Liberia: Simeon Freeman’s Response to the President’s State of the Nation Address

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This speech is reviewed against the following backdrops:

  1. What has been done.
  2. What should have been done.
  3. What can urgently be done.

Creation of a New Organ of Government

  1. An Act to establish the Liberian Standards Authority
  2. There are about 100 public institutions in this small country. Revenue is already limited. Why establish yet another long-term liability for government?
  • We urge the Legislature not to establish any new public authority as this will place additional burden on limited resources.
  • We urge the Legislature to rather strengthen existing institutions like the Commerce Ministry to enable this outcome.
  • The Whistle-Blower and Witness Protection Bill;
  • Mr. President; Individuals who dare to expose major acts of inappropriate behaviour died mysteriously. Government response was most discouraging.
  • The best witness protection and whistle-blower act is investigation of the mysterious deaths of valiant men and women who dare to speak for the good of our country.
  • We urge the Legislature to encourage the Justice department to re-examine the available pieces of evidence to identify the true culprits in the several mysterious deaths.
  • By so doing, we would have ultimately strengthened confidence in our commitment to fight inappropriateness in Liberia.
  • Executive Order No. 94: Exempting the Liberia Electricity Corporation from Customs Duties and GST on Generation, Transmission and Distribution Equipment, Materials & Fuel;
  • Mr. President; prior to your ascendency, the previous administration spent about USD$120 million of government revenue on the Liberia Electricity Corporation. The return on investment is arguable.
  • Your executive actions have not guaranteed the availability of electricity nor a drop in the price of the product to the citizens.
  • I strongly advised, as I have said before, LEC, LWSC and LPRC must be privatized and by privatization, we do not mean – give it to foreigners – but set up the framework for a successful public/private partnership in which the government is only an equity holder with no say in the day to day running of the organization or a 100% private ownership in which Liberian businesses have competing equity and the GOL receives taxation and asset liquidation repayment over a period.
  • To this end, the MPC and Simeon Freeman avails its services – free of charge – to enable the anticipated outcome.

Economy

  • We thank the President and his government for retaining expenditure within the boundaries of the USD$518 million budget and the swift budget recast actions to avoid budgetary shortfalls. We think this is commendable.
  • We take note of the positive comments by the IMF about the improved fiscal space and thank the fiscal and monetary teams for this recognition by the IMF; but those comments ignore the larger low-banking-confidence that requires enhanced monetary restructuring to repair. The huge trade deficits, high unemployment/under employment and no GDP growth; which requires better fiscal and monetary actions to change the current trend.
  • The (CBL) Central Bank of Liberia and enhanced autonomy.
  • Mr. President; the CBL as currently constituted is very autonomous and independent however its underperformance is not caused by lack of additional autonomy but its abuse of authority.
  • The largest contributor to the current low confidence in the banking system is the CBL.
  • The CBL previously owed commercial banks about USD$65 million. CBL’s issued treasury instruments to Commercial Banks that should have been sold to the AFREXIM Bank was ultimately not pursued by the CBL.
  • The CBL/GOL secured an additional USD$25 million from the Commercial Banks with the hope that the USD$65 million would be liquidated by the joint CBL/AFREXIM Bank agreement that woefully failed.
  1. The CBL/GOL indebtedness to Commercial Banks is about USD$103 million dollars.
  2. If the CBL – a custodian of public funds – deposited in commercial banks, misused their reserves; that custodian needs significant restructuring and not additional authority.
  • The Kroll report highlights the lack of automation and ethically deficient approaches at the CBL.
  • LRD$16 billion was infused in the economy from 2016 July to 2018 December; without a single evidence that such infusion was done through commercial banks as required by law.
  • If the CBL is the biggest violator of the very act that created the institution, we must proceed cautiously with granting additional request to print money and autonomy.
  • We therefore urge the Chairmen of the committees on banking and Finance at both the House of Representatives and Senate to do the following:
  1. Engage with the USAID to finance a forensic audit of the CBL.
  1. To establish how printed monies are infused into the economy by evaluating how the LRD$16 billion plus additional recently printed LRD$4 billion was infused in the Liberian economy.
  1. To advise the CBL detailed automation process.
  1. To advise on setting up a local LRD printing mechanism to be outsourced with the requisite responsibility definition. It is costing us too much foreign exchange to print our own currency. This wastefulness must be halted immediately.
  • To review the human resource requirement of the CBL versus the task of the CBL.
  • To this end, the MPC and Simeon Freeman avails our services – free of charge – to realize this goal.
  • Mr. President; we are happy to hear the efforts made by your government to recognize and consolidate the total domestic debt stock and the discovery of the additional USD$170.63 million owed by the GOL to the CBL; that was not recognized or revealed by the previous administration. We suspect there may be more hidden previous GOL to CBL debts to be uncovered. However; your administration also added additional debt to the already threatened situation.
  • The following facts culled from the CBL report of 2019 speak for themselves:
  1. The total public debt by December 2017 was USD$878.20 million dollars; of which:
  2. Total Domestic Debt to Financial Institutions was USD$266.1 million.
  3. Total External Debt owed multilateral and bilateral institutions was USD$612.0 million. 
  1. The total Public debt by December 2018 was USD$1039.9 billion dollars; of which:
  2. Total Domestic Debt was USD$265.0 million dollars.
  • Total External Debt was USD$774.9 million dollars; up from USD$612 million the previous year.
  • This represents a borrowing of USD$162.9 million dollars.
  • May I remind you Sir; in your SONA to the Legislature on January 27, 2020; you indicated an approval granted by the IMF board to loan Liberia USD$213.3 million. You also told us that USD$23 dollars had been provided to the Government.  
  • One of the first policy actions of your government was an effort to borrow USD$500 million from a hitherto unknown entity, which proved futile.
  • We encourage you to enact a legislative instrument to cancel the USD$500 million unsuccessful borrowing attempt to avoid any unanticipated occurrences to your government or future governments.
  • The total Public Debt by December 2019 was USD$1248.3 billion dollars; of which:
  • Total Domestic Debt was USD$421.1 million dollars.
  • Of this amount, debt to Financial institutions was USD$368.1 million. A rise of USD$103.2 million dollars; which best captures the current treasury bill exposure of the CBL to Commercial Banks and GOL’s own infrastructure loans, borrowed from Commercial Banks. An issue at the heart of the current banking crisis in the country.
  • Other debt Services was USD$53 million; a rise of USD$52.6 million the previous year.
  • The total External Debt was USD$827.2 million dollars; a rise of USD$52.3 million dollars from 2018.
  • It is clear; that the Government’s principal means of financing long term infrastructure projects is through debt. Massive acquisition of debt has long term disastrous consequences for the future of our country. We urge you to please stop the massive debt acquisition.
  • We urge the National Legislature to enact no more debt instruments. The committees on Ways, Means and Finance of both houses of the Legislature should work with the Executive’s Financial Management Team, to develop new and creative ways to mobilizing domestic revenue and managed domestic expenses. Significant efforts must be exerted to review the current GOL expenditure objectives and objects of expenditure. A challenge that must be tackled by any well-meaning government.
  • To this end, the MPC and Simeon Freeman availed our expertise, free of charge, for the good of our people.
  • We gladly thank you Mr. President for commencing the repayment of domestic debt, which aids in growing the domestic economy. We urge you to spend the recent USD$48 million acquired from the IMF to repay Commercial Banks unconditionally.
  • Special attention must be lent to the Liberian Bank for Development and Investment because it is the only surviving Liberian bank of Liberia’s 9(nine) banks and the country’s only Development bank.
  • Mr. President; The Central Bank is heavily under capitalized and urgent actions must be taken by your government to recapitalize the CBL and tamed its operational expenditure to avoid the total dissipation of confidence in the banking sector. Should our suggestion be ignored, we may unfortunately witness the closure of some commercial banks sooner rather than later.
  • The MPC and Simeon Freeman availed our services to assist the taming of the CBL operational expense and recapitalization of the CBL while simultaneously building confidence in the commercial banking sector.
  • Mr. President; I do not share your optimism of a GDP rebound from -3.0% to 3.2% for the following reasons:
  • Covid19 has mutated and developed new strains that are provenly 70% more contagious and 30% more deadly.
  • Vaccine producers are based in the West and will immediately supply all production of vaccines to Western demands; which will only be satisfied by December 2021. Even if they were self-compelled by ethical considerations to sell to low income countries or judiciously market their production, they will be constrained by domestic public policy actions to refrain from such approach.
  • If the Pharmaceutical companies could produce vaccines in excess of their current production capacities, which is unlikely; Liberia clearly lacks the financial resources to order 2 million vaccines and as of now, we have not pre-order vaccines for our people.
  • Vaccines aside, the fundamentals of our economy are out of order. We are heavily reliant on importation of basic food supplies, exposing us to the least external shocks.
  • Extremely low banking confidence undermines investors’ confidence, and your government is yet to take steps to repair this situation.
  • Your government has developed no mechanism to enable a local import substitution infrastructure, which is necessary to spur economic growth.
  • There are no clear-cut local value-added incentives infrastructure; that is obtainable without much hassle. This makes it difficult to attract investors to a local value addition process.
  • The mining and rubber sectors are heavily challenged and will be for a long time. Gone are the years when few countries had iron ore, gold, or diamond mines. It is now so widespread globally that investors must decide where to go to exploit minerals or better still; which terrain is easily exploitable. Reliance on the extractive industry for economic growth has greatly hinder Liberia’s competitiveness and much anticipated economic rebound.
  • Our Educational sector is heavily based on academics; with little technical expertise nor have we created the technical capacities required for rapid economic growth.
  • It is against this background plus more that we do not share your optimism. Our fear creates an urgent need to strengthen the current Economic and Financial Management Team to do the following:
  • To review our current expenditures and objects of expenditures.
  • To expand our domestic resource mobilization capacity.
  • To invest heavily in the creation of import substitutes.
  • To review our current educational focus and redesign a mechanism that enables technical expertise from the county level to the Capital city.
  • To recapitalize the CBL and review its operational expenses.
  • To enable banking confidence
  • To rebase the Liberian economy using mobile money as an informal sector financial tool.
  • The team must deliver its recommendations in 20 days.
  • The team must consist of professionals from all political backgrounds. We must learn to work with people that did not support us for the good of our country.
  1. Mr. President, I strongly disagree with you that inflation was lowered from 30% to 12%.
  2. The outcome of bad investment in the CBL treasury bill by bank and non-bank financial institutions mobilized billions of Liberian dollars from the banking sector.
  3. The action disabled Commercial Banks’ capacity to pay depositors. Which ultimately led to SUSU Clubs withdrawing an estimated LRD$800 million from commercial banks; leaving behind only LRD$200 million of their LRD$1 billion to deposit.
  4. Large businesses similarly withheld deposits to enable other specific outcomes.
  5. The prices of all commodities on the market remained unchanged and consumers were greatly challenged by rising prices and declining exchange rates; which ultimately suppressed consumer’s purchasing power.
  6. while an appearance of inflation reduction was projected by the situation, the reality is untrue.
  7. Your citizens, the Liberian people, are enduring much hardship, caused largely by poor economic management approaches.
  8. We strongly encourage you, Mr. President, to change course; least your legacy is ruin and all that George Weah represents is lost forever to the memory of deep economic hardship. People are barely existing, and this must be arrested.
  9. To this end, the MPC and Simeon Freeman avail our services to help our country.

Mr. President, in one part of your speech, you claimed 40% of all banknotes in circulation is mutilated. In another part, you say 90% of all monies in circulation is outside the banking system. If 90% of the total stock of money in circulation is without the banking system; what mechanism was used to determine 40% of the total stock in circulation is mutilated?

These strong financial policy statements are intended to gain the sympathy of the public and Legislators to submit to the CBL’s demands for a new family of banknotes. Permit me to draw your attention a short history of the Liberian banking industry.

During the tenure of the Late former President Samuel Doe; he created a dual currency regime – beginning with the 7 corner LRD$5 dollars coin and ending with the JJ Roberts banknotes – with the hope that the then National bank; would have a better monetary policy framework. Years later, that framework was never realized.

Former Interim President Dr. Amos Sawyer; introduced the current Liberty/Legacy banknotes; to enable a better monetary policy framework. We witnessed the collapse of several banks in the 90s; when the minimum capital requirement was only USD$2 million dollars.

The current banking confidence was begun in the 90s. During the 2000s, commercial banks begun expanding outside Montserrado to rural Liberia. This encouraged deposits from individuals and businesses. The recent heightened banking confidence crisis cannot be printed away by the introduction of a new family of banknotes.

Former President Ellen Sirleaf printed LRD$16 billion in 2016/17; intending to retrieve mutilated Liberian Dollars Banknotes from the market but sadly, Kroll; the independent auditor, hired by USAID, did not see the mutes though the money was infused.

The MPC believes the following can be immediately done to incorporate the informal sector in the economy and stabilize banking confidence:

  1. Utilized the current mobile money revolution to build confidence.
  2. Convert all mobile phone numbers into a person’s tax identification number.
  3. Enable an information sharing infrastructure with Telcos to access the weekly volume of transaction per user.
  4. After profiling a person, the taxpayer’s income via mobile money can be taxed.
  5. Tax paid via Telco’s mobile wallet can be transferred to the commercial bank or the CBL.
  6. The CBL can grant permits to Susu Clubs and make definitions about their structure and capital requirement – effectively converting them into rural or community banks. They become transitory banks for larger commercial banks.
  7. Our goal is to increase the number of unbanked Liberians. The unbanked Liberians are either too far away from urban centres or do not have sufficient money to own a bank account. The above actions enable them to bank in structures they trust and GOL can raise revenue from them using mediums they trust.
  8. This ultimately grants the CBL the monetary leverage it needs to regulate our monetary policy and this approach gives the GOL increased revenue from Taxation and increased deposits from urban/rural money hoarders.

Petty Traders

  • Mr. President, we thank your government for the allocation of USD$2 million for petty traders and thank greatly the USAID for the USD$10 allocated for the same sector. We are however uneasy about the proposed distribution methodology. We think mobile money can be leveraged to avoid duplication and track revenue for taxation purposes. We strongly believe, this can be the starting point for an enhanced mobile money framework to lift it beyond its current – cash in cash out – structure. The MPC avails itself to assist in the realization of this goal.

Infrastructure Development

  1. We thank the government for the massive road networking drive amidst resource constraints. Roads are good and the country must be connected, however; these are massive infrastructural spends that must be aligned with a return-on-investment strategy.
  1. We strongly urge a local value-added drive, or we might just have a connected yet unproductive country with huge external debt and limited repayment capacity. Lessons must be learnt from the Monrovia to Ganta road corridor.
  1. We also thank the government for the houses built for our people at Popo beach and elsewhere. While this is commendable, we must develop a strong local housing policy to avoid the current haphazard arrangement that is driven by our response to disaster rather than a policy that enables the housing of Liberians nationwide.
  2. To this end, we strongly advise the utilization of public lands to build large scale housing estates, firstly for government employees and then for the General Public.
  3. This will be a significant attempt at planned and organized living for our people.

Agriculture

  1. Mr. President, Agriculture provides more than 60% of the total job stock while food and food related expenses accounts for a significant portion of our trade deficit, yet; you only encouraged a return to the soil. We are totally disappointed by this reaction to the sector.
  2. About USD$600 million was spent by donors on the Agricultural sector during the tenure of your predecessor. Since your inception in 2018 to date, about $30 million have been spent on Agriculture, though; we still spend about $260 million annually on rice importation.
  3. The MPC is ready to prepare an agriculture sector revitalization paper that will quickly resurrect the sector. If followed, Liberia could witness a dynamic double digit growth in less than 12 months.

Education

  1. We thank our students for the progress made in public exams and government assistance to the sector, however; significant actions must be taken to refocus our educational outlook. Liberian education is too academically based, and this hinders industrialization and the increased anticipated productivity.
  2. The private sector in Liberia does not need the types of graduates availed to the Job market.
  • We must refocus our educational system to a more technically capable educational system.
  • Support to Education must transcend free primary and College education. We must strongly consider the quality of our education and the impact it has on national development.
  • We must review and enhance the quality of the competence impacting skills to students across our country.

Integrity Institutions

  1. We enjoined our voice with the President, urging the Legislature to urgently pass the LACC autonomy act to grant persecutorial powers to the LACC. This will help the LACC to fight corruption cases faster.
  2. We also strongly oppose the setting up of another Criminal Court F. The existing Criminal Courts can be strengthened. The Judiciary is currently poorly funded with limited reach throughout Liberia. Increasing the size of the Judiciary is not the best way to enhance productivity and assure better corruption outcome.
  3. We remind the President that corruption has 2 indexes:
  4. The perception Index.
  5. The Act of corruption.
  6. The greatest fight against corruption is fought at the perception level.
  7. The head of the LACC is himself ethically challenged. He has times without number, presented multiple conflicting information about his date of birth and naturalization. He has woefully failed to redeem himself from these duplicities.
  8. It is therefore proper to categorically distance yourself from Mr. Nwabudike; as a demonstration of your commitment to ensure the LACC is chaired and run by individuals who are themselves capable of maintaining one wife and moral enough to fight corruption.
  9. We urge the Legislature to immediately pass a vote of no confidence in Mr. Nwabudike and deprive the LACC of all public resources until the President submits to the demands of the Legislature.
  10. Should the Legislature fail to do this, Liberians will enjoin the Legislature to the President in 2023 as those ruining the good name of our country.
  1. We also think there is a need to review the existence of the Internal Audit Agency(IAA), General Auditing Commission(GAC) and the LACC. These are multiple organizations with similar functions and seeking similar outcomes.
  2. There is a strong need to unite these into one small but effective integrity institution, realizing the same united goals of the three with better outcomes for our people.
  3. We hasten to state that the existence of laws or amended laws do not by themselves enable anticipated outcomes. The President must demonstrate the political will to persecute corruption and acts of corruption by his officials.
  4. We do not need a legislation for the President to ensure his officials declare their assets before, during, and after their tenure of service
  5. The President himself must be the fulcrum balancing out this very necessary need in the governance process.
  6. When the President declares his assets and seals it; it creates a perception-of-corruption and we encourage you, Mr. President, to be the fulcrum against the perception of corruption.
  7. To this end, the MPC and Simeon Freeman avail our services free of charge to realize this outcome.

Health

Mr. President; we thank your government for its dynamism in halting the Corona Virus spread in Liberia. A special thanks to our development partners for the direct budgetary support and NGOs; that braved the storm to assist Liberians. Today, Liberians are a lot less aware that the rest of the world still wrestles with a highly contagious virus.

Despite the gains made, hospitals across Liberia are terribly challenged, both infrastructurally and access to medication and operational support.

Our patient to doctor ratio is extremely limited. Government must take substantive actions to increase our patient to doctor stock throughout Liberia. The quality of Laboratories at most health facilities throughout the country is incapable of detecting nothing more than Malaria and Typhoid.

 Health workers remained deeply unsatisfied and actions must be taken to restore the confidence of health workers to enable better service delivery to our people.

Health Recommendation

To enable better health delivery, we suggest the introduction of a special health tax of 2%. This will fund the introduction of a compulsory public health scheme to be paid for by the GOL via the 2% tax. The scheme will work like this:

  1. All taxpayers will pay a new 2% compulsory health insurance tax.
  1. Corporate institutions will pay 3% health insurance tax.
  1. All Liberians will be entitled to an insurance card to be provided by private insurance companies.
  1. An annual LRD$8500 insurance card will be issued to Liberians.
  • This card will be used by Liberians to obtain or access health services at hospitals nationwide.
  • The government hospitals will be paid by the Private Insurance Companies per services provided.
  • If the available value on the insurance card is exhausted, the beneficiary can ultimately recharged it by paying additional premium to the insurer.
  • Regular operational revenue streams will be assured for public and private hospitals thereby enhancing performance and capacity.
  1. The issue of poor health facilities and salaries for health workers would have been silenced.
  • Mr. President, strong support must be lent by your government to our local medical doctor’s specialization programs. This will greatly increase the stock of specialist doctors.

General Conclusion

There are many low hanging fruits that remained ignored:

  1. An immediate visa waiver program could generate millions of dollars in tax revenue for Liberia.
  2. Liberia’s runway is about 11000 feet or about 4000 metres. One of the longest in Africa. Low airport service charges and refuelling cost will attract large and small carriers to our shores; significantly increasing traffic, reducing travel costs, and increasing government revenue.

Our overall competitiveness as a nation is deeply challenged by the type and quality of persons leading the charge in your government. Urgent steps must be taken to correct this approach.

We encourage you Mr President to conduct regular engagement with the opposition; by inviting us to present paper on aspects of the economy or the governance process. Ultimately, this will enhance the government’s overall output and result in a better Liberia.

Mr. President; you must never surrender your intellect to malice, petty anger and cheap gossips about your citizens and fellow countrymen. Some of the nation’s best assets may not have supported your ascension to office but they are richly endowed by God, with significant capacity, and creative dynamism; that ignoring them, hurts your legacy.

May the arbiter of human events, our great God of heaven and Earth, guide you, as you steer the affairs of the land of our nativity.

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