President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf last weekend blamed Liberians' penchant for politics as the reason for their marginalization in business. But there is an ironical twist to that highly questionable remark. The Liberian businesswoman the President was extolling for her business prowess, Kingsville's agricultural and water entrepreneur Josephine Francis, is herself a politician. She represents the Careysburg District in the House of Representatives.
To her credit, of course, Madam Francis became a successful businesswoman long before she entered politics. She and her Egyptian-born husband, Roger Francis, now deceased, started growing cassava, cattle and rice in 2000, shortly after they returned home. They also engaged in brick production.
But President Sirleaf, in blaming Liberians for failure in business, ignored the very serious challenges and constraints they face in their own country. It started with President W.V.S. Tubman's Open Door Policy (ODP) enunciated in the 1940s. The ODP was not necessarily a bad thing. It opened up the country to foreign investments and soon made Liberia one of the world's fastest growing economies. But because the Policy benefitted foreign business people far, far more than Liberians, it left the nationals trailing behind, further and further impoverished, causing some American business and economic scholars to dismiss Liberia's gains as "growth without development."
The Tubman administration which, most unfortunately, included Liberia's first economist, Charles Dunbar Sherman, trained at the Wharton School of Finance, ignored the American scholars' prophetic indictment, and proceeded with business as usual.
Who knows what happened after that? We will tell you: the four Tigers, especially Singapore and South Korea, which were at the same level of development as Liberia in 1960, chose a more people-centered strategy which, within a few years, left Liberia trailing woefully behind – and we still are, while Singapore and South Korea have been for decades considered "developed nations." The per capita incomes of Singapore and South Korea have since the 1990s or earlier achieve US$20,000, while most Liberians still struggle for survival on US$1 a day. THAT IS WHAT HAPPENED.
It is most unfortunate that President Sirleaf, who studied and worked in Business and Economics, has failed to understand this historical fact about her country and people.
But let us come quickly to illustrate one PARTICULAR instance in which the President is dead wrong: Anyone remembers a man named Sam Gibson, proprietor of Mamba Point's Krystal Ocean View Hotel? Mr. Gibson is simply a businessman, NOT a politician. Yet, when two years ago he won the bid to rebuild the Robertsfield Hotel, he was denied the opportunity in favor of a Lebanese national, George Abidjoudi. Poor Mr. Gibson has run for NOTHING in politics–not even City Council member. He is still STRUGGLING to keep the doors of his hotel open.
A most senior Liberian politician and scholar yesterday told the Daily Observer that the government's policy of encouraging Liberians in business "has remained on paper." This policy, he lamented, is yet to be articulated, especially in regards to access to capital and technical support. "There is," he said, "still a lot of tension between fiscal and monetary policy and supporting Liberian businesses through the budgetary process." Did not Finance Minister Amara Konneh pledge to supply GOL offices with local furniture to empower Liberian cabinetmakers? What happened to that?
Our politician and scholar noted that giving Liberians access to capital is precisely what Central Bank Governor J. Mills Jones is trying to do – an initiative that should be given utmost encouragement. On the contrary, Dr. Jones is being vilified, especially by the first branch of government, the Legislature, with the Executive branch a silent, passive witness to this most retrogressive and outrageous spectacle.
The politician and scholar who spoke to the Daily Observer commented also on some Liberians defaulting on their loans. He blamed this, too, on the government's tax policy which, he said, "undermines the opportunity for sustained investment."
Two years ago another Liberian entrepreneur, George Howe, bade for the contract to handle Monrovia's waste. Acting City Major Mary Broh promptly and unconscionably gave the contract to Ghanaians!
This newspaper has time and again warned that so long as Liberians are marginalized in business, so long will they remain impoverished and powerless in their own country; so long will our fragile peace be threatened. For poverty breeds hopelessness, leaving people to have no stake in the peace. The President has unfortunately not understood that this is one of the key reasons so many people complain about her government.
The gavel is still in her hand – or has she lost it?