The Case for and Against Liberia’s Minister of Finance, Samuel Tweah and His Pivotal Role in his Country’s Development or Demise -Liberia’s Road to Recovery Series
Next to God, the Pope and a President of a nation, the finance minister is perhaps the most important figure of the land. His or her decision or indecision as is the case of many poor African countries like Liberia affects everything from the price paid for food, transportation, school fees and even the amount of taxes levied on basic essential products like toothpaste, cooking oil and electric bills. He or she also has the power to overtax the living and even the dead (death or estate taxes)- and they often do.
In Liberia, a country dogged by series of economic setbacks stemming from years of poor financial planning and management, Samuel Tweah has the unique honor of being the Finance Minister, who is also essentially both Liberia’s Chief Financial Officer (CFO) and Chief Development Officer (CDO). Part of his responsibility involves creating and managing the national budget of the nation. Liberia’s past and current finance ministers are more preoccupied with this task than their other responsibilities such as building Liberia’s broken domestic manufacturing, banking and industrial capacities: fishing, mechanized farming and creating a viable lite manufacturing sector that could produce essential household products like paper tower, toilet paper, pencil, etc.
Since the inception of Mr Tweah’s reign as finance minister of the Republic of Liberia which began in January of 2018, he and his squadron of deputies, emissaries and staff (almost a thousand of them) have been working and reworking the Liberian budget to support the initiatives of President Weah, his longtime friend and master. To say that Mr. Tweah is unqualified to manage Liberia’s development is inaccurate. Mr Tweah has one of the most impressive bureaucratic professional resumes amongst Liberians, spanning as far back as 2011. He was a consultant for the Finance Ministry under former President Ellen Johnson Serleaf. He also served as a member of the technical staff at the African Development Bank (the World Bank’s African equivalent) and worked at many UN and global International aid organizations.
Mr. Tweah graduated magna cum laude two decades ago from the University of Liberia (UL) where the bulk of his studies were in economics and mathematics. Perhaps, he envisioned to someday become a professor and help end Liberia’s long financial and economic penury. He later earned a Master of Economics Degree from George Washington University, a US University which ranks 181st amongst global universities according to The Times Higher Education Ranking; ahead of Wake Forest in North Carolina and American University in Washington DC, and about the same instructional ranking as Taxes A&M and Rutgers Universities.
During and after his studies, Minister Tweah worked at US Bank, the 7th largest American bank by market capitalization with almost a half-trillion dollars of assets under management. He did a stint at Citibank’s Auto Finance before returning to Liberia and beginning his long and arduous ascendency to the helm of Liberia’s top finance position, the Minister of Finance and Development Planning (MoFD). His most proud moment came went he was selected by President George Weah as the National Orator of the 171st Independence Day celebration, where he delivered the nation’s keynote address. Mr Tweah has the credential and experience to be one of Liberia’s best Finance Ministers in my opinion.
The Case for Minister Samuel Tweah
Neither minister Tweah nor President Weah caused Liberia’s economic and development crisis. In fact, they themselves are victims of Liberia’s venal political establishment, which throughout Liberia’s history was overwhelmingly controlled by Americo-Liberians (the Descendants of former American slaves who ruled Liberia for most of its 172 years of independence). President Weah played soccer in Europe and brought pride to Liberians despite his personal home being burnt down by the Samuel Doe militia; and, Minister Tweah worked with and assisted the Ellen Johnson Administration- although, he was not a member or a part of the Americo-Liberia elite class, who for years looted the country’s coffers and subjugated the Liberian indigenous class of whom both Mr. Weah and Tweah’s ancestors were subjected.
As the Finance and Development Planning Minister, Mr Tweah inherited what is equivalent to a foreclosed home in a rundown community; with no power grid connection, markets and limited resources to work with. Therefore, if he must succeed in his job, he will have to create both the policies and the instruments for development such as domestic manufacturing, the creation of financial markets (stock, bond and equity, etc.) and a strong Liberian owned and controlled banking sector that is capable of supporting and underpinning economic growth, employment and development.
The pressure to perform and improve the lives of Liberians, who collectively make up members of the fourth poorest country in the world is alluring. Liberians want immediate economic results and Minister Tweah’s boss, President George Weah, has promised to deliver that result as quickly as possible. Therefore, Mr Tweah is placed between the rock and the hard place. The minister must impress his boss’s ego and aspirations by delivering economic goods and services that will uplift the Liberian People. Doing so will help secure Mr. Weah and the Coalition for Democratic Change (CDC) a second term in office, even if this requires performing voodoo economics like cutting civil servant salaries and freezing hiring (contractionary policies) while at the same time expecting economic growth, which is now revised lower by the IMF from 2.6% in 2018 to .04% for 2019.
Minister Tweah is also expected to rescue Liberia’s falling currency which has depreciated more than 50% in the last year alone and is likely to depreciate another 50% by next year according to my own analysis. This is primarily due to conditionalities placed by the IMF as the bases for receiving any financial assistance, i.e., cutting the Liberian Civil Servant Wage Bill and reducing Liberia’s domestic expenditures, two very bad ideas (click link to read my article on this The Economic Case For and Against President George Weah, 2019).
Infrastructure development is a must for any emerging or poor economy and Liberia is no exception. It is also an intricate part of the Liberian Government’s Pro-Poor Agenda. But unlike lite manufacturing and government financial stimulus that have more immediate economic benefits, investment in roads and bridges take years if not decades to properly plan and build. Moreover, it takes even longer to evaluate its real economic impact. Notwithstanding, it makes a very good political statement and narrative for the ruling party. But national development requires sound economic thinking and logical development planning first and politics and grandstanding later. Building roads and bridges as oppose to building railroads first, for example, is fatal economic and development planning. Just as building more marketplaces to win votes and not well-equipped schools and universities is a bad national investment. President Samuel Doe built more modern marketplaces and even roads than most presidents in Africa at the time, yet by 1989 his government was bankrupted, indebted and economically impotent. Moreover, Liberians than, as do now, were faced with the indignity of joblessness while he (Doe) built elaborate stadiums and marketplaces, traveled foreign missions and rode around in extravagance presidential motor fleets.
This is while my prefer method for growing the Liberian economy and creating sustainable development is capital infusion. This is investing the money spent on extensive travels, ceremonies and high fuel cost into developing Liberian owned businesses and corporations. The Finance Ministry in conjunction with the Liberian Central Bank should undertake a massive capital injection program to avoid our economy from completely tumbling. This is what was done during the earlier stages of Rwanda and Singapore’s development transformation and is still being done today. I am willing to help the minister of finance device and execute such a financial capital injection and development plan.
India Finance minister, Nirmala Sitharaman, recently did just that to boost India’s slowing growth: she injected what is an equivalent of about $1.4 billion (mostly borrowed money) into India’s Housing Companies (click here to read that article). Liberia could secure at least $50 million from its current allocated expenditures to inject into lite manufacturing, agriculture and other high-growth industries, without cutting public servant payroll or jobs. In fact, this should create additional jobs and boost our GDP growth in the most efficient way.
The Case Against Minister Samuel Tweah
Minister Samuel Tweah should not be expected to transform Liberia’s failing economy in one or two years or even within five years, but he is expected to at least be able to effectively create and articulate a viable economic growth policy, but he has not. Furthermore, his focus should not simply be to create a national budget each year but to also ensure that that budget develops Liberian owned and managed industries, which will encourage Liberians abroad to invest in Liberia and even perhaps return home. With his fine western education and corporate experience, he should be able to speak directly and unabashedly to Liberians at every level as their Finance Minister and not as President George Weah’s or a CDC surrogate, which he often sounds like.
Minister Tweah should also make frequent appearances on Liberian Talk Shows to reach the bulk of Liberians living around the world. He should also entertain more interviews from Liberian journalists and not just government and foreign media. He should communicate via Liberian local social media platform and make personal calls to Liberian finance and economic professionals at home and abroad to help him with financial and economic solutions for the country. But one would be lucky to find a published phone number of Minister Tweah’s office or a contact information to reach him and offer economic solutions. It would also be great if a Ministry of Finance Facebook page was created in order to communicate to Liberians abroad, whose remittances and money transfers his government so heavily depend on. The CEO of JP Morgan Bank, the largest western bank in the world, published his email and phone number for all his customers to utilize and register suggestions, our public servants and president can emulate this noble act.
Liberians all over the world are and will continue to be Liberia’s biggest and most significant investors. Therefore, it will be of immeasurable benefit for the minister to start focusing more on Liberian professionals and investors and less on foreign investors and foreign governments. Remember the lion share of Liberia’s foreign exchange of about $200 million annually comes from Liberians abroad in the form of Liberian remittances!
Minister Tweah can be loyal to the president and still disagree with some of the outrageous political campaign rhetoric of his party; after all, he is the Minister of Finance of the Republic of Liberia and not the Finance Minister of the CDC or George Weah’s Inc. Going to meet the president at the airport after each foreign visit when he should be busy making sure our banks are well managed and capitalized and our civil servants are paid on time is ridiculous for a man with his intelligence and status. He should also be telling the President how to run the Liberian economy and not the other way around, which is why he was hired in the first place. He (Samuel Tweah) often act like he is still running the finances of his political party instead of the nation.
Finance ministers do not discuss monetary policy like currency exchange rates etc., this is the function of the Central Bank, therefore Mr. Tweah should not take questions or responsibilities for the decline of the Liberian currency or the printed currencies that went missing, but he has.
While I do not doubt that Mr. Tweah is perhaps one of the most qualified Liberian Finance Ministers in our country’s recent history, his shortcoming is that he sounds too much like a friend and political stooge of the President and this is one of his biggest setbacks. I do believe, however, that with time he will grow into the job and become more mature and expedient at creating or explaining Liberia’s fiscal and economic policies in a way that the average Liberian can understand and support his economic vision. Failure to do so will not only cause him his job sooner rather than later but also subsequently collapse the country into further economic chaos.
My plead is that Liberians, who are faced with one of the worst economic and social hardship of any country allow the minister a little more time to learn from his earlier mistakes and perform better going forward. However, to do this, he will need to quickly recruit an expert team of proven Liberians financial, economic, and other professionals from around the world to strategize and help rescue our failing economy as soon as possible in order to avoid a total currency and financial collapse.
I am of the hope that Liberia’s two most powerful people, The President and his Finance Minister will eventually grow and mature into their respective new jobs and deliver for the Liberian masses and not just provide jobs to their cronies. Hopefully they will do this soon enough in order to advert more social, political and economic unrest hovering over the Land of Liberty.
About the Author
Chu-Chu Alex Jones was born in Liberia to a Senegalese father and a Liberian mother. At the tender age of 13, he experienced the horrors of war, displacement, hunger and fear during the Liberian civil war which claimed the lives of over two hundred thousand people, including his father. As a result, he moved around West Africa and eventually migrated to the United States in 1996. After studying engineering, business and finance and earning a dual bachelors from Franklin University in Columbus, Ohio, he moved to New York City to work on Wall Street, where he became involved in global trading, international planning and global development.
Alex writes and speaks extensively on financial
and business issues including investment, banking, urban and global development
and the economics of poor countries and communities.
He is the founder and CEO of The Black Education Foundation and The Black Education Television, and the author of all five of the Development Manifesto: formula to dismantle inequality and promote urban and global development, to be published soon. Alex can be reached at [email protected]