Can Liberia Become Self-Sufficient Amidst Massive Resource Mismanagement?

.... Like other African countries that are endowed with natural resources, in Liberia, the sector is confronted with unbridled corruption, mismanagement, elite capture, global volatility, and the phenomenon of “Dutch Disease”, whereby the mineral boom chokes out other viable production sectors of the economy, like manufacturing. 

The collapse of the Berlin Wall and the end of Cold War rivalries in the eighties offered hope. There existed great optimism by developing countries that, at long last, a destructive global crisis was over and liberal democratic values could now advance unhindered towards peace and global development. 

However, following decades of relative social and economic stability, the last decade has been punctuated with a series of disturbing developments in both developed and developing countries. 

In Africa, we are witnessing citizens’ increasing demands for Good Governance, accountable leadership, effective political representation, and an end to unmitigated “pillage, plunder, and carnage.” While most donor countries continue to support African governments via bilateral and multi-lateral aid regimes, Western aid is yet to help stamp the gushing flow of African youths desperate for greener pastures in Western countries. 

Why and how have decades of aid and donor assistance failed to mitigate Africa’s ailing governance crises?  These questions are compounded by the rise of nationalist sentiments and populist political leaders mostly in Western societies – many of whom espouse nativist policies, and blame immigrants for many of their national woes. These leaders are also attempting to block multilateral and bilateral aid to developing countries in Africa and elsewhere. Prospects for poverty reduction in poorer nations are becoming increasingly dire. Quoting the late highlife Nigerian musician Prince Nicco Mbarga, ‘the cow without a tail has only God to protect it’.

Indeed, only a few liberal leaders, although not without their own wahala, are driving the flies for vulnerable populations. Emmanuel Macron’s presidency in France, coupled with the re-election of Angela Merkel as former Chancellor of Germany, and the defeat (or at least containment) of other far-right elements in contests in Austria and the Netherlands, offered a sigh of relief for many who feared that a right-wing takeover in Europe would unleash dangerous anti-immigrants policies in Europe. 

But the assumption that Europe was safe from far-right threats is gradually dwindling in most EU countries, even in one of the last bastions of hope and tolerance– Sweden – which is considered one of Liberia’s biggest and most reliable donors. In the United States and Europe, the far-right parties are snatching sizable parliamentary seats; and their victories are steering aid policy into new and uncertain directions. 

During the era of former President Donald Trump, he called for tighter immigration reform and questioned what he thought was the U S’s liberal immigration policy of accepting citizens from countries he termed "shitholes", mainly in Africa. With all these humiliating signs and begrudging attitudes towards Africa, one would think African leaders would change the way they govern and put the interests and welfare of their people first. The rise of Trump and his elk has helped demystify for many non-Americans the idea of the ‘American Dream’, and by extension globalization. 

Contrary to the utopian notion of America as ‘the Big Apple’ which provides unlimited opportunities for all, acceptance and belonging in many Western countries today is neither based on historical ties nor the myth of universality; but instead, contingent on strategic interest; the kind of leadership that prioritizes existing national policy. 

For example, the Trump administration was unequivocal from the start of its conservative stance on immigration, and only extended the Deferred Enforced Departure (DED) program of Liberia until March 2019. An estimated 500,000 Liberians (about 10 percent of the total global Liberian population) are believed to be in the U.S. diaspora. 

Former President Trump's broad anti-immigrant policy is believed to have negatively impacted more than 4,000 Liberian immigrants in the United States who were gracefully surviving DED, a humanist and liberal policy offered by various liberal democratic leaderships. Upon assuming the presidency, the Biden leadership has brought some respite for Liberians. Nevertheless, the far-right parties’ leaders worldwide continue to convince electorates that immigrants are the problem and hence are tailoring their campaign slogans against integration and globalization. 

Migration and immigration are believed to be the major vote catchers in most Western societies. The wider and more recent effect of such toxic sentiment beyond the shores of USA is the Brexit, and Britain’s divorce from the European Union (EU). 

Whatever the underlying rationale for Britain’s withdrawal, the method and messages of the campaign invigorated populist and nationalist sentiments against poorer Europeans and migrants, thus challenging the legitimacy of regionalism and globalism.

Amidst these geopolitical shifts and twists, it is business as usual in Liberia. In 2010, during one of her many visits to Washington, D.C., former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf spoke boldly before an assembled crowd at the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations that “Liberia should not need aid in 10 years.” President Sirleaf believed that Liberia had enough human resources to drive the country to self–sufficiency instead of the usual dependency on aid. 

To break its dependency on aid, the Iron Lady told her audience that she planned to attract increasing levels of foreign investment and private capital. Indeed, Africa's first female president used her charm and charisma to attract an avalanche of multilateral, bilateral, and foreign direct investments, and aid. Madam Sirleaf negotiated a $4.7 billion debt relief and gained the trust of the international community. Liberia’s debt cancellation provided a vital financial boost to enable the post-war government to shift scarce revenues from debt payments to reconstruction and combat poverty. 

The elimination of the country's high debt burden encouraged domestic and foreign investors to finance new ventures. Liberia’s natural resources were an important source of attraction for foreign companies. 

For example, major companies like Chevron, BHP Billiton, Arcelor Mittal, Chinese conglomerates, etc. entered different deals with the Liberian government, investing hundreds of missions if not billions in Liberia, leading among other things, to the birth of the National Oil Company of Liberia (NOCAL). A decade later, Liberia is still impoverished and ever more dependent upon external aid. 

Like other African countries that are endowed with natural resources, in Liberia, the sector is confronted with unbridled corruption, mismanagement, elite capture, global volatility, and the phenomenon of “Dutch Disease”, whereby the mineral boom chokes out other viable production sectors of the economy, like manufacturing. 

These and other issues impede development and make many resource-rich countries unable to exit the endemic ‘resource curse’. In Liberia, the shameful demise of NOCAL under the watchful guard of one of President Sirleaf’s sons contributed to the current economic hardship Liberia is experiencing and shows why the country will always be dependent on foreign aid. 

Considering that non-renewable resources are exhaustible and can be depleted, there is/was a need for the former president to consider putting away revenues generated from various mineral explorations to mitigate any potential social and environmental impacts these ‘ambitious adventures may have on society and the population in later years. 

If the president’s Unity Party government was interested in achieving self-sufficiency for Liberia as she declared, opening national wealth funds, and engaging in sustainable investment were initiatives she sadly overlooked. 

Because oil and mineral resources are exhaustible, wealth funds are usually used by people-centered governments to extend welfare and other social programs to their citizens. Such funds eventually help to turn the country’s resource wealth into other forms of wealth that allow future generations to benefit from revenues generated from the nation’s resources. 

Unfortunately, monies generated from Liberia’s natural resources were used to enrich cronies and strengthen patronage relationships in Liberia. Income from Liberia’s natural resources exploration should have been properly invested in education, healthcare, and other public services to improve the living standard of citizens living on a $1 a day. 

This is one way to become less dependent on foreign support and avert mixed migration. However, the sector has been characterized by massive corruption and mismanagement.

Meanwhile, unlike agriculture which creates jobs and employment opportunities, oil and other natural resources, thought to be major sources of wealth, do not create jobs by themselves. Elites that were/are close to the ruling leadership enrich themselves at the expense of the poor. 

Again, during the regime of President Sirleaf, officials of government from all branches of government were accused of aiding and abetting unscrupulous investors and businessmen engaged in rent-seeking behavior that deprived Liberians of the most needed basic social services and infrastructure. 

Widely hailed as a popular victory over ineffective or corrupt politics, and the first peaceful handover of power following the civil war, Mr. George Weah’s election as president of Liberia in January 2018 seems to herald enormous post-civil war prospects. Weah’s history of having played professional soccer in Europe helped him secure a €27 million economic cooperation agreement with the EU, an important early success for his ambitions to lift a million Liberians. 

It was estimated to help lift about a fifth of the country’s total population out of poverty within the period of five years. With the change of leadership in 2018 to Mr. Weah, the new leadership only needed to officially take over and continue business as usual. However, the Weah-led administration decided to introduce a modicum of changes to demonstrate a paradigm shift. Dubbed “Pro-Poor”, his government announced a drastic reduction in salaries and restricted public expenditure, both laudable measures to safeguard the county from worsening hardship. 

Before Mr. Weah took over, some former government Sirleaf’s officials netted US$17-25,000 in monthly salaries. For a country ranked among the poorest countries in the world, this is astonishing.  Sadly, Weah's leadership is characterized by regionalism, nepotism, unexplained killings, corruption, cronyism, etc. Moral and financial support to public integrity institutions remained limited, with the Liberia Anti-Corruption Commission (LACC), Financial Intelligence Unit (FIU), and other public integrity institutions operating without sufficient resources. 

For example, in a 2022 report by the U.S. State Department, it was cited that widespread and "pervasive government corruption" in Liberia was a constraint to investment and development. Ironically, Weah campaigned against corruption as well as fighting against poverty. In his inaugural speech in January 2018, President Weah said he had been given "a mandate to end corruption in public service."

And he voiced his " promise to honor that mandate." Six years later, Liberia’s perennial problems persist. It is reported that many officials of the “Pro Poor” government, including President Weah, are acquiring real estate properties at an exponential level. What is even more disturbing is President Weah’s repeated attempts to mobilize financial resources through unorthodox means. 

The so-called financial strategy of ‘resource swap’ has been particularly difficult to understand for many Liberians. As somebody from the Southeast who supports President Weah’s plans to improve roads and living conditions in that part of Liberia – a region where 4 of every 5 residents (89%) lives in absolute poverty and has suffered systematic marginalization through Sirleaf’s so-called ‘growth corridors’ policy, Weah’s ‘resource swap’ plan was just another gimmick. Many Liberians believed if it had succeeded, it would have only undermined current and future generations’ ability to live a happy and peaceful life. 

Meanwhile, as the ruling CDD acquired a new fleet of vehicles and logistics for campaign purposes, Liberians are living in abject poverty as law enforcement agencies look to external donors to assist Liberia through bilateral and multilateral aid. 

The harsh reality of the Ukraine crisis has shifted the Geopolitical system and many donor countries are now experiencing dramatic changes in their political landscape. Because the Russian war’s humanitarian cost has brought about greater pressure on aid budgets, tens of billions of dollars worth of Western assistance are flowing into the Ukraine war since it began, instead of toward international development. 

The senseless civil war in Liberia sent many Liberians to foreign countries. The exact figure of the number of Liberians living in Europe and America is difficult to ascertain. However, many Liberians living on the two continents continue to send remittances and other support to their families and friends back home.  

However, the rise of anti-immigrant parties and governments in Europe and America will have adverse effects on development in Liberia. In terms of the impact on the welfare of various households and the whole economy, it is estimated that personal remittances inflow from the Diaspora reached 24.4 percent of our GDP by 2014. Personal remittances inflow reached 27.1 percent of GDP 2017-making Liberia the largest recipient of US dollar remittances in Sub-Saharan Africa and the fifth most dependent in the world. 

Moreover, a study by George Washington University indicates that the Liberian diaspora is making social and economic contributions to the development of Liberia. In a country like ours without welfare opportunities, remittances are very important for family members and for the local banks that are serving as conduits. 

Thus, hostile anti-immigrants politics in developed societies and changing policies and leadership could have an impact on Liberian migrants’ ability to send remittances. Every society has good and bad folks; and it will not be impossible for some unscrupulous employers to take advantage of anti-migrants’ policy and terminate their services or drastically reduce their incentives, which will invariably affect development in our country. The knock-on effect of the Ukraine crisis on food insecurity is already making the cost of living difficult.

On the overall, the Liberian government relies on international support to carry out its development agenda. Since the war ended in 2003, the international community has continued to provide different contributions, including peacekeeping forces and humanitarian relief efforts, to debt relief. Liberia also receives support from major donors, including most European countries and the United States of America. The Pro-Poor government does not have a plan to change this trajectory as far as Liberia’s development is concerned. “Our progress will remain incomplete without the support of key partners--the international development partners, the private sector, and …’ notes the Pro-Poor agenda. 

Meanwhile, the political tides are rapidly changing all around Europe as we see radical shifts with traditional political party systems being fragmented and new populist parties scoring high in national elections. Besides growing resentment against migrants, some Western countries’ economies are also struggling, and their citizens are looking for political messiahs who will drive away those they consider intruders. Of particular interest to Liberia, is the recent political development in Sweden, arguably the last bastion of hope and a true friend of Liberia. 

The anti-immigration Sweden Democrats (SD) party won about 18% of the vote in the last 2018 election and on 18 October 2022, Sweden’s Parliament elected the most far-right government in the country’s history. Like most right-wing parties, the SD is reported to share Neo-Nazi sentiments, hence anti-immigrants. Compared to other Western countries, except Germany, Sweden has welcomed more asylum seekers per capita than any other European country and has one of the most positive attitudes towards migrants

Although there is no news of Liberians in the Diaspora being discriminated against due to the changing political landscapes in their host countries, seeing the writings on the wall, it is always good to be prepared in time of peace for any eventuality. 

Our Pro-poor government should be thinking and crafting measures to address any potential adverse impacts the changes in global political landscapes and foreign policy in Western countries may engender on development assistance to Liberia.  Even the most generous friend will be reluctant to continue to assist another friend who fails to demonstrate transparency and accountability. 

The Weah-led government should treat the recent U.S. government-sanctioned Liberian officials Nathaniel McGill, Sayma Syrenius Cephus, and Bill Twehway issue with seriousness if President Weah wants to be taken seriously. 

Leaving them to go with impunity without prosecution or even interrogation will only send the wrong message and could be ammunition for far-right parties in donor countries to justify further cuts in support of Liberia’s development agenda. Also, the act of reappointing an official who was allegedly involved with the sexual molestation of female staff in another country as the head of the country’s foreign policy does more harm than good for an already struggling nation. 

Whatever the CDC government does, one thing remains clear: Liberian schools, hospitals, roads, and communities remain in deplorable conditions as government officials continue to build private and modern universities.  The cost of living has skyrocketed, and unemployment has reached an alarming level. 

No amount of pretense and falsehood will help at this critical junction. The only way to take our people out of poverty and chart a course of self-sufficiency is to put the right people in the right places through meritocracy and, as the leader of a fragile country, lead by example by demonstrating transparency, accountability and effectively utilizing national resources in a sustainable and transparent manner.

Editor's note: The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Daily Observer's editorial stance.