Presidential Abuse of Foreign Trips: The Case of Liberia’s President

President George Weah addressing world leaders and participants at COP27

... In the past six months, the President has traveled at least nine times, spending over three days. Although the travels were deemed a priority by the presidency, many Liberians have argued that the President could have sent few representatives to some of the events, thus cutting costs and having more time to attend to important national issues at home.

Liberians are increasingly expressing worry over the incessant foreign trips by President George Weah, with allegations that the travels do not bring any concrete benefit to the country. 

Since his becoming president, Mr. Weah had come under public censure over the frequency of his foreign trips with critics saying that Mr. Weah is abusing the privileges as the greater part of his tenure is spent on foreign trips and the benefits were not commensurate with the cost to the taxpayers.

Some also criticize the president for prioritizing foreign engagements against the backdrop of fewer domestic travels to attend to pressing national issues. 

History of Trips

President Weah is not new to criticisms of foreign travel. On January 28, 2018, President George Weah traveled to Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa to the 30th African Union Summit, his first international trip since taking office on January 22. On Jan 8, 2019, President George Manneh Weah traveled to Senegal to attend the CAF Awards and 2019 African Cup of Nations (AFCON). 

On February 20, 2018, the President traveled to Paris, France to attend the Paris Peace Forum. The trip cost taxpayers US 206,348.00. In March 2018, Mr. Weah paid a working visit to Abuja, Nigeria.

Mr. Weah left Liberia on June 2, 2018, for the Kingdom of Belgium to attend the European Development Days (EDD) Summit. In July 2018, Mr. Weah traveled to Togo to attend the 53rd ECOWAS Summit. His trip cost taxpayers an alarming US$182,000. President Weah traveled to Sierra Leone on May 12, 2018, to attend the inauguration of Julius Maada Bio.

On April 1, 2018, Mr. Weah paid a 4 days state visit to the Ivory Coast and Ghana. He departed Liberia for Congo Brazzaville on April 26, 2018, for a 3-day official state visit to attend the Franco-African Summit. On July 5th, 2018, Mr. Weah traveled to Ivory Coast on an official visit.

On Aug 27, 2018, President Weah traveled to Beijing, China to attend the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) in August 2018. The trip to China cost taxpayers US$333,522.50. The trip was overshadowed after Finance Minister Samuel Tweah booked a US$16,000 first-class ticket on a United Arab Emirates airbus from Accra, Ghana to Beijing, China. President Weah's trip to Burkina Faso in 2018 cost taxpayers US$23,925.49 and his trip to Senegal in the same year cost the taxpayers US$70,948.60.  

In September 2018, Mr. Weah traveled to the United States to attend the United Nations General. Assembly (UNGA) in New York. President Weah departed Liberia with a high-level government delegation for a four-day visit to Israel on February 22, 2019. On March 17, 2019, President Weah traveled to Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates (UAE), for a four-day official visit. 

The Liberian leader traveled in July 2019 to the Guinean capital, Conakry, for a two-day official visit. In September 2019, Mr. Weah traveled to Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso to attend the Extraordinary Summit of the Authority of Heads of State and Government of the Economic Community of West African State (ECOWAS). 

President Weah departed Liberia on November 8, 2019, for the Nigerien capital of Niamey to attend the Extraordinary Summit of Heads of State and Government of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). President Weah traveled to Abuja on June 11, 2019, to honor an invitation from his Nigerian counterpart, Muhammadu Buhari, to attend what is called Nigeria’s Democracy Day.

The trend of President Weah’s foreign trips was however halted by the COVID-19 pandemic which restricted physical meetings for nearly two years. With the easing off of the COVID-19 restrictions protocols, President Weah has now resumed another bout of foreign trips.

In the past six months, the President has traveled at least nine times, spending over three days. Although the travels were deemed a priority by the presidency, many Liberians have argued that the President could have sent few representatives to some of the events, thus cutting costs and having more time to attend to important national issues at home. Some of his recent foreign trips have been to the United Arab Emirates, Ivory Coast, Turkey, Ghana, Senegal, Belgium, Equatorial Guinea, Morocco, Egypt, France, and Qatar.

On February 16, 2022, President George Weah departed the country to attend the sixth European Union-African Union Summit in Brussels, Belgium. From March 11-13, 2022, President Weah was in Turkey for three days to attend the second edition of the ‘Antalya Diplomacy Forum’ in Turkey.

On September 16, he departed with a delegation of over 30 persons from Monrovia for New York, United States, to participate in the 77th Session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA77). President Weah was scheduled to speak on September 22. 

In early November of 2022, the President traveled to attend the MEDays conference in Tangier, Morocco for four days. The President arrived in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt to attend the United Nations Global Climate Change Conference (COP27) on November 6, 2022. On November 9, the President arrived in Paris, France to attend the 5th Edition of the Paris Peace Forum. The President is expected to travel to Qatar for nine days to watch the official opening program of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar and also watch his son, Timothy Weah, play for the United States men’s national soccer team in the World Cup before returning to Liberia.

Weah and his ‘large’ entourage

Whenever Mr. Weah goes on these trips, he is accompanied by a retinue of public officials, all at the expense of the Liberian taxpayers. The total cost and expenditure on each of these trips are never made public.  Checks by FrontpageAfrica showed Mr. Weah embarked on eleven foreign trips in the year 2018.

He was accompanied by a huge delegation that included ministers, designated special advisers, and other travel aides. An analysis of a document from the Ministry of Finance and Development Planning (MFDP) revealed Weah’s foreign trips in 2018 cost Liberia, a country with a broken economy, over a million United States Dollars. According to the 2022 budget, Mr. Weah’s foreign trips for the year will cost taxpayers US$1.6 million, a significant increase from the US 457,875 budgeted for the same purpose in the 2020/2021 budget. Conversely, local trips are estimated to cost US$1.7 million in 2022.

During the trip to New York, the USA to participate in the 77th United Nations General Assembly (UNGA77), Mr. Weah was accompanied by Dee-Maxwell Saah Kemayah, Minister of Foreign Affairs; Samuel Tweah, Minister of Finance; Maritime Commissioner Lenn Eugene Nagbe; Wilhelmina S. Jallah, Minister of Health; Daniel Dee Ziankahn, Minister of National Defense; Ansu Dao Sonii, Minister of Education; Williametta Saydee Tarr, Minister of Gender; Dester Zeogar Wilson, Minister of Youth & Sports, Mawine G. Diggs, Minister of Commerce and Industry; Ledgerhood Rennie, Minister of Information; J. Fonati Koffa, Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives, Senator Zoe Emmanuel Pennue of Grand Gedeh County; Representative Frank Saah Foko of District #9 Montserrado County, Nyemadi D. Pearson, the Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Liberia; Comfort Sawyer, Deputy Minister for administration, Ministry of Foreign Affairs; Trokon Kpui, Minister of State without Portfolio; Sekou Kalasco Damaro, Presidential Aide; Nora Finda Bundoo, Chief of Protocol, Executive Mansion; Jefferson T. Koijee; Mayor Monrovia; Pepci Yeke, Executive Director, Liberia Agency for Community Empowerment; among others. The presidency does not list members of the delegation nor the retinue of domestic aides who accompany the President on such trips, including photographers, protocol officers, security officers, various media aides, and so on. Liberians only got to know them during a live Facebook broadcast by presidential aides and others.

Currently, Liberia is grappling with a shortage of rice and the result of the 2022 population census is at risk due to endemic corruption at the Liberia Institute for Statistics and Geo-information Services (LISGIS), causing panic and anxiety.  The Census Project Coordinator, G. Alex Williams of LISGIS has accused his bosses of misapplying US$1.1 million intended to conduct the national census. 

The country’s staple started disappearing from shops and marketplaces several weeks ago, prompting hundreds of desperate rice retailers and consumers in the capital, Monrovia, to spend days and nights in queues to scoop small quantities of the commodity from the warehouse of a foreign company that still has a small consignment. Some have gone on to profiteer, reselling the commodity at skyrocketing prices. The rice crisis has even escalated the commodity price, galloping from between US$13 and US$15 to US$30 and even higher.

In moments of national crisis, Mr. Weah has abandoned his duty post in preference for foreign trips of dubious value. Although it is not a crime for the President to ensure that Liberia is not left out in global discussions, Liberia is yet to see the significant benefits of the President's numerous travels. 

Elsewhere, leaders devote absolute attention to domestic affairs. In October 2014, then-US President Barack Obama underscored this when the Ebola virus broke out in the United States. He canceled two trips — one on the economy and a political trip to raise money for Democratic Party candidates in midterm elections — and sat back in the White House to oversee his government’s response. 

Last December, Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, announced that he would reduce his foreign trips, and delegate ministers for such assignments, traveling only when it was absolutely necessary. One of the main reasons was that he wanted to concentrate on his government’s (third) budget. Obama delegated critical international assignments to John Kerry, the US Secretary of State, in a similar fashion. 

Late Tanzania’s President John Magufuli, when he was alive, explicitly stated that he would rather save money than attend the UN General Assembly which will mean spending more on his entire delegation. The late President, when he was alive, never attended the UNGA and, as always, he was represented by foreign minister, Dr. Augustine Mahiga.

Mr. Weah should take a cue from this and show that he is a caring president. Sadly, through the few weeks, the rice scarcity paralyzed the nation, and the President did not personally communicate with the people. This is appalling. He cannot aim to project a good image of Liberia overseas to investors when his citizens are reeling under crises at home.

How does a country attract Foreign Direct Investment (FDI)? Investors gravitate to environments that favor their capital to generate returns. Without addressing the electricity crisis, bad roads, and security problems plaguing the country, international investors will be wary of coming to Liberia. It behooves Weah to present to the nation what the government is doing in the short, medium and long terms to fix these problems. 

It is sad that, before the President started touring Morocco, Egypt, France, and Qatar in November, he requested members of the House of Representatives to grant him 22 more working days so as to finalize the preparation of the draft 2023 budget. This is the second year in a row, the President is expected to delay the submission of the budget way past its statutory deadline (now October 15). Similar delays happened in 2020 — lasting for more than a month and a half. This is poor management, considering the importance of the budget to the economy.

Unfortunately, since 2006, Liberia’s presidents have cultivated the habit of frequently traveling overseas. Past Liberian presidents also established a fascination with foreign trips, often at times when domestic problems within the country cried for attention. Former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf set the tone, spending much of her first and second term as president on junkets around the world.  What is fuelling this insatiable appetite?

President George Weah spending more than 30 days on trips to different parts of the world throughout the month of November is a gross abuse of presidential power. The President’s frequent foreign trips have come under scrutiny and criticism as Liberia faces myriad crises, from intractable rice and fuel shortages to census crises, massive unemployment, and poverty. The President’s foreign travels have consumed a significant amount of cash in a country that is beset by a considerable financial crunch, a result of a deep dip in Liberia’s earnings from exports.

The spin in the media by his aides, of the need for Mr. Weah to travel overseas every time is out of point. Although the explanation for the trips is majorly to attract investors, there is no immediately visible sign of accomplishing any of the agenda for the trips that have manifested since Mr. Weah became President. What is the wisdom of his high volume of foreign trips at a time when Liberia is mired in one of its worst rice & National Population and Housing Census crises in years? 

Mr. Weah’s frequent foreign travels represent a drain on Liberia’s meager resources, with travel allowances to members of the presidential entourage, payments to pilots, aircraft maintenance and fueling as well as hotel accommodation and other sundry expenses. With the exception of the county tour, the President has made very few official trips within rural Liberia. Mr. Weah should stay back at home and put the country to work. This is the best advertisement of Liberia he can present to international investors.