Liberia: Preventing a Second Economic Collapse

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By Gabriel I.H. Williams

My attention is drawn to a report in the December 11, 2019 edition of the Daily Observer online in which Gbarpolu County Senator Armah Z. Jallah has called for an arrangement similar to that of GEMAP, under which the international community will be actively involved in co-managing the Liberian economy in partnership with the Government of Liberia.

“We might have to go back to the strategy that was employed by the international community to co-manage the resources (of Liberia) as (was) in the case of GEMAP,” said Senator Jallah, who is also former Senate Pro-Tempore of the Liberian Senate.

The Governance and Economic Management Assistance Program (GEMAP) was instituted in 2005 by the transitional government of Liberia and the international community to reshape the fundamentally broken system of governance that contributed to more than two decades of conflict in Liberia. Under GEMAP, the resources of Liberia were co-managed by Liberians and international partners. International financial experts were deployed at various government ministries and agencies responsible for public revenues and other resources, such as the Ministry of Finance, Central Bank of Liberia (CBL), National Port Authority (NPA), Forestry Development Authority (FDA), Liberia Petroleum Refining Corporation (LPRC), Liberia Maritime Authority (LMA), among others.

While there were some shortcomings with the GEMAP, as some critics have noted, the agreement led to the institution of financial policies and programs that contributed to the rapid revival of the Liberian economy, which won international recognition as one of the fastest growing economies in the world during the first term of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. After succeeding the transitional government, the Sirleaf government, with the strong support of Liberia’s international partners, instituted major reforms to ensure good governance, enabling Liberia, which had been declared a failed state, to begin to recover rapidly and re-emerge as a post-war success story.

During the first four years of the Sirleaf administration, I served as Assistant Minister and Deputy Minister, respectively at the Ministry of Information, Cultural Affairs and Tourism. During that period, I recall how the international partners who were members of the cash management team at the Finance Ministry through the GEMAP arrangement, thoroughly scrutinized vouchers that were submitted to fund various government-related projects and activities. If there were questions on any voucher, it was returned to where it came from without approval. The reason why a certain amount of money was being requested had to be justified for a voucher to be approved in order to make the fund available.

I also recall when many government officials used to complain about the voucher process at the Finance Ministry and how that caused delays in the availability of funds for various projects and programs.  Under GEMAP, there was a process of accountability for how public funds were expended.

Unfortunately, after the Liberian government assumed full control of managing the national economy following the end of the GEMAP agreement, the country once again began to turn back to the dysfunctional state of governance, as corruption became the order of the day.

My recently published book, Corruption is Destroying Africa: The Case of Liberia, states: “On the question of how Liberia failed in the fight against corruption, it can be argued that the failure started when the government began to disregard adherence to the process of good governance and accountability. A turning point along that line was the government’s decision to not renew the contract of Mr. John S. Morlu, II as Auditor General of Liberia following the end of his tenure” in 2011. Liberia would not have lost the war against corruption if Morlu, who became Auditor General in 2007, had continued in office to carry out his aggressive, uncompromising stance against corruption.

My recently-published book contains several recommendations, the first of which is a call for direct international intervention, similar to that of GEMAP, in the management of Liberia’s rapidly collapsing economy.  In the wake of the seemingly unending problem of corruption, which remains a grave threat to Liberia’s peace, stability and progress, as well as the rapid decline of Liberia’s economy, the book expresses the urgent need for strong international involvement to stabilize the country’s economy as was the case following the end of its brutal and destructive civil war. Accordingly, the book strongly recommends for Liberia’s international partners to engage the Liberian Government for the purpose of reaching another agreement, similar to that of GEMAP, under which the international community would assist in the management of Liberia’s resources.

As Senator Jallah stated in the Daily Observer report, ”we might have to go back to the strategy that was employed by the international community to co-manage the resources as (was) in the case of GEMAP … because it is becoming clear that we are not able to do this thing on our own.”

Considering growing public sentiments, it is becoming increasingly clear that the government of President George M. Weah is failing to provide strong leadership to build upon the democratic gains Liberia has made since the end of the brutal and devastating civil war.

As former Liberian Vice President Joseph N. Boakai said in a statement on current developments in the country, published on December 7, 2019 by the Daily Observer: “Liberia appears to have become a rudderless ship adrift on a turbulent sea hurtling towards disaster.”

Giving an overview of the increasingly worrying state of affairs in Liberia, former Vice President Boakai said: “Civil servants, teachers and other professional groups are demanding salary arrears or they would initiate go-slow action. Groups of people under the banner of the Council of Patriots have called for a STEP DOWN CAMPAIGN beginning December 30, 2019. The Liberian people and the world continue to demand full accountability and action regarding the missing L$16 billion and the US $25 million allocated for mopping up excess liquidity.”

Ambassador Boakai observed that economic hardship continues to impact lives throughout the country. He said banks are failing their obligations to depositors, families are sleeping hungry while students are being thrown out of school for non-payment of tuition and fees.

It can also be said that Liberia’s medical system is in a state of dysfunction, a terrible development that is attributed to the alarmingly growing number of people, young and old, who are dying from preventable and curable diseases across the country. Challenged by resource and manpower constraints, to say that Liberia’s health and educational systems are in a state of crisis is to say the least.

Addressing a press conference recently in Monrovia, Mr. Mulbah Morlu, Chairman of the ruling Coalition for Democratic Change (CDC), also acknowledged the biting economic hardship Liberians are suffering and the growing public discontent as a result. Regarding how the government is failing to provide the basic needs of the Liberian people due to non-performance, Mr. Morlu strongly criticized President George Weah’s appointment of people, who he considers “underachievers that would eventually undermine the government.”

On the question of corruption in the CDC-led government, the ruling party chairman demanded an immediate investigation into the acquisition of real estate properties by officials of the Weah administration in the relatively short period of time they have served in government. It may be interesting to note, as reflected by media reports, that President Weah himself has been heavily criticized for acquiring and erecting real estate projects with no clarity as to where he got the money for such projects since the beginning of his presidency.

In view of the foregoing, it is becoming clear that Liberia could suffer another economic collapse, as was the case during the civil war, if the economy continues to deteriorate without the appropriate interventions to reverse the losses. Growing public protests and fear of unrest in Liberia due to the very painful economic hardship being endured by a mass of the largely poverty-stricken population, could easily destabilize the already fragile post-war country.

The growing public fear and anxiety regarding the pending December 30 protest in Liberia can be abated when the government demonstrates preparedness to institute certain quick practical measures, some of which are herewith recommended:

  1. Engage the aggrieved Liberians who are members of the Council of Patriots (COP), hear their grievances and establish a path for dialogue on the issues of contention. Dialogue is the spirit of democracy; whereas, refusal to acknowledge the opposing views of others is a tendency of dictatorship.
  2. Reshuffle the entire government and appoint into positions individuals with the proven skills, leadership experience and integrity to serve the public good.
  3. President Weah must address the nation as soon as possible and lay out a roadmap of how he will lead the country out of the present economic dilemma and promote the tenets of good governance and accountability in Liberia. The President cannot continue to remain silent while the country is adrift and headed towards disaster as a result of the growing public discontents.

History has shown that no amount of intimidation and harassment or violence toward perceived or real enemies to stifle dissent will prevent Liberians from demanding good governance and accountability in the country. Liberia’s recent evil past is replete with the history of brutal and barbaric leaders like Samuel Doe and Charles Taylor, who had tragic endings in their vain attempts to impose dictatorship in the country. Those who sanction human rights abuses will be made accountable for their actions under international laws, examples being Charles Taylor and others prosecuted for crimes against humanity. Equally so, the citizens should be mindful of their responsibility to be law abiding in the exercise of their constitutional rights.

It behooves all well-meaning Liberians to do their part to keep Liberia on a course of sustainable peace and progress. This is why it took me six years to work on Corruption is Destroying Africa: The Case of Liberia, which is a rebuke of the dysfunctional systems of governance that have kept Africa or Liberia among the poorest places in the world. Africa or Liberia will only progress with visionary leaders.

About the Author: Gabriel I.H. Williams is the author of the recently published book, Corruption is Destroying Africa: The Case of Liberia, which is currently available online.

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