–Says Chatham House Official
A renowned British political and international affairs Think-Tank, the Royal Institute of International Affairs, commonly known as Chatham House (CH)—a not-for-profit and non-governmental organization based in London, says instead of the government tackling corruption and boosting the economy, President George Manneh Weah in his first year in office struggled with entrenched interests and demands of patronage.
In an article published on the Think-Tank’s website, the institution’s Deputy Head of Africa Program, Elizabeth Donnelly said Weah’s election 2017 was hailed as a popular victory over ineffective or corrupt politics. “Seen as a victory of the people over a political system viewed as ineffective (at best) or corrupt (at worst), Weah’s election brought with it the high expectations of not just his support base but the country as a whole,” she said.
Madam Donnelly asked rhetorically as to whether the president is cleaning up the mess in the governance of the state or he has been consumed, compromised or corrupted by the negative vices that hinder the growth of the state.
Madam Donnelly said within hours of taking over the presidency, Weah issued an ultimatum to outgoing government ministers and civil servants: return all government equipment, including cars, or face arrest. Weah himself took a pay cut. The National ID Registry is rolling out biometric cards with an initial focus on government employees in an effort to root out ‘ghost employees.’ Such moves were applauded by the media and the public at large and raised hopes of a change in political culture.
In the article titled, A Conflicted Leader: George Weah’s First Year in Liberia, the Chatham House official said President Weah’s early actions and populist rhetoric are in tension with the realpolitik demands of managing an entrenched political class and a political system designed to defend their privilege. In seeking swift solutions to the many challenges the country faces, Weah risks repeating the governance failings of prior administrations, she said.
“In an effort to make quick progress on infrastructure, for instance, the president sought a loan of dubious provenance to finance a coastal highway in the southeast of the country, a region that strongly supported Weah in the election. Newly printed bank notes amounting to $100 million were then reported missing in May 2018.
“For many, the two issues signify that Weah’s government will prove to be no less incompetent and corrupt than the political system over which it claimed victory, a view compounded by frustrations over delays and strict restrictions on cash withdrawals for ordinary Liberians,” she added.
She also noted that the president is surrounded by people linked to past corruption and mismanagement, or with ties, directly or indirectly, to key figures in Liberia’s civil war.
She expressed surprise that notorious former rebel leader, Prince Y. Johnson, turned political king-maker, has reasserted and redefined his political influence in the CDC administration and is influencing appointments.
“Weah’s vice president also has links to war criminal and former president Charles Taylor,” she said.
The alliances with these people, she noted, highlight unresolved issues around justice and war crimes, and risk complications in Weah’s relations both with his support base and Liberia’s foreign partners.
She added that Weah’s decision to pay his first official visit outside Africa to France, rather than the United States, Liberia traditional ally— and where the issue of accountability for Liberian war crimes has gone unabated, makes many to panic.
The Real Weah Remains Elusive
The Chatham official did not forget the president’s relationship with the media and civil society, which she termed as tense. “The press union has highlighted a growing environment of intimidation and stifling of the freedom of the press, citing examples of personal attacks on journalists and the closure of the newspaper FrontPage and the arrest of its staff,” she said.
Donnelly described President Weah as a conflicted leader—a man of the people, who identifies with the poorest of his compatriots, but also someone who is accustomed to the trappings of the elite and who has seemed to welcome back a political old-guard mired in past corruption and mismanagement scandals. She added that the real George Weah remains elusive.
“If the president wishes to be the champion of the poor and to deliver on his big ambitions, he will have to show strength and smarts in managing realpolitik pressures, grit in his anti-corruption efforts, charm with donors and patience with the media,” she concluded.
Though the 12 years of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s two-term government saw the economy averaged more than 7% in annual growth; Per capita income rose from a low point of just $80 at the end of the second civil war in 2003 to $700, even though the population has increased by nearly 50% to just under five million; life expectancy is up from 53 to 61 years; a once “failed state” is now capable of taking over essential tasks—the people rightfully opted for change as these encouraging stats achieved by the government had somehow had no positive impacts in their lives. she said.
Chatham House, founded by former US President Woodrow Wilson and British Public Administrator Lionel George Curtis in 1920, has a mission to analyze and promote understanding of major international issues and current affairs.