Remarks made by Speaker Bhofal Chambers calling for reform of what he called existing “Old Order Laws” to improve the national economy as reported in the August 7th edition of the Daily Observer has claimed the attention of this newspaper and is thus the subject of today’s editorial.
Speaker Chambers, commenting on the current economic situation, is reported to have expressed worrying concerns about the huge backlog of domestic and foreign debt arrears and delays in payment of salaries of some 47,000 civil servants. Noting that the current budget of US$532 million is inadequate to build the country’s infrastructure, he called for the reform of laws on natural resource governance to be replaced by effective profit-sharing laws in order to support the annual budget.
Speaker Chambers made particular reference to the Southern African nation of Botswana, which derives 50 percent of its budget from revenues accrued from mining as unfavorably compared to Liberia that derives a paltry 3 percent of its budget from mining. He made further reference to Indonesia, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Chile, Vietnam, and China as countries, unlike Liberia, that derive huge benefits from the fishing sector, while Canada, and the USA are examples of countries that derive huge benefits from the forestry sector.
These are indeed fine and brave words coming from the Speaker and the Daily Observer fully agrees with the Speaker’s call for reform of what he called the “Old Order Laws” to be replaced by laws which provide for profit sharing in order to support the national budget.
This newspaper is however constrained to remind Speaker Chambers of the New Petroleum law passed in 2002, during the reign of former President Charles Taylor. The Daily Observer further recalls that the ExxonMobil Concession agreement which was negotiated in 2012 during the administration of former President Sirleaf, was consummated outside the framework of the 2002 Petroleum law and it removed the 20 percent state equity provision as well as the 10 percent provision for Liberian participation.
Chapter III of the 2002 Petroleum law explicitly provides: “All Hydrocarbon deposits belong to and are the properties of the Republic of Liberia, which are held in trust by NOCAL. Whether such deposits are found on the surface of the ground or in the soil or subsoil, under the surface of rivers, ocean, streams, watercourses, territorial waters and Continental Shelf of Liberia, they remain the property of the State as stated above”.
As noted earlier, this law was not amended until in 2016, whereas the ExxonMobil concession agreement was concluded in 2014 a full two years prior to the amendment of the law.
Clearly, such illegality must have occurred under the watch of the Legislature, for how else could anyone explain why a concession agreement would be crafted to reflect laws not in existence at the time of its passage? During this period, Speaker Chambers was a member of the National Legislature and must have participated in such discussions and may have probably voted in favor of its passage.
Notably, Speaker Chambers, a member of the Legislature during both terms of former President Sirleaf, should, by now, be aware of the Moore-Stephens Report whose findings concluded that of the 66 concession agreements concluded the administration of President Sirleaf, only about two (2) met the tests of probity, transparency and legality.
But more to that and perhaps even more disturbing is the Hummingbird concession agreement awarding virtually the entire southeast, rich in gold, uranium and coltan, used in the manufacture of cellphones, to a shady company. Coltan is derived from Columbite, a black mineral consisting of an oxide of iron, manganese, niobium and tantalite.
The Hummingbird concession agreement was given a “4G” passage, which left a number of legislators including Maryland County Senator Gbleh-bo Brown complaining of its hasty passage without sufficient due diligence. This may have been due to the influence of Senate President Pro Tempore, Albert Chie who is a shareholder in Hummingbird.
The Daily Observer is thus inclined to question where was Speaker Chambers in all of this? Unlike his Maryland counterpart and legislative colleague, Gbleh-bo Brown, who voiced vehement disagreement with the passage of the Hummingbird agreement, Speaker Chambers maintained a stony silence even after the issue was flagged by the media.
In view of these facts, critics are contending — and rightly so — that Speaker Chambers is simply playing to the galley in what is seen as an futile attempt to drum up support and raise hopes in the public that relief from the excruciating economic hardships currently being experienced is well in sight and may actualize if what he calls “Old Order laws” are repealed and replaced with laws providing for profit sharing from the exploitation of the nation’s resources.
Will, for example, the concession agreement with Hummingbird be affected by the passage of new profit-sharing laws in natural resource governance, or is it just another potshot being taken at President Sirleaf, at whose feet blame for the economic downturn is being cast?
Her son, currently on bail, is facing criminal charges for what state prosecutors have alleged is his role in the illegal printing of excess Liberian currency banknotes. This situation obtains, despite a solemn pledge made by President Weah well before his election as president, to protect the former president and her interests, whatever it meant.
Whatever the case, Speaker Chambers ought to realize that his words at this time have little import to Liberians. The fact that he obtained a visa and travelled to the US when it was open knowledge that some of his colleagues were denied US visas to travel to that country, is of no significance and is nothing for either he or his CDC supporters to gloat about.
As head of the legislature, he should be leading the pack to cut public sector corruption. And the place to start from is the Asset Declaration Law, from which most officials of this government, including President Weah, have shied away.
Anything short of this is a mere PLAY TO THE GALLEY, Mr. Speaker!