Liberia: Marketeers Fret

Flashback: Marketeers in  Red Light, defying government's order to relocate to Omega market.

… As banks, microfinance institutions appear to ‘ignore’ Pres. Weah’s mandate 

When Sia Saah was made aware that President George Weah had intervened in marketeers at the Omega market loan saga, she exclaimed with jubilation. 

Retrospecting the losses she sustained during the relocation exercise, President Weah’s intervention was a  relief for madam Saah, who was already struggling to meet up with her obligation to her lender.

“As soon as September ended, I received an alert from Access Bank Liberia, reminding me about my payment. I immediately called my loan officer to tell him that President Weah has asked the banks to give us three months. He (loan officer) said nobody gave him any mandate,” she said.

After visiting the Omega market ground and seeing the difficulties sellers are encountering, President George immediately mandated local banks and microfinance institutions to reschedule marketeers loan payments for a period of three months, beginning October 1, to December 31.

According to the Executive Mansion, the gesture is aimed at easing the burden posed by the disruption in the marketeers’ business activities caused by their mandatory relocation from Red Light to Omega Market, which rendered the sellers unable to meet up with their loan obligations.

However, since the President’s pronouncement, these banks and lending entities have refused to grant the three months loan postponement, compelling the struggling sellers to venture into ways to enable them to pay their debts or risk going to jail.

“Commercial banks and other licensed financial institutions are required to reschedule their loan collection program for the designated months beginning October 1, 2021, and ending December 31, 2021.”

Madam Saah was among thousands of petty traders and other marketeers who were forcibly evicted from the Red Light Market on July 11, by the Government of Liberia to complete the ongoing road works from the Coca-Cola Factory to ELWA junction.  Aside from traffic congestion, limited toilet and warehouse facilities that the sellers complained about when they moved to the area, many of them struggled to secure selling spots. 

Furthermore, the entire Omega Market complex could not accommodate all of them. Only registered marketeers were given tables in the main building. The rest of them had no option but to backfill the swampy areas adjacent to the Omega Market structure and make it comfortable for themselves to sell.

“Because of this loan payment, many of our friends who came here have gone back to Red Light to sell because if you don’t pay you will go to jail and you will not be able to acquire a loan again. When the month ends, we are worried about our loan payment,” said Jartu Saye, another seller.

Cyrus Badio, Communications Director at the Central Bank declined to comment on the matter, claiming that the Regulations and Supervision Department of the CBL is preoccupied with arrangements for the transportation of the new money.

“The relocation exercise came with extra expenses. You see how my body has reduced. I get 6 children and 4 grandchildren to feed and send to school,” explains Madam Saye, who is one of the affected sellers. “When I was selling in Red Light I paid L$50 in a bus and L$80 in a taxi from my Chicken Soup Factory to Red Light. But now, I am paying LD$400 every day for transportation -- even though no customers [are] coming to buy from us,’’

At Red Light, Esther Bundoo, who sells children's clothes, believes that customers have known her spot and know where to find her for business. But the new location, she says, puts her in such disarray that she is in danger of defaulting on the loan payment.  Nancy Kullor, who sells dry goods, said, “How will the President let us down like that? The three months were enough to enable us to get back on our feet and fully recover from the losses we experienced during the relocation. I took L$270,000 from Diacomia MD and I pay L$2,710 every month.” 

Bendu Korfer, who sells provisions, argues that those who went back to Red Light to sell did so to avoid embarrassment from their lenders. “No customers will see people selling in Red Light and still pay their way to come to Omega to buy. It’s impossible. So, we only come and sit in the sun the entire day and go back home empty,” she said. 

Dorothy Larmouth also sells dry goods.  She says the police in Red light is the main reason why the sellers have remained defiant in Red Light because they (police) collect money from them every day. In Spite of the financial constraints the sellers are facing, they still have to spend an average of L$100 per day on bathroom fees, plus feeding and transportation, which they described as inhumane to them.

“We are thinking about how to pay our loan and we are paying for the bathroom and we come and sit here without buying. We need to transport and feed every day,” another marketeer interjected. 

Due to the poor marketing activities at Omega market, the majority of the sellers have abandoned the Omega Market grounds and returned to Red Light to continue selling in order to meet up with loan payments. 

Esther Kumba Steven, Operational Superintendent at the 14 Gobachop Market, said they were only requested by the President’s office to collect the names of marketeers along with their loan documents. She said since submission, they have not received any response. She encouraged her colleagues to continue paying their loans while they waited on the President to negotiate with the banks and other institutions to give the three months to Marketeers as promised.

A source from Access Bank, who asked not to be named, said: “We are not going to abide by the mandate given by the President. Once you owe us, you will pay our money.” There was some action that followed the President’s mandate. However, It seems that said action did not go very far. 

“Some time ago, we were invited by the Central Bank. They told us this is what the President is thinking about doing but the discussion was not finalized,” a source from one of the microfinance institutions said.

Jonathan Eastman, Head of Credits at Diacomia MD, said before the President’s mandate, his institution was already rescheduling clients’ loan payments but it was based on client request. 

“CBL gave us a list of affected marketeers.  We give [our client marketeers] the opportunity to come to us and make a request because we cannot restructure loan payments without hearing from the client, even though the government has said we should do that,” he said. 

He admitted that the Central Bank met with banks and borrowing institutions and pleaded with them to reschedule their loan payments, but said they agreed that the sellers must come to the lenders to make such a request individually. 

“CBL pleaded with us to restructure loan payments of the affected clients for 6 months. We then recommended that it should be done on a case-by-case basis. Maybe the client has one or two payments to qualify them..., we allow you to come to us and make a request,” he said.