Three reasons why Weah will struggle to deliver

Weah will struggle to deliver on campaign promises to his staunchest supporters
Photo credit: CDC Liberia

On December 26, 2017, Liberians voted in a delayed run-off presidential elections which was postponed by the country’s Supreme Court on November 6. The run-off election was between Senator George Weah, now President-elect, from the Coalition for Democratic Change (CDC), and Vice President Joseph Boakai, of the ruling Unity Party (UP). It had been scheduled for November 7; Fidel CT Budy writes.

Africa’s first democratically elected female president; Ellen Johnson Sirleaf could not take part having already completed two six-year terms according to Liberia’s constitution. Consequently, Liberians will witness the first peaceful and democratic transfer of power in Liberia since 1944 on Monday January 22, 2018.

International and domestic observers have judged the process as generally free and fair without violence, even though they noted some challenges, including low voters turnout as well as allegations of some voters voting more than once.

The CDC’s candidate, George Weah was declared the winner of the run-off on Friday December 29 by the National Elections Commission (NEC). The result meant that Weah with 61.5% of the total votes would be Liberia’s next president defeating out-going Vice President Joseph Boakai of the UP, who could only manage 38.5% of the votes.

The reasons for the CDC’s win are multifaceted. On the one hand it is viewed as a vote against the establishment, with the UP led government being accused by many Liberians for mismanaging the affairs of state for the last 12 years.  Whilst on the other hand it is believed that poorer and younger Liberians who identifies with Weah’s rags to riches story, sees him as the man who can change their lot.

But whatever reason one gives for his election, the new Liberian president will face three serious challenges in running the country and in changing the lives of those of his staunchest supporters.

Firstly, the prices of export commodities remain low whilst at the same time global prices of food and other commodities continue to rise.

The second challenge has to do with the growing right-wing politics in the West, Brexit and Trump, which are forcing Western governments to consider more inward focused policies including cutting foreign aid to countries like Liberia, countries that President Trump last week terms as ‘s*** h***’ countries. Finally, the high levels of recurring expenditure of the Liberian government will restrict Weah’s spending manoeuvres. I will now discuss these three issues further.

The global commodity price dilemma
During the early years of Sirleaf’s tenure, Liberia made significant progress in attracting foreign direct investment (FDI) in the tune of about $19 billion. But for many Liberians that amount has never been felt in practical terms. Some Liberians believe that Sirleaf and her team of cronies got the money and mismanaged it.

However, most of the investment agreements signed by the government were in the agriculture or extractives industries. These agreements take time to be translated into tangible benefits for the people of Liberia. Furthermore, as global prices for steel tumbled in 2016 and that of oil palm in 2017, ordinary Liberians begun to lose their jobs and only means of livelihoods as companies like Mittal Steel and Sime Darby tried to ride out the tide. This was made even more difficult for ordinary Liberians as the cost of daily food and necessities like rice and petroleum continued to rise as a result of price increases on the global market. This is an issue which will not go away once Weah takes office on Monday.

The right is rising
Coming to power in 2006 as a World Bank and IMF veteran of structural reforms, Sirleaf enjoyed the support of development partners. However, that has not been the case in recent years as her premiership has been dealing with uncertainties in the global leadership structure. As a result in the 2016/17 budget, core and contingent grants fell by 45.3%. This has had an immediate impact on government spending on developmental projects cumulating in the scraping of the usual payment of student’s West African Examination Council (WAEC) exam fees in 2017.

The rise of right-wing parties across Europe, Britain’s Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump as American President could all bring further bad news for President-elect Weah.

Liberia is heavily dependent on foreign aid. Off-budget donor spending in Liberia was 144% of the national budget in 2015/16 at US$ 899,290,051 compared to the US$ 622,743,420 of the national budget. That amount is projected to drop by 21% to US$ 714,688,198 in 2017/18. This suggests a direct correlation between the political fluctuations being experienced in the West as a result of rising right-wing politics, uncertainties over Brexit and Trump’s presidency and, the drop in donor funding for Liberia.

What is even more concerning is that off-budget spending from donors contributes a significant amount to the livelihoods of those Liberians working in the non-governmental organisation (NGO) sector. With an already high unemployment number, the gap that will be created by the drop in donor off-budget spending could put more pressure on His Excellency from his staunchest supporters.

High recurring expenditure
The Ministry of Finance and Development Planning (MFDP) defines recurring expenditures as yearly expenditures for the on-going operations of the government. For example, spending on salaries, office materials, electricity and water bills, all things needed to keep government offices, hospitals, schools and the security systems working.

Ninety percent of the projected 2017/18 budget expenditures are expected to go to recurring expenditures, including salaries and debt servicing. According to the MFDP only 9.6 percent would be allocated to public sector investment plans for financing of solid waste management, construction of medical facilities, public schools and roads, among others. The government just does not have much money for public investment – no matter what citizens want.
Getting lawmakers and government ministers to accept significant cuts to their pay packages will be a challenge for the new president. For these reasons I believe that President-elect Weah will struggle to run the country and improve the lot of his staunchest supporters.

Fidel C T Budy is a Liberian author, a Postgraduate Researcher with both the Global-Rural Project at Aberystwyth University as well as the Wales Institute of Social and Economic Research, Data and Methods (WISERD). Fidel is also a Postgraduate Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society with IBG and a member of the Centre for Welsh Politics and Society (CWPS).