The Bush Chicken interviewed Taa Wongbe about his aspirations to replace Sen. Thomas Grupee as Nimbaâ€™s next senator in the 2020 senatorial elections. Below is a lightly edited transcript.
My Name is Jefferson Krua. Iâ€™m here with Taa Wongbe, whoâ€™s considering running for senator of Nimba. Taa is the CEO of The Khana Group and was also a senior advisor for the former presidential candidate, Alexander Cummings. As a disclosure, Taaâ€™s father was a cousin of my grandfather, who are both from Nimba. Taa, please introduce yourself and tell us why you are considering running for senator.
Iâ€™m the CEO for the Khana Group â€“ thatâ€™s my official title, and one of the things I do here is to manage the affairs of the organization. I started this organization about ten years ago with a vision to impact communities globally, especially in Africa, through data and innovation. So, we use data as a way to inform policy decisions and we work a lot with international organizations like USAID, the E.U., U.N. system, the World Bank, and others.
We have offices here in Liberia â€“ this office. We have an office in Ghana; we also have an office in Nigeria, and then the U.S. But weâ€™ve worked across Africa â€“ weâ€™ve worked across 18 countries in the subregion. This office is one of the biggest offices. We do a lot of research here and support a lot of programs across Liberia. So thatâ€™s my role here.
In terms of my interest in pursuing the senatorial role for 2020, itâ€™s focused on how we can be able to move Nimba forward. I really truly believe that Nimba County is blessed, but Nimba County is also cursed because of the leadership roles that weâ€™ve seen in the county over the years. And I believe that decisions that have been made in terms of the county and how to really support sustainable development, we have not thought about it in a more consistent way and in a more holistic manner.
And many of us who are from the private sector â€“ because Iâ€™ve never worked in government â€“ have been doing a lot in the county; however, Iâ€™ve stayed away from â€˜politicsâ€™ until 2017 when I immersed myself into the campaign of Alexander B. Cummings. And the reason why that was because I felt that Liberia needed a new breed of leadership and Liberia needed a new sense of direction. While we were not successful, we laid the groundwork for the future.
And through my work over the last ten years in Liberia, specifically, and in Nimba, Iâ€™ve seen some of the things that have gone wrong â€“ Iâ€™ve seen some of the things that have worked. Iâ€™ve seen some of the people â€“ the players. And a lot of the young people have been coming to me â€“ my people in Graie and from the Tappita region. Theyâ€™ve also been coming to me, talking to me about this role and Iâ€™ve been considering it, and Iâ€™m doing my consultation and engaging the people, and thatâ€™s an ongoing process. Iâ€™m really interested in how we can move Nimba forward, and thatâ€™s my interest.
Are there any specific legislative platforms you have or anything specific you want to accomplish if you get this position?
We have two sets of things that the people look at in terms of if they support candidates and the role as a legislator, as you will â€“ the traditional role, whatâ€™s around lawmaking, being able to do checks and balances to the executive branch. But because of the war and we have some challenges with the national government providing basic needs for the people, the people started to look at their representatives â€“ their legislators â€“ as ambassadors for them. So, there are two things â€“ you have to be a legislator, and you have to be an ambassador for them.
I believe one of the key things around Nimba County is agriculture â€“ and that is going to be one of my major focus. How can we leverage agriculture to support sustainable development in Nimba? Here is what I look at as one of the biggest things in Nimba â€“ we have a huge population â€“ over 500,000 people. Of that, we have almost 65 plus percent thatâ€™s youth. We have land; however, we are stuck in this state where we are saying we donâ€™t have roads; we donâ€™t have marketplaces; we donâ€™t have money to do X; we donâ€™t have money to do Y. What I believe is we can leverage what we have. We have the youth; we have land.
I was talking to a guy â€“ a good friend of mine from Cote d’Ivoire. He was talking to me, and he said, â€˜Taa, I like your platform, I like what youâ€™re doing.â€™ And heâ€™s a multimillionaire, and heâ€™s involved in agriculture, and heâ€™s a farmer. And I was thinking, Liberia [and Cote Dâ€™ivoire] are neighbors, and we have millionaires out of Cote d’Ivoire. We can do the same out of Nimba County. We have the corridor â€“ the Logatuo corridor, we can do cocoa from there. We have the Buyao corridor, around the border between Liberia and Butuo there, we can do that there. At one point in time, Logatuo was the second highest port in Liberia because of the cocoa sector. We have a lot.
Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire produce around 60 percent of the worldâ€™s cocoa, and theyâ€™ve been looking at how they can add value to the cocoa sector. I was in a meeting with some folks and the African Development Bank, and they want billions of dollars â€“ they want to invest in terms of adding value to the cocoa. We can be able to provide through Nimba â€“ Nimba is right there next to Cote d’Ivoire. We can be able to add value to our cocoa sector to be able to develop peopleâ€™s lives.
At the end of the day, development is about putting money in peopleâ€™s pockets â€“ improving their lives. So thatâ€™s one of my key focus, in terms of how we can use agriculture as a mechanism and a vehicle to develop the county and then create funds in all of the districts â€“ there are nine districts. Allow every district to have its own agriculture project â€“ things that can build peopleâ€™s lives up and use the funding to build our own roads. Weâ€™ll create our own funding, if you will, and not be dependent on government funds.
So, these funds will not come from the government? Where will they come from?
No, the funds wonâ€™t come from government. Itâ€™ll come from the projects that we will be investing in. Thatâ€™s why we will leverage institutional investments. Weâ€™ll leverage our relationships with private investors. Weâ€™ll leverage our relationships with people in the subregion. Weâ€™ll leverage our relationships right here in Liberia.
By the way, you may not be aware, but even LBDI has funds for certain things. There are people that are doing manufacturing of rubber smoked sheets â€“ different types of agriculture happening. For rubber smoked sheets right now, Thailand is the biggest provider of that globally. And it creates a lot of jobs right here. And LBDI is funding different activities. And [there are] also private investors. These are things that I believe that we can be able to do from Nimbaâ€™s standpoint.
Itâ€™s something Iâ€™ve done already in Nimba â€“ a US$1.4 million agriculture project for women, not only in Nimba but in Bong as well. I lobbied when the project came. It was a womenâ€™s group that supports women, especially women that are disadvantaged. So, itâ€™s supporting womenâ€™s agriculture projects. Right now, itâ€™s still in the design phase, so they donâ€™t have a name, but itâ€™s a group out of Canada and the U.S. thatâ€™s supporting women. Itâ€™s called Women Empowered.
Are there any laws that need to be passed to create this environment? Iâ€™m also curious about some of the challenges that agriculture faces in Nimba, especially the bad road network. How will you tackle that to ensure that your plan can materialize?
One, we need an enabling environment, and weâ€™ll work with the national government to ensure that we have an enabling environment. We just have to do that. Thatâ€™s very important. This is why Iâ€™ll push the legislature so we can actually be able to create those environments â€“ incentives, tax incentives, tariffs, certain policies, in terms of price transparency so we can be able to support the enabling environment. The other thing I believe thatâ€™s important, and by the way, Iâ€™m focused on the private sector because the private sector is jobs. Thatâ€™s why Iâ€™m focused on this. The private sector creates jobs. The government does not create jobs; the government creates the environment for the private sector to come in and create jobs. So thatâ€™s my focus. And Iâ€™ve been in the private sector for all my life, so I know how to create jobs. Iâ€™ve been creating jobs for years â€“ 10 years here in Liberia and all across Africa. So I understand how to create jobs, and I understand how to build businesses, and that will be my focus.
You talked about what we can do to look at the [bad road network] challenges. We know the troubled spots. Itâ€™s there. We identified some of those troubled spots. Weâ€™re trying to work through to fix some of them, so we donâ€™t have those challenges â€“ huge challenges during the rainy season. But the national government is already paving â€“ the funds have been provided to pave some of the roads. Theyâ€™re just taking a long time, and those things will happen. Thatâ€™s why I said letâ€™s focus near borders. If we focus near borders, itâ€™ll be easier.
For example, the Tappita way to get to Grand Gedeh, we have the Butuo side, and we have the Logatuo side. And then we have the Ganta side. So we have a lot of different entry points â€“ and then we have the Yekepa side. So we have different sides to really be exporting those commodities weâ€™re talking about â€“ or maybe even consumption of those commodities.
Right now, we have a situation where â€“ I was telling some folks, years ago, I planted over 20,000 plantain trees, and under the plantains, we planted some peppers or stuff like that. I sold each of those plantain bunches for about a dollar or so, and we saw revenues. So, there are so many things we can be able to do when it comes to agriculture.
Imagine 20,000 plantain trees and youâ€™re selling each bunch for maybe a dollar and the plantain trees, they sometimes produce three bunches. Do you know that in 2016 in Liberia, Liberia had a shortage of plantains because of Cote d’Ivoire because that is one of their biggest means of eating starch? So we have the ability to actually export our plantains.
Nigeria imports almost half a billion dollars in palm oil. So there are markets right here in the subregion that we can have access to. The African Development Bank said that within the next ten years, agriculture products will reach almost a trillion dollars. So we have a lot of opportunities â€“ we have land and we have the people. Policy decisions to be able to tap into those markets will be the key and thatâ€™s one of the things Iâ€™m focused on.
What do you think is a reasonable salary for a lawmaker?
I have not actually thought about it in terms of a â€œreasonable salaryâ€ but what Iâ€™ve told the people of Nimba is this â€“ money is not why weâ€™re doing this (specifically me) because personally, God has blessed me and Iâ€™m OK. But I believe the money that is coming is for the Nimba people and this is why I said initially, whatever money thatâ€™s gonna be coming in, US$10,000 a month will be going back to the people of Nimba. I donâ€™t know what the number is, but I know itâ€™s above US$10,000. Iâ€™m saying that US$10,000 will be used to invest in Nimba county every single month and thatâ€™s what Iâ€™m going to do. In terms of lowering that, Iâ€™m not sure I will be able to push it. Any bill that comes out in terms of lowering salaries, Iâ€™ll definitely support it.
But what is a reasonable lawmaker salary to you for a country like Liberia?
Liberia, we need to lower it. I do believe so. Right now, 50%, weâ€™ll be fine. If youâ€™re saying itâ€™s US$17,000 â€“ I mean, I donâ€™t know what lawmakers make, by the way. I think US$5,000 per month is good. I really do believe so. Thatâ€™s about US$60,000 [yearly] â€“ itâ€™ll be very good. The other thing is there are other benefits every single year â€“ like education benefits, agriculture benefits, and all of these things. So from a salary standpoint â€“ salary, take home, US$5,000 a month is good.
Do you think those other benefits should be there too?
I think those benefits are good If theyâ€™re using it for the people in the right way.
But why should it be something they personally control, regardless of if theyâ€™re using it in the right way?
I think the caucus controls it and they use it on the constituents. Thatâ€™s why Iâ€™m saying, if itâ€™s used on the constituents, then thatâ€™s a good thing. If itâ€™s not being used on their constituents, then we have to look at that as well.
Senators also have nine-year terms. Whatâ€™s your opinion on that?
I feel like itâ€™s too long â€“ it should be six years. It should be in alignment with everything else. It should be for six years.
Is this something you would push for?
I would absolutely push for it. Iâ€™ve spoken to legislators about this and we need to get rid of this nine years thing. You know I was in Gormaplay and this young guy came to me (heâ€™s 20 right now). And he said to me, in 2011, he didnâ€™t vote because he was young and he said that the decision people made for him got him to where he is because heâ€™s not going to school. He graduated from high school but heâ€™s not going to college and heâ€™s just sitting there. And he said, Taa, Iâ€™m going to support you. Now Iâ€™m of age to support, Iâ€™m going to support you. So I can own my own future â€“ that my little brother cannot have that situation that happened to me.
For me, thatâ€™s a story that resonates with me. Itâ€™s just too long. Itâ€™s a long time. If we had the presidency at four years, I would definitely say letâ€™s actually have four-year terms for our senators as well.
Iâ€™m sure youâ€™ve been following the impeachment proceedings that recently occurred. One notable thing that happened is that the voting was in secret. When laws are proposed, drafts are not made available online or in the library at the legislature. What will you do to ensure that thereâ€™s transparency within the legislature so that the Liberian people can better understand the work you do?
Thereâ€™s this program thatâ€™s called Posse. Years ago, they used to take top kids from the inner cities and send them to Harvard, Yale â€“ they would send them to these schools. They realized that when they took those kids to top schools, they were not performing. They did excellent in their communities but when they went to the schools, they were not doing well. And they asked the kids, â€˜Whatâ€™s going on.â€™ And the kids said â€˜I donâ€™t have my posse with me â€“ I feel like my friends are not here. My friends that I roll with are not here.â€™ And it led them to change the program to create a community around them and what Iâ€™ve seen is that people succeed when theyâ€™re surrounded with likeminded people that could inspire some level of excellence.
And thatâ€™s what will be my focus â€“ trying to bring people on or work with existing people so that we can be able to change the system. It will not be done overnight. This thing has been going on for a very long time. Transparency is an issue and it speaks to integrity, it speaks for a lot of things. One of my core values â€“ if you walked into the office, you saw some of our core values there â€“ itâ€™s about integrity, itâ€™s about transparency, [and] teamwork. But we have to work with the existing people and say, letâ€™s make this thing transparent. But in the event, you have to create that environment where you have, you speak to other people and tell them, letâ€™s work through a newer system, letâ€™s make this thing transparent.
Letâ€™s allow the Liberian people to trust us, to know that we are not doing anything wrong â€“ weâ€™re not doing anything bad. We canâ€™t change anything overnight â€“ letâ€™s be clear about it. But we can be able to create a caucus â€“ a transparency caucus â€“ that can be able to push. And the sooner we have other people coming on, the better itâ€™ll be in my mind.
There must be some specific steps that you yourself can take. What would that be?
We can put bills through. We can help to change policies. But if the people decide they want to step on it, theyâ€™ll step on it.
Part of the issue is simply not knowing what our lawmakers are doing and not being able to have a record or trail to track their actions. Would you establish a website that tracks all bills you vote on?
FYI, Iâ€™m gonna do that anyway. That doesnâ€™t change how people vote though. As we speak, my website is being developed. Iâ€™m gonna be putting out information consistently. The issue is we need to make sure that not only Taa is doing it, but a lot of other people are doing it â€“ so thatâ€™s the community Iâ€™m trying to talk about. When Iâ€™m successful, I can assure you that youâ€™ll see bills being pushed out â€“ information being pushed out. But more importantly, I believe that community to change the system is what I believe thatâ€™s the bigger thing. I can push out bills all the time but youâ€™ll still not know who voted for what. But if we have about 10 people, about 12 people who say, Iâ€™m gonna make my vote public â€“ thatâ€™s what happened in the associate justice case. Some people made their votes public to show that they voted against.
Your late father was a respected statesman from Nimba. Your mother is from Lofa. Why did you choose to run for Senator in Nimba (and not Lofa) and was that a difficult choice for you?
It was not a difficult choice. It was not a choice between one county and the other county. I do a lot of things in Lofa right now. I do. Iâ€™ve done scholarships, Iâ€™ve supported people â€“ investing in agriculture projects and other things. My little brother, who Iâ€™m very proud of, heâ€™s doing agriculture in Lofa as well and weâ€™re supporting these initiatives. Itâ€™s not a choice of Lofa versus Nimba.
My father had this innate passion for Nimba and he put that in me and I spent â€“ in fact, during the war, I read that at one time, my family couldnâ€™t see me. I used to sell kerosene, I used to sell coal, I used to sell [unintelligible] to Nimba. Thatâ€™s where I was. I used to go through the border and bring in cigarettes, bring in dry goods, stuff like that. Thatâ€™s what I did. And I had this innate passion for Nimba County. And both counties. I do things in both counties.
My late father always told me, â€˜No matter where you go, Taa. You can be whoever you wanna be in the U.S. and globally. There is nowhere better than home.â€™ And I felt at home in Nimba County. In fact, I donâ€™t really spend most of my time in Monrovia. Iâ€™m always in the county. Even before then. A lot of people who know me say, Taa canâ€™t say anything without saying Nimba, Nimba, Nimba. Because I have a raw passion for Nimba. And not only the people of Nimba, but Liberia as a whole. And this is why I feel like my first representation, in terms of how I can be able to inspire change, is through Nimba County and there I can work with other people in other counties to be able to bring about change. So itâ€™s never about picking between the two counties.
The people in Nimba are quite traditional and theyâ€™re very tied to their languages. Do you speak any of the local languages there?
I understand Gio. I speak a little bit of it, not a lot, but I understand it well. When I was born, I was born in Nimba, but the coup came and we had to leave, so I didnâ€™t have the chance to spend my formative years in Nimba, where you can be able to learn the language, unfortunately.
Nimba is quite a diverse county. On the surface, it looks like a county of two major tribes, the Man and Dan and their cultures can seem quite interwoven and united to outsiders, but Nimba is quite divided when you peel away at the layers. Thereâ€™s a call for the county to be split right now. Lot of people in Lower Nimba feel like the other half of the county isnâ€™t pay much attention to them. And thereâ€™s also been some comments by public officials who have tried to divide the Man and Dan people. Whatâ€™s your understanding of the challenges for a united Nimba and what do you plan on doing to ensure that Nimba remains united and gets stronger?
Just yesterday, I took a picture right in this office and I posted it. It said â€˜One Nimbaâ€™ and thatâ€™s what I believe in â€“ one Nimba, a strong Nimba, a united Nimba. And letâ€™s be clear about that â€“ I donâ€™t believe in a divided Nimba. I believe that we always find a way to separate ourselves. If itâ€™s not the Dan and the Man, itâ€™s the Krahn, itâ€™s the Mandingos, the Muslims, itâ€™s the people from Gbii area â€“ weâ€™re always finding a little way.
I can guarantee you, if I put ten people in a room, they will find a way to be divided into groups. Thatâ€™s just human nature. But we need to focus on what we can do as one county to ensure that everyone benefits from the development we have in Nimba County. And that will be my focus. Ensuring one Nimba, but more importantly, that people benefit. People have to benefit from the development we want to bring into Nimba.
There will always be distractions. We should be aware of that. And I believe sincerely that weâ€™re not going to change things overnight. Years ago, my late father was a writer. He used to write about Nimba and one of the stories he wrote about was â€˜Nimba on a Swinging Bridge.â€™ Even in the 1960s, there were calls â€“ before I was born â€“ for a divided Nimba. And guess what? Weâ€™re still here. Nimba is still strong. We just need to keep most of the folks who believe in this â€˜stronger Nimbaâ€™ together so we can be able to push the message to our people.
You mentioned the Mandingo. There have been some land disputes between them and other tribes, especially around the Ganta area. Whatâ€™s your understanding of the land issues and how do you think that can be resolved?
Iâ€™m not sure if youâ€™re aware of this, but most of our conflicts we have globally â€“ from the bible days- come from land. Itâ€™s all about land acquisition or someone taking the land. Itâ€™s always been about that. My father used to tell me, â€˜Taa, thatâ€™s one thing God is not making any more of â€“ land. So, understand that, invest in it, and protect it.â€™
I believe that Nimba has two tribes, if you will, originally, but we had a migration of people that came in and people bought some land. And you know we from Nimba, weâ€™re very welcoming to strangers. Now weâ€™re in an era where weâ€™re a united country. I can go to Grand Kru â€“ a Nimba man can go to Grand Kru and own land there and I donâ€™t think someone will say this is not your land if I bought it â€œin the right manner.â€ I think the national government has a role to play in this conflict, in these challenges. I think the national government, through Madam Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, it had some interventions. But those things were not implemented right. I think there needs to be another way for us to bring everybody together to talk about the land conflict, to talk about how we can resolve this once and for all. I donâ€™t have all the answers, but I do know that there needs to be a conversation. We need to have a conversation over how there needs to be â€“ everyone to sit around a table to talk about how we can resolve this. Because if we donâ€™t, this could turn bad and thatâ€™s a huge challenge.
I was just in the county and people called me to talk to me about this land issue and I told them that one of the first things I will do â€“ because I know most conflicts came about because of land â€“ is to call a forum together with all of the legislative caucus members, the elders, the parties involved, and then weâ€™ll come to the point where all the stakeholders meet before we bring it to the national government to say this is the solution.
Because if we donâ€™t dialogue, I fear that there would be some major challenges and we need to dialogue, and thatâ€™s my focus â€“ how can we be able to resolve this. And right now, people are not talking. Theyâ€™re not communicating. Â So no one is championing a way for us to create a solution to that. So, I think there needs to be more that we can do.
Youâ€™ve spoken several times at the Nimba County Community College. The college is at a point where many politicians are calling for it to be turned into a four-year institution, but as you may know, in the recent past, they have barely been able to pay their staff. What do you think is the way forward and how do you think we can get there?
I must say to you, that college is one of the places I view as â€“ there was so much innovation there through Dr. Yar Gono. I donâ€™t know the current president well, but I do know the past president, Dr. Gono, a mother of mine. She did extremely well. Every time I went on that campus, there was something new happening. She would advocate and I would support the advocacy as well. I been supporting students at that place since 2014. As recent as three weeks ago, we provided, I believe about US$500 to support students at the college, so this is something Iâ€™ve been doing all the time.
Iâ€™m really passionate about Nimba County Community College. We do need a four-year college in Nimba. With the population of people we have, we need that. We need to invest in education. Education changes everything. I do really believe that we need to invest in education, and thatâ€™s on the national level. So we need to lobby. But it goes back to the things I was saying â€“ we have a development budget for the county. Itâ€™s very small. We need to grow that budget. And how do we grow that budget if we keep depending on the national budget? We need some innovation.
And thatâ€™s one of the things Iâ€™ve been talking about before Dr. Gono left â€“ how can we partner with existing universities to send teachers to teach our teachers there, so we can have quality in our education there. Itâ€™s not just about expanding it to four years, because you can expand it to four years and have poor quality in the education system and itâ€™s just going to be as bad.
So for me, itâ€™s not just about expansion, but expansion in terms of the quality in education. Expansion in terms of how weâ€™re going to pay our teachers, expansion in terms of the actual physical buildings, if you will, the expansion in terms of being able to meet the obligations to the students. Those are the key things that Iâ€™m worried about and Dr. Gono always had good ways to go out there and lobby and advocate with the international community and I think thatâ€™s what we can do.
We donâ€™t always have to depend on the central government. The central government, in terms of the policies, yes. In terms of making sure they come and assess the readiness of the institution to gain four-year university status, yes. But more than that, the leadership within the institution needs to look at how we can be able to leverage other resources outside, but what are we thinking about long-term. And thatâ€™s what I believe Dr. Gono was doing. I believe that we need to revisit some of those conversations. Because we can talk about expansion all we want, but if the quality is not good, weâ€™ll have challenges.
So thatâ€™s one of the things, and I plan to visit the â€“ it was two weeks ago that we did the donation. I plan to go back there to meet the new administration, the new leadership, to talk to them about what their goals are clearly because that college, Iâ€™m very passionate about it. So many students go to that college â€“ so many students. I run into them all the time across the county.
You mentioned the issues and challenges weâ€™re having with the county and social development funds. Lots of counties donâ€™t get their money on time because the government doesnâ€™t always have funds to transfer to counties and then even for Nimba, in the past when we have gotten the funds, there havenâ€™t been a lot of dividends that have come from it. How do you plan to address these issues â€“ being able to access our funds on time and also ensuring that the funds are used properly?
I will not solve all the issues. Iâ€™ll prioritize, but we will try. What Iâ€™ll tell you is this, though. Weâ€™ll try and weâ€™ll look at means to have things under our control. This is why I go back to leveraging other areas that we can have control over â€“ and thatâ€™s that fund that Iâ€™m talking about. Because we may not be able to change the system. We can lobby, we can push, but if we have control over our funds, and how much comes to the county? I think about US$250,000
The social fund is about one point something million dollars.
The US$250,000 plus the social development fund, if you calculate it and divide it by the population, itâ€™ll be not even a dollar. I think maybe US$2 per person. And thatâ€™s nothing in terms of development. Thatâ€™s nothing. And you can create a project â€“ an investment â€“ that you can be able to yield US$2-3 million from one district that can be able to invest in roads for that district. You can do that.
I think weâ€™re thinking too narrow in terms of where we get the money from. I think weâ€™re thinking too narrow. We need to be broad in terms of our thinking and our innovation. And I really do believe so, because we canâ€™t keep thinking about government, government, government. Government is not right now expanding the national budget. We donâ€™t have expansion â€“ in fact, itâ€™s contracting. So we need to be thinking about ways to create value â€“ to expand our budget. And how do we do that? Through private sector investment.
And by the way, let me say this. I do believe that Nimba is one county that uses its money responsibly.
Even if you have this private sector investment, the way Liberia is structured, everything is centralized. Taxes come to the central government and the Nimba people will not benefit from it. Iâ€™m not exactly sure what structure you plan on having.
Itâ€™s not going to be a government structure. Itâ€™s going to be a private-public partnership with the administrative district and weâ€™re going to create a way that the district actually owns shares in there â€“ itâ€™s going to be their project. Weâ€™re going to create an environment where thereâ€™s clear transparency in terms of the funds. Also, what are the priority areas we are going to invest in? So imagine you have a project thatâ€™s yielding, in one district, 250,000 annually. You pay your taxes and everything else, youâ€™ll get your 250,000. That 250,000 goes to that district. That 250,000, in terms of profit, you can now invest that money directly into areas. Thatâ€™s what weâ€™re talking about â€“ weâ€™re not talking about the government owning or controlling anything.
Do local governments have the legal authority to enter into such agreements right now?
They have to go through the central government, but the way how it works, youâ€™ll have to create a community of interest â€“ people interested in this outside of â€œgovernment.â€ What does this mean? Some of the lands that will be provided could be land from individuals in that town, or maybe the townâ€™s own land.
Iâ€™ve seen this done in Kenya, Iâ€™ve seen this done in Rwanda, Iâ€™ve seen this done in Uganda. Iâ€™ve seen this done even in Ghana, where an entire town is transformed through agriculture â€“ through cocoa, through shea nut. Iâ€™ve seen that done.
I have a track record here in terms of building businesses. I understand this stuff. Thatâ€™s why I believe the private sector is the way to go. While weâ€™re planting these things and theyâ€™re growing, weâ€™re creating jobs. We can create at least 50,000 jobs per district through agriculture. 50,000 jobs, at the least.
Youâ€™ve seen how with President George Weah and senior members of his administration, we have cases where itâ€™s difficult to know where their personal wealth ends and where the publicâ€™s wealth starts. And there are lots of concerns that the countryâ€™s wealth is being exploited. Will you publicly declare your assets?
I will publicly declare my assets. When Iâ€™m filing with the NEC, I will declare my assets.
Additionally, you run a company in this country. How will we know where your financial ties are and how can we be sure that your companies will not benefit improperly if youâ€™re elected.
Iâ€™ve been in business for ten years and one contract has not come in from the government and weâ€™re going to stay that way, period. Never, not one contract has been signed by the government. We donâ€™t even go after government contracts these days.
You may not have contracts with governments, but thereâ€™s the potential that someone who invested in the Khana Groupâ€¦
The Khana Group is mainly owned by myself and the partners.
â€¦Or maybe one of your large clients or maybe someone you owe favors
All of the work I do is competitive bidding. I work with international development companies and you have worked with them â€“ you know that everything is competitive bidding and weâ€™re very competitive, I can assure you.
So you havenâ€™t done work for private companies or individuals?
We have worked for private companies and those private companies are like banks and others, but again, itâ€™s competitive bidding.
Iâ€™m just wondering whether the public will have access to see what connections the Khana Group has had with people in the past, just to know when these issues of potential conflict of interest arise.
Weâ€™re a private company, but we can provide our client list. Thereâ€™s nothing we hide here. We can provide our client list. Some of them are even on brochures we have. We have some of our clients on brochures. We have them on the website. When there are situations where thereâ€™s a client we signed non-disclosure with, where they want a very private work done, we donâ€™t disclose. But 99 percent of our clients, we can disclose.
So you have a wife and a child, and they both live outside Liberia. And you travel abroad extensively. Liberians here have a certain resentment toward public officials who want to govern the country but want to keep their family abroad, whether itâ€™s a result of them not trusting the health system or the education system, and it brings up the question â€“ why should we trust you to be in charge of something that it doesnâ€™t seem like you may properly understand the issues because your children are not here going to public schools or every time you get a medical checkup, itâ€™s outside the country. Why should we trust you with our county?
I have children â€“ three.
Madam Sirleaf lived outside of Liberia extensively. Her children lived outside of Liberia. Currently, President Weah, his wife lived outside Liberia. His kids live outside Liberia and heâ€™s currently the president. I can go on and on about people, their children, and even people who ran for offices.
We should not equate passion and loyalty to Liberia based on where families live. My wealth and my dedication have always been Liberia. This is why the headquarters for my company is in Liberia. This is why we create over 300 jobs every year in Liberia. This is why I live here. Iâ€™ve been doing that for over ten years now. My first time coming back home was in 2007. I went to the states in 1999 and while I left, my heart didnâ€™t leave Liberia.
I saw a picture on Facebook yesterday. Facebook reminded me ten years ago â€“ 2009, I was lobbying for Liberia in D.C. I was [unintelligible]. I was a much smaller Taa â€“ a younger Taa. But weâ€™ve been doing this stuff for years not because of anything but because of our passion â€“ where I know my life is.
We did go to the U.S. We left because of the war. Clearly, I was born and raised here, but because of the war, we left. But as soon as things got better, we started to move back here. We came to invest our money here â€“ to lobby and advocate for Liberia, generally, not only Nimba county â€“ for Liberia in general. So I do believe that even our current senator, the incumbent, also, he has the same situation. So we need to look at it about not looking at if your direct family is here. My mom is here. My dad was here. My siblings, many of them are here. I spent most of my time in Nimba and my investments have always been here â€“ here and in Africa at large.
I just wanted to make the point that just because people have been doing things in the past does not make it OK or ideal.
But what have they done differently that makes you think theyâ€™re not loyal to the country? If we place loyalty based on the location of oneâ€™s family, if we look at Africa in general, we would have serious issues with our leadersâ€¦
And we generally do
Most of thoseâ€¦ Itâ€™s based on circumstances that most of those leaders and their families ended up abroad. And we didnâ€™t even bring the war here. So if your family is not here and your children are not here. Many of the folks who ran for office â€“ their children were educated abroad. Some of their children live abroad.
But the vast majority of the Liberian population resents that.
Says who? If they resented them then why are they electing them? It doesnâ€™t correlate. If they resent them, they should elect them. We have a sitting president who clearly that was the case.
So why are your family not living here with you?
There are a number of circumstances that created that environment and theyâ€™re going to be moving, actually. Weâ€™re actually right now in the process of doing that. But itâ€™s a private situation, thatâ€™s why. My wife and my kids, theyâ€™re always here. When I say â€œalways here,â€ I mean they come here frequently.
You previously ran an NGO called One Liberia, which raised some funds. Some have questioned what you did with those funds. Do you care to explain this?
I didnâ€™t actually run an NGO. It was a movement and we didnâ€™t raise funds, actually. And people need to know that. We wanted to raise funds but we didnâ€™t raise funds for it. It was a project that we wanted to do in Gardnersville, but we didnâ€™t raise funds for it. I put a lot of money into the organization and we were actually doing projects around creating a manual and a book to create a situation where we would have everyone speaking to each other for peace-building purposes. That, we raised a lot of funds for â€“ and I put my own money into that, so it was not an NGO.
Most of the people that were involved in the movement, we started getting busy and doing other things but we did a lot of work in terms of mentoring young people. We did a lot of work in terms of creating programs for people. We had this thing called the One Liberia Peace Series where people would have dialogue around peace â€“ we still have videos and pictures around that. Most of the funds, by the way, for One Liberia, came from me, another colleague of mine called Seward Cooper, as well as Dorme Cooper and a few others who were interested. It was not an â€œNGO.â€
Whatâ€™s something silly or fun about you that people may not know?
My wife always says, if people knew Taa really well, Taa is really crazy â€“ in terms of fun, crazy. Because people see me and they say, â€˜Oh Taa CEO.â€™ And I love to cook. Iâ€™ll cook these elaborate meals and Iâ€™ll play Lucky Dube or Liberian music especially C.I.C. and Iâ€™ll play this music while Iâ€™m cooking. I love to dance, I love to travel, I love to have fun. And that is the Taa that people donâ€™t see often. But people who know, know.
The last time I had some friends over at my house and I cooked â€“ a few months ago â€“ this elaborate meal and I made a cocktail out of cane juice. And one of my friends said, â€œTaa, I didnâ€™t know you can cook, oh.â€ Itâ€™s also good for people to see that side of you, but itâ€™s a part of me that lot of people donâ€™t see.
If you donâ€™t win, what will you do next?
Thereâ€™s no â€˜ifâ€™ in my book. Let me share this with you. Thereâ€™s a reason why Iâ€™m saying this. Iâ€™ve never put my hands into anything that I have not prayed about â€“ I have not fasted about. Thatâ€™s my strength and thatâ€™s my secret that people donâ€™t know about, by the way. I have this very intimate relationship with God and I have to fast and pray â€“ every single year, I fast and pray about five or six times. And even today, I called one of my spiritual leaders and had a conversation with him. So I always trust in God.
This firm is a testimony of when God says â€˜Go.â€™ My first company I started and sold is another testimony of God saying â€˜Go.â€™ When I did that, my mom said, â€˜Youâ€™re stupid, why are you leaving your job to start a company.â€™ I started a company at 24-years-old. I went to the U.S. when I was 20. In four years, I started a company and we sold it in three years. I was 27 when we sold the company. And I started this company in 2008 and I told my wife, â€˜God wants me in Africa.â€™ And she said, â€˜What if it doesnâ€™t succeed?â€™ And I said, â€˜There is no if.â€™ And there will be no â€˜if.â€™ And guess what? Ten years later, weâ€™re here â€“ weâ€™re thriving. Guess what? Weâ€™re going again for this race and people are saying â€˜if.â€™ No, itâ€™s a â€˜when.â€™ And I can assure you, come 2021, you will be hearing Senator Taa Wongbe.