Liberia Must Not Remain a Historical Asterisk.  Part II (Final)

By Joe Bartuah

Mr. Joe Bartuah Author

NOTE: Considered by historians as Liberia’s founding date, last Friday, January 7, 2022 marked the 200th anniversary of the historic arrival of the first batch of ex-slaves from the United States to the shores of what is now known as the Republic of Liberia on January 7, 1822. Columnist Joe Bartuah has been reflecting on the significance of this historic date and stressing the need for the Liberian people, most especially the national leadership of the country to scrupulously administer the affairs of the country in a manner that is befitting of Liberia’s status as the very first independent Republic on the African continent. The following is the second and final installment of his New Thinking on the issue:

During the banquet itself, the keynote speaker and one of the guests of honor, Dr. Daniel E. Cassell embarked on what I consider his candid pre-bicentenary assessment of where our country currently stands within the comity of nations, in terms of holistic national development initiatives. While reiterating that “Journalists must at all time report the truth and expose the vices and excesses in  society”, Dr. Cassell, a behavioral science expert, eloquently expounded on what he described as ‘Vexing Paralysis’ currently prevailing in Liberia, and urged the assembled media practitioners  to “defy all odds to gather and report the facts plain and square.”

“Every segment of the Liberian society has painfully nosedived to nothingness”, Cassell, an apparent presidential aspirant lamented, adding, “Governance is quite dismal, to say the least. Roads are horrible. Electricity is inadequate and unreliable. Water is almost non-existent. No job creation.” Cassell, tagged as “the Vision Bearer” of the People’s Liberation Party, one of the more than two-dozen political groupings in Liberia, further encouraged journalists to adequately demonstrate their concerns about the socio-economic, political situations prevailing in Liberia, by writing editorials, commentaries and features “about the danger of corruption, bad governance, lawlessness, poor quality education, bad healthcare system, the utter disobedience to the separation of constitutional powers, the impoverishment of the people, the rising insecurity obtaining in the state, impunity, the ineffectual nature of the legislature, the corruption in the judiciary amongst other abnormalities obtaining in Liberia.”

The behavioral scientist, businessman-turned-politician also reminded his fellow compatriots that “these were the very vices and egregious tendencies that plunged Liberia into a fifteen-year senseless bloodbath that crudely claimed the precious lives of thousands of compatriots.”

In a similar vein, during an elaborate program in Ganta, Nimba County on December 4, 2021 at which he accepted an earlier petition by a cross-section of Liberians to be a contender in the highly anticipated 2023 presidential election, eminent human rights lawyer, Counselor Tiawan Saye Gongloe candidly spoke about the prevailing state of affairs, in just 34 days short of Liberia’s 200th founding anniversary. Noting that historically, the socio-economic deprivation of the country has over the years been exacerbated by greedy power brokers who “have come to power only to satisfy themselves not the people”, Gongloe, immediate past president of the Liberia National Bar Association, added, “When a few people take and enjoy what belongs to all citizens of Liberia, the rest of the citizens are left with nothing and therefore, they suffer.”

Speaking further, the former Labor Minister lamented the astronomical rise in the prices of essential commodities, as evidenced by a 500 percent rise in the price of the cheapest street food known as “Co bo” (cold bowl) from 50 Liberian dollars in 2018 to 250 Liberian dollars in 2021; the pervasive kleptocracy characterized by mercurially super-rich CDC government officials and their callous indifference to the sufferings of the people, as well as their obnoxious brandishing of ill-gotten wealth amid a sea of poverty. “Today, life has become so hard and tough, especially for the masses of the people who voted for the party in power to the extent that most people are now saying that they will never vote again”, he emphasized, adding, “For the Liberian people to make progress, CDC must be kicked out of office in 2023.”

Obviously, some skeptical readers might be dismissive that such critical assessments of the current situation in our country should be taken with a grain of salt, since they are largely emanating from critical minds, as well as some political figures who are now venturing into opposition politics, or jockeying for the presidency. In a country already known for its subculture of excessive praising of leaders as a sort of avocation for many people, such argument is somehow understandable. However, with such self-serving reasoning, it is imperative to take a keen look at what some disinterested, non-partisan individuals or institutions are saying about us. Since our external development partners presumably have “no fish to fry” within the Liberian political theater, I think it’s a fair game to carefully consider their assessments of our national stewardship.

President George Manneh Weah: Comparative analyses are primarily aimed at invigorating us to get off our couch of complacency and roll up our sleeves

For example, in its 2020 Country Reports on Liberia, the United States Department of State, among other things, observed lack of fiscal transparency, noting that, “Significant deviations between projected and actual revenues during the review period undercut the reliability of budget information.” The report also maintained that Liberia’s General Auditing Commission, which is, as per constitutional provision, under the purview of the Legislature, “did not meet international standards and did not make its audit reports publicly available within a reasonable period of time.”

How can one expect the Auditing Commission to conform to “international standards” when its bosses at the Legislature are fond of frequently giving themselves huge chunks of largesse, despite the fact that they are currently representing largely destitute people? Take for example, Senators and Representatives of the United States Congress have a $174,000 annual salary, even though they preside over a six-trillion dollar budget, while on the other hand, Liberia’s House of Representatives members pay themselves $193.000, despite the fact that the last budget was about $538 million dollars. In fact, they recently added $30,000 “Community Engagement” allowances to their disproportionate wages, thus totaling $223,000   per annum. While the Speaker of the United States is making $223,500 per year, the current Liberian Speaker of the House makes $445,000 per year.

What the State Department report indicates is that as we continue to blow our own trumpet about being the oldest self-governing republic in Africa, the cancerous culture of corruption continues to insidiously consume the fabrics our society from the lowest to the very highest echelon of our society, thus severely retarding comprehensive national development, while other African countries, which might not have the luxury of age on their side, briskly move ahead in nation-building. Moreover, as per Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, which ranks countries “based on how corrupt their public sector is perceived to be”, Liberia remains stuck in its unenviable 137th position among 179 nations, with a dismal 28-point margin.

Likewise, based on the Washington, DC-based Fund For Peace’s (FFP) Fragile States Index (formerly Failed States Index), Liberia is placed in the 31st position with an 89. 5 score, occupying the code orange “High Warning” zone among 179 countries. At the core of FFP’s ranking are security threats, human rights, economic decline, the effectiveness of the central government, in terms of its provision of basic public services and “widespread corruption and criminality” among others.

It is worth pointing out that unlike the Transparency International ranking, in the FFP ranking, the higher the score, the high probability of fragility or vulnerability and more concerns about threats to democratic sustainability and stability. For example, on the FFP scale, Finland and Norway, two of the most stable and prosperous countries in the world, have the scores of 16.6 and 16.2 respectively, indicating the highest levels of sustainability. Furthermore, on the United Nations Human Development Report, Liberia is ranked 175 out of 189 countries, with a dismal 0.480 point, a point that is further below the average point of 0.513 for countries among the low level of the United Nations human development index.

According to a 2015 study by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), more than 1.1 million of Liberia’s 4.8 million, or about 25 percent of the country’s population lived in Monrovia during the time of that study, indicating the rapid rise in rural-urban migration. It must be noted that this particular study was carried out 16 years ago. In fact, Habitat for Humanity now says that 40 percent of the populace, or almost two million inhabitants currently live in Monrovia, adding that 66 percent, or 1.32 million of Monrovians live in slum, with some of them dwelling in squalid conditions. Moreover, a 2016 World Bank’s study had indicated that 2.2 million Liberians were lack of food security. Of that number, 68 percent, or 1.5 million were surviving below the poverty line, which simply means that they were living on less than $2 per day. In fact, the most recent World Bank’s assessment puts the number of Liberians living below the poverty line, or on less than $2 per day at a staggering 2.6 million.

Meanwhile when the sewage system in Monrovia was initiated in the late  1950s, and early 1960s, the city’s population was estimated at 80,000 at the time. Now that Monrovia is experiencing an astronomical rise in population, already around the two millions mark, is the government planning on providing the basic needed amenities such as safe sewage system, safe drinking water and electricity to cope with the rapid population growth in our urban settings, especially the capital? Are issues of constructing a mass transit system being discussed? In other words, are prudent policies being put in place to curb rural-urban migration?

Now, let’s consider road construction for another example. How have we been faring in that segment of national development? How are our streets and roads? Are our streets and alleys well demarcated and laid out, especially as Monrovia and its environs expand? According to multiple international development indicators, about 657 kilometers, or 408 miles of paved roads existed in Liberia as of 2019. Comparatively, Guinea, our northern neighbor had 2,346 kilometers, or 1,458 miles of paved roads during the same reporting period. Meanwhile, Sierra Leone had 908 kilometers, or 564 miles of paved roads in that country, with Cote d’Ivoire reporting 6,500 kilometers, or 4,039 miles of paved roads and Ghana had 5,782 kilometers, 3,593 miles of paved roads during the same period.

All these comparative analyses are not aimed at disparaging our achievements over the years as a nation. Instead, they are primarily aimed at invigorating us as a people to get off our couch of complacency and roll up our sleeves. I am aware that ordinary Liberians, the downtrodden poor masses work so hard on a daily basis to make ends meet. However, the diligence, the fortitude, the resilience and determination of our fellow compatriots need to be incentivized by a competent, disciplined and law-abiding national leadership, through forward-looking policies for the holistic development of the country, not through mediocrity further exacerbated by corrosive corruption that continues to shackle national development. This is a national imperative so that the next 200 years will be two centuries of optimism, rather than decades and decades of despondence for posterity.

Against those foggy backdrops of dismal assessments, the Head of the European Union Mission in Liberia spoke at a forum in Monrovia last October, which aroused national and international attention. Even though he’s aware that he’s heading a diplomatic delegation in a country where undue flatteries and shameless sycophancy are a political staple, to the extent that it takes almost a minute for newscasters to pronounce the titles, names and all the PhDs of the current president, however, candor didn’t fail the head of the European Union Mission in Liberia, Ambassador Laurent Delahousse when he spoke at an event organized by an unelected “Monrovia City Council.”

Unlike major cities in most parts of the world, the Liberian capital doesn’t have an elected city government; the current “mayor”—Jefferson Koijee– is one of the errand boys for President George Weah. Like Nathaniel McGill, who imagines himself as the prime minister of the country, or the prince of squander, Koijee, too, seems to be having frequent spasms of severe identity deficit disorder; at some point, imagining that he’s also the prime minister of Liberia and at another point, considering himself the unelected senator for Lofa County.

And so these unelected lackeys with absolutely no known technocratic competence, or administrative knowhow, usually organize such forums as a springboard for manipulating unsuspecting donors’ sympathy and milking out their hard-earned taxpayers’ money that is mostly squandered for selfish reasons, with little or no benefit to the poor Liberian masses. You know, due to the chronic kleptocracy, our country seems to be suffering from a leaking-drum syndrome. The donors have been making every attempt to fill this drum, but because endemic corruption tends to siphon resources intended for public good to personal use, so the drum is persistently leaking and never gets filled.

In other words, those in charge of administering the country often take for their selfish, personal use, what is intended for the development of the country. As a result, development assistance doesn’t make the intended impact, yet they never stopped soliciting, supposedly on behalf of the Liberian people. And so, it was at one of such begging forums in October last year that Ambassador Delahousse decided to be candid with the Liberian Government: “Monrovia is a disgusting city”, the French diplomat thundered, adding, “it is a dirty city.”

Perhaps sensing that “Mayor” Koijee and his “city council” members were not adequately comprehending his assertion, Ambassador Delahousse, who had served in other diplomatic missions in East, Central and Southern African countries prior to his current posting in Liberia, continued, “Of all the capitals I have seen in my previous posts in Africa, I have not seen one that is as dirty as yours.” The European Union’s plenipotentiary further emphasized, “A clean city is an asset; it creates jobs and probably that is what Liberia needs most.” Will our national leaders accept such critical comments in good faith and make serious efforts to improve the situation?

Rather than taking public resources and putting same in your private pockets, you need to formulate prudent policies that create jobs for the Liberian people, most especially the youth of the country. What I gleaned from the ambassador’s reference to jobs creation is that leadership is not just about showcasing wealth, displaying opulence; it has to do with mainstreaming the interests of the larger society for the benefit of the citizenry. Did that diplomatic admonishment resonate with the Right Honorable Koijee and his boss, the president?

We need to keenly pay attention to what other credible institutions and individuals say about us, because no amount of professional praise-singing couched in a cobweb of sycophancy will transform Liberia. Instead, we have to be sufficiently prudent, brainstorm on cardinal public policy issues, meticulously formulate such policies and sincerely exert efforts in putting such policies into our national administrative best practices. Our achievements should not only be measured in the superficiality of our age as a nation, but most importantly, via the substantive sophistication of our policies and their meticulous implementation must attest to the level of our maturity. Happy 200th anniversary, Liberia.

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