The Blame Game; Ellen, Business Community: Who’s Right?

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Liberian entrepreneurs and petty traders, who have been staging a three-day protest over hike in taxes amid the harsh economic conditions in the country, would be shocked to know that they are the cause of current frustrations that have upset the economy.

President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who was out of the country attending the African Union ordinary session in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia blamed the protesters—members of the Liberian business community, particularly stores and shops keepers for the economic hardship in the country.

The President said some businessman and women 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 USD.

The protest, which began since Tuesday and ended yesterday, was led by the Patriotic Entrepreneurs of Liberia (PATEL). PATEL and its members as well as other Liberians have petitioned the government, specifically the National
Legislature, which has the responsibility of approving taxes, to give heed to the plight of business owners.

The protesters are saying that 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.

“The recent tariff is affecting we the business people, and the citizens at large, and our protest is to draw the attention of our lawmakers to these things, for them to do something,” said PATEL leader, Prince Howard, prior to the protest.

“These things create chaos, and this is how you find young people turning into [troubled youth] and we don’t want this to happen,” he added.

At the top of their concerns, though, is a volatile exchange rate between the United States and Liberian currencies that puts Liberian business owners at a disadvantage and, the protesters say, isn’t evenly applied or enforced.

Statement out of order

Speaking to reporters on Wednesday upon her arrival at the RIA the President lay the blame for the woeful economic situation at the feet of the business people, accusing them of uncontrollable capital flight.

“I understand that they (protesters) were joined by stores that were closed; those are the people who are part of our problems. They are the ones who take the dollars and put it in suitcases and take it out of here. So those things, we’ve got to deal with all of that,” she said.

But one of the leaders of the protest who asked not to be named noted that the President’s statement is totally out of order.

He said the President forgot to acknowledge that many of the top officials in her government, whom many Liberians consider as expatriate officials, send hundreds of thousands of dollars if not millions in remittances to their families abroad. Many of these officials do not even own a home here and have been living in hotels and guesthouses for many years.

“Many of these officials have to pay their exorbitant mortgages in the US and other places annually,” he noted.

This protest organizer, a Foreign Exchange Bureau owner in the country’s largest commercial district of Red-Light, also noted that the President actually missed the target with her statement. “This sounds so funny to me. If it is happening as she said, then it can’t be we the Liberians business owners, but maybe those foreigners this government has given all the privileges in the business sector to,” he said.

The Blame Game

This is not the first time President Sirleaf has blamed ordinary people for unfavorable conditions in the country. President Sirleaf, from a trip in July last year blamed Liberians for the lack of progress in the country. The President said Liberia is far behind its regional and continental neighbors in terms of economic and infrastructural developments because of the bad work ethic, laziness and indiscipline among the citizenry.

But many Liberians however feel that their country’s underdevelopment in recent years is as a result of missteps in the governance process.

“How will the country not be in such a state? This is because the President is not leading by example,” businessman-turned-opposition politician Benoni Urey said at the time.

Also at an intercessory service held at the All Saints Catholic Church in Smell-No-Taste Community, Margibi County in 2015, the President blamed Liberians for the underdevelopment and backwardness of the nation.

She noted that the continuous challenges and backwardness being faced by Liberia is based on the negative and irresponsible criticisms by some Liberians. “We are holding ourselves back because of the way we do things; the way we say bad things about our country; the way we castigate each other and try to hold each other back,” she noted.

And while there may be a fair amount of truth about the negative self-image held by Liberians about their country, some Liberians believe “the fish starts rotting from the head.”

It is not clear whether the foreign-owned businesses that joined the PATEL protest did so to secure their businesses against possible looting or to show solidarity.

President Sirleaf, on the heels of her trip to the AU ordinary session, indicated that alternative measures were being taken by government which includes the collection of high taxes to meet budgetary targets.

Other impacts on the country’s economy that the President has resounded over time was the fall in prices of Liberia’s main exports – iron ore and rubber, the drawdown of UN peacekeepers and the impact of Ebola. These have been major excuses for the government for the economic hardship in the country.

Liberians continue to lament about the statement by President Sirleaf on UNMIL Radio that her government has no price control over commodities on the Liberian market.

“This simply means that this government is leading us but it is not in control,” an enraged citizen said on a Talk Show after the President’s comment.

Her statement might have been a genuine one in that prices of these commodities are determined by so many factors, which are far beyond the government’s control – and most of these determinant factors are decisions that are taken very far off Liberian shores.

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