Liberia: An Analysis of The Issues Likely to Redefine, Reshape – or Alter the Outlook of the Ruling Coalition for Democratic Change-led Government’s Agenda
Monrovia – Assuming the mantle of authority of Africa’s oldest republic, three years ago today, President George Manneh Weah sent a clear message of his government’s intent to break away from the past and put his stamp of authority on the recurring issues of corruption, bad governance, economic downturn and a rapidly shrinking decline in the rule of law.
By Rodney D. Sieh, [email protected]
Said President Weah: “As we open our doors to all foreign direct investments, we will not permit Liberian-owned businesses to be marginalized. We cannot remain spectators in our own economy. My government will prioritize the interests of Liberian-owned businesses and offer programs to help them become more competitive and offer services that international investors seek as partners.”
Looking to narrow the gap between rich and poor and to ensure that public resources do not end up in the pockets of Government officials, Mr. Weah acknowledged that the mandate from the Liberian people was to end corruption in public service. “I promise to deliver on this mandate.”
Three years later, the Weah-led government has quickly come to terms with the reality that opposition rhetoric is simply not the same as sitting at the top of a post-war government on the rebound and mired in an economic and political quagmire.
On the heels of his fourth Annual Message to the nation, aides say the President, aware of the challenges and the fallout from the last December Midterm Senatorial elections will likely look toward reassuring Liberians maintain faith in the government they elected in the 2017 presidential and legislative elections.
Mr. Weah’s CDC party endured losses in key vote-rich areas like Montserrado, Lofa, Margibi, Cape Mount, Gbarpolu and Bong counties.
For Mr. Weah administration, the writing is already on the wall amid serious lapses on issues of corruption, education, agriculture, energy, health and road infrastructure and the economy.
Aides say, the President will look to rally the nation to focus on agriculture and food production and the need to reduce dependency on food importation while capitalizing on country’s rich resources and land.
Nearly fifty percent of Liberia’s main livelihood is agriculture-based. Nevertheless the country imports 60 percent of its staple food, misdirecting much needed funds to curbing hunger instead of driving focus toward infrastructure and other developments.
Hampering progress is the fact that prices for most of the main cash crops and foreign exchange earners are rubber, cocoa, and timber are on the decline.
Rubber which remains one of the dominant generators of state revenues, accounts for 17.5 percent of the total export receipts while an estimated 30,000 people are employed by commercial rubber farms and up to 60,000 smallholder households are involved in growing rubber trees. Firestone Rubber Plantation, covering almost 200 square miles, is the largest single natural rubber operation in the world and the biggest private sector employer in Liberia. Another significant cash crop is oil palm, which has traditionally been produced for the domestic market.
In recent months however, tension between the US giant and the government has been on edge.
Last March, the company cited “continued and unsustainable losses” among its reason for laying off hundreds of workers at its Liberia plant in Harbel.
The Firestone Agricultural Workers’ Union of Liberia accused Firestone of “increasingly reneging on its promises” and said its financial condition did not allow it to vigorously pursue legal proceedings against the company.
The plantation employed 8,500 workers in 2015, but is currently down to about 5,400 employees. The company announced in March 2019 that it would lay off 800 workers at Harbel by the second quarter of that year. As of the beginning of 2020, it said, it had laid off 568.
In addition to the issues with Firestone, industry observers lament that farmers simply ack appropriate information to enable them make prudent marketing decisions. More importantly, several of the major banking institutions in the country have in recent months, shut down branches in rural Liberia, limiting financial services in those areas.
At this time last year, the President declared to the nation that he had just completed the vetting a new agriculture minister. That minister, Janine Cooper was appointed last January was tasked with developing and implementing a comprehensive and thorough program to revamp the sector. “I believe we have found the right person to lead this charge. The nominee is a woman whose track record, competence and dedication match my vision for agricultural transformation in Liberia,” the President said.
While much of the emphasis of Monday’s speech will focus on agriculture, the President has already raised the bar of expectation, telling the nation last January of his appointment: “I hope that you will share my view, and grant her speedy confirmation so that she can urgently embark upon the great task that is before her. If she cannot do it, then I do not know who else we will find to do it.”
Last year this time, the President expressed the desire to harness both local and international support and resources to lead the new agriculture drive, which will focus on the entire value chain – from the remote farmlands to the sprawling marketplaces across the country. “We will exert every effort to subsidize the works of more farmers and local cooperatives with the objective of enhancing productivity.”
A year later, the task is even more problematic with. Focus and emphasis on rice production has made some inroads but fully cultivating other cash crops, such as cocoa and coffee remains a challenge.
The President himself acknowledged last January in his annual message that Liberia’s next-door neighbors are ahead of the curve. “Our neighbors have gained international acclaim for the production and exportation of these products; when actually, their natural endowment are not that different from ours. Therefore, we will join ongoing efforts by the European Union and others to revamp and make the coffee and cocoa sectors viable and profitable. We will assist farmers to increase their yields through new farming methods and mechanization.”
In last year’s Millennium Challenge Compact report, the Weah-led government fell slightly below the borderline regarding corruption.
Last January, the president drew applause during his annual message when he renewed his pledge to intensify his administration’s fight against corruption this year and beyond, adding that there “will be no sacred cows”.
Acknowledging that corruption in the Liberian society is pervasive and eating up the very fabric of the nation, the President took issue with his critics suggesting that corruption is an unchangeable way of life in Liberia, stating, “I believe that we will succeed in our fight against corruption and will bring to justice relevant individuals and corporations who continue to defraud Liberia.”
The President added: “Additionally, we will continue to show political will in the fight against waste and abuse of our national resources, as we have shown in recent times when a managing director and other high profile officials were dismissed, arrested and sent to court to vindicate themselves from accusations of corruption,” the President noted, vowing further that in his fight against corruption, there will absolutely be no sacred cows as stronger measures will be taken against perpetrators to end this societal menace.
The President, in his address last year also trumpeted the introduction of a new legislation to amend the law creating the Liberia Anti-Corruption Commission so that it is given more prosecutorial powers.
A year later, the LACC itself is still making noise about the legislation which is yet to win legislative approval.
Just last week, during a validation conference to assess and evaluate laws that are hindering and undermining the effective fight against corruption in public and private institutions, the LACC lamented that the laws and acts of the National Legislature, including the Statute of Limitation in pursuing criminal actions against public officials and the weaknesses in the criminal Laws, have over the years restrained cases of corruption especially against public officials.
In a statement the LACC said: “The LACC Board of Commissioners (BoC) has done an extensive review of several Acts of the National Legislature and Criminal Law and urgently seeks to amend, aimed at strengthening the law to ensure successful criminal prosecutions,” the Commission said in a statement. “These include the Whistle Blower and the Witness Protection Act and the need to establish a fast-track Corruption Court, as well as amendment to the Code of Conduct that will grant unto the LACC needed Legislative and Judicial authority that will ensure and compel all public officials to declare their assets in keeping with law.”
Despite the push, the LACC’s reputation as an integrity institution has taken a hit over the controversy surrounding its chair, Cllr. Ndubusi Nwabudike. Nwabudike has been embroiled in controversy since the fallout over his nomination by the President to head the National Elections Commission.
The Nigerian-born was dealt a major blow amid questions regarding alleged forged documents over his naturalization papers.
This week, the plenary of the Senate is expected to come down with a decision over Nwabudike’s fate.
The Senate’s decision followed a request from Montserrado County Senator Abraham Darius Dillon to the Leadership of the Senate to report to plenary on findings of the alleged forged nationality documents of the Liberian Anti-Corruption Commission head.
Critics of the President say, his reluctance to keep Nwabudike on the job undermines his own expressed public comments regarding the fight against graft.
This year, the IMF is projecting that assuming global conditions gradually normalize, growth is projected to reach 3.2 percent in 2021, but downside risks to the outlook are high and the country remains fragile and vulnerable to shocks as both fiscal and external buffers remain low.
At the start of last year, several international stakeholders including the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the Africa Development Bank projected that the Liberian economy would recover, driven by activities in the mining, forestry, and agriculture sectors.
Over the past two years of the Weah administration, the economy faced uncertainty due to declining mining exports and rising inflation and currency depreciation.
In his Annual Message last January, the President acknowledged that the year before, in 2019, was marked by global economic uncertainty Recovery of global economic and momentum remained slow, largely due to trade and geopolitical tensions, as well as country- specific effects. These constraints adversely impacted the performance of our domestic economy.
While commercial gold exports, commercial palm oil production, and cocoa and fisheries investment have expanded, macroeconomic stability, expected to improve in 2020 with the implementation of an IMF-supported program improving fiscal and monetary policies and tackling structural rigidities to create a favorable environment for private investment, did not go according to plan.
The country is still recovering from the Ebola crisis between 2014 and 2016, which plunged the economy into a recession, with real GDP contracting by 1.6% in 2016 due to capital flight and a fall in private investment. Real GDP growth recovered to 2.5% in 2017, largely driven by mining (gold and iron ore), forestry, and agriculture as economic activity resumed. But foreign exchange inflows shrank in 2018, triggering a depreciation of the Liberia dollar by about 26% and a sharp rise in inflation to 23.5% in 2018. Inflation remained high at 21.7% in 2019.
Shortly after his inauguration in 2018, President Weah declared that all undergraduates public entering universities across the country will enjoy free tuition.
The announcement came as higher-learning students protested against fee hikes accusing the UL administration of unilaterally hiking fees. The students eventually had the audience of the president who promised to look into the issue.
There are only four public universities in the country and several private institutions of higher learning. Aside the main University of Liberia, UL, the Booker Washington Institute, Louis Arthur Grimes School of Law and the William V.S. Tubman University, complete the list.
The country’s education system, still emerging from a prolonged and brutally destructive period of civil unrest promises free education for primary students attending a government school, but most of these schools lack adequate learning facilities. Most Parents preferred sending their kids to private schools which are often very expensive for the average Liberian. The country operates on a 6-3-3 system.
During his annual message last January, the President announced the discovery of more than 25,000 public workers who were being paid from a General Allowance that had no particular grading system. For example, a secretary in one ministry or agency could be paid $400 dollars while another secretary with the same level of skill or education in another ministry would be paid $1,500,” the President noted.
As of last year’s speech, the President said, his administration had eliminated the General Allowance system and have ensured that all public workers have one standardized and harmonized pay. “One of the outcomes of this process is that it increased the income of almost 15,000 public workers, among them teachers and security personnel.”
While the President noted in his last address that the reforms are by no means complete, and that his government would continue efforts to perfect the wage system, the government continues to struggle with multiple ghost names from the public payroll. Since the last speech, the government says it has been working with biometric national identification numbers in a bid to remove from the public payroll those who have reached retirement age.
WATER & ELECTRICITY
Rocked by inconsistent supply of electricity to residents of Monrovia and its environs, President Weah, last March, demanded more efficiency and productivity. Similarly, the Liberia Water & Sewer Corporation has also been in the line of fire of late.
According to WaterAid, a little more than one million Liberians lack access to safe water and 3.7 million do not have access to proper sanitation. Lack of safe water and sanitation causes over 700 deaths per year in children under five.
Today, Liberia has one of the lowest electricity access rates in the world. … By 2030, the Government of Liberia aims to meet an anticipated peak demand of 300 MW and serve 1 million customers, connecting 70% of the population in Monrovia and providing access to 35% of the rest of Liberia.
The problems with the water dilemma has been compounded by reports of corruption at the Liberia Water & Sewer Corporation where its Managing Director, Duannah Kamara has been accused of flooding the payroll of the institution with individuals who are not working for the entity. All this as workers have complained over back pay.
At the LEC, President Weah has apparently been unhappy with the management. Last March, the President requested the LEC management to submit to his office its power distribution plans.
The President’s call stemmed from concerns that the LEC is not supplying current due to an active structured plan.
In his address Monday, the President, according to aides will likely trumpet the interconnection project linking Cote d’Ivoire with Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea which is expected to go online in February.
The project which is intended to create access to affordable and stable electricity to the CLSG beneficiary countries by energizing the CLSG interconnection line and begin commercial operations during the year, will likely boost the government’s agenda.
The President, according to aides will also trumpet his decision to instruct the Ministry of Public Works to begin setting up street lights to major cities in fifteen countries, in line with the CLSG electrification project.
Aides say the President has his works officials to ensure that the CLSG project extends electricity into other parts of the county.
During his first Annual Message in 2018, the President declared that his administration would focus improving health and sanitation. In that regard, the President said his government would submit a new legislation to the legislature that would include a revised public health law.
The bill’s submission came for a nation still heavily reliant on international donor support for its struggling healthcare sector.
Last May for example, the World Bank Board of Executive Directors has approved a US$54 million International Development Association (IDA)* credit to improve health service delivery to women, children, and adolescents in Liberia. The Institutional Foundations to Improve Services for Health (IFISH) project will support the expansion and operationalization of the new Redemption Hospital in Caldwell, rural Montserrado County.
The hospital is the largest provider of secondary level services in the country, but currently functions at maximum capacity. Construction at the new site started in mid-2018 with a focus on maternal health (obstetrics and gynecology) and child health (pediatrics). The approved scale-up financing will ensure that the new site also provides services in surgery and internal medicine and that the hospital is fully equipped and operational.
Since the end of the civil war and the ushering in of a civilian-democratically-elected government, many healthcare facilities are being run by the government, donors, or through non-governmental organizations (NGOs), including faith-based organizations.
In the past three budget years, appropriations for the sector have been low, with government appropriating between 13% and 14%, respectively to a sector constrained by weak supply chain management, particularly in terms of distribution and storage of pharmaceuticals and other supplies, as well as limited human resources, particularly in terms of doctors, specialists, pharmacists, and laboratory technicians. Additionally, there is limited availability of essential genuine medical equipment and pharmaceutical products, and there are frequently reported stock outages, especially in areas of the country not currently supported by international donor agencies.
This has been compounded by the fact that Liberians suffer from high mortality and morbidity, resulting from a combination of poor living conditions and lack of quality health care. Infectious diseases are a major contributor to ill health and lost productivity.
The President’s Annual Message comes in the backdrop of the MCC Compact report concluding that the government did not fare well on health expenditure, with a borderline score of 52 percent.
Under Pillar No. 2 of the government’s Pro-Poor agenda, road connectivity is one of the major aims of the Weah administration. From the onset of his ascendancy to the presidency, the President, in his first annual message pledged to introduce legislation and policies which will be intended to achieve sustainable economic growth, develop and expand agriculture, and address our very large infrastructure deficit, with particular emphasis on road construction and the provision of affordable and adequate electricity for all.
Last January, the President outlined a laundry list of ongoing project in the direction of the Pro Poor Agenda for Prosperity & Development (PAPD).
Consistent with that commitment, the government concentrated on the pavement of Five Hundred and Seventeen kilometers (517 Km) of primary roads, the pavement of community roads, the pavement of streets within County capitals, and the connection of all counties within our Republic by paved roads. It is also a goal of our Administration to ensure the rehabilitation and maintenance of laterite roads across Liberia, as well as the maintenance of Four Thousand Two Hundred kilometers (4,200 Km) of urban and secondary roads.
To date, the President says, the total community road intervention under my administration is about Two Hundred kilometers (200 km), directly financed by the people of Liberia through the payment of their taxes to Government.
GOVERNANCE, RULE OF LAW
In only his second Annual message to the nation in 2019, President Weah, in the aftermath of the June 7 Save the State Protest sought to allay the fears of many concerned about the direction of his administration with regards to freedom of speech and exercising of the right to assembly and protest.
Said the President: “Every citizen has the right under our Constitution to have dissenting views, and to express them freely and peacefully under the guidelines provided therein. And so we welcome these exercises of democratic rights and freedoms, and consider them as positive proof of a healthy and functioning democracy.”
The President went on to say that as a government, his administration was duty-bound by the relevant Articles of our Constitution, to protect the rights of our citizen, including those that are not involved in the demonstrations and protests, and will continue to do so under the Oath that I swore.
One year later, critics say the Weah-led government has struggled to live up to its pledge. In particularly, President Weah has come under pressure for failing to engage the public and find ways and opportunities to create the necessary forums for peaceful dialogue among citizens who may have differing points of views.
Just last week, the government came down hard on Radio Bushrod District 15 Radio after it was announced that the station would give its airwaves for the return of talk show host Henry Costa to the airwaves.
Mr. Costa, according to the government is a fugitive from justice and should not be allowed on the radio and should not be allowed to communicate to Liberian audience while in the United States. Any act contrary to said notice will be a violation of the terms of the permit issued by the Ministry of Information and licensing conditions promulgated under the Telecommunications Act of Liberia.
Critics of the administration say, the government has crossed the line.
Coming on the heels of a Millennium Challenge Corporation Compact report showing the government scoring low on rule of law, civil liberties and political rights, diplomatic observers say, the decision is likely to further dampen perceptions of the government.
Expectations vs. Reality
When the President delivers his fourth Annual message Monday, in the backdrop of massive expectations from not just those languishing at the bottom of the economic ladder but also those eagerly expecting an aggressive response in the aftermath of the massive Midterm Senatorial elections losses.
While emphasis on infrastructure development and road connectivity play a key role in solidifying national support for the President’s agenda, the administration has its work cut out as an antsy nation, teetering on the fringes of a 2023 presidential and general elections with so much at stake for a government racing against time to deliver.
What has become abundantly clear after three years in office – and the aftermath of the senatorial election’s losses, is that Mr. Weah and his government has overstayed its honeymoon period. With the daunting realities now settling in, the writings are already peeling of the wall as the clock ticks toward what is no doubt an uncertain sprint toward the re-election finish line.