Senator Varney Sherman’s UMU Commencement Convocation

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Mr. Chairman and Members of the Board of Directors,
Mr. Interim President and Members of the President’s Council,
The Faculty Senate and Members of the Faculty,
The Graduating Class, Parents, Guardians, Well-wishers and
Friends, Ladies and Gentlemen:

I wish to express my thanks and appreciation to the Chairman and members of the Board of Directors, the Interim President and members of the President’s Council, the Faculty Senate and members of the Faculty and the members of the Graduating Class for extending an invitation to me to speak at this year’s Commencement Convocation. It is an honor, which was first bestowed on me in 2003 by my alma mater, Cuttington University; and just as it was an honor then, it is also an honor now in 2015 – twelve years later.

I have read that a university’s convocation is the celebratory public ceremony at which all graduates are individually recognized and hooded by the dean of their academic college. On the other hand, a commencement is a university-wide event which features performances and guest speakers. The United Methodist University has aptly described this year’s activity as a Commencement Convocation and has selected me to be the guest speaker to these men and women who will be publicly recognized through the conferral of degrees in different disciplines and the placing of hoods over their heads and around their necks. What a thrill, what an experience of joy, happiness, elation, accomplishment and achievement!

Forty years ago I sat with anticipation at Cuttington University where I too awaited for the public recognition through the conferral of a degree and the handing-over of a diploma. Several days before then, prospective graduates greeted each other either by a self-choke to indicate how tight the neck-tie would be worn, if the person were a man, or by the pull to the bottom of the skirt to show how short the skirt would be worn, if the person were a woman. We worried about nothing then because we believed that all would have been a “bed of red roses” – jobs would be available and scholarships would be in abundance. Today, the story is different, very different indeed.

Today, I should be telling you Graduates on December 22 Merry Christmas and a Happy and Prosperous New Year. That is how I should be greeting you. Today, I should be telling you something which would help define your lives after here and perhaps serve as the trajectory or the impetus for successful careers. I should be merry-making and rejoicing with you because after all these years of hard work, you are now receiving that piece of paper that should chart your journey throughout Liberia and the rest of the world forever. But I am sorry that I cannot even tell you Merry Christmas neither can I wish you a Happy and Prosperous New Year, because to the best of my knowledge and experience, you are graduating at a time which will be difficult for Liberia and all Liberians. That is what 2016, 2017 and perhaps a few years thereafter are likely to be – a difficult experience for our country and its people.

I wish to tell you that of the US$16 billion investments which Her Excellency President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf talked above five years ago, not even one-half of a billion has been invested yet and I don’t expect that much investment will be made in the next few years. I come to tell you that after all the production sharing contracts have been signed and explorations works for oil had started, Anadarko Petroleum has closed down; African Petroleum is not doing much; Chevron is barely making it; and ExxonMobil is merely showing up. Not even a bottle of commercially exportable oil has been found; virtually nothing is happening in the petroleum industry in Liberia; CNN reported last night that oil prices have fallen to an eleven-year low; and the National Oil Company of Liberia is bankrupt. There is so much oil on the international market and oil exporting countries continue to produce so much more oil than before that even the United States, which has not exported oil for more than a decade, is now considering the export of its excess oil. Just imagine what has happened to the oil industry, which was perceived as the panacea for Liberia’s social and economic troubles.

All the mineral agreements which were signed by the President and members of her Cabinet responsible for each mineralization, and ratified by the National Legislature, have not yielded much so far. Some of the mining companies have completely ceased works, while others have substantially reduced their activities, including their workforce. In fact, China, which is the largest consumer of our minerals, has shown five years of lower and lower productivity and therefore has reduced its imports of our minerals. According to Companhia Vale Do Rio Doce of Brazil, one of the largest iron ore producing companies in the world, for both 2014 and 2015 there was a negative production and export of iron ore worldwide. The consequential effect of this primary source of revenue and social change is a material adverse impact on Liberia’s economy and the revenues generated by our country in these two years. And it will get worse before it gets better.

Given the size of our country, Liberia was a mid-size producer of commodities, most of which were exported to Europe and North America. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, in 2014 and 2015 our production of green coffee and cocoa was negative percent as compared to previous years; our production of palm oil, palm kernel oil, palm kernel oil seed for an even longer period was a flat 0.00%. As for rice, our staple food, Liberia has never been able to produce enough for our own consumption. This low productivity of major commodities by Liberia affects its economy and its capacity to generate revenues for growth and development. So, I will not be surprised were the Liberian Government to revise its 2015/2016 budgetary appropriations and concentrate on recurrent expenses, such as salaries for Government employees. We should prepare ourselves for this.

When the Liberian Government optimistically promised 20,000 jobs a year the economy was growing at an unexpected rate and therefore there was some basis for the optimism. But just as the downturn of the worldwide economy began in the latter part of 2013, the scourge of the Ebola Virus Disease hit us in early 2014 and the effect of this disease on our country will be a story to be told for a while. So, the promise was never realized; the promise was never experienced; and the disappointment of many is talked about almost every day.

It may therefore be said without any reservation that the next few years will be difficult for Liberia and its people. These will be years of difficult experience by all Liberians; and it means that those of you who have had the privilege of a college education would have to lower your expectations, yet strengthen your resolve and then go deep into your resilient mood while experiencing these difficulties. But those are some of the things that a formal education at the level of college has taught you – to be wise to know the difference between when to act and when to persevere, to be resourceful and resilient, to be ambitious and yet humble, to be productive and yet committed; and above all to be loyal, continuously loyal to our patrimony (the Republic of Liberia). And 2016 and 2017 are years in which all Liberians, especially you who have obtained college education and have all these expectations, must similarly exhibit and use those other qualities in the face the difficulties in order overcome them.

The way in which you conduct yourselves will determine your future. If you are rebellious, contentious and impatient, that is how you will be judged for the rest of your life in Liberia. If, however, you are calm, resolute, patient and resilient, if you continue to be loyal and productive, you will be a beneficiary of the opportunities that will eventually come when the economy turns around. And our economy will surely turn around; it always has.

I therefore urge you to use your college education and your degree to prepare yourselves for the opportunities of post-tomorrow while you experience the difficulties of tomorrow, to be a builder and not a destroyer in the face of the challenges of the next few years, to be an optimist and an enthusiast even when you know that all will not be well all of the time.

The growth of our country cannot depend on global commodity prices, trade, investments and remittances as it did before. The development of infrastructure and institutions over the past decade will continue to play a major role in the growth of our country, and I must commend the Ellen Johnson Sirleaf Government for the part it has played in developing and rebuilding our infrastructure and institutions after a devastating civil crisis that took us to the brink of destruction. But whatever growth is attained will have to be complemented by sustained foreign aid, which is likely to be continued because we are considered an important part of the international community. More important for the growth of our country, however, will be maintaining political stability and security throughout Liberia – political stability and security in the face of the UNMIL drawdown. And new graduates from college, irrespective of what your situation may be during the coming years, can contribute immensely to the political stability and security that our country continues to be in dire need of. I urge you to assume that role – to adopt yourselves to the realities of our immediate tomorrows, looking forward to a better future. And in doing so, I also ask you to keep faith in God Almighty, with whom all things are possible.

Congratulations for your achievements and may God Almighty continue to bless you and guide you after you receive your various degrees and may He keep Liberia safe.

Authors

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