Liberians to hand-down verdict on October 10 as Presidential Candidates discuss ‘the pertinent issues’
It can be termed as the most attractive political gathering so far since the National Elections Commission officially pronounced the commencement of campaigning activities, and it didn’t disappoint as four of the leading candidates for the Liberian presidency, with many pertinent national issues considered, took the stand to say why they should be given a shot at the Liberian presidency.
In anticipation of what to hear from their various candidates, Liberians from all walks of life, including partisans of various political parties as well as undecided voters, converge in their numbers at the Paynesville Town Hall, via radio and online on Thursday to listen to their political leaders state their respective positions in their own words.
The high level of anticipation that greeted the debate has indicated that the Liberian society is gradually becoming politically conscious; more issues oriented and less personality driven.
The organizers of the event, the Deepening Democracy Coalition (DDC), had initially invited the six most highly featured candidates to address the debate. However, four candidates – VP Joseph Nyuma Boakai (UP); Cllr. Charles Walker Brumskine (LP); Benoni Urey (ALP); and Alexander Cummings (ANC) – turned up, while the other two, Senator George Manneh Weah (CDC) and Dr. J. Mills Jones (MOVEE), declined the orgnizers’ invitation. Weah was out of the country while Dr. Jones preferred to pursue another engagement in Grand Cape Mount.
The questions for the debate were drawn from six thematic areas of focus for the debate which comprises several CSOs. These thematic areas were -Economy, Agriculture, Peace and Reconciliation, Youth Empowerment, and Security and Rule of Law.
The moderator did not name a clear-cut winner and there were no judges, leaving the verdict in the hearts and minds of each individual who attended or tuned into the debate.
Below are some of the key points at the debate.
Theme 1: The Economy
- Many Liberians live below the poverty line. What specific measures will you put in place to address this issue? How will you fund a poverty reduction program?
Boakai: Roads, roads, roads
Roads, roads, roads. Open up this country, and we’ll open up opportunities. Some of my colleagues are talking about a track record. If you have a race car in the garage and you want to see if it can run, then put it on the race track to test it.
Cummings: Privatize infrastructure
Invest in infrastructure. My administration will privatize infrastructure. That is the fastest way to grow our economy. Invest in education, the long-term solution to poverty in Liberia. The way to fight poverty is to go after waste and corruption in government and invest in our natural resources and redirect those monies to areas where they are needed most.
Brumskine: Not poverty reduction, but poverty alleviation
I do not subscribe to poverty reduction, but poverty alleviation. In the short run, we will use public procurement — the lion-share of it going to Liberians, putting Liberians in business. Use the agriculture sector, transition our farmers from subsistence to commercial farming. The current administration has done a lot of talking, but lacked the political will to put it into reality.
Urey: Make economy agro-based
Requires educated, experienced and committed people to address. As an economist, planner and accomplished businessman, I can do it. We must make our economy agro-based; make mini-industries to support the larger ones. We will reopen Agriculture Development Bank and the National Housing Bank; put more money into the people’s pocket to give them purhcasing power. We must never again listen to promises in Liberia, but look at what people have done. We need a new manager.
- Liberia has a budget deficit of about 8.5 percent of GDP, according to some estimates. This deficit as you know affects operations of government services. What specific plans do you have to address the repeated budget deficit, so that government operates smoothly?
Cummings: Address waste in government
We have to address the waste in government. Look at the procurement process. Revenue side of the equation: can we get more out of our resources? Then reduce the salaries of the people at the top end of government.
Brumskine: Deficit financing, but with financial discipline
A budget deficit is not necessarily a bad thing. There are times when we will need deficit financing, but we need financial discipline. We have to reverse the situation. The top officials take the lion share of the money. Karnwea and I have agreed to reduce our salaries by 30%. We need to expand the tax base: We need to invest in agriculture, diversify our economy and empower Liberians. Compare top level officials’ office appropriations with key indicators such as funding of social services such as hospitals.
Urey: Deficit comes from poor planning
The whole thing of budget is a planning phenomenon. We note the need for a planning ministry. I you don’t have the requisite skills and knowledge to plan, you will have a deficit. I will work with the Legislature to ensure that the Ministry of Planning and Development will be reinstated. As president, I will effect a 50% reduction in my salary. This government has been too business unfriendly. Increasing taxes doesn’t necessarily give you revenue. 80% of our budget is on recurrent expenses. That’s too high.
Follow-up question: Do you think we have had unqualified people managing our budget at the Ministry of Finance?
Answer: Not at all. We have some of the brightest young minds that have served at the Ministry of Finance. However, Planning, coming out a civil war, is the most important ministry. We must also create a ministry of rural development.
Boakai: We need a balanced budget, but we lack fiscal discipline
We are too donor dependent. I have always said, an over protected child cannot be saved. Liberia has the resources. We don’t have to go to people for the money. My counterparts talk about my experience. I have experience. Fiscal discipline to spend the money that we have; the need to be determined to do the right thing.
Follow-up: On fiscal discipline, are you suggesting that this government has been irresponsible?
Answer: This government has not been only UP, but members of LP, CDC and other parties — all of us. So fiscal indiscipline is all of our problem.
- The majority of Liberia’s budget is spent on the recurring costs of running the government, especially as it relates to salary payments. What measures do you propose to reign in the high cost of running government?
Brumskine: Reduce salaries, fringe benefits
On the reduction of salaries of people at the top, we have to be careful about the purchases we make in government. Vehicles, gasoline and fuel… there is no audit; they have been receiving millions and millions of dollars in gas slips. We need to monitor gas mileage and other detailed line items of expenditure.
Cummings: Grow the budget, stimulate growth
The question has been answered as if the budget is static. One way to reduce that percentage is to grow the budget. We do this by stimulating the growth; make the government more business friendly; we tie our hands too much. We will reduce tax rates we’ll make more money, which would reduce corruption and also we’ll make money from our natural resources. I want us to rethink how we think of ourselves. We should think more expansively. We will create wealth by growing the economy.
Urey: Curtail expenditure
It’s a matter of governance. If we don’t have structures to ensure that it does not occur, it will continue to occur. Even if our economy grows to over a billion dollars, it does not change anything unless we curtail unnecessary expenditures. What percentage of our budget will we use to get our country moving forward. Reduce the expenditures of vehicles: instead of US$70K vehicle, how about a US$20K car?
Boakai: Be disciplined but practical with expenditure
Thank God people now know how much people earn in government. Knowing the problem is knowing part of the solution. For the first 6 years, I got half of my allowances. This is part of the discipline we are talking about: What part of the expenditure do we need to cut? (To Urey) A US$20K car will not last on the deplorable up-country roads such as to Lofa or the Southeast. Our solutions have to be more practical.
Theme 2: Security and Rule Law
- What specific plans do you have to strengthen the justice sector, so that it adequately responds to the high crime rate and the backlog of pre-trial detentions which has led to overflowing prison populations in the country?
Urey: opt for a Minsitry of National Security
This is not just a challenge for the President of Liberia, but for every Liberian. My government will opt for a Minsitry of National Security. We don’t want the executive branch of governemnt to be too involved in the security matters. NSA, LNP, Immigration, all report to the president. In this case, they are not unified in their advice to the President and many times they are dishonest to the President.
Boakai: Security is a holistic concept
Internal and external security. We have done well training our security. For me security is a holistic concept: access to food, safety, etc. Security issues are a result of unresolved crime. If we improve the quality of education of people, we improve the lives of people.
Putting rules are good, but enforcing them is more important.
Cummings: Unemployment our biggest security risk
Our biggest national security risk is the number of unemployed and unemployable Liberians. the percentage is an unsustainable number. Yes, we need to strengthen our police force and soldiers. But unless we fix the economy by providing jobs for our people, we will not solve the national security problems. There must be consequences for crime, no matter who you are.
Brumskine: Ensure Justice Ministry’s independence
We need to have our law enforcement people trained. But the most important thing the LP government will do will be to ensure the independence of the Ministry of Justice. To ensure that the Justice ministry does not have to call the Executive Mansion to get approval as to whether or not a matter should be prosecuted. Not every probable cause should give rise to a jail sentence. I agree with Cummings that the underlying problem is the economy. The Sirleaf economic policy has been based on the Tubman economy policy… which relied on only our natural resources.
- What specific plans do you have to protect women and girls from sexual violence, considering that many perpetrators of sex crimes do not serve a day in jail and most victims rarely get justice?
Cummings: sexual violence unacceptable
Sexual violence is completely unacceptable and we will prosecute anyone in our society who commits those crimes. We will commit in my administration that 30% to 50% of our government will be women, because they will add value to development and enforcement of laws.
Brumskine: Rape law needs to be enforced
Let’s start with the young girls in the classroom, where they are taken advantage of by teachers. Predatory teachers should be jailed. Rape law is on the books and simply needs to be enforced. 3 of the people who I love the most happen to be women. My mother, my wife and my daughter Charlene. These 3 women have shaped my life in many ways and the least I can do is to show every woman in this country: I have your back.
Boakai: Teach girls how to protect themselves
I have said of the police quite often that the badges that the police wear are not hunting licenses. They must be people that are trained and honest enough, that love this country, who should be the ones to administer security in this country. Also we must improve ways to teach girls how to protect themselves. Law enforcement, the Courts and self-protection of citizens go hand in hand to make it work.
Urey: Fast track court for rape
I am not a believer in reversed discrimination. Men are also raped, sexually harassed and molested in Liberia. So, this is not only about females. I have 5 women in my family – 4 daughters and one wife. Justice delayed and justice denied must never be tolerated in this country. We must create legislation to ensure that there is a fast-track court for rape. The department in the police responsible for rape need to be trained to handle such cases. We must put the resources to the right thing, with a fast track court exclusively for rape.
- Quite recently, some law makers instituted an impeachment proceeding at the House of Representatives against three justices of the Supreme Court of Liberia? There are many who are of the opinion that this action will affect the peace and security of the country. What are your views?
Brumskine: House is dead wrong
The members of the House are dead wrong, and the Supreme Court has
If you are not satisfied with the Supreme Court decision, write a new law to address that decision.
Cummings: Out of order
You cannot have one branch of Government questioning the decisions of another branch.
Boakai: We must respect the law
I cannot render judgement on it at this moment. We have to respective the laws of our judgement. Our lawmakers are capable people. We are waiting for the outcome. Whatever is the outcome, that’s the law and we have to respect that.
Urey: Both branches in error
We must all agree there are three separate, distinct and independent branches of government. We also agree that this case: one branch of government does not have the right to interfere in another’s function. But when one branch appears to interfere with the function of another, it becomes questionable. The Supreme Court’s action was tantamount to creating a law. Even though they might have stepped in the prerogative of another branch of government, that other branch also stepped in the prerogative in the previous branch. Both branches were in error.
There is a concerning trend of letting faults slide “in the interest of peace”. We need to decide in the interest of the country.
Theme 3: Peace and Reconciliation
- The findings and recommendations of the TRC have been lingering for about eight years. Do you have any suggestion for implementing those recommendations?
Brumskine: Start with palava hut approach
My understanding of the report is that it took two parallel approaches: retributive justice and restorative justice. Under my administration, make no mistake, there will be no tolerance for impunity. But we can get perpetrators later. Let’s start with the palava hut approach.
Cummings: Focus on reconciliation
We cannot change the past, but we can influence the now and the future. I believe Liberians should focus on reconciliation. If we focus on retributive, I believe it will consume us and divide us. I want us to build monuments, and conferences through which we can acknowledge the pain and hurt. But by expanding the economy with access for everyone, will make things better for us all.
Boakai: Preferred the South African approach
When the TRC started, I always wanted to see the South African approach. I have the strongest belief that once we open our economy, people will build their lives; the hurt that is there will go after a period of time.
Urey: Perpetrators must get their day in court
The TRC, not only the report, but the whole process continues to haunt us as a people. Why? Because we didn’t do it right. We had actors in our civil war who were members of the TRC; actors who appeared before the TRC and admitted to their crimes and boasted about them. Under a Urey government, the TRC must be revisited. We know who did what in this country, and they all must get their day in court. The ALP has the 15 musts: one of those is to reconcile and unite our country. The most important thing is to reconcile our country and we must love one another.
- During the civil war, we lost thousands because of ethnicity. We thought we had moved past that during the post-conflict era. But during these campaigns, the old congau/native divide was reignited. There has been advocacy to declare Liberia a Christian state. Would you clearly condemn tribal and religious bigotry? What are your plans to heal the divide that could threaten the peace that we continue to enjoy?
Cummings: Shame on advocates of divisiveness
It has been very disappointing to hear Liberians advocate such divisive politics. Hunger, joblessness, poverty does not distinguish between different types of Liberians. I want to be a president of all Liberians. We as leaders should be talking about bringing ourselves together and shame on those who are advocating that [divisive] point of view.
Boakai: Committed to an inclusive government
I don’t feel inferior to anyone. For me, tribalism is not part of my blood; I have friends all over. For us, we have already committed ourselves to an inclusive government. On Christian state, proponents should live the Christian life and be an example for others to follow freely.
Urey: We are all indigenous one way or another
Tribalism- A poster that appeared on the internet with Boakai called an indigenous ticket. Boakai has given me no reason to believe he is a tribalist. Nuquay and I are from the same Presbyterian church. But we must be cognizant that this campaign, people would say anything to win! If I told you that I am an indigenous person, you wouldn’t believe it. On Christian State: We never thought anyone would have considered such foolishness. Now even some Muslims are supporting candidates who are proponents of the Christian State, and this is confusing.
Brumskine: We must learn more about ourselves
It is a shame that every elections cycle, the country vs congau divide rears its ugly head. Then after elections, we all become Monrovia people. My government will set up a commission of experts from each of the ethnic groups so that we can trace the contribution of every ethnic group to Liberia. King Bob Gray was referred to by settlers as the Education Chief because he made them sign a document that all Bassa children would be educated. So much information about ourselves, such as this is not widely known.
Theme 4: Anti-Corruption
- President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has said that her government has fallen short in the fight against corruption. If elected, how do you plan to address the menace?
Boakai: I believe in the enforcement of the Law
President Sirleaf did not say she did not try. I believe in the enforcement of the laws; setting up of a system that would ensure accountability. Our country is where it is because of corruption. Those who gave, those who received of corruption, must be exposed.
Urey: Bad sore needs bad medicine
When Doe took power, he executed 13 because of rampant corruption. If he saw today, he would execute thousands. When Pres. Sirleaf took office, we believe she really had the desire to tackle corruption. We must treat bad sore with bad medicine. Must have a fast-track court on corruption. We will also set up the mechanism to ensure that there is no corruption.
Brumskine: 3-S Mechanism
If Sirleaf and Boakai couldn’t fight corruption as admitted, I wonder how Joe will fight it alone! The combat against corruption is a war and has a perception factor. We are going to implement a 3-S mechanism: System (of accountability), Shame (the criminals) and Sanctions (which must be imposed indiscriminately).
Cummings: Must tackle corruption on multiple fronts
First, apoint a corruption Tzar, to oversee all anti-corruption institutions. Then prosecute corrupt officials and jail them. Under Cummings government, no one come and beg for corrupt officials. I will not take a salary. I will contribute my entire salary to fighting corruption.
- Allegations of nepotism have plagued this government and previous governments. What are your views on nepotism? If elected, would you employ your children, siblings and other relatives in your government?
Urey: Dangerous, hard to avoid
But you cannot impose that as a president completely. We criticized Tolbert for nepotism; we still see it in the current administration. It is dangerous, but we cannot deny family members from serving their country, but
Brumskine: We Have to Be Careful About This
One has to be careful that the children or siblings of a president do not get penalized. I say that none of my children will be employed in any position that Liberian people will say that it’s a “chopping place” (lucrative) job. But I will not stop my children from serving their country in government. For example, I [might] send my daughter to the Gender Ministry.
Cummings: No Immediate Family Will Serve
In a Cummings government, no immediate family members will serve. This is a sacrifice we as a family will have to make.
Boakai: I cannot stop my children from working for their country
If people are qualified to work the condition should not be because they are my children. It is good to be practical and honest with people.
Which of these sectors would be a priority for you, if you should be elected: Health, taxation, corruption, education, (especially girl’s education)?
Boakai: Agriculture is Our Best Bet
We must produce food enough to feed ourselves; have good roads to do that. This country must be able to be independent in food production to be able to employ people in the rural areas.
I would select health because we all have to be alive to do the rest. The danger of not having the requisite healthcare in this country is what we need to address urgently. I will close down JFK hospital and revamp it to make it the referral hospital it was in the 1970s.
Brumskine: Corruption Trumps Everything
We need to deal with corruption to have to resources to deal with everything else. Government has misplaced priority on health care: more emphasis has been put on curative medicine than on preventive medicine.
Cummings: Tackling Corruption is our priority
To generate the funds. Our first priority is infrastructure: electricity, water, roads and internet connectivity. Our second priority is job creation: agriculture… Then education, then health.
Closing remarks from candidates
Boakai: Be very practical in word and deed
Liberians will judge us by our track record. If we improve sanitation of our people, we will be able to improve the health and wellbeing of our people. I don’t believe in NATO (No Action, Talk Only)… We need to be very practical in what we say and do. We need to open up this country with roads. Liberians should be empowered. I lived here all my life and have nowhere else to go and will stay here to ensure that Liberia moves forward.
Cummings: Change you can trust, not superficial change
We deserve a better Liberia. The way to get a better Liberia is not by doing the same things the same way. We need change you can trust, not superficial change. the best predictor of future behavior and performance is past behavior and performance. If you elect a Cummings, 6 years from now, if you ask whether we are better off after those 6 years, I am confident the answer will be yes.
Brumskine: I have requisite and relevant experience
[Listing of past experience…] Under my leadership in the Senate we grew the number of business in the Liberianization policy from 16 busineses to 26 businesses. We established a legislative budget office. I come with the requisite and relevant experience to lead this country.
Urey: This election will decide many things for Liberia
I want us all to remember the suffering masses out there in Liberia. Do not forget the hungry, destitute people out there who are craving for a change. Remember that this election will decide a lot of things for us as a people. There’s not much free in the world again. Donald Trump says he does not want to be president of the world, just president of the USA. I am reminded of the position our youth find themselves in — jobless…. Under my administration there is hope for us… If your mother is ill and you take her to JFK and she dies, you killed her. If your brother is unable to stand as a man and take care of his home, you did it. This is how important your vote is this October.
—END OF DEBATE—