Leadership curse: A review of the Liberian legislature

Liberian legislature is made up of unserious elements and self-centered individuals, observes Karweaye

By Seltue Karweaye

For any society to prosper, it needs to have a government to run its affairs. The government helps to sustain the social contract that binds every member of the state. Thus, the price that is paid for a state to be prosperous is for it to have an established government that enforces the social contract.

Members of an ordered society, called a state, must pay taxes sufficient to carry out the functions assigned to the state.

In Liberia, costs associated with the running of government have increased dramatically over the years such that an increasingly reduced proportion of public revenue is available to support and implement the primary functions of government. Consequently, the discharge of beneficial government functions has been hampered.

It’s no news. The curse of leadership plagues Africa, and Liberia is chief among its sufferers.

The discussion of Liberian politics has long focused on the role of the executive (President), or on the party, and less commonly on the role of the legislature.

Big men (and now a few women) dominated national politics, either as democrats. They and their close associates were salient and largely determinative of political machinations and outcomes. Thus the president was for many decades omnipotent in the majority of Liberian politics.

According to the Liberian 1986 constitution, the key function of the Liberian national legislature is to constrain the arbitrary or capricious acts of the executive on behalf of the citizens whom legislators are meant to represent.

Oversight is essential to any democracy because it ensures both the vertical accountability of rulers to the ruled as well as the horizontal accountability of all other government agencies to the one branch – the legislature – whose primary function is to represent the citizens.

In the past year, I made a clear determination to steer clear of talking about government without being able to do anything.

However, I am forced to write in clear terms in this article about the arrogance of the 3rd term Representative of District #5, Montserrado County, Representative Thomas Fallah of the Congress for Democratic Change, and its presumptive senatorial candidate for Montserrado County in the ensuring 2020 senatorial by-elections and Representative Rustonlyn Dennis of the Liberia Transformation Party (LTP) representing District #5, Montserrado County.

Recently, we were served another national comedy when Representative Thomas Fallah wrote on his official Facebook page “18 years ago, I was denied from entering a university because I couldn’t afford —by September 2021, the T. Five University will open to the poorest of the poor. Never give up, remember that nothing is more powerful than the resilience of the human spirit. The question is, Da your pa fucking money?”

For her part, Rep. Rustonlyn Suacoco Dennis (District #4, Montserrado) said she will not seek treatment at the John F. Kennedy (JFK) Memorial Medical Center under its current administration for fear of her life after the recent passing of Representative Jay Nagbe Sloh of District #2, Sinoe County at the JFK in Monrovia.

An examination of the operational style of successive Liberian legislatures since 2006 would reveal an array of demagogue politicians who always pretend to mean well in the kind of policies they have pursued in the running of government.

However, a perusal of their factual performance records would disclose only deliberate and systematic pillage of our national wealth, reckless misappropriation of scarce resources and brazen disregard for the needs of the people.

These pretentious politicians, who always claim to have people-oriented and focused leadership qualities, are in fact, the least endowed with the virtues of transparency, probity, and accountability in the running of government business.

The result of all these debaucheries is the emergence of a powerful privileged class that has suddenly supplanted the yearnings and aspirations of teeming Liberians with its bloated appetite for opulent and ostentatious lifestyles.

Meanwhile, despite our bloated and behemoth government bureaucracies, the pre-occupation of our lawmakers has ceased from being servants of the Liberian people, to maintaining and protecting themselves and their numerous cronies.

While corruption and cronyism continue to fester in government circles, the people continue to wallow in inexplicable squalor and denial.

Liberians generally observed and agreed that Liberia is a nation blessed beyond belief but, as at today, a nation in abject poverty, with confused leadership and obscurity.

Many articles, opinions, suggestions, etc. have been written about Liberia in the recent past.

More of these critical and constructive viewpoints have been adjudged by the very objective-minded as poignant, relevant and indeed requisite for all those leaders who wish Liberia well.

It is depressing that several years of huge democratic investment in Liberia have yielded no fruitful gain, rather, a downturn in development and growth.

The national legislature is made up of unserious elements and self-centered individuals.

Our lawmakers are not justifying their monthly pays, vis-a-vis the number of days and hours they sit in a week, and the number of times they go on vacation every legislative calendar.

How can Rep. Fallah who was once poor, but after being elected to the legislature, now, boast of building a multi-million university? Why are our lawmakers playing on the sensibility of our poverty-stricken people? Is Liberia under a curse of Leadership? Is leadership Liberia’s greatest challenge? Is it corruption? What will we do about it? Will there ever be an end? Are we at a tipping point? Is there hope? Is there a way out?

I would like for you to take a little glimpse of the present crop of leaders who govern our affairs, starting with the lawmakers and others in subsequent articles.

These are the leaders we elected in the past elections to serve our interests.

Most of these leaders collect huge funds from the Liberian government and not only spend them lavishly but keep increasing their expenditures at the expense of capital expenditure. They are part and parcel of why Liberia is spending 90% of her entire budget on recurrent expenditure.

Look at the statistics in the last decade, the average income of each of our legislator has gone up every budgetary cycle at the expense of the entire working force in Liberia.

Now, this kind of inequality – a level that we haven’t seen since the formation of the Liberian states – hurts us all. When average Liberia families can no longer afford to buy the goods and services that businesses are selling, when people are slipping deep into abject poverty, it drags down the entire economy from top to bottom.

Recent studies showed that countries with less inequality tend to have stronger and steadier economic growth over the long run. Inequality also distorts our democracy. It gives an outsized voice to the few who can afford to participate in politics and runs the risk of selling out our democracy to the highest bidder.

Our representatives and senators earn so much. Do you expect them to defend the hapless & helpless majority against a cruel government or its policies? It leaves the Liberian people rightly suspicious that the system is rigged against them, that our elected representatives aren’t looking out for the interests of most Liberians. You know why! It’s why they ignored all the waste in the budget but jerked up their budget every fiscal year.

Our lawmakers have been looting public funds through budgetary allocation and generally being a nuisance since 2006. Amidst the pervading abject poverty across the land, our lawmaker’s allocated to themselves US$49m in the FY2018 – 2019. This is part of the reason why 90% of the nation’s budget is allocated to mainly recurrent expenditures.

This means the CDC-led government is spending less on capital investment projects. The contributing fact can arguably be traced to the waste in government including the US$49m, a huge chunk of the nation’s resources to service less than 103 legislators and their staff in a country of over 4.6 million people.

Where is the opposition in the legislature? Collaborating Political Parties, National Democratic Coalition, National Union for Democratic Progress, etc.? Birds of a feather flock together!

The reality is Liberia has never worked, and may never work if we don’t rise and confront the system of socioeconomic marginalization.

The combined salaries and incentives of the representatives and senators in the fiscal year 2018-2019 were US$49.2m and US$49m in 2017-2018.  

What do the Liberian legislators contribute to earning so much when the majority of our people are living in abject poverty and unemployment is soaring? This is why members of the legislature are so boastful and arrogant instead of being humble and servants of the people.

What kind of country allocates US$49.2m to the national legislature while the education sector gets US$25m and agriculture gets US$37m (6.2% of the budget)? Why does Rep. Rustonlyn Suacoco Dennis fear for her life if she is admitted to the government-owned John F. Kennedy Medical Center? Does she know the paltry amount allocated to healthcare by the legislature exemplified the misplaced priorities of the Liberian budget?

Not only have Liberia neglected the economic sector but also the social sector. It is generally acknowledged that investment in healthcare is necessary to maintain a healthy and quality population.

Similarly, investment in education and agriculture are important for human resource development. In effect, education, health & agriculture sectors are necessary for social and economic development.

An educated and healthy population that feed itself enhances the competitiveness of a nation. Unfortunately, these three sub-sectors are neglected by the Liberian government.

Given the contribution of education to development, the United Nations recommends that countries allocate 26 percent of their resources on education.

In the 2018/2019 budget, the Liberia government never meets this budgetary target.

The government allocated only 4.2% of its budget to the education sector (US$25m), which is lower than comparable African countries such as South Africa (26%), Cote d’Ivoire (30%), Ghana (31%) and Uganda (27%).

Budgeting for education is one thing, getting commensurate outcomes is quite another thing.

The Liberian government and legislators, like Representative Thomas Fallah and Senator Prince Johnson, invest in building schools and classrooms instead of the improvement of teacher quality and welfare, providing books and materials and ensuring that children remain in school. Teachers’ training and incentive packages for teachers improve academic performance far more than spending on lucrative building contracts for political party apparatchiks. In education as in everything in public finance, the quality of spending is as important as amount and proportion of the total budget.

The health sector across Liberia reveals an area of national life that is in dire need of rescue through new policies, regulations and strengthened institutions. That is why I am surprised why one legislator recently died and many have died seeking medical treatment in Europe, America, Ghana, India, etc.

Across the country, treatable diseases like malaria and cholera are still killers, infant and maternal mortality rates are amongst the worst in the world, while our life expectancy seems to be dropping.

The government has greater responsibility for healthcare than any other tier, being in charge of primary and secondary healthcare.

We had hoped that our government’s budgets would be more effective and higher in both quantity and quality. Sadly, that is not the reality the 2018/2919 as well as previous budgets revealed.

The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that 15% of national budgets be allocated to healthcare. The 2018/2019 budget of US$79m is just about 13.4%.

With the widespread dysfunctions in governance that we are experiencing as a country, the under-budgeting for the health sector is worsened by the fact that actual releases are usually far less than the amounts allocated. Additionally, effective utilization of the little that gets released is hindered by the corruption and incompetence that exist in the public sector agencies.

Liberia on the other hand, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) 2016 statistics, has a total land area of 9,362 hectares with an agricultural area of 2710 hectares.

In simple terms, about 47% of the land in Liberia is arable, out of which less than half is currently under cultivation. Not only do we have vast amounts of arable land, we also have favorable weather for year-round cultivation of crops.

In spite of the foregoing, Liberia does not produce enough food for internal consumption.

In fact, according to FAO, rice for human consumption accounts for over 80% of imports in Liberia while wheat and maize account for about 13% and 6%, respectively. Sadly, these are all products that can be grown locally and if managed properly, can be exported in the near future.

For a country blessed with so much with the potential of food production endowments, the 2019 Global Hunger Index (GHI) scored Liberia at 112 out of 117 qualifying countries. This index assesses all available data on hunger, undernourishment and the pattern of food consumption within countries, and the higher the score, the more serious the nation’s hunger challenges.

According to the ranking, the score of 34.9 for Liberia therefore indicates a ‘serious’ hunger problem in the country. Ironically, nations like Botswana, Namibia. Iran, Iraq, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Syria, and Oman which are substantially desert nations scored less than 5 on the GHI, indicating the near absence of hunger and malnutrition.

We can’t go on like this. It will take a fight. The slavery our children will be subjected to will know no bounds. We are enslaved by our very own, our blood, our kinsmen!

They ridicule us with their plunder, getting audacious with every unchecked loot they take from the system. Once we can ensure frugality at the legislative, they will exert pressure on other branches of government. We have allowed those meant to keep a check on the system become loose. Insanity! I can never entrust a primary school to any of these looters, they will ruin it!

We are close to a tipping point, a point where we are being reminded daily of why we should save our nation from their destructive hands. We are at a point where we must make strategic efforts to sacrifice now so we can gain tomorrow.

How did we end up putting these guys at the helm of national affairs? Why are re-electing folks who keep pushing waste and spending more on our national budget?

Most of these lawmakers are personal failures in their system, hence the need to amass wealth by all means possible. The waste from Liberian legislature, when put together, will build schools, equip hospitals, clinics, community road, et al. Is this why we were told to “sacrifice a little?” What do we do?

We must demand a cut down of these wasteful salaries, allowances, and incentives accruing to the national legislature by at least 50%. Protest against any increase from the savages at the national legislature.

We must demand that the Liberian government adheres to the WHO recommendation that 15% of national budgets be allocated to healthcare, the United Nations recommendation that countries spend 26% of their resources on education.  

For the agricultural sector to be restored as the mainstay of our economy, the spending priorities of the government must genuinely reflect a national commitment to the sector.

Allocating 6.2% of the budget to agriculture is insufficient to enable us attain the food sufficiency we direly need, much less position us to be a major exporter of cash crops. Agriculture must be made a priority, bearing in mind that our other resources are non-renewable and finite that will be exhausted sometime in the future or replaced by greener or cheaper alternatives. The budgetary allocation figures also need to be tilted sharply in favor of capital expenditure.

Allocating 96% of the entire budget on recurrent expenditure is ludicrous! Agriculture is a practical and ground-based profession. The enormous personnel costs incurred on redundant government employees including our legislators add little or nothing to the development of our agricultural sector.

Monies budgeted for the research institutes need to be invested on the real or pilot production sites (farms) and the acquisition of the seedlings, fertilizers, chemicals and equipment required to make them boost crop output. Better coordination with infrastructural Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs), aggressive investment in storage capacities, low-interest loans and greater extension and support services should command the attention of agricultural policy makers at states’ and federal levels.

Studies indicate that every US dollar spent on agricultural research produces nine dollars’ worth of added food in developing countries. Agricultural research which successfully drove the first Green Revolution in Asia can also do same in Liberia.

Obviously this does not refer to wasteful expenditure on personnel cost, engaging in excessive domestic and international travel, purchase of un-needed SUVs and other pea-brained budget heads that constitute the bulk of typical MDA recurrent expenditures. Worthwhile investment in biotechnological hardware, software and attracting the best and brightest minds to agricultural research will pay off in the medium to long term. Liberia must attain food sufficiency so that the paradox of hunger in the midst of plenty will no longer apply to us.

In closing, we must occupy Liberia, by rejecting members of the current legislators up for re-elections in the senate on December of 2020. To achieve this, our ideology and strategy must be error-proof, must be near-perfect!

The enlightened man must get to the poorest/not enlightened person and educate him/her to vote wisely and there is power in their votes. When we enlighten and empower the common man, he would need no coercion when the elastic limit is reached! The streets, the grassroots; that’s where the power lies!

Leadership failures! Leadership curse! Leadership collapse! This is Liberia, at present, the land of the living dead.  We need a re-awakening!

About the Author: Karweaye is a Liberian residing in the United States of America and can be contacted at s.karweaye1668@student.tsu.edu