By Gabriel I.H. Williams
“What’s happening in Liberia?” This was the question posed to me recently while conversing with a retired American diplomat, who played an important role when the U.S. intervened to restore peace to Liberia and also worked for strong U.S. support during Liberia’s early post-war reconstruction. The retired diplomat observed that the present leaders of Liberia are “conducting themselves like juveniles.”
“After three years in power,” the distinguished diplomat added, “Weah and his officials still don’t seem to comprehend how to run a country, while the problem of corruption has gone from bad to worse.”
My response was simply that a growing number of Liberians are also asking a similar question about what has gone wrong with Mr. Weah since he became President of Liberia.
Mr. George M. Weah was swept into power by a vast majority of the Liberian electorate, who believed that he would focus on developing the country and improving the living conditions of the people, especially the poor and the marginalized. Mr. Weah’s election was a watershed moment for Liberia’s poor, particularly young people, many of whom idolized the man, who rose from Monrovia’s slums to global soccer stardom, and finally the highest office of the land. Poverty-stricken Liberians voted for Mr. Weah, believing in his promise to them that, as someone who rose from their background, he better understood their plight, and that he would work to improve their living conditions and create opportunities for young people to aspire to the best of their abilities.
However, three years into his presidency, the impoverished Liberian masses, who catapulted Mr. Weah to power, are now faced with the crude reality that wizardry on the soccer pitch does not necessarily translate to the competence, integrity, and maturity required to be a successful leader. As former U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama said at the recent 2020 Democratic National Convention, “Being President doesn’t change who you are; it reveals who you are.” Mr. Weah is showing his true colors as an individual who lacks the qualities required to lead, while he and his associates are busy amassing stolen wealth and building expensive real estates as the country and the Liberian people get poorer.
Since taking office in 2018, President Weah has proven to be an incapable custodian of the public trust, as reflected by very poor leadership, while corruption is at an all-time high. Hundreds of millions of dollars of public money have gone missing without accountability. There is growing concern that the gains made in post-war Liberia toward accountability, free speech and other tenets of democratic governance, as well as infrastructural development, are fast eroding. The national economy has deteriorated from bad to worse, as many businesses have shut down and numerous Liberians working in the private sector have lost their jobs. Conditions of the healthcare system have also gone from bad to worse, while there is an alarming increase in death rate in the country.
Liberia is at a crossroads, to either remain on a path of sustaining peace and progress, or returning to a state of bad governance and instability as recent troubling developments indicate. In order to sustain peace and progress, there is a need for the international community, especially the United States, to continue to be strongly engaged. This is why many well-meaning Liberians applaud Mr. Michael A. McCarthy, the incoming U.S. Ambassador to Liberia, for promising to tackle corruption, which is rapidly undermining the progress and stability of the country.
According to the August 7, 2020 edition of FrontPage Africa, Ambassador-designate McCarthy told the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations during his confirmation hearing that he would press the Weah-led government to change the damaging perception of corruption that has dogged the government, now in its third year. The FrontPage Africa article, titled, “President Donald Trump’s Nominee for Ambassador to Liberia Tells Senate He’ll Push the Weah-led Government to ‘Change the Perception of Corruption in Liberia,’” highlights what the Ambassador-designate said he would do to focus on fighting corruption in the country.
Mr. McCarthy noted that if he is confirmed, he would execute a three-part approach in dealing with the Weah government in order to curb corruption and ensure good governance. The three-part approach is summarized as the following: Embedding of U.S. personnel in government ministries and agencies to ensure proper management of public funds; publicly recognize and support governmental and non-governmental organizations that are focused on anti-corruption; and impressing upon President Weah and his government the significance of changing the perception of corruption in Liberia, not just for private investment but also for the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), an independent U.S. Government foreign aid agency focused on the fight against global poverty.
Mindful that the country currently lacks a competent leadership to effectively manage the national economy, my recently-published book, “Corruption is Destroying Africa: The Case of Liberia,” which is available online, proffers a recommendation for Liberia’s international partners, led by the U.S., to engage the Liberian government for the purpose of reaching an agreement similar to that of GEMAP. Under the Governance and Economic Management Assistance Program (GEMAP), which was instituted in 2005, the international community assisted in the management of Liberia’s resources. Foreign experts were deployed at government ministries and agencies that dealt with public resources. While there were some shortcomings with the GEMAP, as some critics have noted, it led to the institution of financial policies and programs that contributed to the rapid rebound of the Liberian economy.
The new Ambassador Is being posted to Liberia at a time a “perfect storm” is brewing as the country prepares for midterm senatorial elections and referendum in December 2020. The storm of violence is intensifying as opposition politicians and their supporters are being attacked by supporters of the ruling party and the government. The growing pro-government attacks against the opposition is a cause for serious concern in a country that is struggling to recover from decades of conflicts and destruction.
Laying Foundation for Fraudulent Elections
As a sign of desperation to maintain power amid the colossal failure of his government, Mr. Weah appears to be employing tactics often used by dictatorial leaders to terrorize the opposition and control the electoral commission simply for election-rigging. Recently, President Weah reconstituted the National Elections Commission (NEC) with the appointment of new members and a chair who are identified as his supporters and loyalists, according to media reports from the Senate confirmation hearings of the new appointees. It was from one of the confirmation hearings that the President’s original nominee to serve as chair of the NEC was exposed as a foreign national with fake Liberian citizenship documents. Faced with a public backlash, President Weah was forced to withdraw the nomination of the fake Liberian, who continues to head another major government integrity agency, in contravention of the Liberian Constitution that such post must be occupied only by a Liberian citizen.
There are media reports that the new chair of the NEC is seeking to proceed with a plan for the pending midterm elections that is highly unrealistic and questionable, and could be a recipe for fraud and violence. There are serious concerns regarding her proposal to conduct the Voters Roll Update (VRU) within a short period of ten days, and that the VRU will not be stationary but mobile.
In an editorial on August 14, 2020, titled, “A Gloomy Forecast Hanging Over The December Senatorial Elections?”, the Daily Observer recalls that during the 2014 senatorial elections, the NEC experimented with mobile registration and mobile Voters Roll Update, but the experiment proved to be a virtual disaster. Whatever may be her reason for wanting to execute an already failed experiment, let it be made absolutely clear to the NEC chair that she will be held responsible for any violence in Liberia due to election fraud. Liberia’s leaders must be mindful of what happened recently in Mali, where election fraud, perpetrated by the government, led to constant mass protests that eventually brought down the government when the military intervened to restore law and order.
Liberia’s midterm election is scheduled to be held a month after the U.S. presidential election in November. While the U.S. Embassy in Liberia will be focused on developments from the election back home, it is hoped that the Embassy would also continue to be strongly engaged with the Liberian government, along with other stakeholders and international partners, to ensure a credible result of the midterm senatorial election.
A Government of Juveniles
It is also very disturbing to note that similar to what happened during the barbaric civil war, rape of women and girls, including babies, has increased at an alarming rate in Liberia. Following the appalling rape of a three year-old girl by a student who is reportedly under18, it took days of mass protests in August in order to force President Weah to speak about the scourge of sexual violence against the most vulnerable members of the Liberian society. Nobel Peace Laureate Leymah Gbowee criticized the government for the poor handling of the rape scourge and for police using teargas and violence to disperse peaceful protests organized by women against the rape culture in Liberia.
In her reaction, the Minister of Gender, Children and Social Protection, Madam Piso Saydee Tarr, unleashed a barrage of personal attacks against Madam Gbowee without saying what measures the government would take to curb the evil of rape in Liberia. Minister Tarr’s emotional outburst and rants on petit matters against Madam Gbowee is an example of the retired U.S. diplomat’s observation that the current leaders of Liberia are conducting themselves like juveniles. The childish reaction of Minister Tarr and the sheer incompetence of the government, beg the question as to how did Liberia end up with these misfits as leaders, when there are many Liberians with the competence and integrity to serve the public good.
The result of the pending midterm senatorial election will show whether the Liberian people are ready to start booting out the misfits and criminals that are in charge for competent hands to take over the affairs of the country for progress.
About the Author:
Gabriel I.H. Williams has served in the Liberian government as a diplomat in the United States and Deputy Minister of Information. A career journalist, he has authored two books, the latest, Corruption is Destroying Africa: The Case of Liberia, is available online. He can be reached at [email protected]