The proposal by the Liberian Telecommunications Authority (LTA) to impose an additional surcharge on data and voice calls under the guise of a so-called COVID-19 response fund is ungodly, greedy, selfish with intent to benefit a few at the expense of an already suffering people. Under the proposal, users of telecommunication services will have to pay higher costs for services. It means the price for data will go up and similarly the price of an ordinary scratch card will go up.
It can be recalled that recently, service providers, as a result of the LTA’s insistence imposed a floor price arrangement which in effect prevented other players offering lower prices for telecommunications services from entering the market. This floor price arrangement led to the drop of the 3-day free call offered by both Lone Star and Orange networks and a rise in the price of data and voice calls.
At this stage, it remains unclear to which purpose(s) earnings derived from the proposed five percent (5%) surcharge will be applied. The public is however left to assume that the funds will actually be used to bolster GoL’s efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19. But the problem is, the public believes that the money will instead be diverted to other purposes or into the pockets of a select few.
It is no secret that the GoL is facing a cash crunch. In a bid to alleviate the situation the Central Bank of Liberia(CBL) which is highly indebted to local commercial banks has sold treasury bonds to the National Social Security Corporation. Here is a case where the pension savings of poor ordinary is being used to shore up the ability of the CBL to finance government operations. With the CBL already indebted, it remains to be seen whether those bonds will be redeemed anytime soon.
In fairness to this government, predatory behavior and practices was a key trait of the predecessor government. The fact that out of 66 out of 68 concession agreements signed under the watch of President Sirleaf did not meet the test of transparency and were in effect bogus; some of those agreements awarded large tracts of traditional lands to palm oil and rubber concessionaires without the agreement of the people. Local communities in many instances were forcibly evicted and their traditional forests and shrines cleared.
Other examples of predatory concession agreements are the Bridge Agreement under which a private seeking entity is funded by tax payer money to manage Liberian schools; the ExxonMobil Agreement, the Elenito Agreement, etc were all concluded under the past government.
Under this government, examples include the Hummingbird agreement Concession Agreement awarding exclusive exploration and exploitation rights to a shady company in which the President Pro Tempore of the Senate, Albert Chie is a shareholder; the Tracking Number arrangement under which importers, in addition to paying pre-inspection and shipping fees to BIVAC are required to pay a tracking fee to a shady Sierra Leonean owned company for each container; the Senegal-Liberia fishing agreement allowing Senegalese fishermen to fish in Liberian waters; the fizzled Eton loan arrangement and the also fizzled road financing agreement with a company owned by a Burkinabe national Mohammed Boukoungou.
At the bottom of all this is the undisputed fact that those arrangements were predatory — more in self-interest than the interest of the state. In other words, our officials, both past and present, appear to share a common trait and that is to use the authority and power of the state as an instrument to perpetrate fraud, illegally amass wealth, pillage state resources and then protect themselves against prosecution with the use of official power and authority.
The many twists and turns in the ongoing trial involving CBL employees in the case of the missing L$16 billion banknotes is a case in point and a classic example of predatory behavior. Author James K. Galbraith in his article, “WHAT IS THE REAL NATURE of American capitalism today” argues that, “in a predatory regime nothing is done for public reasons. Indeed, the men in charge do not recognize that ‘public purposes’ exist”.
Going by this definition, is not the ongoing attempt by the LTA to impose a five percent (5%) surcharge on data and voice calls an example of predatory behavior? How else can this be explained in view of the fact that the Liberian people will have to shoulder the costs of maintaining high salaries and luxurious lifestyles, etc, of LTA officials in addition to greasing the palms of a select few?
Author Galbraith also argues that “in a predatory economy, the rules imagined by the law and economics crowd don’t apply. There’s no market discipline. Predators compete not by following the rules but by breaking them. They take the business-school view of law: Rules are not designed to guide behavior but laid down to define the limits of unpunished conduct. Once one gets close to the line, stepping over it is easy. A predatory economy is criminogenic: It fosters and rewards criminal behavior”.
From all indications, this is the direction into which the nation appears to be heading. A government run by individuals with predatory predilections and inclinations do not last. They suck the lifeblood of the state and when the spoils run out, savage and often bloody contestations ensue and eventually they come crashing down under the burden of their own weight. At the end when it is all over, the people will have paid an exacting price.
In this regard, President George Weah will do himself well to recalibrate, rid himself of the cast of predatory characters around him and move ahead. The LTA surcharge proposal is fraught with dangerous and unknown implications for national stability. He must reject it in clear and unequivocal terms. As it appears, predators are running wild. He must, at his peril, stop them dead in their tracks. STOP THE PREDATORS IN THEIR TRACKS BEFORE IT IS TOO LATE!