The Daily Observer last month expressed true elation at the confirmation of Mrs. Jeanine Cooper as Minister of Agriculture. Last year we expressed the same concerning the Minister of Health, Dr. Wilhemina Jallah. And, the year before, Mary Broh. But we’ve noticed a pattern. Out of the nineteen Cabinet seats and countless senior positions in the state owned enterprises, women occupy only three Cabinet and half a handful of sub-cabinet posts. Of those, the three mentioned above stand out. Why are they there?
Mary Broh distinguished herself during Former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s administration as a game changer who brought brutal and lasting efficiency to public service and cultural commitment to public sanitation. Her often abrasive push against laxity in both government and the private sector triggered her ouster from Monrovia City Hall, and saw her quietly tucked away at the General Services Agency where she remains the master of the Government fleet and significant inventory, among other duties. Yet she boasts what no other global figure can: a day in every month bears her name. Mary Broh Day, the first Saturday of every month, is cleanup day in bad habit land. Only Jesus beats her in that regard. He gets all seven days!
Dr. Jallah, over the last decade, has built Hope For Women, Inc. into an institution that is the first port of call for many women’s medical needs. Minister Cooper, in much the same timeframe, has built Fabrar Rice, Inc. into a major participant in the market for Liberia’s staple food. In the process, she has shifted much of the public’s appetite toward the healthier, homegrown red rice (country rice).
In their respective capacities, these distinguished figures have created jobs and opportunities for their fellow Liberians, and have inspired and empowered other women to lead and succeed. They all have done so through immeasurable hard work and with some support from the international community.
Herein lies the conundrum that Dr. Jallah and Minister Cooper face, in particular. Having taken up public positions, they now face at least a perceived conflict of interest if they are seen to still benefit from donor support to continue with private enterprise in the sectors they now administer. We have no evidence that this is the case, and we make no such accusations. We only raise this as the conundrum they face that could endanger them in the future when they are seen to be thriving in business, while their competitors struggle through the headwinds of an ailing economy, especially in two of the country’s most underfunded sectors — Health and Agriculture.
Arguably, the 1979 rice riots in particular were caused by just such a suspicion among Liberians. They believed that their President and public officials were personally profiting for the rising cost of rice. But this is 2020, and the full range of goods and services on which Liberians have come to depend hangs in the balance. This includes their healthcare, five years after Ebola’s end as they face a budding pandemic in the Novel Coronavirus.
We have no reason to doubt that Dr. Jallah and Mrs. Cooper are conscientious in avoiding conflicts of interest. What we fear is that such accusations will prove to be the least of their worries.
Even under much better circumstances, during the Sirleaf Administration, most Cabinet Ministers found it difficult to obtain funding enough to fulfill all their responsibilities. This had to do with challenges in mobilizing domestic resources. The Ministries of Health and Agriculture, therefore, relied heavily on the generosity of Liberia’s traditional development partners. Over time, the Sirleaf government built such confidence, through its slow but significant reform of the public financial management system, that Liberia’s partners saw fit to provide government with direct budget support.
But the human rights abuses, constitutional violations and blatant corruption under Weah’s rule have firmly shut that door. As a result, one wonders where our three heroines will find resources to do their work. Even if partners are willing to help, they will bring in their materials and their people, do the work and get out. And our Ministers will remain under-resourced, with hardly the funds to run the office generator, let alone make the lasting impact of which they are so capable.
This situation, if reflective of the realities inside government, amounts to Weah “woman-washing” the Cabinet. Meaning that, by appointing women in these key positions, he intends to give some semblance of his intent to improve his governance record, while doing nothing to ensure their success.
In effect Cooper, Jallah and Broh will have wasted their time and called upon themselves the people’s blame for the failures of this government. Failures they could do little to control, seeing they are outnumbered in Government by such personalities who have no shame in publicly justifying the theft of donor funds.
This is our fear: that these women will look back some day and find that they had stained their good names in serving this administration. And there is precedent for this prediction. How many in Charles Taylor’s government committed no crimes but suffered international sanctions nonetheless?
There is such a thing as guilt by association, especially when those who suffer that censure do so because they stayed silent in the face of their government’s wrongs.
This brings us to our next point. Enough has happened in the Chronicles of George Weah to raise any woman’s concern that the President may not deserve his self professed title of Chief Feminist. Enough has happened to excite alarm that his words have directly instigated – encouraged – violence against women, using their political opposition to him as an excuse. Enough has happened to deafen Liberian women to his and Mrs. Clar Weah’s feigned commitment to empowering women and girls, given their collective failure to condemn acts of violence against Liberian women, whether politically and otherwise motivated.
Understandably, the Minister of Gender and Social Welfare, Hon. Piso Saydee-Tarr, would fail to fulfill her legal responsibility to defend women’s rights and public welfare by speaking out against these abuses of power. She is the President’s partisan, more loyal to the abuser than to the abused.
But the Minister of Health, who has taken Constitutional and Hippocratic Oaths, was also absent in the public discourse. As was the Head of the GSA, known for her fearless, righteous indignation for all things filthy. That we found noteworthy.
Will Hon. Cooper follow the same path? Certainly, having rightly demanded that the Legislature refrains from politicizing her work, she should tread with caution in public discourse. But then again, each of our three featured officials now shares responsibility for the full measure of this government’s impact, whether positive or negative. Whether and how they use their inescapably political platforms going forward will either be their salvation or undoing.
Theirs is the choice. Either way, they will invite wrath. Better to invite that of the President than that of the People. After all, the latter has always outlasted the former.