Warning President Weah Against the Danger of Making Policies on the Fly

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The attention of the Daily Observer is drawn to the story carried in its April 16, 2019 edition under the headlines “To ‘Stimulate Economic Growth’, President Weah Issues Executive Order #96”. According to the story quoting an Executive Mansion Press release, “President George Manneh Weah has issued Executive Order #96, containing a number of measures aimed at reversing the protracted downturn in economic activities and slow growth driven by the continuous and persistent declines in the prices of and demand for Liberia’s primary export goods of rubber, iron ore and timber”.

This newspaper welcomes and appreciates President Weah’s attempts to address what the government itself calls the “protracted downturn in economic activities and slow growth driven by the continuous and persistent declines in the prices of and demand for Liberia’s primary export goods of rubber, iron ore and timber”.

However it is constrained to question whether such policy initiatives are the result of deliberate and conscious planning or it is as the same old practice of making economic and social policies on the fly as was characteristic of government under the leadership of President Sirleaf. It has been over a year now since this government came to power.

At his inauguration on January 19, 2018, President Weah declared to the world that he inherited a broke economy with empty national coffers something to which his predecessor bitterly disagreed, arguing that she had indeed left about US$150 million in the national coffers. Almost immediately prior to his assumption of office, the Governance Commission held a one-day symposium on the economy as a way of alerting the incoming leadership of what to expect as regards the nation’s financial and economic health.

Since then, it remains unclear whether this government has held an economic summit to appraise current economic policies and their impact on the lives of ordinary Liberians. According to Executive Mansion sources, regular cabinet meetings where sticky issues, political, economic and social would be discussed and hashed out are more of the exception than the rule. This suggests that little or no healthy discussions are being held on the state of the nation’s economy which is counterproductive to decision making and the formulation and implementation of policy initiatives.

Several examples exist in this regard, foremost amongst which is the introduction of the compulsory Cargo Tracking Note (CTN) by the National Port Authority, a development which effectively undermines the Pre-Shipment Inspection agreement (PSI) entered into between the Government of Liberia and the Bureau Veritas (BIVAC). But the pre-shipment inspection of goods for import into Liberia can only be done if the inspection agency which, in this case is the BIVAC, has received from the importer an Import Permit Declaration(IPD).

This declaration form is important because it helps the customs to control goods that enter the country and which could affect the country’s environment, economy or security. Toxic wastes, counterfeit currencies, illegal arms are examples of such goods which would be prohibited from entering the country once listed on the IPD. For most countries around the world, travelers are required to declare everything they acquired abroad and possibly pay customs duty tax on goods. Some countries offer a duty-free allowance of certain products which may not need to be declared explicitly.

While the Daily Observer acknowledges that the IPD system could be subject to abuse, including bribery, it cannot lose sight of the fact that, in the past, especially during the Doe presidency, pre-shipment inspection tended to be more rigid than now and had the effect of severely restricting the importation of substandard goods on the Liberian market. It also helped to prevent false declaration including under and over invoicing of goods, a practice prevalent amongst foreign importers.

From all indications, this Executive order stands to benefit foreign businessmen by far more than what Liberians stand to benefit.  Ordinary Liberians, for example will more likely than not continue to bear the brunt of difficulties imposed by higher commodity prices and crippling shortages which are likely to ensue.

This newspaper recalls that one of the first steps taken by President Weah was his appeal to foreign businessmen to reduce the price of rice. Almost immediately, the price of rice dropped by a dollar or two but has since climbed above where it once stood. The rice monopoly held by foreign importers remains firmly in place with no signs of its breakup yet in sight. And this goes for other commodities as well under monopoly control by foreign businessmen.

In view of the above the Daily Observer calls on President Weah to engage the opposition in dialogue. It further called on President Weah to consider calling an economic summit that will bring together economists, businessmen, politicians and civil society actors to deliberate on the rapidly declining state of the economy with the view to identifying workable solutions to address the acute economic problems facing the country.

It can be recalled that the Daily Observer in its editorial of February 22, 2019 noted that the replacement of the Weah government as called for by some parties is in itself insufficient if the replacing government continues to follow economic policy prescriptions which have over the years done little or nothing to address growing inequality and rising mass poverty.

The Daily Observer also noted that high on the list of the proposed dialogue should be the issue of corruption and how it can be effectively addressed in order to help enhance the attainment of national development objectives including the critical need to address growing mass poverty. Now it remains to be seen whether the implementation of measures listed under Executive Order #96 would indeed halt the downward slide of the economy.

It can be recalled that President Sirleaf had similarly declared that allowing foreign fishing vessels to operate within 6 nautical miles offshore would have resuscitated the fishing industry, but which never did, even after nearly two years since leaving office.  President Weah must therefore be warned against the danger of making policies on the fly like his predecessor did.

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