Liberia’s President has Roads on His Mind

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Beijing, PRC – Former soccer star Weah is expected to seek funding assistance for his priority project to pave roadways across his country


Report by Alpha Daffae Senkpeni, [email protected]


When Liberian President George Weah addressed a huge, cheering crowd in his country’s biggest stadium on Jan 22, he confidently pronounced a common Chinese word that still resonates with many of his compatriots more than six months into his term as leader of the West African nation.

“To the People’s Republic of China, I say xie xie,” Weah said during his inauguration speech, drawing huge applause from the crowd.

“Our administration will continue to support the one-China policy. China has emerged as one of Liberia’s most dependable allies. It is my hope that the Chinese-Liberian relationship will grow stronger during my tenure as president.”

Now, when Liberians allude to Chinese-Liberian relations, they say “xie xie” (thank you) – a reference to the value their president and country place on the bilateral ties.

Indeed, Weah has a personal history with China, which helped set the stage for his illustrious career as a soccer player.

It was China that financed and built Liberia’s first modern soccer stadium in the early 1980s. It was in this stadium that Weah was scouted before going to Europe, where he ascended to the pinnacle of his soccer career, eventually being named FIFA World Player of the Year in 1995.

As president, Weah is cognizant of what many Liberian diplomats have called the “China factor” and how he can leverage it.

His government is eyeing opportunities through China’s globalization – multilateral collaborations like the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation and the Belt and Road Initiative – to realize Liberia’s Pro-Poor Agenda for Development and Prosperity.

The West African nation is already enjoying several projects through FOCAC, as the bilateral ties continue to be invigorated. It is a burgeoning relationship strengthened by mutual respect and cooperation, coming off the heels of a diplomatic bond cultivated by Weah’s predecessor, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

For his part in continuing the strong diplomatic ties, Weah recently reaffirmed his government’s commitment to the one-China policy.

Meanwhile, Liberia is preparing to participate in the 2018 FOCAC Summit in Beijing on Sept 3 and 4.

For Weah, it will be a timely trip to Asia and a chance to pitch his young administration’s priorities to the leader of the world’s largest developing nation.

Analysts say he will look to garner support to fund road projects in Liberia. Weah continues to pitch roads as his government’s top development priority to such organizations as the World Bank Group and the European Union.

“FOCAC has become a mechanism of collective consultation and dialogue between China and friendly African countries, providing a new platform of friendly exchange and cooperation between China and Africa,” said Josephus Moses Gray, a Liberian professor, during the 7th Meeting of China-Africa Think Tanks Forum held in Beijing in June.

For the Liberian government, FOCAC offers a way to solidify collaboration with Beijing amid prospects of tapping into the enormous opportunities also available at the multilateral level.

Regarding roads, it would seem that the Liberian government has fathomed a Chinese saying that “to get people out of poverty, roads must be fixed first”.

Weah has proposed a coastal highway to connect counties in the country’s southeastern region, which is cut off from the rest of the country because of poor roads.

“The roads for connectivity are vital. We have partners and we have revenue that we will make sure to come in to build our roads,” Weah told Reuters after his election in January. Since then, he has talked about roads everywhere he goes.

Liberia lacks paved roads across the country. From the capital to the hinterlands, the lack of even basic roads is seen by economists as one of the two major constraints hindering the country’s economic potential.

The country currently has approximately 12,000 kilometers of roads, but less than 1,000 kilometers of these are paved. Liberia’s minister of public works recently described the gap in road connectivity as a “national emergency and threat to national security”.

A World Bank study says the country would need around $3.5 billion to pave roads connecting the entire country. At the same time, the government is resolute about sourcing loans to fund its road construction programs for the next six years. It considers Beijing’s support as pivotal.

Weah and his government are also looking elsewhere for help, but have always kept an eye on the world’s second-largest economy. It’s not clear whether Monrovia would seek concessional loans from banks in Beijing, but its urge to find funding for its ambitious roads project is palpable.

Thankfully, China’s top diplomat to Monrovia frequently mentions his country’s commitment to help Liberia implement its Pro-Poor agenda. “China stands ready to provide a friendly platform for further mutual cooperation that will yield more sustainable benefits for our two countries and peoples,” said Ambassador to Liberia Fu Jijun at a recent ceremony in Monrovia.

Fu is also hopeful that the summit between President Xi Jinping and Weah will produce “a new frontier” for diplomatic relations and mutual cooperation for the two nations and its people.

Every Liberian – at home and aboard – knows China. They revere the Chinese for building infrastructure and helping during rough times, such as during the Ebola outbreak – and these are the tangible benefits of China that everyone mentions.

Support from Beijing has surged in recent years, ranging from human resources development to medical assistance.

Large-scale infrastructure, including schools, hospitals and roads, and hundreds of scholarships for Liberians to study at Chinese universities have deepened people-to-people relationships between the two nations.

Weah, no doubt, wants the biggest chunk of any new funding support to go toward his ambitious roads project, as he also looks to further cement his personal relationship with China’s president.

 

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