In Planned Meeting with Businesses: Did Ellen Snub PATEL?

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They successfully organized and executed a three-day protest that locked down Monrovia and almost held the city, its economy and every sector hostage. Yet the Patriotic Entrepreneurs of Liberia (PATEL) seemed not to have gained government’s recognition as unfolding events indicate.

President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is due to convene a meeting with major stakeholders in the business sector anytime this week, but to the dismay of many, PATEL, which has placed itself in an advocacy role — speaking the minds and consciences of the ordinary Liberian businesses, appeared to have been ignored by the President.

The office of the President indicated yesterday that she is due to meet with some top business stakeholders, but this organization’s name wasn’t mentioned among those invited to this all important and historic gathering—meaning that executives and members of PATEL, to the surprise of many, will have no seat at the negotiation table.

The Executive Mansion named those invited to this meeting as the Liberia Chamber of Commerce (LCC), Liberia Marketing Association (LMA), Liberia Business Association (LIBA) and the Yana Boys Association (YBA).

“A meeting between the President and members of the Chamber of Commerce, the Liberia Business Association, the Liberia Marketing Association and the Yana Boys Association is scheduled for this week in an effort to engage in continuing dialogue over ways of improving the current business climate in the country,” the Executive Mansion release noted.

Meanwhile the protesters, under the leadership of PATEL, said they are compelled to pay unfairly high taxes, as well as the harassment and arrest of street vendors whose goods are seized by the Liberian National Police. “These are the issues we want this government to address,” PATEL Executive Director Prince Howard said last week.

Ignoring the Relevant People

The decision by the government leaves out PATEL as an integral partner to this discourse and it has not gone down well with its executives.

According to executive member Saah S. Kpengba the only way the situation will be resolved is for the government to meet with the relevant parties, of which PATEL is one.

Kpengba confirmed that his organization has not received any invitation from any of the government institutions that it engaged during the protest.

“We met with the Ministry of Justice, Finance, Liberia Revenue Authority and other major stakeholders. They told us that they could do nothing because the President was out of the country and upon her return we were going to hold an audience with her. But we are surprised that we weren’t included in this,” he said.

“We will remain consistent and resolute about our actions. We have plan B and C to execute so if the government feels that they cannot sit with us and bypass us to talk with others who they deem necessary, it is their business. But we have resolved to remain focused.

“She can call those people and talk with them; we don’t have problem with that. But she should know that she is not meeting with us. If our requests are not met we have additional plans for the future.”

At the start of the protest last week Tuesday, LMA president Lusu Sloan told the Daily Observer that she couldn’t join the protest because she didn’t know about it in time to make an informed decision.

But Kpengba said the President’s decision to ignore the relevant people in the matter does not mean well for the resolution of the situation.

Asked whether President Sirleaf’s action is a deliberate attempt to ignore PATEL officials and render them irrelevant in the eyes of the public, Kpengbah noted that the organization remains the voice of the voiceless and cannot be intimidated in any way. “We will remain the voice of the voiceless because we represent the masses. No level of intimidation will erase this,” he said.

He noted that those things that affect PATEL and hundreds of other ordinary business people do not affect some of those that have been named as parties to the discussion. “We have not seen any of these organizations playing leadership roles in this country. They play along with the status quo and we are tired of this,” he said.

Kpengba said PATEL walked out of a meeting with LCC last week because their interests weren’t the same. “They are not affected in a way that we are,” he said.

Another executive member of the group, who preferred not to be named, noted, “A government is meant to protect and seek the interests of its citizens and not to serve as a catalyst for chaos. They know very well that they are not acting in our interest but we will compel them to do so.”

He indicated if the government does not come out with a redress shortly the organization will have no other alternative but to come out with an additional plan of action.

PATEL, whose leaders and members are indigenous businessmen and women, is an advocacy group pushing the rights of Liberian small businesses.

This group last week rallied hundreds of Liberian entrepreneurs and petty traders, who staged a three-day protest over a hike in taxes amid the harsh economic conditions in the country.

They presented a petition to the government, specifically the National Legislature, which has the responsibility of approving taxes, to give heed to the plight of business owners.

The mass rally shut down all Liberian businesses, especially on its first day, as the protesters awaited redress from the Legislature.

President Sirleaf, who was not in the country when the protest began, blamed members of the Liberian business community upon her return, particularly stores and shopkeepers, for the economic hardship in the country.

She said some of these business people are involved in the clandestine act of hoarding. They take huge sums of United States dollars in their suitcases outside of the country. This, she said, has contributed significantly to the uncontrollable depreciation of the Liberian dollar against the US dollar.

A top official of government, who asked not to be identified because he has not been permitted to speak on the issue officially, said PATEL shouldn’t take the President’s decision out of context.

“As long as the President has seen the need to call these people to a conference it indicates that she means well for every Liberian,” he said, adding that all members of PATEL definitely fall under any of the umbrella organizations that the President has invited.

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