. In their own words, and I quote: “The great object of forming these Colonies, 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 color shall be admitted to citizenship in this Republic.”
The President said in 2018, while the framers thinking may have been appropriate for the 19th century, and for the threats and conditions that existed at that time, here in the 21st century, he is of the view that these threats no longer exist, and that these conditions have changed. In these circumstances, it is my view that keeping such a clause in our constitution is unnecessary, racist, and inappropriate for the place that Liberia occupies today in the comity of nations.
Regarding Dual Citizenship, advocates scored major recently when Mr. Alvin Teage Jalloh, a Liberian with American citizenship, won a landmark dual citizenship case against the Government of Liberia at the Supreme Court in Liberia.
Jalloh, a natural-born Liberian was denied travel document by the Liberian Embassy in Washington when he sought to travel Liberia. The Embassy had informed him he needed a non-immigrant Liberian visa before he could be permitted to enter Liberia.
The court ruled: “Wherefore and in view of the foregoing, the petition is hereby granted. Section 22.2 of the Aliens and Nationality Law, to the extent that it provides for loss of citizenship solely on account of the performance by a citizenship of acts or fulfillment of the conditions specified in Section 22.1 without the institution by the Government of any proceedings to nullify or cancel citizenship in violation of the due process clause under Article 209(a) of the 1986 Constitution, is hereby null and void without any force and effect of law.”
The ruling from the high court settled a lingering question. “Over the past several years, Liberians at home and abroad have been engaged in a profound discussion about sections 22.1 and 22.2 of the 1973 Aliens and Nationality Law, which purported to automatically deprive a Liberian of citizenship when that Liberian became a naturalized citizen of another country, voted in a foreign election, or served in the military of another country without prior approval from the President of Liberia.”
It is still unclear whether or not the President will cite the issue when he addresses the nation Monday but in his 2018 address, he did express his belief that most Liberians who are also citizens of another country probably acquired the additional nationality as a means to escape from the terrible atrocities, which characterized our civil conflict, and for economic survival in their new countries of residence. “If, as a condition precedent for other countries to grant citizenship to these persons, they had to dis-avow their loyalty to Liberia and pledge allegiance to the laws of another country, then it could have been out of necessity, rather than a matter of the heart.”