President Weah’s State of the Nation Address (SONA) on 27 January had been long awaited by an anxious public eager to hear news about things getting better in their lives. This is by no means surprising given the dire straits of the economy and the very difficult and challenging economic times they continue to experience daily.
Public concern has also been riveted on corruption and impunity and their corrosive effects on the economy and daily national life. It can be recalled that a few months ago, President Weah delivered the keynote address at a national economic forum where he assured participants that recommendations emanating from that conference would have been implemented as a way of providing some economic respite to the Liberian people. Those recommendations have, to the best of public knowledge, been shelved with little official thought given of their existence, let alone their implementation.
Such or similar concerns were highlighted by the Council of Patriots during their past two demonstrations. During its most recent public manifestation on January 6, 2020 which was violently disrupted by the Liberia National Police, there were speculations that President Weah would have addressed those concerns raised by the Council of Patriots concerning national governance, particularly corruption and the management of the national economy during his State of the Nation’s Address.
Those issues, if broached at all during the President’s Address, were pretty much glossed over and did not convey a sense of urgency of a situation requiring strict policy measures and strong doses of remedial action in an environment where business will not be as usual.
On a whole, the Address painted a somehow rosy picture of Liberia’s current economic dilemma which, from a cursory glance, would wrongly suggest that the economy is well on the road to recovery. This is however far from being the case. There was, for instance, little mention in the speech of the need to curb extra-budgetary expenditure which is recognized to be a major culprit undermining economic performance.
Further on the issue of corruption, President Weah could only promise that he would do all it takes to curb corruption and would spare no effort to bring perpetrators to book. He cited the case of the Managing Director of the National Housing Authority (NHA) who, along with others, were made to face prosecution as reference of his Government’s tough action against corrupt officials. The public, however, judging from post SONA reflections, appear unfazed especially with President Weah’s zero reference to the flawed and corrupt handling of the US$25 million infusion under the watch of Finance Minister Samuel Tweah as well as the unaccounted for L$16 billion banknotes.
It is a widely held public opinion that if President Weah is serious about fighting corruption he should begin by first prosecuting all those officials involved in the corrupt handling of the US$25 million infusion exercise, which both the Kroll and PIT reports concluded that the excess liquidity mop-up exercise conducted under the watch of Finance Minister Samuel Tweah was corruptly handled.
Standing on the strength of that success, he can now confidently and without fear of being accused of witch-hunting go on to audit the LPRC, since it is now at the center of a major economic crisis affecting the country.
The admission by Commerce Minister Wilson Tarpeh that millions of dollars have remained unaccounted for at the LPRC simply confirms observations by the Daily Observer in its January 28th editorial about the existence of a Ponzi scheme at that entity. However, that is not enough. GoL needs to go beyond tacit admissions and prosecute those involved, irrespective of their political connections.
The appointment of an Asset Recovery Team and the hiring of foreign experts to assist in the process should not be an exercise shrouded in secrecy. The public needs to know how much has been recovered so far and how is it being accounted for. According to reliable accounts, there is well over 4 billion dollars’ worth of illegally acquired assets (stolen money) held in Swiss banks. And there may just be other deposits of illegally acquired assets stored in banks in other foreign countries.
On the issue of Agriculture, the Daily Observer is constrained to point out that, except upward revisions are made in the current agriculture budget, all President Weah’s glowing acknowledgement of agriculture as the bedrock of the economy will amount to nothing beyond words.
In the 2019-2020 budget, for instance, a paltry sum of US$6,208,754 has been allocated to agriculture. This amount constitutes a mere 1.16 percent of the total national budget. Clearly, any nation with a leadership genuinely committed to the attainment of food self-sufficiency and transformation will certainly allocate more than this pittance to its agriculture budget.
Under the circumstances, it becomes difficult to see how the appointment of Madame Jeanine Cooper to head the Ministry of Agriculture will change the picture. Based on her solid credentials and international experience, she will be sure to attract significant donor assistance. However there has to be the realization that donor support, though important, should and cannot be the panacea to the lack of official GoL investment in the Agriculture sector.
Even then, donors will require strict accountability for their funds just as they have done, recalling the leaked letter written by the donor community to this government, demanding restitution of funds earmarked for support to various projects, but which were illegally withdrawn from their respective accounts by the GoL.
In the final analysis, it will all boil down to corruption and to what extent President Weah is prepared to go to address this scourge, which has ultimately created the current gasoline/petrol crisis.