Are Liberians better off than they were five years ago?
By S. Karweaye
There are two things politicians do not have control over – time and history. One day, whether they like it or not, their time in power will end. Secondly, the duty of writing their history belongs to others and not the politician. When a politician seeks to write his own history, he only indulges in self-adulation. That may be exactly what President George Weah sought to do in his 6th State of the Nation Address (SONA) on January 30, 2023.
During the SONA, Mr. Weah said he has fulfilled the promises he made in 2017 of giving power, improving the economy, empowering youths, and sustaining peace. In short, President Weah posited that Liberians are in a better place today than in 2017.
Finding Librarians who say they are better off today is like looking for a needle in the bed of an ocean. Mr. Weah’s policies have not translated into positive economic growth and real sector development. In the last five years, Liberians have come to realize who their president really is, considering the much hype about his “Love for the country or the Man got the country at heart.”
Faced with the hydra-headed socio-economic challenges under the Unity Party-led government, the electorates in 2017 believed all that the Coalition for Democratic Change (CDC) sold to them. Five years down the line, Liberians now know better and are living in regrets. The regrets are emanating from the failed promises of the present administration led by Mr. George Weah.
Since Mr. Weah ascended to the presidency in 2018, Liberia’s insecurity situation has worsened, spreading from Monrovia to rural Liberia where killings and abuse of the rules of law have become rampant. In 2020, four auditors died mysteriously including Emmanuel Barten Nyeswua, director-general of the Liberia Internal Audit Agency; Gifty Lama, acting manager for tax service, Liberia Revenue Authority (LRA); Albert Peters, assistant commissioner for audit of LRA and auditor George Fanbutu of the LRA. Their deaths remain unsolved. The murders and rampant criminality have made nightlife nonexistent in Liberia which has badly diminished the night economy.
The nation’s economy is in tatters and has been so since he took over the mantle of leadership in 2018. Despite his assurances and reassurances, the economy has continued to remain prostrate. Liberia is approaching a fiscal cliff with severe debt servicing in 2022 amounting to US $89.37 million, or 11.46% percent of the national budget according to Mr. Weah in his 6th SONA.
Mr. Weah admitted that his government continues to lack the capacity to attract Foreign Direct Investment (FDI). He is right! Previously, Liberia attracted $16 billion in FDI during the regime of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf but under Weah, this figure slumped to a mere $87 million in 2020 according to United Nations Conference on Trade and Development’s 2021 World Investment Report. Mr. Weah’s policy options have helped to create an unfriendly investment climate in Liberia. Liberia was rated 172 on the World Bank’s “Ease of Doing Business” Index in 2017 but under Weah, Liberia was rated 175 in 2019.
Poverty is rife compounded by ever-rising rice, gas, and other basic commodities prices. It is estimated 64% of the population in Liberia lives below the poverty line and 1.3 million of those live in extreme poverty according to the World Food Programme (WFP). While 16% of children are physically not in school in Liberia and the infant mortality rate is 76 per 1000 live births according to UNICEF data.
The World Happiness Report (WHP) established by the United States captures more holistically, all aspects of economic performance. The World Happiness Report on 6 indicators: GDP per capita, social support, healthy life expectancy, freedom, generosity, and corruption. The World Happiness Report is the first report to rank countries by how their populations feel. Liberia is ranked 97th out of 146 countries on the 2022 report meaning Liberians are among the most unhappy people in the world.
Under Mr. Weah’s leadership, the country dropped places from 175 in 2017 to 178 in 2021 on the Human Development Index. The Global Human Development Index (HDI) published by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) is a measure for assessing long-term progress in three basic dimensions of human development: a long and healthy life, access to knowledge, and a decent standard of living. According to the index, life expectancy dropped by 3.4 years from 63.7 years in 2018 to 60.7 years in 2021.
Over the past five years, the Central Bank of Liberia (CBL) has continued to print money for the government, whose overdraft facility with the CBL reached $382 million (20.4 percent of total public debt) in 2021. The CBL is also operating a range of direct lending schemes for the agricultural, manufacturing, extractive, public corporation, construction, etc. All these make nonsense of the apex bank’s monetary tightening initiatives.
In the meantime, prices of basic commodities continue to gallop. Everyone is hurting and a chunk of the country poorest is being wiped out. High import tariffs and the current exchange rates regime of the CBL are the major factors stifling supply, thus fuelling a surge in prices of various commodities which leaves the people poorer. All of these unorthodox policies have ensured that rising prices of Liberia’s staple rice, fuel, and other commodities, while purchasing power has more than halved, wiping out large sections of the population.
Mr. Weah’s policies have also seen to it that most of the institutional safeguards put in place after the return to democracy in 2006 to foster responsible fiscal and monetary policies as well as put inflation in check have been disregarded and rendered redundant. The country’s fiscal deficit increased from 4.8 percent of GDP in FY2017 to 17.6% of GDP in 2021. Liberia’s total debt stock was US$736 million according to the November 1, 2017 debt sustainability, prepared by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank (WB). Debt servicing in 2017 was US$30.2 million in 2017/2018 approved budget. According to Mr. Weah during his 6th SONA, as of November 30, 2022, Liberia’s total debt stock is at US$1.96. Debt repayments eat up US $89.37 million of the government revenue in 2022. The Liberian dollar has plummeted to repeated lows during Weah’s time in office.
Despite rice being its staple food, the country produces way less for domestic consumption. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), national rice production was estimated at 270,000 tonnes, similar to the five‑year average and slightly below the previous year. The FAO statistics placed Liberia among the highest importers of rice in the world, wheat, and sugar. Rice for human consumption accounts for over 80 percent of imports, and whole wheat and maize account for about 13 percent and 6 percent, respectively. Sadly, these are all products that can be grown locally and, if managed properly, could be exported, but Weah opted to give the agriculture sector less than US$ 7 million and relies on donor support for the sector.
Liberia’s electricity grid fails more often than it delivers power and cannot in truth be regarded as a grid anymore. Homes go without power for days in Liberia including in the capital of Monrovia and the rapid jump in fuel. The gasoline price is US$5.90 or L$895 per gallon while diesel fuel will now be sold for US$6.90 or L$1,050 per gallon ensuring that even some of those who could afford it at previous prices and have power generators can no longer keep their generators running.
Many Liberians laugh at claims in Mr. Weah’s speech when he said” together, we have worked together to improve governance and to strengthen the fight against corruption and public accountability.” Corruption has risen to unimaginable proportions under Mr. Weah’s watch. Today, the complicity of state and non-state actors has seen Liberia consistently lose millions of dollars in corruption which the government appears helpless in reining in. Also, theft of humongous sums of taxpayers’ money have been reported, most of them carried out by serving public officials in the current administration. The annual corruption index ranking by Transparency International has seen Liberia drop from the 122nd position in 2017 to 142nd in 2022, a drop of 20 since Weah ascended to the presidency.
Recently, the nation was greeted with an unsavory melodrama when the country’s Minister of State for Presidential Affairs and Chief of Staff to President George Weah, Nathaniel McGill; Solicitor General and Chief Prosecutor of Liberia, Sayma Syrenius Cephus and Managing Director of the National Port Authority (NPA), Bill Twehway were sanctioned by the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) for public corruption. Nothing has been done to these officials except mere resignation from their positions. Mr. Weah’s failure or his refusal to constantly appraise the performance of those he appointed into positions shows how the government appears helpless on the challenges facing the country under him.
International travel has also been badly affected under Mr. Weah-led administration. Air France, the French airline cutoff flight to Liberia in 2022 due to what the airline said was the poor quality of services at the Roberts International Airport which include a dark runway, lack of electricity at the airport, and bad jet fuel being supplied – all of which put the planes and passengers at risk. In April 2022, SN Brussels, one of the most consistent airlines flying from Europe to Monrovia re-routed to Freetown, Sierra Leone when the plane, after descending sufficiently to touch the ground, suddenly aborted landing at the Roberts International Airport due to a power outage at the airport and on the runway. On February 2, 2023, the US Embassy issued a safety alert at the Roberts International Airport. According to the US Embassy, “several recent audits of Roberts International Airport (RIA), all of which have revealed significant shortcomings in airport safety, security, and operational standards. “
President Weah may be satisfied with his performance, as his 6 years presidency tenure draws to a close and as he seeks re-election, but it is unlikely that most Liberians, millions of whom have slipped into poverty in recent years under his failed leadership, are NOT!
What happened to the jobs Mr. Weah promised, what about the ones he claimed to have created, and which youths have such jobs engaged? With the high rate of unemployment, the government has failed. Where are the things Mr. Weah achieved apart from shifting the blame to the government of his predecessor, Mrs. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf? It is only Mr. Weah and those who work with him who live in denial of the excruciating pain Liberians are going through on all fronts. Poverty is walking the streets; insecurity has almost taken over the country; and the level of corruption in the country has gone above the sky. In Weah’s administration, government officials have become so corrupt that they are proud of saying “at least we stole and built in Liberia.”
Many Liberians are disappointed and have completely given up on President George Weah’s ability to do anything. We have entered electioneering and that means his tenure has ended. So, all that matters to them is the campaigns and lies they plan to tell Liberia. There is nothing this government can do anymore. There is nothing to hope for in this government. During his more than five years in office, he didn’t achieve the things he promised. So, there is absolutely nothing he achieved in all he promised. Today, take a look at the electricity sector, bad roads, rising poverty, and insecurity challenges among others. In all sectors, Mr. Weah led government has been unkind to Liberians.
The regret is that Liberia was better off before Weah ascended to the presidency five years ago and whoever succeeds the one-time Ballon d’Or winner next year has his/her work cut out. I rest my case.