The LTA Crisis: Limits of Political Power

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The decision by President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf last week to freeze the accounts of the Liberia Telecommunications Authority (LTA) has many wondering why. Our Presidential Correspondent William Harmon tried to explain the background to the decision. He pointed especially to the LTA's move of its headquarters from the Methodist Building at 12th Street to a more expensive site leased from a Chinese developer on Congo Town Back Road.

The rationale for the move was mainly two-fold. The first was laudable indeed – to locate all offices under one roof, cutting the costs of security, transport and fuel for several generators installed at various buildings LTA occupied, and to enjoy the managerial expediency of being all together. The second was to accommodate the International Gateway Monitoring System, which is crucial to the LTA's operations. A spokesperson was quoted in the story as admitting that erecting LTA's own building was desirable.

We see three problems in this whole scenario. First, was there sufficient economic rationalization? How much would it cost to find the land and build LTA's own building? Compare that with what four years' lease, at US$385,000, would have cost. By managing under the present circumstances for another three to four years, wouldn't LTA have been able to raise the money needed to erect their own building? We thought that this government had long decided to stop leasing and start placing GOL offices in GOL buildings. And here we have so many buildings totally vacant, craving renovation or completion—the National Housing and Savings Bank Building, the E.J. Roye Building, both on Ashmun Street, and several buildings behind the Executive Mansion.

The second problem had to do with those who were involved in negotiations for the lease of the Chinese building. Reportedly, these included the Ministry of Finance, which is supposed to be equipped with economists who should have known better and raised red flags in the whole negotiations; the Ministry of Justice–equipped with the government's lawyers and legal advisors, who should be very conversant with government policy; and the Public Procurement Concessions Commission (PPCC), which was established not only to ensure transparency and accountability in GOL operations, but also to help government save money.

How is it possible that all of these top GOL agencies together made such a decision? And they all did so, thirdly, without proper consultation. What do we mean? The Chairman of LTA, like the Minister of Finance, who is second in command in the President's Cabinet (after the Foreign Minister), the Minister of Justice, who is third – all of these officials SHOULD KNOW that their appointments to those positions are PURELY POLITICAL. And who makes the appointments – all of them? The Constitution of the Republic gives this authority to only ONE person: the President of Liberia. So, if the President can be concerned about County Development Funds, or about misappropriation or malfeasance in any given GOL office, whatever the amount involved, which may be comparatively peanuts, would the President not be concerned about a major decision such as an expensive, long-term commitment by a GOL entity with a foreign concern?

It is important that people who elect to serve in government by accepting a political appointment know and understand the limits of the power they wield (handle, exercise). They should also be meticulously conversant with the policies of government and the general and even specific directions which government is pursuing. If the appointed officials do not, then there is a problem. We suspect that that is what has happened to the LTA and its leadership. Everyone is now waiting to see what the President's next move will be.

But the bottom line is, people who serve in government must, in their decision-making, ALWAYS consider the highest interest of the country and people. Everyone knows that the government is going through tough economic times. Everyone also knows that there is a lot of poverty in the country, due to many economic problems that result in widespread joblessness, especially among the majority of Liberians, the youth, who number 65% of the population. So every cent saved helps. No government institution can afford to be, or seen to be, less than frugal.

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