Tough Choices Face President Sirleaf In 2014

 

Liberian President Sirleaf

Liberian President Sirleaf

According to a recent World Bank report, Liberia is nation of over 3 million people without electricity with 0.58% of those living in the country having access to it, far below the regional average of 28.5% and possibly the lowest rate of access to public electricity in the world.

In Monrovia, the country’s capital, electricity is currently supplied by massive generators using expensive high-speed diesel oil that drives the cost of power up to $0.54 per kilowatt-hour (kWh), one of the highest rates in sub-Saharan Africa.

Infant and maternal mortality are among the highest in the world. Education has practically collapsed as evidence in the massive failures of students in a university entrace exams.

Infrastructure, where it exists is broken and neglected. Yet this new year of 2014, government will spend more on administrative capital than on power, roads, education, police and health-care combined. This perverse prioritization is indicative of the political economy of today’s Liberia – and the tough choices facing President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in 2014.

At stake is whether Liberia remains a “Clique Democracy” or a real, people-driven democracy.

It might hugely interest Liberians and our friends to know whether the current leadership has the character, vision and will to defy vested political and business interests to govern decently and develop the economy. A review of Madam’s Sirleaf 7 years at the helm indicates that this is unlikely to happen.

President Sirleaf’s politics of deliberate patronage has pitted Liberians against Liberians to the point that obtaining the cohesion and social harmony necessary for economic development will be difficult in the short and medium terms.

The elections of November 2011 and violent aftermath, as well as increasing cases of police brutality and attacking an opposition political party and killing partisans have placed Liberia at a crossroads once again. It is up to the President to either make tough choices; to either muddle through the next 3 years – or to continue with business as usual, with the risk of propelling what should be Africa’s leading economy towards disaster.
In the last 7 years, the Johnson-Boakai administrationand the ruling party have spent billions of tax payer money as well as foreign aid money with little to show for it.

Not content with spending our taxes, the administration has started borrowing massively. Liberia’s domestic and external debts have increased rapidly. According to the Ministry of Finance Debt Management Office, our domestic and external debt increased from USD $573.94 million in September 2012 to USD$580.37 million at end of December 2012. President Sirleaf’s administration ramped up domestic borrowing within a year to USD $287.7 million. Our external debt has also increased from USD$277.69 million in September in 2012 to USD $292.61 million. No one can point to a new power station, seaport, rail network or interstate road, school, hospital initiated or completed during this profligate period.  Worse still, Liberia’s budget for 2013/14 shows that the entire budget is full of gimmicks and was meant to please the selected few at the helm at the expense of the majority.

This is in a country where estimates show that 1.13 million is the labor force of the country, and only 195,000 people are in paid employment. According to the International labor Organization (ILO), 70% of Liberia’s population is under the age of 30- a demographic time-bomb waiting to explode. There is little or no investment in physical and human capital, even with the very high over USD $19 billion in Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) the administration has enjoyed, the country helplessly lies at the button of the UN Human Development Index–among poorest countries in the world.

But what should be President Sirleaf’s focus?
Obviously, internal security should be her first priority especially since in-fighting in the security apparatus, among those who are fighting for her affection.  Arm robberies and the regular spate of Pem Pem drivers’ protestation fuelled by youth unemployment, worsening economic conditions across the country point towards a failed state. Today, Liberia is a highly fragmented country. A movement away from politicization of national security to the hard work of intelligence gathering and crime prevention will be more helpful than blaming innocent others.

Macroeconomic stability is another area the administration has to deal with. Food prices have been rising and rental levels escalating in response to the cartelization of building materials production, importation and pricing. The choice before the Central Bank of Liberia is either to defend the value of the Liberian dollar and lose reserves faster monthly we have experienced so far, or allow the exchange rate to float, reduce purchasing power and exacerbate inflationary pressures.

Under President Sirleaf’s watch, massive election spending, fiscal expansion, policy reversals and falling exchange rates have pushed inflationary trends upwards, left the economy unproductive and scuttled domestic and foreign investments in many sectors.

Addressing the infrastructure deficits is also an urgent priority. Electricity shortages have crippled both small businesses and multinational corporations. Yet more funds are allocated to run the legislature and Executive branches than on genuine   investments in electric power provision.

Virtually every infrastructure deficit suffers the same depreciated attention. Few countries have road networks that are as poorly-maintained as Liberia’s;  however, the country has no functional railway system; seaports are decrepit and inefficient – and in need of massive investment, and yet there is no sense of urgency in government to attract much-needed private investment in these critical sectors – and to take advantage of the employment opportunities they create. The result is one of the most underdeveloped infrastructure system in Africa – and one of the most expensive countries in the world to set up and run a productive business.

Even if President Sirleaf develops the vision and will to implement these urgently needed developmental strategies, she still has to contend with corruption and a broken public service. Corruption drives up the cost of doing business, derails government policy and is a major disincentive to foreign investment – which is critical to the country. An over-bloated, dysfunctional and poorly paid public service makes government both inefficient and costly!

But does our President have the wherewithal to fight corruption, after she and her cronies continue to rob the country? Does the President have the impetus to induce the governments to invest in human development and fight mass poverty on the one hand, and resist them and other vested interests on the other?

Many of her supporters think President Sirleaf ‘s legendary  “the First Female Head of State,  President in Africa and Nobel Laureate “ will somehow turn things around, but governance requires more than just been the first Woman President or Nobel Laureate. The immediate future depends on the choices President Sirleaf makes in the pending three years. While many cheerleaders are optimistic, the records of the last few years show otherwise. We have to wait patiently and see how things unfold. And as we always do in Liberia, pray. While we are praying, however, the signals are very scary. 

Because of the nature of her ascent to power, President Sirleaf is beholden to several vested interests from whose grip she may not be able to escape. By all accounts, she spent the last 7 years pandering to those interests to secure her election as president. Shockingly, even before she was sworn in for her first term, she indicated that six years would not be enough to achieve much. The import is that she may spend the last 6 years working for her re-election – and the entailing squandering of resources, including racking up massive debts. Just muddling through the next three years and preserving the nation she inherited may turn out to be a major achievement-if she is able to do just that.

 

Seltue Karweaye, who penned this piece, holds BA in Criminal Justice minor 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 from Uppsala University in Uppsala, Sweden.

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