Coming events, it is said, usually cast their shadows; if the Christmas will be good, you will tell from the eve. These are all common sayings, both here and abroad, with a lot of hidden meaning.
President Weah in his maiden address to the nation following his assumption of office declared before a watching world that governance under his tenure, will be “pro-poor”. And as if to drive home the point, he announced a unilateral 25 percent cut in his salary and benefits and he called on other officials of government especially heads of the other two co-equal branches to emulate his example.
This unprecedented move was very warmly received by the public and, to many, this was just a sign of things to come — of better days and things to come. Indeed to many, hope had just been reborn, for President Weah has since used every opportunity to drive home his message of pro-poor governance.
The recent busting of the Abi Jaoudi supermarket for dealing in expired goods by uncompromising Commerce inspectors was, for example, hailed as a true measure of the President’s decision and determination to live up to the letter in his heartwarming promise that his government will be pro poor.
But aside from sporadic fire brigade-like anti-corruption actions here and there, the truest measure of a professed commitment to pro-poor governance can be gauged by the quality of appointments made in government and, most of all, how allocations are made in the national budget.
So far, a number of appointments have, in the eyes of the public, failed to meet standards of competence and integrity. There are some institutions which may never receive the kind of support from the country’s development partners simply because those who have been appointed to such high positions have serious integrity issues that will serve to undermine donor trust and confidence.
The implication is that the pro-poor agenda will become imperiled and fall short on delivery. But of even more concern is the recast 2017-2018 budget submitted by President Weah to the national legislature. President Weah has proposed 50 percent cuts in government expenditure with the exception of the Legislature, the Executive Mansion and the Judiciary.
President Weah attributes reasons for this to the same old story of fall in revenue projections owing to drastic fall in commodity prices on the world market. We cannot fail to underscore the fact and question why is it that a resource-rich country as Liberia depends on user or consumer tax to finance more than 60 percent of its budget, rather than its natural resources.
In other words, it is ordinary Liberians who are bearing the brunt of the burden and they have a right, therefore, to be protected against naked exploitation by their own government. For example, Liberians are compelled to pay taxes in hard currency (US dollars) rather than their own Liberian dollar.
Remittances from relatives and friends abroad are commandeered and 25 percent skimmed off for payment in Liberian dollars, not at prevailing market rates but at rates arbitrarily determined by the government.
Drastic cuts are proposed in areas like health, agriculture and education, key to the advancement of a pro-poor agenda, while Legislators who work only two days a week and take fully paid agricultural breaks of prolonged duration, are left untouched. Left untouched also are the Ministry of State/Executive Mansion and the Judiciary, whose high salaries and expensive perks are exempted.
How then we ask, is President Weah going to advance his pro-poor governance agenda with the “triumvirate”(legislative, Judiciary and Executive) virtually sitting on the heads of the people. President Weah probably does not understand that income inequality is a main driver of social tension and unrest in Liberia.
Against a backdrop of rising cost of goods and services worsened by a heavy domestic tax burden, there is little indication and hope, going by the proposed recast budget, that under a Weah-led government the pro-poor agenda will occupy a pride of place in the truest sense.
But probably President Weah can do himself and the nation a favor by providing the space and opportunity for public debate and input. His call to officials to emulate his example by making cuts in their respective salaries, perks, benefits will sound hollow and be nothing more that a play to the galley.
In closing, we recall the words of his cousin, colleague and compatriot, James Salinsa Debbah, who in the build-up to the 2017 elections said these words:
“George has achieved a lot in football and the people love him for it. But should he become president of Liberia, the public will forget his performances on the football pitch and judge him by what he achieves in office. People in the country are yearning for change and want it very quickly. If he doesn’t deliver it, the people could turn on him. It is a big risk he is taking and I wish him well.”
A word to the wise is sufficient!