Liberia: Senate Leaning toward RIA Privatization?

What appeared to have been an aggressive push for an unqualified presidential nominee to head the Liberia Airport Authority, now appears to be dead on arrival, as quite a few senators, in a bid to understand the problem at Roberts International Airport (RIA), are already looking further afield to restore the RIA to its pre-war status. 

The term now used to describe the Senate’s inclination — ‘privatization’ — was once parodied as allegedly a challenge to pronounce. Now, given the realities of running RIA effectively, with serious concerns lately about airline and passenger safety, vis-a-vis the politics surrounding the state-owned enterprise, the idea to privatize RIA appears to be a no-brainer for the Senate. 

On June 7, the chairman of the Senate Committee on Judiciary, Human Rights, Claims and Petitions, Senator H. Varney G. Sherman, simply said it — to privatize the RIA for efficient management.

“Let us have the courage and boldness enough to have to bid for the management of the airport,” Sen. Sherman argued, “and let us take the best, with the condition that they train us to take over after a period of time. I am not so sure that we have the skill and the technical manpower within ourselves to manage that airport efficiently now.” 

Whether or not Senator Sherman is right about Liberians having the skills and manpower to effectively run the airport, what is clear is that the Senate has really high expectations for the future management of the RIA. 

The President of Liberia’s prospects were not nearly as ambitious. On the strength of Article 56a of the Liberian Constitution, President George Manneh Weah opted to nominate a low-level aircraft technician and part-time comedian, who lied about his credentials and has no airport management experience, to run the nation’s only international airport. 

Article 56a says: “All … government officials, both military and civilian, appointed by the President pursuant to this Constitution shall hold their offices at the pleasure of the President.”

The nomination was also announced within days of a major power outage at the RIA that forced an inbound Brussels Airlines aircraft to return to Freetown’s Lungi airport to land, refuel and make a second attempt at landing at RIA.

The President’s announcement of his nominee received major public condemnation when it was discovered that the man, who claimed he was a candidate for a master’s degree, had only a vocational training certificate in aircraft maintenance. 

By now the Senate should have received the letter of nomination on behalf of the individual from the President of Liberia. But a credible source in the Senate told the Daily Observer that the nomination has not been submitted to the Senate for confirmation proceedings. 

Has the President’s nominee to head the RIA been shelved or scrapped? Senator Sherman put it succinctly: “I believe what we need is good management, but unfortunately, let it not be another presidential appointment,” he said, adding that appointments to government positions these days are more politicized, without much attention to competency and demand for results.

The Senator lamented that, instead of the RIA contributing to the country’s annual budget, the country pumps money to the airport to cover deficits. Senator Sherman is not alone with regard to the RIA privatization agenda. Several other Senators have also expressed the need to privatize the entire airport, or at least outsource some sections of it.

The Senate ad hoc committee, headed by River Gee County Senator Jonathan Boye Charles Sogbie, in its conclusion, observed that the airport runs on three generators — two of which are currently out of order; that the RIA uses 800 gallons of fuel per day for its operations, at a monthly cost of US$148,000 (yearly US$1,785,600). 

The ad hoc committee, in its report, said only one of the three generators at the airport is in working order and recommended that a solar field be established immediately to provide electricity to RIA, in accordance with international standard practice. 

The committee further recommended that the entire airport facility be outsourced to meet present-day realities and international best practices.  Meanwhile, the committee gave a further mandate to continue investigations to come up with a comprehensive and exhaustive report.