President George Weah may borrow a move from the playbook of his predecessor Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to announce his reelection bid during his final state of the nation address to the joint session of the 54th Legislature today.
Weah's aides view the address as a de facto launch of his reelection bid, considering the captive audience the President's Annual Address usually draws, which then makes it a perfect opportunity for the President to lay out a more focused version of all the President's achievements.
Today's address, delivered to a joint session of the 54th legislature, is expected to cover topics on the nation's budget, economy, and the President's priorities and legislative proposals — in line with Article 58 of the Constitution.
A great deal of the address is however expected to focus on claims of record-breaking achievements, while boasting that his administration’s Pro-poor Agenda for Prosperity and Development (PAPD), which promises to be a framework for inclusion, more equitable distribution of the country's national wealth, and a rights-based approach to national development, is on course and working satisfactorily since its inception in 2018.
He would reframe the economic narrative away from the rapid increase in poverty and extreme poverty toward his stewardship of an economy that has churned out steady growth of later and a significant reduction in inflation.
This would focus on the strength of the Liberian economy, with growth being underpinned by significant tailwinds from mining, the government’s planned scale-up of public investment, and the implementation of structural reforms including in key enabling sectors such as energy, trade, transportation, and financial services to experience some sort of boom.
Liberia experienced a strong economic recovery in 2021 but softened to 3.7 percent in 2022, and is projected to reach 5.2 percent in 2023. The 2021 brief recovery of the economy, which came on the back of a three-year economic crisis, was as a result of the government's priority policies that led to macroeconomic stability, ensuring a comfortable international reserve position, and maintaining debt sustainability.
And with inflation, which is expected to remain low and stable, would be considered an economic achievement. Inflation in 2023 is projected at 7.2% and, because of it, Weah might likely end his first term seeing reduction in the country's poverty rate, considering that low inflation would help Liberian households retain purchasing power.
Weah and his aides see these economic gains as an opportunity to score political points and define the economic issue before campaigning heats up a few months from now.
That is in part because the issues of the economy are a primary concern to Liberian voters. So by prioritizing the issue in his address, Weah, according to aides, would cast himself as a champion of the people.
However, one flip side of Weah's economic achievements is that the current rising price of petroleum and upward exchange rate would reduce households’ purchasing power and push up poverty more.
Poverty has risen sharply since 2021 under the Weah administration by at least to 51%; wiping out nearly half of the gains made postconflict, during which the poverty rate declined from 64 percent to 42 percent between 2007 and 2014, according to the World Bank.
Extreme poverty is high as well and 2.3 million Liberians are unable to meet their basic food and non-food needs — with poverty being higher in rural areas — home to 71.7 percent of the poor, compared to 68 percent of the total population.
And nearly six years since Weah took over, Liberia continues to face significant development challenges on the heels of low overall productivity and economic activity; huge infrastructure gaps in terms of roads, electricity, water, and telecommunications.
These issues are expected to be completely missing from Weah's final state of the nation address, as doing so would be seen as a failure since the speech is intended to present a government that has achieved a lot and deserves ovations.
Weah's speech would also seize on the most popular achievement of his administration, waded deep into policy details to cast himself as a champion of the people.
The payment of the West African Examination Council (WAEC) fees for all 12th grade students, public and private schools; provision free tuition for students in all public universities; and the reintroduction and expansion of the school feeding program in public schools to four counties in the Southeast are some of the remarkable achievements of the Weah administration in the education sector. These policies have helped reduce the financial burden on poor parents, many of whom had to struggle to settle their children's WASSCE fees as well as tuition.
But it is debatable whether these interventions are sufficient to strengthen the gains to improve Liberia’s human capital outcomes, which are among the worst in the world. While a tuition-free regime for public tertiary institutions seemed attractive, lack of funding for said institutions has significantly hampered the sustainability and, therefore, the quality of education of these institutions.
The country’s Human Capital Index (HCI) estimates Liberia’s performance to be low as 0.32, performing better than only three countries in the world — namely, the Central African Republic (0.29), Chad (0.30), and South Sudan (0.31) — out of 174 countries assessed.
The country's HCI has dropped significantly since Weah took power in 2018, and was driven mainly by poor education (contributing 50 percent), poor health (12 percent), and survival (7 percent), according to the World Bank 2022 Liberia Economic Update report.
The country's loss of human capital due to poor education has been
growing and, since 2020, it has increased 9 percentage points.
Also, school enrollment rates have broadly declined during the period under review, yielding a lower number of years of schooling that a child born today can expect to have received by the time she reaches age 18.
These issues, which have caused setbacks that have dogged the Weah administration, would significantly be missing from his address.
More importantly, Weah would be seeking re-election — a herculean task as his administration is yet to implement nearly two-thirds of the promises made to the Liberian people — while seeking the presidency and after coming to power.
This is according to an assessment by Naymote, which shows Weah could be seeking re-election in October with a mixed record, overwhelmed by many unfulfilled political promises, notably in the battle against corruption, bad governance, and poverty.
Weah, in his development manifesto after winning the 2017 election, had promised to provide greater income security to one million Liberians and reduce absolute poverty by 23 percent across 5 out of 6 regions, but much has not been done to reel the country from high unemployment and extreme poverty.
“Out of a total of 292 promises tracked during the assessment, only 24 promises (8%) have been fully implemented by the government over the last five years,” Naymote, one of the country’s most respected to civil society organizations, said in a report, titled the President's Meter project. “The findings of this assessment show that President Weah and his government have yet to implement nearly two-thirds of the promises they have made to the people of Liberia.”
“Numerous promises have been made, over the years, on poverty reduction, infrastructural development, social service delivery, rule of law, government accountability, and decentralization, among others,” the report added. “[But] 177 promises, which nearly two-thirds of all promises were identified as ‘not started because the government had not commenced work on their implementation.”
Weah’s election was historic. This was the first time in 73 years that a peaceful transition of political power from one democratically elected government to another took place in Liberia. President Weah came to power with the slogan: “Change for Hope” promising equal opportunity for all Liberians.