News reports about legislative endorsement of an official stimulus package for small business owners, food relief assistance for families affected by the lockdown as well as the supply of free electricity has once again raised the hopes of residents in areas under the lockdown that help is indeed underway.
The Daily Observer welcomes this development and commends the President and government for this initiative.
However there are Troubling Concerns which, if not addressed, could lead to a host of problems and eventually serve to undermine the actual purpose and intent of the mitigation/stimulus package government has unveiled.
One of such concerns has to do with the pronouncement that GoL has paid US$4 million to the Liberia Electricity Corporation (LEC) to settle outstanding bills owed that entity and the supply of free electricity for the duration of the lockdown period. In the first instance, it remains unclear and unverified that the stated amount was actually paid to the LEC as officially declared.
Further, the LEC like other State Owned Enterprises (SOEs) are required to make public their financial statements as well as furnish quarterly and annual reports to the National Legislature as part of its oversight responsibilities. From available evidence, the LEC has not over a period of years made public its financial statements or annual reports as provided for and required by law.
Thus it becomes difficult for the public to know the true financial picture of the LEC. The LEC is managed by a team of Liberian and foreign managers hired under a bilateral agreement with the United States government (the Millennium Challenge Account) with funding mainly from Bill Gates through his Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
LEC as a public corporation should be transparent and accountable to the public through our elected representatives. However, this is not the case as its financial operations are shrouded in secrecy. Its hydra-headed management arrangement has often come into conflict with itself, plagued by internecine wrangling over lines of authority and responsibility.
Moreover, its service delivery capacity is poor, remains hamstrung by bureaucratic red-tape, inefficiency corruption and has so far proved virtually incapable of actually distributing all the power produced on its grid. Under such conditions it remains to be seen whether that promise to supply free electricity will actually materialize.
Further, what will be the cost of providing free electricity to the people? For unexplained reasons, such details have not been disclosed to the public as a matter of transparency. But the question begging answers is why GoL has prioritized the supply of free electricity and not the free supply of water to residents of Monrovia especially. Every morning groups of youths and children can be seen clutching to plastic containers roaming the streets of Monrovia in search of water.
The state-owned Liberia Water and Sewer Corporation (LWSC), on the heels of the official extension of the lockdown period has announced that it will suspend the supply of water to Monrovia for a period of ten days.
Under such conditions, it can be reasonably expected that people will dare go out in search of water and food, never mind whether or not they have access to electricity supply. And if they are prevented from doing so, open defiance, strikes and riots may ensue.
The Daily Observer has warned about this in an earlier editorial (March 25, 2020) cautioning government to draw on lessons learnt from the 2014 Ebola virus disease outbreak and tread softly on proposals for a complete lockdown.
That is why the provision of food assistance to mitigate the imposing economic effects of the lockdown is urged, as it would serve to douse public anger and keep in check, inclinations to resort to protests strikes and riots.
Another pressing concern is that proposal concerning the writing off of debts owed to banking and financial institutions by petit traders and market women. While this is a welcome development, fears that such money will never reach the intended beneficiaries is rooted in the experience of the US$25m mop up exercise which was handled under the direct watch and supervision of Finance Minister Samuel Tweah.
As official investigative reports show, the exercise was characterized by fraud and failed to obtain much proclaimed and desired results. In spite of these reports indicting the Finance Minister and members of his Economic Management team which included Justice Minister Frank Musa Dean, nothing ever came out of it and that matter has since gone into the breeze.
This is why, in the opinion of this newspaper, the public while welcoming the President’s pronouncement, have expressed great skepticism about the possible misuse of the money since there is no detailed expenditure plan. Such plan would include a verified list of debtors from local banks and lending houses as well as a list of intended beneficiaries.
Last but not least on the list of concerns is the need to withdraw the AFL and have it confined to barracks. This measure is proposed against the backdrop of the misconduct and brutal behavior of AFL soldiers towards civilians during the lockdown.
They have conducted themselves as if ordinary people are hostile targets warranting violent engagement and have shown little or no respect for human rights and the rule of law. It was similar behavior and conduct of AFL troops that led to its defeat and saw whatever was left of it, fighting for personal survival surrounded on all sides by the NPFL and the INPFL, until ECOMOG came to the rescue and saved thousands of ordinary Liberians from virtual annihilation.
Finally, President Weah should consider this as testing moments of his leadership and rise to the challenge. Although he has attracted harsh public criticism for his government’s response to the disease by dubbing the response as the “Weah Project”, he still has the opportunity to turn a new leaf if he must regain eroded public confidence. Any thing less would be an invitation to trouble.
Indeed, he must step up to the plate as a national leader of all Liberians and not his CDC alone and above all, he must beware of the dangers of raising false hopes to address such troubling concerns.