Looking Back: The Year 2017 in Review

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Voters in queue in Buchanan, Grand Bassa County

The National Elections Commission’s (NEC) pronouncement declaring George Weah as winner of the 2017 presidential elections, stands out as perhaps the single most momentous political event of the year 2017.

This is aside from legal challenges to the October 2017 elections results posed by the All Liberian Party (ALP), the Alternative National Congress (ANC), the Unity Party (UP) led by the Liberty Party (LP). They maintained  the elections were characterized by gross irregularities and fraud.

The dogged aftermath of controversies and legal tussles at the level of the Supreme Court which followed made for a long delayed runoff election. But the Supreme Court ruled that the alleged fraud and gross irregularities were not sufficient enough to give reasons to overturn the entire results.

There were expressed concerns, though, that the NEC had virtually ignored  the mandate of the Court to clean up the Final Voters Roll before holding elections, but the Court gave the go ahead anyway.

Leading up to the elections was a quiet but simmering feud between President Sirleaf and her Vice President Joseph Nyuma Boakai whose acceptance of a petition from the people of Lofa to contest the 2017 presidential elections to succeed her (President Sirleaf) drew him sharply into her cross-hairs.

From that moment forward, there appeared to be so much love lost between President Sirleaf and her Vice President to the point where she distanced herself from his campaign and openly supported the opposition, beginning first with the Liberty Party (LP) and then skip-jumping to the Coalition of Democratic Change(CDC).

This left many wondering just what offense had her faithful lieutenant and Vice President ever committed to deserve such a stab in the back from one he had served with unfeigned loyalty for the last 12 years.

To be sure the development captured the attention of the international community especially the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the African Union whose head, Guinean President Alpha Conde, openly called on her to stay above the fray.

But their words of advice apparently meant little to President Sirleaf as she pressed on. She glossed over violations of the country’s electoral laws in a “don’t give a damn” attitude reminiscent of the behavior of African tin pot dictators like Burkina Faso’s Blaise Compaore, chased out of office by the angry masses, or like the Gambia’s Yahya Jammeh bowing out in response to a threatened use of force by ECOWAS.

Interestingly, she played a lead role as head of the ECOWAS Authority in forcing Jammeh to step aside in respect of elections results declaring Adama Barrow as winner of the Gambian elections. Perhaps none of her colleagues had the slightest inkling then that only a few months down the road she (President Sirleaf) would have found herself in similar straits as Jammeh did.

In the case of Liberia, although there was much huffing and puffing by West African leaders, President Sirleaf remained undaunted and pursued her chosen course to the very end, completely ignoring concerns from ECOWAS leaders about the rise to power of a Taylor surrogate in person of his ex wife, former Bong County Senator Jewel Howard Taylor and vice President -elect of Liberia.

Other significant political events of the year included the creation and demise of what was to be an Ombudsman Commission. The idea had initially been proposed in the draft 1986 Constitution but was removed by the Constitutional Review Assembly at the urging of then President Samuel Doe.

The idea was resurrected by President Sirleaf and passed into existence by an Executive Order. Its proposed makeup of three individuals, with former Police Director Christian Massaquoi as head along with Massa Jallabah and Edward Dillon, was however stonewalled with the rejection of Massa Jallabah for not meeting the age qualification and Edward Dillon for having close ties to a the leader of a political party.

Next in line to take the blow was the Code of Conduct (CoC) intended to govern the behavior of public service officials. A portion of the CoC requiring serving government officials desirous of contesting political office to resign two years in advance prior to declaration of intent was met with rejection with some officials taking the matter to the Supreme Court for redress.

In one instance the court ruled to uphold the provisions of the CoC, while, in another but similar instance, the court ruled otherwise, throwing the entire CoC on its head. Eventually the CoC lost its relevance since its provisions were being conveniently ignored from the highest level of government to lesser functionaries with the latter taking their cue from the Janus-face position of the Supreme Court on the CoC issue.

Another significant political development which almost threatened the stability of the state was the disgraceful removal of Alex Tyler as Speaker of the House of Representatives based on a Global Witness (GW) report linking him to bribery by the Sable Mining group. Also affected was Grand Cape Mount County Senator Varney Sherman along with other former officials who were criminally charged. Some legislators (names withheld) confided to the Daily Observer that US$40,000 apiece was paid to legislators to secure the impeachment vote.

A court trial botched from the start by state prosecutors led by U.S. ex-convict, now representative elect, Jonathan Fonati Kofa, dragged on with no conclusive results, although documentary evidence shows that Kofa received about one million U.S. as payment for prosecutorial services.

Along the economic front, the value of the Liberian dollar (LD) continued to depreciate against the United States dollar.

In 2017, the rate of the Liberian dollar to the U.S. dollar saw its steepest decline from 85 to one in January to 127 to one by end of December 2017. Total earnings from exports which include iron ore, gold, diamond, rubber and timber amounted to a paltry 24.41 million U.S. dollars while the total value of imports amounted to 66.10 million U.S. dollars over the same period thus showing a deficit.

This sharp decline in the value of the Liberian dollar had devastating impact on Liberians particularly on small Liberian businesses that sell in Liberian dollars but are required to pay taxes in U.S. dollars. It was against the backdrop of such concerns that the Patriotic Entrepreneurs of Liberia (PATEL) in February called a nation-wide strike to draw government’s attention to the hardships being faced by small businesses due to the rapidly declining value of the Liberian dollar and the mounting wave of taxes imposed on them.

The Government of Liberia (GOL) condemned the strike action, but its organizers persisted. The stay home action, originally planned to last a week, was called off after a few days following closed-door negotiations between government and the organizers. But this was not long before another controversy arose – this time it centered on the reduction of the Inshore Exclusive Zone (IEZ) from 6 to 3 nautical miles which President Sirleaf had deemed necessary to improve the fishing industry. Executive Order 84 remains in force till present.

In May, President Sirleaf played host to the 51st summit of Heads of State of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in her capacity as Chairman of that body. Attendance at the summit was however blighted by her singular and unprecedented decision to invite a non African head of state, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

She elected to do so with indifference to King Hassan of Morocco whose country’s application to gain membership of the body was expected to have been discussed at the summit. Her decision did not go down well with key players of the Community including Nigeria whose President, Muhammadu Buhari, along with other heads of state of ECOWAS snubbed the summit.

Also  in May, as mentioned above, the issuance of Executive Order #84 reducing Liberia’s inshore exclusive zone from 6 nautical miles to 3 drew sharp protest from the Liberia Artisanal Fishermen’s Association (LAFA).

The Executive Order removed control and regulation of this sector from the Ministry of Agriculture Bureau of Fisheries and placed it under the control of the Liberia Maritime Authority. The move received sharp rebuke from both Houses of the Legislature.

The LAFA in a letter to the House of Representatives argued that Executive Order 84 was not in the interest of 52 Liberians because its net effect would tend to create hardships on ordinary people especially small scale fisherman who would find themselves competing against foreign fishing vessels with modern equipment.

The Executive Order was also criticized by international bodies and rights organizations such as the European Union (EU), Global Witness (GW) and the Economic Justice Foundation (EJF).

The EU through its Ambassador to Liberia, Madam Tiina Intelmann, said it believed that measures introduced under the Executive Order would lead to accelerated depletion of Liberia’s fish stocks and not to sustainable investments as claimed by the GOL.

Still on the economic front, former National Port Authority (NPA) Managing Director, Matilda Parker, accused in 2016 of duping the institution of US$837,000  had her day in court in 2017. The case was forwarded to Court for prosecution but a long drawn-out process of litigation in 2017 ended rather inconclusively without a final verdict.

Also in the spotlight were top officials and other well-known personalities in the US$10 million PSDI loan scheme intended to support small Liberian businesses but which ended mostly in the pockets of government officials and others closely linked to the establishment.

According to the General Auditing Commission (GAC) the US$10 million fund intended to support small Liberian businesses was lent out to prominent individuals and top officials in government who have since reneged on payment, thus eventually killing what was intended to be a revolving fund. Up to the end of the year, no payments had been made nor had anyone faced prosecution.

Perhaps most notable was the reported loss of more than 40 million U.S. dollars depleted from the coffers of the National Oil Company (NOCAL) under the leadership of Robert Sirleaf, youngest son of President Sirleaf.

A GAC audit revealed that the amount had been virtually squandered without account. When pressed for answers to this development, President Sirleaf openly admitted that she took responsibility although there is no evidence yet that she has made any restitution of the amount even as she leaves office.

The year, however, took its toll of luminaries in the persons of gender and peace activist Mother Mary Brownell; first female transitional head of state, Ruth Sando Perry; renowned legal practitioner and former Solicitor-General of Liberia, Theophilus C. Gould; eminent scholar and expert on Liberia history, Svend Holsoe; famed and up-coming musician Quincy T. Burrowes; renowned cultural artist and songstress Tokay Tomah; Circuit Judge Johannes Zlahn; Ebola heroine, Salome Korvah; Ambassador and former Information Minister, Carlton Karpeh; and a host of others of blessed memory.

The year 2017 was indeed replete with many twists and turns, some of which appeared to threaten national stability but fortunately the country has remained stable and peaceful, thanks to the amazing patience and resilience of the Liberian people.

What tomorrow will bring is now the question weighing heavily on the minds of an anxious Liberian public now that the miracle man, George Weah, has secured the Presidential seat.

We at the Daily Observer can only wish him and Liberian people well and a happy and prosperous New Year.

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