As mentioned in last Friday’s Editorial, the government of Liberia’s passivity and indifference toward Liberian-owned businesses started not with this administration but long before.
This is, unfortunately, one of the legacies of President William V. S. Tubman’s Open Door Policy. It was a policy that gave great encouragement to foreign businesses and business people, including very generous investment incentives such as duty free privileges and extensive tax holidays.
Take for example the rubber industry; several of the foreign rubber companies still enjoy some of these privileges but not a single Liberian rubber company. This includes the biggest of them all, Morris American Rubber Company, commonly known as “Morris Farm”. Started in the 1930s by Harry
Morris, it is the biggest employer among all the Liberian rubber farms. And, currently run by his son Bill Morris, it is the only Liberian rubber planter that is processing its own product for export. Morris American does not have to sell to Firestone. Yet it enjoys none of the privileges extended to some of the foreign companies.
In her meeting with Liberian entrepreneurs last week, President Sirleaf heard some constructive criticisms. Madam Isatu Gbegbe Noubibous told the President that all too frequently Liberian businesses are “sidelined” in the GoL bidding process, in favor of foreign businesses.
Even if Liberian businesses win GoL bids of any scale, there is yet another hurdle. The Government of Liberia has been notorious for its history of bad debt, especially in the current administration. It has become so bad that some business people have disclosed to the Daily Observer that they no longer do business with the Liberian government. Even a local bank a couple of years ago issued an unofficial in-house policy that there were to be no loans given to government officials.
This is bad news and suggests two things. First, if the people running the Liberian government have such bad credit as individuals, what is there to convince anyone else that the government as a whole is credible for business?
Second, it is not as though the President doesn’t know what is happening. Remember Liberia’s debt-waiver program with the World Bank and International Monetary Fund? President Sirleaf knew exactly what needed to be done to win back Liberia’s credibility with those international partners. Is it that much more difficult for the Liberian government to win back its credibility with its own people? Is President Sirleaf simply going to treat the plight of Liberian business people with lip service? Whole day, “We hear you; we will take your concerns into consideration,” she says. But then the breakfast club jumps in the way and sways all the opportunities in favor of their foreign friends.
It is not really about the money, Madam President.
It is about Respect. Many of your lieutenants do not respect themselves enough to even respect the offices entrusted to their care. They insult the integrity of their positions and therefore insult the Liberian People.
It is about Justice. How many corrupt officials has this government successfully prosecuted? They either abscond, are let off on judicial technicalities or are asked to resign.
It is about Patriotism, for goodness sake! We know of NO other nationality that prefers foreigners before their own nationals. Sanitation entrepreneur George Howe told the President that the banks are reluctant to lend Liberians the sufficient amounts these entrepreneurs need to move their businesses forward.
In Liberia, patriotism seems to be losing considerably to envy. “Why should he or she get this break and not I”, is the common mindset in Liberia. This Newspaper has always asked, how can we develop Liberia on envy? It cannot and will never happen. But we cannot, must not remain crabs in the bucket.
And toiletries business man Fomba Trawally urged the President to see to it that GoL give some preference to Liberian Manufacturers.
The President listened intently to the Liberian business people and pledged to actively heed to their pleadings. We count it most unfortunate that the President finds herself making this pledge in the 11th year of her administration, with scarcely two years to go. But as one of the entrepreneurs she met indicated, it is better late than never.
In order to fulfill that pledge the President has a lot of convincing to do among her lieutenants. She has to convince them that it is Liberians, not foreigners, who must build Liberia.
The sooner they are empowered to do so, the better. Time is running out!