Former Minister of Justice and Attorney General (AG) Benedict Sannoh says Liberia needs a thorough soul cleansing—with stringent measures and the introduction of good laws to achieve the country’s development goals.
Speaking at the Forum for Societal Change (FSC) in Monrovia, Cllr. Sannoh, who resigned from the current administration, indicated that the major problem holding the country back is the national budget and the manner in which it is formulated and executed.
The FSC’s first topical discussion was held under the theme, “The National Budget and its Relevance to National Priorities and Development.” Presentations were made by the MFDP and the Legislative Budget Office. Other members of the panel were former Finance Minister David Farhat and former Finance Ministry official, Eudoria Pritchard.
Cllr. Sannoh said the national budget is not crafted and executed in the interest of the country and its people but rather for personal aggrandizements—and that the culprits of these acts are found within the Legislative and Executive branches of the government.
Cllr. Sannoh said though the constitution calls for coordination among branches of government, the relationship that exists between the Legislative and Executive is far from that.
“They are now on ‘love bed’ and there seems to be no separation of powers,” he said.
Referencing the constitution, Cllr. Sannoh told the dialogue—convened to give insights into the formulation and execution process of the national budget and how it can be used to drive national development – that there are roles reserved for the Legislature and Executive branches with no thoughts of both being in one house; let alone one bed.
“They can be in one house, but they are not intended to be in one room on one bed. Unfortunately Liberia is heading in that direction, which undermines the whole concept of separation of powers, checks and balances,” he said.
Although the country’s budget is informally considered as the President’s budget, the President’s former lieutenant noted that that assertion is wrong because the law is clear that no money should be disbursed from government’s coffers except based on a warrant duly signed by the President based on a budget duly approved by the Legislature.
“So the budget is not the President’s budget alone, it is our budget. How it is formulated and used should be a matter of concern to us,” he said.
Without mincing words, Cllr. Sannoh said the national budget has become more accommodating to personal interests as opposed to national.
“If it was not so one would exclaim that the budget constitutes 80 percent salaries and benefits. We cannot develop this country from 20 percent of a national budget,” he added.
He provided an analogy indicating that, government not taking the lead in the country’s development with at least the meager resources at its disposal is not encouraging to the international community whose support has been drastically waning in recent years.
“If you are standing on the road with a big luggage and you fold your hands and Dr. Sawyer or Madam Sirleaf is passing and you say, ‘please help me with my luggage.’ They will look at you and pass. But when they see you struggling to put that luggage on your head without you asking them, there is a high likelihood that they will come and help you.
“This is why this national budget is so critical. We should use this budget to fund our own economic, social and development agenda as opposed to relying on our foreign partners, through grants and loans to do the things they want to do for us,” he said.
He urged the organization to join others to critically scrutinize the current budgeting process so that they can make informed recommendations for a better way forward.
An official from the Ministry of Finance and Development Planning (MFDP) had earlier made a presentation that cataloged the successes of the government in the critical sectors (electricity, roads, security and others.) But Cllr. Sannoh noted that the presentation was irrelevant to the discussion in that it couldn’t answer how the government’s budget helped to achieving these feats that the government is boasting of.
“What I would like to say is that the only reason the Executive submits the budget is because they generate the revenues and if the Legislature allows that budget to go through because of promises made to them by the Executive for extra bonuses then it is a betrayal of their constitutional trust.
“Every branch of the government must endeavor to protect the interest of the state. Does this mean the Legislature can’t pass any budget until someone has to lubricate along the way? The Executive too shouldn’t be approving anything in that budget because it wants certain legislative or political agenda that it wants lawmakers to act upon,” he said.
This is why, Cllr. Sannoh said, he referred to the budget as an accommodation of personal interests, and added: “Everything in the budget is being compromised. If you do not do this, I will not do this. If you don’t put this there I will not sign or approve this.”
He indicated that Liberia can’t be developed on 20 percent of the national budget and the government’s “partners are now tired of putting their money somewhere that they are not seeing tangibles. The level of support is going down and we are remaining at the same place.”
“Since 1847 our progress has been even worse than snail’s pace. Go to Accra, Abidjan, and see the level of developments that are going on in those places. Why are we where we are today?” he asked.
“We should begin to ask ourselves what we are doing that is not right. I didn’t see that in the Ministry of Finance’s presentation. Why is it that our development model is not working? What is wrong with us? If this status quo remains as it is, sorry to say that we’ve got a long way to go,” he said.
The tough talking counselor said the national budget should be used as an instrument of social change and economic development and not as an instrument for the accommodation of those at the Legislative and Executive branches of government.
He also disclosed that funds that are allocated to ministries and agencies are not given to these institutions in full.
“The budget says X, Y, Z ministries get US$5M in the budget, but what they may get will just be half or a little over half of that amount, which obviously goes to salaries. So we are paying to go to work and do absolutely nothing because they don’t have the equipment, the resources to perform their tasks. So we need to monitor the process more.
“We also need to know whether the budget is addressing our national concerns or priorities—national security and social economic agenda (healthcare, education).”
He noted that the government might have made some achievements “but to what extent did these become possible as a result of the national budget? Maybe government needs to make some presentations and point out the budgetary contributions of the national budget through the allotment of percentages to them. We all know that our major development projects have been funded by partners. What are we spending our money on, only salaries?” he asked.
The president of the Forum, Clemenceau Urey, said that the dialogue wasn’t meant to criticize present or past governments, “but it is time to change the development gear of the country to a higher level and this can’t be done in the absence of the national budget. Outside funds can’t do all for us, we have to spend our money in very innovative ways to achieve the level of development we all want,” Urey said in his opening statement.