After President George Weah delivered his third annual State of the Nation Address on Monday, January 27, the Collaborating Political Parties (comprising of the All Liberian Party, the Alternative National Congress, Liberty Party, and Unity Party), issued a response. The response was delivered by Alexander B. Cummings, the political leader of the Alternative National Congress, on January 28.
Fellow Liberians, yesterday we heard the president deliver his third annual address to the nation as required by law. The overall message from the president was that the state of our nation is stable. Contrary to what the president said, the state of our nation is weak.
Our economy is in a terrible shape. Prices on goods and services, from rice to transportation are increasing daily. Unemployment, particularly youth unemployment continues to increase. Teachers, nurses, doctors, and civil servants are not being paid on time. Liberians have to stand in long queues at banks to withdraw Liberian Dollars like we are a bankrupt country and now we are in longer queues to get petroleum products due to shortage on our market. The crime rate to include incidence of rape, armed robbery, etc has increased.
Today, our country is further divided along several lines, but, sadly, our president did not offer any immediate or long-term actions aimed at helping unite our people. Reconciliation was not mentioned even though he recognized the need for peace in Liberia, forgetting that peace is not the silence of guns; and there cannot be true peace without reconciliation. Our people are suffering and the economic hardship continues unabated.
In 2019, the economy contracted by 1.4 percent. Inflation increased to 31 percent, forex exchange went at high as 209 and the fiscal deficit hit US$200 million. Businesses, Liberian-owned and foreign, are losing money and laying off workers. Market women are forced to sell without profit. Last year, Sime Darby laid off hundreds of workers and closed its operations. Firestone also laid off 800 workers. Liberians are finding it more difficult to provide for their families today than they did before this government came to power.
Take the story of Dominic Kpadeh. He is a father of four children and a rock crusher from Montserrado. He and his co-workers used to earn US$1,000 monthly. Over the past 2 years, 75 percent of their income has disappeared. They are lucky to earn even US$250 per month.
Stories like Dominic’s are common all over Liberia. On our travels across our country, we interact with teachers, healthcare workers, and civil servants who used to earn salaries regularly for 12 years now are going months without salaries to support their families. Many civil servants now live on “sell-pay” and by “digging hole and covering hole.”
Market women, street vendors and small business people who depend on their daily hustles to feed and send their children to school are struggling to provide food for their families or pay school fees because businesses are doing poorly.
Liberians are hardworking and resilient people with enormous potential. We see our mothers, sisters, fathers, and brothers working hard daily to earn a decent living. So, the people are not responsible for the current economic hardship in Liberia. The president, in his speech yesterday, blamed our economic woes on trade and geopolitical factors and projected 1.4 percent growth in 2022.
If this was the case, our neighbors and other countries in the region would be experiencing similar, if not the same, economic situations. However, all of our neighbors are experiencing economic growth and projecting high growth for this year alone, 2020. For example, Sierra Leone is projecting 4.20 percent, Guinea 6.10 percent and Ivory Coast 6.5 percent. What this means is that our country will continue lagging behind our neighbors while our people continue to suffer.
Trade and geopolitics are not responsible for our economic problems. Rather, massive corruption and outright stealing by government officials, mismanagement of government resources, incompetence to implement economic growth and job creation policies, and reckless spending by the president are among the reasons for economic hardship. Example of reckless spending is the president flying all over the world on a private jet the country cannot afford while neglecting the cries for help for people struggling in the country.
This government is compounding the suffering of hardworking public and/or civil servants by reducing their salaries through its so-called harmonization policy. It is unacceptable to be reducing civil servants’ salaries that are not paid on time by 30-50 percent while prices of everything – rice, oil, chicken, transportation – are increasing by 30 percent.
This is not harmonization. This is a wicked and malicious attack on our people standard of living. Instead of harmonizing workers’ salaries, it is time for the president to harmonize his frequent private jet travels, cutback on building more mansions for himself, and cutback on the corruption that has taken center-stage in his government.
Rather, he was not truthful when he stated that he had met his promise of a 25 percent salary cut and was the first to have his salary harmonized. Fellow Liberians, it will interest you to note that after reviewing the president’s budget, particularly the salary component of the president’s budget of 2018-2019 and 2019-2020, there has been absolutely no reduction in the salary of President Weah.
In fact, our research revealed that the compensation portion of the budget of this current president which was US$381,414 in 2018-2019 was increased to US$494,949 in 2019-2020. Yet, the president, in his message, thanked you for your patience and understanding during this harmonization which he promises will continue, while his budget and wealth undergo multiplication.
Fiscal and Monetary Policy
Fellow Liberians, this government is grossly mismanaging the public finances, which further weakens the economy. That fiscal irresponsibility is evident by the government owing workers’ salaries arrears and unjustifiably increasing the public wage bill to about US$320 million from US$297 million by putting unqualified and incompetent political cronies on the government payroll.
This fiscal irresponsibility has drawn the ire of development partners like the IMF, who have insisted that the wage bill be reduced to 2018 level as a pre-condition to receiving budgetary support, as mentioned in the Annual Address. While we join the president to thank our partners for their support to our fiscal and monetary discipline programs, we call on the government to refrain from diverting donor funds as was done during the course of the year.
We commend the president for expressing his willingness to work with our partners in strengthening our monetary policy framework and for steps towards making the Central Bank more autonomous. However, we are alarmed by the president’s report on the increase in our debt portfolio from US$987.8 million at the end of 2018 to US$1.27 billion at the end of 2019. A US$282 million increase in our debt in just a year is cause for concern especially when the impact is not felt on the lives of our people.
On employment, attempts by this administration to fix unemployment through public sector hiring shows how incompetent their handling of economic governance has been over the last two years. The president admits to employing about 15,000 in just over two years. Government is not the place to grow jobs and reduce unemployment for political supporters and cronies. Instead, this government needs to create an enabling environment for the private sector to thrive and create jobs, but this government has failed to enable the private sector in the last two years.
The president cites the participation of Liberian construction firms in the construction of feeder roads as his achievement in keeping his inaugural promise that Liberians will no longer be spectators in their economy. On the contrary, Liberians continue to struggle to get financing to start a business or expand existing businesses and fully compete and participate in their own economy. Under this Weah administration, Liberians are not even spectators to their own economy because they cannot afford to enter the stadium to watch the economy game; but rather, are stuck at home.
However, we want to commend the president for the promise to invest in youth empowerment programs. While we note this as one of his many promises, we hope that this promise can be fulfilled in order to impact the lives of our young people and provide training and job opportunities for them.
On political governance, we are seeing the eroding of civil liberties under this government as political opponents and critics of the president and government face intimidation and threats regularly. Unfortunately, the president was again untruthful when he reported that citizens have enjoyed their rights under this administration and there have been no arrests nor guns shot in response to protests.
On the contrary, peaceful civil action, which is the bedrock of democracy, is being denied as we saw with the unjustifiable dispersal of peaceful citizens protesting current economic hardship and governmental corruption as noted by the National Independent Human Rights Commission. The [Collaborating Political Parties] empathized and sympathized with those injured on January 6, 2020 as the result of a state-sponsored crackdown on peaceful Liberians.
Contrary to what the president stated, 26 peaceful protesters were summarily arrested by the government during the Jan 6 protest held this month. Additionally, a peaceful protester was shot and killed in Kingsville, Number 7, Montserrado County along with two other juveniles that were injured by state security officers under this very administration.
In the case of corruption and unaccountability, as it relates to political governance, they remain key features of this government. This is even confirmed by the 2019 Corruption Perception Index report released last week ranking Liberia as one of the worst decliners in the fight against corruption worldwide.
Evidence of that is the handling of the US$25 million in the Mopping Exercise and the L$16 billion saga. A year on from these scandals, the government is yet to hold all those culpable as indicated in various reports. The president has shown no intention of slowing the construction of mansions and apartment complexes especially after failing to publish his asset declaration. We are left with no choice but to deem the president’s newfound wealth as “questionable.”
Yet the president wants us to believe that he is serious about the fight against corruption. He promises legislation to give the [Liberia Anti-Corruption Commission] prosecutorial powers but yet appoints die-hard [Coalition for Democratic Change] partisans and supporters to the LACC. The president claims to fight corruption but gave no rebuttal statement to the leaked audio of his national chairman of the CDC making allegations of corruption against him as president. This contradiction in what the president says and does is enough to let us know that it is all “mouth-talk.”
Fellow Liberians, in the president’s address yesterday, we heard him listing many projects, from road connections to education to agriculture and youth empowerment. We acknowledged some albeit little achievements. However, the majority of what the president considered as achievements, are in actuality not achievements but rather promises or negotiations that are yet to be implemented or concluded.
For example, the establishment of the Free Economic Trade Zone, Youth Empowerment program, the introduction of new legislation to fight corruption, expansion of RIA Highway, repair of traffic lights, and implementation or completion of projects, including most of the road projects he mentioned [were initiated] by the previous government.
The reality is that the 200 kilometers of community and feeder roads the president talked about is no more than 50 kilometers. Moreover, analysis by NAYMOTE-Partners for Democratic Development found that of the president’s 92 campaign promises, only 7 promises have been kept or completed in two years.
However, we remain somewhat hopeful. We welcome the projected return of GDP growth in 2022, but it is crucial to again note that our neighbors are projecting strong growth despite the geopolitical shocks our president blamed for the lack of growth in our economy. For example in 2020: Sierra Leone is projecting growth of 4.20 percent, Guinea 6.10 percent and Ivory Coast 6.5 percent. In short, President Weah is telling us to brace ourselves for an additional two years of suffering and hardship and as such, we will not celebrate projected growth but rather actual growth.
This is like celebrating a goal that has not been scored yet. Moreover, at a growth rate of 1.4 percent, it will take 72 years for the economy to double in size and reduce unemployment by 30 percent. Therefore, instead of heralding a projected growth number in two years, the government must take this opportunity to institute and implement economic and regulatory reforms that can generate higher economic growth and create jobs.
Fellow Liberians, despite taking almost two hours to address the nation, the president failed to mention the state of our health sector. It is even more alarming given the recent global health outbreak of the Coronavirus. While the first case of Coronavirus has been discovered in neighboring Ivory Coast, our president did not make a single mention of plans his government has already made to ensure that Liberia does not experience a repeat of the devastation the Ebola Virus disease caused in Liberia.
Our people are dying from preventable and curable diseases with little or no medical supply to cater to them. Currently, our hospitals are non-functional, labs are empty, no drugs, no electricity, death rate continues to climb, etc. The incidence of rape has increased dramatically because, despite the passage of the Domestic Violence Bill, this government has failed to invest in the health system, which plays an important role in the medical role of rape cases.
Conclusions and Recommendations
Fellow Liberians, the president’s speech yesterday offers no real roadmap for national renewal and economic recovery. And like the last two years of failed policies, his speech provides no hope and assurance to our people in these difficult economic times. It has been two years of no substantial success. Two long years of untold sufferings while the president and his officials live in luxury and splendor. Two years of foreign exchange rate increase. Two years of increase in the prices of basic household commodities. Two years of nothingness except wanton looting and rampant corruption. This is totally unacceptable! And should be to you as well.
Again, our people have suffered for too long. They have been made beggars in their own country just to survive. Their children are forced out of schools because they cannot afford school fees. Conditions are very bad for our people. In Monrovia and many places around the country, children have left schools to sell at street corners and the busy traffic. Most of our youths have been exposed to substance abuse. Pregnant women are forced to walk miles only to receive substandard treatment. Our hospitals and clinics are in deplorable conditions. Taxi drivers and motorists are parking their vehicles because they cannot afford the exorbitant price of gasoline and fuel. The same can be said for our Pen-Pen and Keh-Keh riders.
It is time to act. Yesterday’s message has heightened fears and deepened whatever tinge of any hope that was left as we waited to hear practical policy prescription on how to revamp the economy, return to good governance and avert further financial disasters that still lie ahead. We must act with some urgency to prevent the situation from degenerating into benevolent devastation.
The Collaborating Political Parties has been active in contributing ideas and solutions to solve the economic crisis unfolding in our country. At the recent UNDP-funded National Economic Dialogue, we submitted a set of policy recommendations to stimulate the private sector, create jobs, and promote investment. Therefore, today we are again recommending the following policies to jumpstart the economy:
We welcome the move by the president to address the following recommendations we previously made and request the government to make adjustments that will ensure greater impact.
- Focus on Domestic Revenue Generation
- by staffing the [Liberia Revenue Authority] with competent people and provide them with adequate operational funding.
- Ensure we are receiving our fair value share from our natural resources like iron ore, rubber, gold, diamonds, etc.
- Our economy is an import-based economy. Everything consumed here comes from abroad. Though the goal is to change that to an export-led economy, until that transition can occur, we are calling for the creation of an Import and Export Credit Facility to enable Liberian-owned businesses to access capital and financing to compete and participate in the economy.
- Review all resources and tax policies with regards to ease of doing business as a means of making it easy to start new businesses and creating employment opportunities.
- Remove or substantially lower tariffs and other import costs at the Freeport. This will lower the cost of imports thus lowering the cost of goods and services sold to Liberians.
- Removal of all monopolistic and import restrictions in the economy, particularly on key import commodities like rice. Under this current government, Liberians are still restricted to the percentage of rice they can import in their own country. Enough is enough. Stop restricting Liberians in their own country and let them freely and fully participate in their economy.
- Setup a special Agriculture Investment Fund to provide financing to small and medium-size farmers and agro-businesses to encourage and boost local rice production. With one of the most fertile lands in Africa and the World for growing rice and other commodities, it is unacceptable for Liberians to continue to rely on consuming imported rice.
- Resume funding to and staff governance and integrity institutions with competent people of integrity. Review acts establishing various anti-graft institutions to give more power to fight corruption in government.
- Investment in the health and legal systems to address the issue of Sexual and Gender-Based Violence. It is not a women issue but rather a national issue. Declare RAPE a national emergency and institute immediate reforms to address its prevalence. Our women and girls are dying.
- Reduction in government wage bill and an increase in public investments. Last year, this government invested only US$27 million in the economy. This amount is far below the estimated US$150 million annual investments needed to stimulate this economy. Cutting back on lavish foreign trips and riding private jet, high wage bills, and ending the stealing will leave more funds for increased public investment.
If these recommendations and others are considered and fully implemented, we assure you that Liberians will move from being spectators to starting players in their own economy and that the state of our nation will become stronger.
God Bless you and God Bless Liberia
Featured photo by Moses Bailey