After over 15 years of post-conflict reconstruction and democratic governance, Liberians appear to agree that the country’s governance isn’t working as it ought to. And at the root of it is the high cost of running the government, which they say unless it is drastically reduced, the developmental dreams of the country would remain a mirage.
They point out that even though the country has been borrowing to finance its budget for many years now, a larger percentage of the money goes into recurrent expenditure while the developmental needs of the nation are relegated to the background.
One of the most debated issues about governance in Liberia is arguably the amount being spent to run the country’s bicameral legislature. Last year, we were served another national comedy when the national legislature appropriated the 2020/2021 national budget of USD$30,000 for each Senator and Representative in the name of the so-called Legislative Engagement Fund totaling US$3.6 million.
The Senate in a press statement explained the US$30,000 received by each Senator and Representative is geared towards the support to their initiatives in their various counties. One of the unintended consequences of the legislature’s unilateral action brings to the front-burner questions about the size of government, the excessive cost of governance, and the fraud and corruption in Liberia.
Liberia’s lawmakers have a reputation for rent-seeking behavior. They have been considered among the highest-paid parliamentarians in West Africa. According to the 2022 national Legislature budget, the total sum of US$64.3 million was allocated to the national legislature. US$37.4 million was for salary costs for the House of Representatives, while US$21.1 million was set aside for the salary cost of the Senate. The legislature also set aside US$3.6 million for the so-called Legislative Engagement and Public Accessibility. Substantial additional perks of the office come in the form of allowances to cover a range of costs including the purchase of new official vehicles (US$4.6 million), operational expenses (US$18.7 million ), gas for vehicles (US$3.1), and legislative committee hearings (US$729,000). The number of allowances received differs across ranks, with the Speaker (US$2 million), Deputy Speaker (US$1.5 million ), and Senate Pro Tempore (US$2.1 million), receiving substantially more.
In Liberia, the legislative budgets have tended to increase over the years. An important hike occurred in 2009 when the total legislature budget rose from US$9.4 million in 2007 to US$19 million in 2009. By 2011, this budget stood at US$26 million. By 2013, the legislature budget was at US$39 million and by 2015, the budget was at US$54 million. In 2016 and 2017, the budget was reduced to around US$47 million and reduced again to US$44.6 million in 2020. In 2022, another hike occurred to the tune of US$64.3 million, the highest in the history of Liberia.
While our legislators can accrue salaries and allowances during their 6 or 9 years in office, important additional benefits can be gathered through the legislators’ access to public revenues via the Ministries Departments and Agencies (MDAs). The legislators' oversight power over Liberia’s numerous MDAs is commonly used to extract additional revenues from the government. This takes the form of lawmakers cooperating with – or bribing and extorting. Access to government revenue is mainly organized through the legislative committee system. For instance, current Sinoe County Senator, Milton Teahjay confessed how Senate committee chairs bargain with nominees of the Executive Branch to employ persons of their interest to get their votes to be confirmed. The allocation of civil servant job slots to members of the national legislature also supports the practice of prebendalism.
A closer look at the 2022 legislature budget shows that our elected politicians are not serious about tackling food insecurity in Liberia. When comparing the legislature budget of US$64.3 million to what is allocated to the agricultural sector, reveals that the combined total allocation of US$7.3 million (0.9% of the total expenditure) includes the Ministry of Agriculture (US$4.6 million), Central Agricultural Research Institute (US$1.6 million), Liberia Agriculture Commodity Regulatory Authority (US$550,107), Cooperative Development Agency (US$432,602) and the Rubber Development Fund Incorporated (US$83,997).
Liberians have complained about the agriculture sector budget every year not meeting the benchmark to fight food insecurity in the country. The 2003 African Union (AU) Maputo Declaration on Agriculture and Food Security committed African countries to allocate at least 10 percent of national budgetary resources to agriculture and rural development policy to tackle food insecurity in the continent, yet the National Legislature which houses 103 legislators and several aides increased their budget by US$10 million, from US$53.9 million to US$64.3 million.
According to the World Food Program (WFP ), agricultural production constitutes the most important livelihood for the average Liberians, involving 67% of the population. The sector contributes 26% of GDP, primarily from exports of rubber, palm oil, cocoa, sugar cane, and coffee, but most of the country’s food supply is met by imports due to low overall productivity and limited road access. The 2021 Global Hunger Index, (GHI) ranked Liberia 110th out of the 116 countries. With a GHI score of 33.3, Liberia's hunger levels are ‘serious’ and on the brink of becoming ‘alarming.’
Liberia does not produce enough food for internal consumption. According to the Food Agriculture Organization (FAO), the 2020 national rice production in Liberia was estimated at 270 000 tonnes, similar to the five-year average and slightly below the previous year. The 2020 FAO statistics placed Liberia among the highest importer of rice in the world, as well as wheat, and sugar. Rice for human consumption accounts for over 80 percent of imports, whole wheat and maize account for about 13 percent and 6 percent. Sadly, these are all products that can be grown locally if we properly invest in the agricultural sector.
With all the problems of food insecurity in Liberia, how can the Ministry of Agriculture, the government ministry responsible for the governance, management, and promotion of agriculture be allocated US$4.6 million, but the national legislature budget includes US$4.6 million for new vehicles purchase, US$3.1 million for vehicle fuel, US$3.6 million for the so-called Legislative Engagement and Public Accessibility, etc? This honorarium scale is excessive in a country that is living on loans, a country that is owing pensions, and a country whose educational system, health, agriculture sector, and infrastructures are in shambles. Such funds ought to be meaningfully spent to provide clean water, logistic support for emergency treatment, build classrooms, provide materials, train teachers and pay outstanding workers’ salaries.
Liberia has never worked, and may never work if we don’t rise and confront this system. What do these legislators contribute to be earning so much? What are we paying them for? In the same country, millions are starving, millions are impoverished; unemployment is high and poverty continues to increase! How did we end up putting these guys at the helm of national affairs? How did we put those who keep pushing up waste and spending more? Most of these lawmakers are personal failures in their own system, hence the need to amass wealth by all means possible.
These pretentious politicians, who always claim to have people-oriented and focused leadership qualities, are in fact, the least endowed with the virtues of transparency, probity, and accountability in the running of government business. The end result of all this debauchery is the emergence of a powerful privileged class that has suddenly supplanted the yearnings and aspirations of teeming Liberians with its bloated appetite for opulent and ostentatious lifestyles.
The wasteful spending as evidenced in the nation's legislature budget disproportionately affects the socially and economically vulnerable and pushes them deeper into poverty and deprivation. Liberia is in dire straits financially now, running a deficit budget year in and year out means that we need to save resources by cutting costs as much as we can.
So, having the national legislature gulping money from the national purse is wrong. President Weah had the chance to show that the 2022 budget would not prioritize wasteful spending by the national legislature and the executive over and above urgent national development priorities, and the need to improve Liberians’ access to necessities such as interrupted electricity supply, quality education, affordable healthcare, clean water, good roads, as well as pay outstanding workers’ salaries across the country, but failed to do so when he signed the budget into law. The spending of public funds by the national legislature suggests that the leadership does not conceive of the national budget as a blueprint for social and economic policy priorities in Liberia.