EDITORIAL: Liberia’s President, George Weah, Must Be Stern And Firm On Matters Of Governance

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IN HIS INTERVIEW WITH THE BBC AIRED this week, Liberian President George Manneh Weah missed a glowing opportunity to show the rest of the world how sincere and serious he is about his inauguration-day pledge to fight graft.

WHEN ASKED BY THE BBC’S Mike Thomson about the failure of many in his government to declare their assets, the President replied: “Some did, I did, you know it is important to declare your assets, most especially me.”

PRESSED AS TO why those assets have not been made public, President Weah said: “That’s my privacy, I got kids to protect, I have my family to protect, I give them access to all my banks and they have to now protect me.”

THE PRESIDENT’S RESPONSE pales in comparison to the vigor and sincerity Liberians and stakeholders heard last January when he took office.

SAID THE PRESIDENT said he was convinced that the overwhelming mandate he had received from the Liberian people is a mandate to end corruption in public service. “I promise to deliver on this mandate. As officials of Government, it is time to put the interest of our people above our own selfish interests. It is time to be honest with our people. Though corruption is a habit amongst our people, we must end it. We must pay civil servants a living wage, so that corruption is not an excuse for taking what is not theirs. Those who do not refrain from enriching themselves at the expense of the people – the law will take its course. I say today that you will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.”

NOW, MORE THAN A YEAR later, the President is singing a different tone. 

THE PRESIDENT FAILED TO mention that he did declare his assets when he ran for the presidency in 2005 and 2011 – and those assets are in the public domain. Making the current assets public is crucial in establishing how he has managed to construct massive properties in just one year.

EVEN ON THE ISSUE of his ministers declaring their assets, the President missed an opportunity to reinforce his election-day pledge when, instead of presenting himself as a no-nonsense graft fighter, said: “Most of them declared and I hope that they all will declare. I won’t make them declare, I inform them that they need to declare because it is prudent to do so. They know that it is the law, we must abide by the law.”

THE PRESIDENT also exposed his lack of a firmness when he dribbled his way around why his administration has not been able to control the price of rice. “I’m not a financial expert,” Mr. Weah said, “but what we tried to do is to speak to those that import rice and I spoke to them that rice is expensive so you need to lower your price but they found reason to keep their prices where it is.”

ONE WOULD think that by now the administration would have been able to control the market, especially after making a big deal out of a two-day meeting with importers during the early days of his presidency.

FOLLOWING THE MEETING last February, the President assured Liberians that he had stepped up efforts to ensure the price of the nation’s staple food is substantially reduced and made affordable for ordinary Liberians.

THE PRESIDENT SAID at the time that his government was fully prepared to work with rice importers in every way possible to reduce the price of rice, which is also referred to as a political commodity.  “I am ready to work with you and resolve all the issues that underpin the galloping price of rice so that our people will afford to buy. If government-imposed tax is an issue, you can rest assure that my government is more than ready to grant reasonable adjustments in the tax regime to make the reduction of rice price possible,” the President said.

WHAT HAS HAPPENED SINCE? What has gone wrong and why was the President unable to articulated his government’s agenda in a way that would offer some hope for those languishing at the bottom of the economic ladder.

ON THE ISSUE of employment, the President told the BBC that his administration has employed up to seven thousand people since inauguration as he acknowledged challenges keeping youths off the street. “It’s worrisome but we want to create unemployment through agriculture and we are working toward that. If you look at our index you will see that we have done so much. We have employed five, six, seven thousand – and so we are doing our best.”

AS IT STANDS NOW, there is a growing perception that the administration is at war with its own people and taking on unnecessary battles when it should be prioritizing more pressing dilemmas facing the Liberian people.

THE ONGOING impeachment trial of Associate Justice Kabineh Ja’neh, the lingering feud between the President and his vice and the occasional jabs thrown the way of anti-graft bodies and critics.

SPEAKING IN AN INTERVIEW with Radio France International this week, the government’s chief spokesman Information Minister Lenn Eugene Nagbe took the Liberian Anti-Corruption Commission to task as he defended the administration’s commitment to fighting corruption amid accusations that his administration is attempting to hamper the country’s anti-corruption body. 

CLLR. JAMES VERDIER, the head of the LACC had previously told RFI that Weah’s government was holding back its funding and threatening to remove its tenured head. But Minister Nagbe, told RFI Tuesday, “Over the past few months there has been an internal wrangling in the corruption commission itself. Some of the commissioners have been accusing the chairman of not being above board in his financial dealings,” he said, referring to LACC boss James Verdier.

MINISTER NAGBE dismissed Cllr. Verdier’s criticism over the lack of funding and concerns over a new bill dealing with tenured positions in state agencies. “If you look at Liberia’s current national budget this year there has been more allocation in our budget for transparency institutions including the corruption commission,” said Nagbe, describing how this had demonstrated a strong commitment to the fight against graft.

IN HIS DEFENSE, Cllr. Verdier said the allegations against him had already been investigated and were found to be “frivolous”, adding that he had requested a “multi-year system audit” for the LACC.

The LACC boss, who was appointed by former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, had told RFI that the anti-corruption agency’s experience under Weah was “terrible” due to problems with funding and fears that the government would replace the anti-corruption body’s tenured chairperson with a political appointee. “We don’t have funding, we have struggled to actually have this administration put itself behind the fight against corruption and make some bold statements regarding transparency, accountability and ensuring that we can fight corruption,” Verdier said during an interview with RFI. correspondent Darlington Porkpa.

SUCH PUBLIC DISPLAY of infighting over a key issue regarding transparency and accountability subjects the government to unnecessary embarrassment.

PRESIDENT WEAH must muster the courage and political will to put his official in check and speak with a passionate level of authority and set the example for them to follow.

IF THE LEADER REPEATEDLY find excuses in trying to explain his way out of doing right by his country, those under his mantle of authority will do the same.

WE HOPE THAT President Weah, will realize sooner, rather than later, that governance comes with not just responsibility but firm and stern hand to keep those elected and appointed to serve in check.

THE SAD REALITY for President Weah is that the honey-moon period is rapidly leaving him behind. The realities of the challenges before him are imminent and will require a lot of tough love to get him through the daunting road lurking ahead.

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