Liberia: Understanding Why Weah Failed

President George Weah

By S. Karweaye

In the last six years, Liberia has come to realize who its president is, considering the much hype about his strong love of the country, integrity, and sense of accountability. Faced with the hydra-headed socio-economic challenges, the electorate in 2017 believed all that the Coalition of Democratic Change (CDC) sold to them. 

Six years down the line, Liberians now know better and are living in regret. The regrets are emanating from the failed promises of the present administration led by President George Weah. The realities of the campaigns in 2017, which were based on the three mantras; ‘Change For Hope’, saw the president and the  CDC reeling out promises upon promises that are yet to be fulfilled in barely two months to the end of his six years in office.

Probably no other leader in Liberian history has had a deeper fund of goodwill to tap into at inception than Georg Weah did when he took the reins in 2018. Nor could the public mood at the time of his inauguration have been more auspicious especially since the public seemed to have had enough of the Unity Party’s habitual dithering. 

Mr. Weah, on the other hand, seemed ready to get back in the saddle after being Senator of Montserrado County (2015- 2018). He was widely perceived as above board, a rarity for a Liberian public officeholder. Furthermore, his humble beginning was deemed essential given the unchecked rampage disparity between the poor and the rich political elites in Liberia, which had ramped up under Sirleaf/Boakai’s administration. 

That Mr. Weah managed to turn such wild enthusiasm about his candidacy into grave disappointment, going from a regime of which many, rightly or not, had high hopes, to one that most can’t wait to see the back of, ranks among the most remarkable instances of reputational collapse in the whole of Liberian political history.

It was clear within the first few weeks—the initial struggle to put together a cabinet being particularly telling—that Weah, for all his desperation to take power, had not done his homework and was ill-prepared for the demands of the office. He appointed Charles Taylor’s former Minister of Finance, Charles Bright as presidential adviser for economic affairs and elevated his portfolio to cabinet level giving him the exclusive power to monitor and evaluate all agencies and ministries of government.

In September 2018, local media reported that shipping containers filled with newly printed Liberian dollars from Swedish banknote manufacturer Crane AB disappeared from Liberia's entry ports between 2016 and 2017.  Just a few months before the revelation, President George Weah announced that the central bank would pump $25m into the economy to replace older Liberian dollars. The president's "mop-up" exercise, as it was dubbed, took place between July and October of 2019. It intended to reduce the amount of local currency in the economy to slow further depreciation. However, there were a number of concerns around the exercise and unanswered questions about the shipments of cash into Liberia. 

Two reports were commissioned to examine the details. The government's Presidential Investigative Team (PIT) completed one. Risk advisory firm Kroll, the other. According to Kroll, only L$5bn of the total L$15.5bn was printed and distributed in line with Liberian law. The Central Bank did not receive legislative approval for the remainder of the cash but entered into another contract with Crane who proceeded to print and deliver the money to Liberia anyway.

Kroll also found an excess of L$2.6bn was printed in addition to what was initially disclosed. The PIT's report recorded a similar finding. There is still little information on what happened to this excess, but the former executive governor of the Central Bank, Milton Weeks, and his former deputy, Charles Sirleaf - both in charge of the Central Bank when the notes were ordered - were arrested in March of 2019 on the PIT's recommendation and were charged with economic sabotage, misuse of public money and criminal conspiracy, but have since been released.

Under Mr. Weah, the nation’s economy is in tatters and has been so since he took over the mantle of leadership in 2018. Despite his assurances and reassurances, the economy has continued to remain prostate. Liberia is approaching a fiscal cliff with severe debt servicing in 2023 is projected to amount to US $99.91 million, or 12. 75 percent of the national budget according to 2023 the approved budget.

Weah admitted in his 2022 State Of the Nation Address (SONA) that his government continues to lack the capacity to attract Foreign Direct Investment (FDI). He is right! Previously, Liberia attracted $16 billion in FDI during the regime of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf but under Weah, this figure slumped to a mere 60 million in 2022 according to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development’s 2023 World Investment Report. Mr. Weah’s policy options have helped to create an unfriendly investment climate in Liberia. Liberia was rated 172 on the World Bank’s “Ease of Doing Business” Index in 2017 but under Weah, Liberia was rated 175 in 2019.  

Under Weah real per capita income increased, but his fiscal indiscipline, highlighted by an appetite for borrowing unmatched in Liberia’s annals. With less than four months to the end of his first tenure, the Weah government has requested US$55 million from the  World Bank which was approved in September 2023. According to the government of Liberia's first quarter of the fiscal year 2023 report (April -01– June 30, 2023), the country has an estimated Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of US$4.35 billion and a total public debt stock was US$2.12 billion.

Similarly, the security situation took a turn for the worse on Weah’s watch where killings and abuse of the rules of law have become rampant. In 2020, four auditors died mysteriously including Emmanuel Barten Nyeswua, director-general of the Liberia Internal Audit Agency; Gifty Lama, acting manager for tax service, Liberia Revenue Authority (LRA); Albert Peters, assistant commissioner for audit of LRA and auditor George Fanbutu of the LRA. Their deaths remain unsolved. The murders and rampant criminality have made nightlife nonexistent in Liberia which has badly diminished the night economy. Numbers aside, a real sense of lawlessness pervades, with a growing recourse to vigilante justice signaling popular frustration at law enforcement and the judicial system.

Corruption, too, has worsened. The annual corruption index ranking by Transparency International has seen Liberia drop from the 122nd position in 2017 to 142nd in 2022, a drop of 20 since Mr. Weah ascended to the presidency. Mr. Weah’s key appointments have conflated with the working of government agencies at cross-purposes to fuel corruption. The U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC)  sanctioned key Weah’s top officials for public corruption has both tarnished Weah’s image as a beacon of transparency and stiffened the common perception that his commitment to transparency and fighting corruption is merely rhetorical. 

Poverty is rife compounded by ever-rising rice, gas, and other basic commodities prices. It is estimated 64% of the population in Liberia lives below the poverty line and 1.3 million of those live in extreme poverty according to the World Food Programme (WFP). While 16% of children are physically not in school in Liberia and the infant mortality rate is 76 per 1000 live births according to UNICEF data. 

The World Happiness Report (WHP) established by the United States captures more holistically, all aspects of economic performance. The World Happiness Report on 6 indicators: GDP per capita, social support, healthy life expectancy, freedom, generosity, and corruption. The World Happiness Report is the first report to rank countries by how their populations feel. Liberia is ranked 97th out of 146 countries on the 2022 report meaning Liberians are among the most unhappy people in the world.

Under Mr. Weah's leadership, the country dropped places from 175 out of 191 countries in 2017 to 178 in 2022 on the Human Development Index. The Global Human Development Index (HDI) published by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) is a measure for assessing long-term progress in three basic dimensions of human development: a long and healthy life, access to knowledge, and a decent standard of living. According to the index, life expectancy dropped by 3.4 years from 63.7 years in 2018 to 60.7 years in 2021.

The truth is there is a general assumption among Liberians, that there is no hope, and that there would be no changes in the next few months before his tenure elapses. Genuinely, I am one of many Liberians who are disappointed and completely give up on President George Weah’s ability to do anything. We have entered electioneering in the runoff and that means his tenure has ended. So, all that matters to them is the campaigns and lies they plan to tell Liberians.

There is nothing this government can do anymore. There is nothing to hope for in this government. During his six years in office, Mr. Weah didn’t achieve the things he promised. He didn’t even achieve his intentions that were expressed in his body language which, according to his people, shows there will be signs of hope. Today, take a look at the electricity sector, bad roads, and rising insecurity challenges among others. I asked again where are the things he achieved apart from shifting the blame to the opposition political parties which he is still doing to date. We have not seen anything he did apart from putting us in more trouble.

Liberians clamored for change and he has changed our situation from bad to worse, and this will make it difficult for the next president to immediately make a positive impact and remedy the situation. By and large, Weah failed simply because he lacked the wherewithal to govern. For one thing, if he had anything resembling a coherent economic vision, he never once articulated it, and for a man who was once a sitting senator and his party’s CDC; a party abrogating to itself absolute knowledge of Liberian problems over the years while in opposition, they have failed miserably. 

I could go on and on explaining how Weah failed astoundingly in health, human rights, education, infrastructure, agriculture, and power but to his blind supporters, none of that matters. It doesn’t matter how convincing a nomological network of cumulative evidence I present to them. They believe what they believe regardless. It’s almost like a religion to them. Their confidence in Weah will never be swayed even in the face of incontrovertible evidence. But political leaders should never be venerated to such positions, especially in a so-called constitutional democracy.
In the end, President Weah's six years in office left a legacy of debt from 37.1% to 48.89% of GDP and 1.3 million Liberians in poverty, and a raft of economic policies, wasteful spending coupled with huge infrastructure deficits. His presidency has been an unmitigated bad luck infection for Liberia and for such, Mr. Weah shouldn’t be rewarded with a second term.