By: Mfonobong Nsehe
On the 10th of October, Liberians will go to the polls to vote for their next president. Incumbent Ellen Johnson Sirleaf shall step down having reached the constitutional two-term limit. The race promises to be a closely fought campaign. Yet this election is critical for Liberia: it will be the first democratic transfer of power since the civil war ended in 2003.
Benoni Urey is one of the leading contenders. He recently accepted the Presidential nomination of the All-Liberian Party to contest at the ballot box. Urey has not held elected office before, but believes his business background will appeal to many voters across the political spectrum.
Urey, 60, is one of Liberia’s most successful men. He is the founder of Lonestar Cell MTN – Liberia’s largest nationwide mobile network and tax contributor, and Wulki Farms – one of the country’s primary indigenous food producers. He has never previously stood for, or held, elected political office.
He spoke to me recently, discussing his bid for the presidency, his business successes and how he plans to get Liberia working.
Why have you decided to throw your hat into the crowded field of presidential candidates? And why now?
Simply, the state of Liberia. Fourteen years of peace and international aid and what do we have to show for it: a moribund economy; spiraling food prices; and 85% of our citizens without a regular salary. Daily life for the majority of Liberians is desperate. I cannot stand to be witness to their plight – I thought I must do something.
Why now? I have always taken a keen interest in politics. Yet I looked around one day and could see no politician articulating our citizen’s concerns. And if you can’t understand people’s problems, how can you expect to solve them? Liberians need a government that will take back control of the country and begin responding to their needs.
I grew up on a farm knowing the harsh realities of poverty. I have never forgotten where I came from. I know what it is like to live in a three-room house of twenty people and go to bed hungry after a hard day’s work. Yet God has been kind to me; I want to repay my good fortune by helping others.
Tell us about your business interests? How did you get to where you are now?
After a stint in government, in 2003 I returned to Careysburg to expand my farm – primarily in poultry and rubber. We were the only poultry farm to continue operating through the civil war, providing jobs and food throughout the crisis years.
My big break came when I founded LoneStar Cell. After merging with South Africa’s MTN, it has now grown to become the largest telecoms company in Liberia. From the wealth generated through the farm and Lonestar Cell/MTN, I have re-invested in my country: creating a car rental company, a publishing and broadcasting house, and a real estate company – U-Housing.
I am proud of my career: I have brought in foreign investment that established a completely new business sector in my country. It not only provides jobs for thousands of Liberians, but now connects 70% of the population to mobile networks. Furthermore, Lonestar Cell/MTN is the largest tax contributor to the government’s purse. Taken together, these companies are the largest provider of employment outside the Government and across all sectors we pay more than the national average. That’s a record of transforming lives I’m proud of and one I will continue in government.
What experience can you bring to the Presidency? Why do you deserve Liberian’s vote?
I understand what has held back business. The current clique of politicians and candidates are just regurgitations of past failures. I am the only contender that has grown their own companies domestically; I know how to unleash the system-shackled entrepreneurship in this country.
I have had some government experience, but this is the first time I have stood for elected office. Given the universal mistrust of the political class in Liberia, I think coming from outside gives me an advantage. People want fresh thinking and a new direction – not more of the same
However, it is not just my business experience I shall bring to the Executive Mansion. I have always contributed to the community as I have stepped down the path of life. I have worked with every ethnic group, engaged with both Muslim and Christian religious associations, and have a multitude of social programs – the most prominent of which is the U-Foundation. These commitments have taken me across the country where I have encountered people from all walks of life in Liberia’s rich tapestry. From this, I have acquired a firm appreciation of the issues ordinary Liberians face.
Most importantly, I will bring patriotism to the leadership of this country – based on a rooted love of Liberians. In the dark times of civil war and Ebola, I never left: I stayed in my country. In fact, when my longest-serving employee of 26 years fell fatally ill, I personally established an Ebola team to prevent further tragedy. We ended up treating over 5000 people – more than the Government and International community combined.
So what will you do differently? What is your plan for Liberia?
As the CEO President, I am going to get Liberia working. I am standing on a pro-business, socially conscious platform. When I say business, I do not just mean broking large international deals, but providing the resources and mechanisms needed to facilitate organic growth at the community level.
Jobs are my absolute priority. Currently, unemployment is corroding Liberia, forcing citizens into a life of crime out of desperation. Of any private citizen in Liberia, I have brought the most jobs to this country. Just imagine what I will be able to achieve for national employment as Commander-in-chief. My parents taught me the dignity of work. I want all Liberians to have this dignity
Alongside unemployment, our citizens face rising prices: a double squeeze. Despite over 70% of the population living on the farm, we still import the majority of our food – with the resultant soaring prices. There has been no genuine effort from the government to restart agriculture; it remains in the same state of paralysis as when the civil war ended 14 years ago. Yet Liberia is a rich and fertile land. Food is the foundation of any nation; we need to feed ourselves again.
How do we do this? We must modernize agriculture. As a farmer that moved from subsistence to commercial, I know the process well. For government, it means facilitating small-holder loans so famers can buy improved seed, fertilizers and equipment to expand their output. Then you need access to the trade. My government will roll out a new road system to ensure that farmers can get their produce to market. This shift from an extractive to agro-based economy is essential to safeguarding Liberia’s future.
Healthcare and education are also a priority. The fragility of our healthcare system was exposed by the Ebola outbreak: we had just 50 doctors in the country. We will ensure there is a hospital in every county, with mobile clinics within the districts. By our president’s own admission in 2013, education is a ‘mess’. Spending will be restructured to make sure that schools have the necessary funding so that every child gets an education.
This all sounds very good, but where will the money come from for these projects?
The current government’s spending priorities are all wrong – and riddled with corruption and waste. Out of the USD $600m budget, 88% is squandered on recurrent spending like salaries and general expenses. You only have to compare agricultural spending ($12m) to that spent on luxury cars ($30m) to see the upside-down world of the government’s budget. It’s no wonder the majority of our food is imported, but its Liberians that have to pay through the nose for it.
Another $30 million is spent on unspecified “general claims”, which serves as little more than a political slush fund for Ministers. And this is before we have even started talking about money stolen by corrupt officials.
Rather than mere words, we need proper mechanisms in place to curtail corruption. My government will officially criminalize corruption, create an anti-corruption court to fast track cases, and establish an Anti-Corruption Commission – independent of the Justice Ministry – with a Special Prosecutor with powers to investigate.
In government, we will raise capital against our natural resources to fund infrastructure spending. However, this money will be separated from the general spending budget and pooled in a new protected sovereign wealth fund. Not only will this bring more transparency to spending, it will also guarantee the channeling of resources to their intended use.
Presidential and Senate terms shall be reduced from 6 and 9 years to 4 and 6 respectively – ending the abuse of power and giving more power back to the people. It will apply pressure on the government to deliver.
Finally, I will re-order the government’s spending priorities to ensure that 50% of the government’s spending goes on the three core frontline services of agriculture, health and education by the end of my first term. This is a common-sense budget. Liberia has the resources, we just need to use them properly.
Source: Forbes Online
E-mail me: mfon.nsehe(at)gmail.com. Follow me on Twitter @MfonobongNsehe.