(former President C.D. B. King)
The ongoing Economic Dialogue has been well covered in the local media and has, as indications suggest, raised hopes that an end to the country’s economic woes is in sight. But the hopes appear guarded in view of the worsening economic situation. President Weah has already declared that the outcome of this dialogue will be backed by strong political will; meaning, that he will strongly support the implementation of policy recommendations intended to fix the economy.
But suggestions from some quarters (supporters of the President) that such commitments will be honored appear unlikely if concerns expressed by Bong County Representative Robert Womba are anything to go by. His concerns about extra-budgetary spending appears to be resonating with the public.
Predicting another budget shortfall should the Legislature not become sufficiently knowledgeable of the matter and take the requisite corrective actions, the lawmaker cited several instances of extrabudgetary spending and illegal manipulation of the budget after it has been passed into law and printed in handbills.
In one of the instances cited, Representative Womba drew attention to the Ministry of Youth and Sports which, according to him, spent over a million dollars, even though only US$300,000 was allotted in the 2018/2019 budget. Another example, he said, was the Ministry of Finance, which had been allotted an amount of US$51 million but which added an extra US$10 million, without proper approval, and which was unlawfully spent.
The representative also pointed out that several agencies of the Executive branch of government have made huge increases in their 2019/2020 budgets respectively.
Notably, these increases in the budget are being made at a time of great economic difficulties, with so many people staring hunger in the face, lack money to pay school fees and attend to other critical needs. At the same time a few individuals are seen to be virtually living it up.
President Weah’s large delegation to Japan recently raised public eyebrows, given the costs which estimates placed at above one million US dollars. Just why was such an expenditure necessary may prove too difficult to explain to the Liberian people who are demanding answers.
Thus, while promises made to support the outcome of the Dialogue with strong political will is welcome news, this newspaper is constrained to caution that such commitment must be demonstrated through concrete action and not just through talk. As the Daily Observer has repeatedly pointed out, when governments make pronouncements which they cannot follow through, it undermines their own credibility and fosters increased public distrust.
All those extrabudgetary expenditures highlighted by the Bong County Representative are examples of how public funds are siphoned off by dishonest officials.
More to that is the current “Salary Harmonization Plan,” which is currently being implemented and against which public opposition is growing by the day.
And such concerns are exacerbated by the corresponding rise in consumer prices and drastically fallen real income occasioned by this scheme which, according to civil servants, is skewed and highly discriminatory, aside from the fact that it has severely dented their income and undermined their ability to meet their needs.
This newspaper remains convinced that other means can be explored through which savings can be realized. However, this government needs to come to terms with the fact that it has bloated the payroll to unsustainable levels.
Disclosures, for example, that the Ministry of Labor has allotted an amount of US$500,000 as money to pay consultants, drew the fire of lawmakers to the minister because, as one legislator (name withheld) told this newspaper, the money appears intended to be used to pay new entrants to the Ministry of Labor’s payroll.
The minister fumbled and could barely explain to senators convincing reasons for such budgetary outlay. In similar straits also, was Finance Minister Tweah, who fumbled and fidgeted as he tried to explain variations in the payroll numbers he provided to legislators.
In view of the above, President Weah’s expression of commitment and support to the implementation of the outcome of this Economic Dialogue will be measured by cuts in extrabudgetary expenditures, a halt to illegal manipulations of the budget after it has been passed into law and above all the stern measures he will take to address the scourge of corruption.
But the buck will have to start from him and he can do that by becoming fully compliant with the Asset Declaration law, ensuring the compliance of his officials and dealing sternly (prosecute) with those crossing the line. Using himself as an example is the surest way to express political will in the fight against corruption because, as former President C.D.B. King noted, the “Fish begins to rot from its head”.