Liberia: Joseph Boakai, a president in need of help

President Boakai’s first 100 days in office have been a challenge

By Seltue Karweaye 

Liberian President Joseph Nyumah Boakai has clocked 100 days in office. He took the oath of office on January 22.

Commentators, analysts, political observers and politicians have busied themselves dissecting the president’s performance in office, particularly his major decisions and policy options. Many have also commented on the achievements recorded and the areas that require improvements.

Admittedly, 100 days is too short to assess an administration.

Nevertheless, the tradition, credited to have been birthed by the 32nd president of the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt, at the start of his first term in 1932, has taken root and analysts see the period as a pointer to the trajectory of a new helmsman, perfectly fits the need for a preliminary assessment of the direction of the Boakai administration, given the poisoned chalice he inherited on all fronts from his predecessor, George Weah.

Despite the difficulties, he is doing everything he can to stay afloat and keep his presidency on track.

If there’s anything that Mr. Boakai has learned or is learning as president of Liberia is the sudden realization that Liberia is a bigger, more complex, and more perplexing vortex that swirls dangerously, with issues ranging from the demand of the War and Economic Crimes Court to the tenure positions, and his first hundred days’ deliverables of reduction of prices in the country’s staple food rice, and major roads infrastructure in the country as well as improvement in the health sector, all of which President Boakai is fast realizing the enormity of the task he had inherited from the George Weah government.

In the last 100 days of his presidency, President Boakai has been consistently modifying and readjusting his ideas and strategies for governance and development, but it seems that he needs some assistance.

The growing number of complaints about names being secretly replaced on presidential appointment lists just before publication and the recent losses of four cases by the Liberian government on tenure positions suggest that President Boakai could benefit from some help.

From Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to George Oppoong Weah, the tribe of self-seeking individuals whom they recruited into their kitchen cabinets have always done them in.

For Sirleaf, it was the appointment of her son, Robert Sirleaf who headed the most important post at the National Oil Company of Liberia (NOCAL), until 2013.

He presided over record exploration deals with the super majors Chevron and ExxonMobil that netted more than $120 million for the government, but a cloud of suspicion settled over him when NOCAL collapsed in 2015, two years after he had departed.

The collapse of NOCAL was a major blow to the Liberian economy and raised questions about the role of Sirleaf’s son in the company’s demise. 

In George Weah’s case, his over-reliance on a few of his partisans and the optics of a president overwhelmed by corrupt appointees cost him his re-election.

Weah, disappointingly, was a mythical persona that was supposed to hate corruption and nepotism but which elevated both to never-before-seen heights in the annals of Liberia’s history. The consequences of Weah’s actions have been dire, with Liberia’s economy suffering greatly under his leadership. His mess is Joseph Boakai to clear.

Given the huge challenges that Liberians face, one would expect a president who is serious about tackling those challenges to form a government of all the talents.

To effectively lead Liberia towards progress, President Boakai must recognize the importance of strong institutions and its effects on the bureaucracy in government, while seeking guidance from knowledgeable individuals beyond his close circle of friends and Unity Party members.

The president must look to informed and influential quarters for support, just as he did during the 2023 presidential election. By doing so, he can tap into the vast reservoir of institutional and global knowledge necessary to address Liberia’s complex problems and ultimately leave behind a development legacy.

Another crucial category of individuals who can provide valuable assistance to President Boakai is his immediate family, particularly the First Lady, Katumu Boakai. She must refrain from the extravagant and flashy lifestyle exhibited by the spouses of previous presidents, which creates an unpleasant image.

Instead, she should maintain the dignified demeanor and respectable composure she has shown so far. Additionally, the advice and support she offers the president in private, away from external influences, will significantly contribute to solidifying Boakai’s legacy as a leader who delivered.

His children, including Joseph ‘Jojo’ Boakai Jr. and Tantan Boakai, must also avoid drawing unnecessary attention to themselves by toning down their flashy presence around the corridors of power, which has already caused some irritation.

To effectively lead the nation, the president must also address the internal conflict among top advisors, as the constant contestation has a discombobulating effect on the decision-making process.

Additionally, those aides who have access to the president must be prepared to speak truth to power when necessary, even if it means presenting uncomfortable facts to the leader.

By doing so, Liberia can avoid filling positions of power with yes-men and women, who may not always prioritize the country’s best interests.

To fully comprehend the need for assistance from President Boakai, it is imperative to examine the state of the economy he inherited from the previous administration.  

As the 26th President of Liberia, Boakai has inherited an economy plagued by high inflation, rampant unemployment, extreme poverty, a significant infrastructure gap, and insecurity, among other issues.

The external debt stock of Liberia, which stands at US$1.3 billion as of 2023, is a glaring example of the economic challenges facing the country.

Multilateral lenders, including the World Bank and IMF, account for nearly two-thirds of Liberia’s total debt, making them the country’s largest external creditors.

Moreover, the public debt stock of Liberia, which represents the total amount owed by the government, stood at approximately US$2.21 billion as of December 2023.

This author as well as others started ringing the alarm in 2018/2019 but was ignored. Constructive criticism should be appreciated by the Boakai administration.

Finally, Boakai and his handlers must understand that if and when he succeeds, no one will remember the people from whom he got help. The glory would be his. Therefore, seeking needed help should not be seen as an act of condescension. With what he has made of his first 100 days in office, Boakai is a president in need of help.