Liberia at 169, a sad story

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Liberia, by any standard, is a blessed nation. With abundant natural resources, talented population, good climate, you wonder why it is occupying the unenviable position it is today amongst the countries of the world after the post-Independence brief spell as an internationally acclaimed African country; Seltue Karweaye writes. 

Liberia has more natural resources than most emerging nations such as Botswana, Rwanda, and arguably even, Brazil. With the recent exploration of oil,  independence on July 26, 1847 and having survived the civil war in 2003, the achievements we recorded as a sovereign nation are far below average when you compare the achievements of other countries in Africa such as  Rwanda Botswana, South Africa, Ghana, Kenya, Ethiopia, Tunisia, Morocco, Ivory Coast or against other emerging countries like  Tanzania, Equatorial Guinea, or, for that matter, Malawi.

With the departure of the so-called Americo-Liberian-dominated True Whig Party (TWP) and the truncating of the First Republic  as well as  the emerging of the second Republic things, started going wrong politically, socially, and economically as the nation started a tortuous drift into a deep abyss.

Liberia became squandering riches as all other sectors of the economy started experiencing abject neglect. The money was not the problem, but how to spend it: that was the mantra of the leaders back then. Expensive jamborees (President Tubman was noted for such) and elephant projects that were never completed or allowed to disintegrate after elaborate commissioning became the order of the day. The little genuine efforts made in agriculture in some areas were later abandoned as the projects were starved of funds and research. This is in spite of the key role the agricultural sector, though largely subsistence, played immediately after our Independence declaration.

With the introduction of the military into the political life of the country after the bloody coup d’état of 1980, which decimated the pioneer administrative and military leaders of the country, the military shifted its constituency from the barracks to the presidential mansion, and like they say, the rest is history. Coup or no coup, civil war or no civil war the military is still claiming relevance in the political equation of the nation.

Since the demise of the First Republic administrative structures, infrastructures, as well as the economy have degenerated into their present state. The only thing the country could boast of is the geometrical population explosion, from a mere 1 million to 4.5 million (UNDP, 2015). The national income per capita of Liberia today is less than what it was in the 1960s or ’70’s. We were happier, richer and were able to live a better life in the 60s and 70s than today. There are few people who have made a lot of money and living well today, but the generality of Liberians presently are living in abject poverty.

Out of the 169 years since Independence the military ruled the country for a total of ten years, or thereabout.  In my opinion, the issue of whether it is a democratic or military regime is only a matter of franchise. Some civilian presidents, particularly in Africa, are worse than military dictatorships, while some military dictatorships perform better than the so-called democratically elected presidents in terms of meeting the needs of their citizens and running the economy as evidenced by Madam Sirleaf’s government.

In Liberia, we simply choose to make a mess of any type of system with each regime ending up worse than the previous one. In our case it is not the system yet, but the people. As a people we need re-orientation from how to discharge our responsibilities to queuing up for funds at the Money Gram at the LBDI or staying on the right lane in a traffic jam. We are bad as that. Period! Maybe, our abundant resources are a curse rather than a blessing because, come to think of it, it is the center of all our present political, economic, and social predicaments as a nation. 

Otherwise why should limited natural resources and landlocked countries like Botswana and Rwanda be more habitable than our country? Even where we copy systems religiously, sold, or imposed on us hook, line and sinker, we never seem to get it right first time. The international community is making a mockery of us after seeing the level of corruption, nepotism and wasteful spending under a highly educated president who graduated from the prestigious Harvard University and had criticised previous administrations in the past. Why?

This is a BIG why!  Think of any big name in companies that existed in the 60’s up to the beginning of the civil war, you will find out that they have either closed shop long time ago or are just there in name only, their buildings weather beaten and in ruins and yet the country have not learned not even under the leadership of a Harvard-educated economist. Liberians has opted for the easiest and quickest way of “making it” through contracts, concession agreements, poor policies implementation, etc. With Madam Sirleaf’s government, it seems this is the continuity of the “get- rich- quick- syndrome” as were in previous administrations. Overnight-wealth is nothing strange and therefore conveniently accepted by the society and overlooked by the government.

The few Liberians with genuine desire to contribute to the political economy are frustrated one way or the other. Government structures became convenient conduits of enrichment. Most, if not all public officials, see their positions or appointments as convenient avenues of making money: they will either convert government funds entrusted to them for their personal use or use their position to make money, one way or another, or both. They are no longer public servants but public masters: “Chief or Boss Man” as they are called in some quarters.

As I write, President Sirleaf after 11 years in power and up her recent visit to Rwanda  told reporters  that Liberia is far behind its regional and continental neighbors in terms of economic and infrastructural developments because of the bad work ethics, laziness and indiscipline among the citizenry. What does this say about our country?  Our universities offered  sub-standard education, our hospitals changed from mere consulting clinics to mortuaries. While lecturers are being forced to stay and contribute only 20% towards a student’s performance, our medical doctors slip out of the country for greener pastures even if they will end up doing professional nurses’ job. With population explosion, unemployment soared as our graduates could not find jobs – any jobs! Some will continue to blame the deplorable state of affairs on the civil war, but we had those problems even before the conflict.  Religion groups are busy competing with one another  if Liberia is a non-secular state  or  secular state to  while other are competing in establishing  their own universities, in most cases without thorough professional feasibility studies.

My dear reader, visit your alma mater today and you will be shocked at the sight of the structures you left behind. This is the sorry state of our education system today. Even prior to the conflict our super administrators were either “Middle” or “Teachers’ College Graduates”. Experts have said it time without number that education is the bedrock of industrialization just as industrialization is the path to the Promised Land for any country. This has been proved by many countries of the world – ask Germany, Japan, Brazil, India, China, Brazil, and closer to home, South Africa. It is beyond a theory. Unfortunately, education did not top the priority lists of the previous regimes and, as we speak, history is repeating itself under Madam Sirleaf regime with the president herself admitting that “Liberia’s educational system is a mess” and, for such, she and her education minister are is outsourcing an entire education system to a private American firm.

The situation is even worse with the economy. Since the introduction of plantation economy in Liberia in the 60’s (Open Door Policy), our leaders back then  picked up the mantra  of money not being our problem but how to spend it. Most of the governments spend money impulsively, budget or no budget. No expenditure discipline as most of the expenditures are outside budget, priorities are lopsided and more often than not, the governments did not get them right even though Liberia has been blessed with renowned economists, accountants, lawyers, bankers, etc.

While the genuine attempts by some to chart a course for the country are just filed away to gather dust, others are too lily-livered to challenge the government of the day for fear of persecution or termination of their appointment, or both. As the few companies that remain continue to operate far below their capacity utilization under the heavy pressure of high exchange rate, infrastructure decay and heavy importation, among others, the GDP of the country continues to deteriorate in absolute terms even where exaggerated, and often indices are always released by the Ministry of Finance and Central Bank at the beginning of each financial year to convince Liberians otherwise.

While the country is groaning under the heavy weight of foreign debt repayment (even though we just had debt cancellation) and interest recapitalization, the revenue being generated from natural resources is being squandered through misappropriation, corruption, nepotism, patronage and elephant projects while other productive sectors of the economy such as  agriculture, education and manufacturing are abandoned. Misplaced and often poorly executed projects such as Jallah Town, SKD Boulevard, and Poverty Reduction Strategy come to mind. Liberia is about the only rubber country that relies on importation for local consumption!  The adverse effect of all these are the social decay, lawlessness, insecurity, and above all, pervasive corruption that characterize our polity today, 169 years after the declaration of Independence. 

Armed robbers strike at will in broad daylight and night, 419 (fraudulent) transactions are prevalent, economic and financial crimes are the order of the day; drug smuggling, bootlicking are some of the “professions” we thrive on.  Tribalism, nepotism, sycophancy, praise singing, religious bigotry, as well as laziness are our common characteristics..  While some are like this by choice, the system and environment forced others to acquire these infamous characteristics.  It is no surprise then that our nation occupies the unenviable top spots on the lists of anything negative in the world: from Transparency International, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, or Travel Advisory Watch. This situation runs from previous administrations to arguably the present administration of Madam Sirleaf. Are we going to remain like this? Is there no hope? Don’t we as a nation aspire to drop the shackles of underdevelopment and catch up with even the emerging nations of the world? If the answer to this last question is in the affirmative, then from where do we start? And how do we start?

Liberia has the potentials of becoming one of the great nations in the world – the human and material resources are there in abundance to achieve this. What we need is the fighting spirit of the Japanese, the determination of the Germans, the I-can attitude of the Chinese and the nationalism of the Americans.  It might be a cyclopean challenge but we can do it and change things for the better in our country. First and foremost, we have to get our priorities right. Pervasive corruption, nepotism, illiteracy, mismanagement and waste, lawlessness, and dishonesty are the main vices militating against our progress as a nation.

In overcoming these vices our leaders must show the way – political, religious, traditional leaders and civil society all have key roles to play in this immense task. When they lead by example without secret or dishonest activity or maneuvering and fear or favor, the path will be clear for all and sundry to copy and follow. Our leaders, and indeed other citizens of the country, beseech countries in Europe and the Americas daily where they see firsthand how administrative structures are run, how efficient infrastructures are and how law enforcement agents and agencies operate. But our leaders make zero attempt to change things back home. Funny enough, they often compare and contrast how inefficient and backward our own systems are (or how efficient the systems are in those countries ). 

Our politicians will do well to start by seeking for political office to serve and not as an investment with upfront and compound interest payments. Their desires should be to serve the nation and make life better for its citizens – value-adding laws should be of more interest than their salaries and allowances. Contracts that will directly impact the lives of the citizens should be awarded to professionals through a vigorous due diligence process instead of sharing it amongst themselves or their cronies. They, or indeed any Liberian, should not pay lip service to thinking of what the nation can do for them but what he or she can do for the nation. It is as simple as that! 

Should this be the case the politicians would not spend a whole four-year term discussing their salaries and allowances; and wasting the taxpayers’ money in financing posh accommodations, sleek cars, designer mobile phones, laptops, etc. If you are a keen watcher of the Senate or House of Representatives, you are by now familiar with our honorable legislators carrying excess weight, spotting pot bellies, or outrightly obese! The cameras have caught many of them sleeping! Little wonder then that winning elections and re-elections in Liberia today is a matter of life and death. It is either how deep one’s pocket is, how ruthless he or she is, the caliber of his sponsor/godfather/lovers, or both.

Some of them have never visited their constituencies for the better half of the first term and yet they collect constituency allowances and nobody will ask questions because the whole system is rotten and therefore stinks! Or, come to think of it, why must the executive “lobby” with “white envelope” before a budget is passed? In any civilized polity in the world it is the legislature that appropriates and not collect money and rubber-stamp proposals submitted by the executive, or for that matter, any ministry or agency. Why should the legislators be ‘settled’ before they screen and pass political appointees?  Why should the welfare of committee members, like those of committees on ways and means or maritime, be taken care of before they can do the job for which they were elected? Any serious debate you hear about or executive-legislature squabbles that come to the open more often than not, border on making money through contracts-sharing, travels or money exchanging hands.

Maybe we should make the legislator’s job part-time. If the effort of the government of Liberia on the so-called monetization is a serious one, we should start eliminating waste from the national legislature by making their job a part-time one. The presidency should also shed weight.  Better performance could be achieved this way. It will really be interesting to know exactly how much is spent in absolute terms on each legislator in a year. In other words, since his position is a permanent one, what is the “compensation package” of each legislator? 

Within the first and second term of this present administration the turnover of the leadership in the legislature and the ruling party is unprecedented anywhere in the civilized world. A learning process indeed! This is the genesis of our problem as a nation and it must be tackled decisively. All other economic and social maladies revolve around it; once we get it right it will have a direct positive effect on our socio-economic life as a nation. The government must create an enabling environment for local and foreign direct investment through industrial economy not the same old plantation economy that failed us in the past and continues to fail us. It really beats the imagination of any right thinking human being why our leaders should be globetrotting looking for foreign investors when back home the environment is, to say the least, not investment friendly. The mere fact that they waste their energy in this venture by running helter-skelter suggests that all is not well with our economy.

Leaders of other countries of the world do not globetrot looking for investors – their economies and the enabling environment sell themselves. If they have to visit other countries of the world is to discuss things like trade quotas, tariffs, trade barriers, custom duty, etc. How many times have we received the visit of the South African or Ghanaian leaders in Liberia calling us to come and invest in their countries? The basic infrastructure that is necessary and therefore key to the survival of any industry such as uninterrupted power supply, water and communication are non-existent in Liberia and a foreign exchange regime that defies all theories is the order of the day.  The few that come to do business in our country even under these poor operating conditions milk our economy dry with exorbitant prices and tariffs for their products and services.

Government must also address the serious issue of security of life and property as it is as critical as the other two. Liberia’s image abroad in terms of security of life and property is nothing to write home about. If countries like South Africa, Botswana or even Ghana within our continent can attract investors and tourists there is no reason why Liberia cannot do it, despite the fact that crime rate is higher in South Africa than in Liberia, if the available statistics are to be believed. The only difference is that while the South African government has an efficient system in place that tackles the problem, in Liberia, it is either in a sorry state or non-existent.

As Liberians we should have confidence in our country as we have no other place of abode. Only few Liberians have genuine productive investments in popular companies across the shores of this country – the rest stash the money (ill-gotten?) in popular banks in Europe and America either in real estate, checking accounts or term deposits that they can easily have access to when on their shopping sprees with their families and girlfriends.

Personally, I think we are just wasting our time and energy in this venture. Europe and America have records of our earnings as natural resources country, have records of the ill-gotten wealth our leaders stashed in their banks and have full intelligence reports of our mismanagement and wastes on a daily basis.

Each and every Liberians, no matter how low and high, has a contribution to make in turning things around but our leaders must show the way by setting good examples and bringing out policies that will add value to the lives of citizens in the areas of manufacturing, education, agriculture, infrastructure, among others.

We as a nation must make an earnest resolve to change from a heavily import-oriented country to an export one to give our economy the necessary stimulant for growth. Our politicians should put the nation and its citizens first in whatever they do even at the expense of their own welfare or benefit. Public officials should operate as the “public servants” they are and not to turn their positions into money spinners. Corrupt and scandalous politicians or public servants should be investigated, prosecuted and flushed out of the system no matter how highly placed.

One of the ways that will help us reach the Promised Land is for us to de-emphasize voting for a political party and look at the individual and vote for integrity, professionalism, proven track record, and personality. We must reject money politics and band-wagon liberation. Each and every citizen should swallow the seeds of patriotism, nationalism, self-sacrifice, law and order and above all the I-can attitude.

There is enough wealth in Liberia for it to be shared by its 4.2 million people, not necessarily as a “national cake”, instead of the ugly lopsided income distribution of a privileged 5% monopolizing 95% of the nation’s wealth, while the remaining 95% are left with a paltry 5%. It is not late but if you consider what the United States has achieved since it declared independence in 1776, the success of Japan since Hiroshima, the emergence of Germany after WW II as the leader of the New Europe, Singapore since the attainment of independence in 1965, or indeed what South Africa has achieved so far since the demise of apartheid with what we have so far recorded in all spheres of life in Liberia since our Independence 169 years ago, there is cause for concern.

Unless we make an honest resolve in owning the future and stop focusing on criminals, crooks masquerading as politicians and technocrats, our country will become a very sad place.  Ours is a country with enormous potential, with natural, mineral and human resources, yet underperformance has become a culture. We must not allow this to happen! We must not waste our potential! Therefore, we have to start NOW. Happy July 26, Folks.

Seltue Karweaye, the writer of this article, holds BA  in Political Science from Metropolitan States University in Minnesota, USA; M.S in Development studies & M.S in Politics and International studies with specialization in Peace and Conflict Studies, Uppsala University in Uppsala, Sweden.

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