Many politicians, whether in or out of office, are fond of blaming the media for “scaring away investors” by the media’s criticisms of the powers that be — or were.
But first, let us examine what the role of media is: to inform, to educate and to entertain. Part of that information and education function is to strive to keep the government accountable, by keenly watching and monitoring the government’s performance and serving as an early warning system.
What should the media be warning about? Bad governance, including corruption, repression and oppression, such as we at the Daily Observer witnessed and personally experienced in the 1980s during the regime of Head of State and later President Samuel K. Doe.
One of the fiercest critics of that regime was Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, whom we faithfully covered, at great risk to our business. One of her key criticisms we remember, which made Doe very angry, was her BBC description of the regime of the People’s Redemption Council (PRC) as “idiots.”
The PRC was the group of non-commissioned officers of the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL) that staged the April 12, 1980 coup d’etat that overthrew the government of President William R. Tolbert, Jr., killing him and several of his most senior officials. Ellen was one of President Tolbert’s most senior officials—Minister of Finance—but she was spared and given a new job—president of the Liberia Bank for Development and Investment (LBDI). She later resigned that post and returned to the World Bank, where she had worked before President Tolbert called her to the Finance Ministry.
We remember keenly another thing that Ellen told BBC in an interview during the civil war. Taylor was very near Monrovia, waiting to dislodge President Samuel Doe from the Executive Mansion. Ellen told BBC that the forces of Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) could “level the Mansion” and the new regime would “rebuild it.”
We all have to be careful what we say when we are out of power; for when, by God’s grace, we attain power, the big question will be, how will we use it? It is most unfortunate that within the first six months of her presidency, in July 2006, an electrical fault in the Executive Mansion, where Ellen now worked, caused a serious fire there, prompting her immediately to relocate her office to the Foreign Ministry. There she spent the remaining of her presidency — 11 and one half years. President George Weah, who succeeded her in January 2018, still has his office in the Foreign Ministry. When will Mansion be rebuilt? We understand that well over US$20 million over how many years we do not know—has been spent to renovate the Mansion, and there is no end in sight as to when the renovations will be completed. What does that say about accountability during Ellen’s regime?
One of the key things that foreign investors look for or watch as they contemplate bringing their money into a country is how the country in question spends its own money. Is there any wonder, then, that most of the US$17 billion which Ellen and her National Investment Commission (NIC) Chair, Richard Tolbert, boasted of bringing into the country within the first six years of the Sirleaf administration did not achieve as much as promised?
Then her second term — 2011-2017 — was marred with the local and international backlash Ellen experienced over her appointment of her son Robert Sirleaf to head the National Oil Company of Liberia (NOCAL). Many who were very close to Ellen advised her against this, but she insisted on that appointment. Within a year and a half the company, one of the most lucrative in the country, went bankrupt, with tens of millions of dollars unaccounted for!
Then President Sirleaf said she took “full responsibility” for this tragic fiasco, but did not answer when asked, “Who will pay the money back?”
It should not go unnoticed that a whole very promising company, NOCAL, went bankrupt under the watch of her son—and, by extension, herself. That seemed to have spelled, for now, the end of Liberia’s petroleum prospects. Both Chevron and other major oil companies abandoned Liberia. What scared them was their shocking realization that though Liberia had not yet struck oil in convincing commercial quantities, here were few Liberians already scrambling over proceeds from oil blocks, even to scandalous proportions.
What does all of this tell us about the investment climate in Liberia? Are we ready? Clearly not yet.
This reminds us of the mid-1960s, shortly after the Ducor Intercontinental Hotel was built. Moshe Meyer, the Israeli developer who built the Ducor, West Africa’s first five-star hotel, had great plans to launch tourism in West Africa, beginning with Liberia.
But in 1972 he told Information, Culture and Tourism Minister G. Henry Andrews and his staff that after the Ducor was completed and he began launching his tourism development enterprise, every Liberian government official he and his people visited to begin the discussions wanted handouts up front — money Mr. Meyer said he did not have.
Meanwhile, Ivory Coast President Felix Houphouet Boigny begged his brother, President Tubman, kindly to let the same man who built the Ducor come to Abidjan and build the identical hotel in Abidjan. President Tubman introduced Mr. Meyer to President Houphouet. The rest is history. Meyer found President Houphouet and the entire Ivorian government READY TO DO BUSINESS. That began the rise of tourism in La Cote d’Ivoire. Just look where they are today! And where are we? Nowhere in tourism—or anything else. That was nearly 60 years ago.
Imagine what the size of Liberian economy would be today if our government had been serious about tourism sixty years ago.
As a matter of relevant perspective, just last week, it was announced that the international football star, Didier Drogba, had collected Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs) for a total of $15 billion in commitments to back tourism projects in his home country — guess where — La Cote d’Ivoire. Now the tourism sector of the same La Cote d’Ivoire, the country that embraced Moshe Meyer’s vision, is poised to become a multi-billion dollar industry.
We we would be remiss not to acknowledge that Drogba is a good friend and fellow Chelsea Football Club alumnus of our esteemed President, George Manneh Weah, though this connection might be the subject of another editorial.
Two questions: 1) Who drove Moshe Meyer and his fellow investors out of Liberia? 2) Has anything changed?