Liberia’s Bicentennial – What Are We Celebrating?
By S. Karweaye
The Special Assistant to U.S. President Joseph R. Biden, Ms. Dana Banks at the launch of Liberia’s Bicentennial which marked 200 years since the arrival of free Black slaves in the then-Grain Coast said “only the Liberian Government and the Liberian people can tackle corruption, fight for accountability and transparency, and move this country forward. Like many democracies, Liberia still has work to do to seriously address and root out corruption. We bring this up as your friends who are eager to help. Corruption is an act of robbery. It robs Liberia’s citizens of access to health care, public safety, to education. She indicated that “It subverts economic opportunity, exacerbates inequality, and erodes integrity. It eats away at the democracy you have worked so hard to build.”
We are glad Ms. Dana Banks had brought corruption to the forefront. Corruption in Liberia has reached cancerous proportions. It affects public finances, business investment as well as standard of living in Liberia. Liberia, by any standard, is a blessed nation. With abundant natural resources, talented population, good climate, you wonder why it is occupying the unenviable position it is amongst the countries of the world after the post-Independence brief spell as an internationally acclaimed African country. Liberia has more natural resources than most emerging nations such as Botswana, Rwanda, Senegal, The Gambia, Guinea, Central African Republic, Guinea Bissau Niger, Malawi, Madagascar, Eritrea, Togo, Burkina Faso, Uganda, Chad, and arguably Brazil. With the recent exploration of oil, independence in 1847, and having survived two civil wars, and 4.6 billion in debt cancellation, the achievements we recorded as a sovereign nation are far below average when you compare the achievements of other countries in Africa such as Rwanda Botswana, Senegal, South Africa, Ghana, Kenya, Ethiopia, Tunisia, Morocco, Ivory Coast or against other emerging countries like Tanzania, or, for that matter, Equatorial Guinea.
With the departure of the so-called Americo-Liberian-dominated True Whig Party (TWP) and the truncating of the first republic as well as the emergence of the second republic, things started going wrong faster in terms of politically, socially, and economically as the nation started a tortuous drift into a deep abyss. Liberia became squandering riches as the majority of the sectors that drive the economy started experiencing abject neglect. The money was not the problem, but how to spend it was the mantra of the leaders back then. Expensive jamborees/balls and pork projects that were never completed or allowed to disintegrate after elaborate commissioning became the order of the day. The little genuine efforts made in agriculture in some areas were later abandoned as the projects were starved of funds. This is in spite of the key role the agricultural sector, though largely subsistence, played immediately after our independence declaration.
The introduction of the military into the political life of the country after the bloody coup d’état of 1980, which decimated the pioneer administrative and military leaders of the country; the military shifted its constituency from the barracks to the presidential mansion, and as they say, the rest is history. Since the demise of the first republic administrative structures, infrastructures, the economy has degenerated into its present state. The only thing the country can boast of is the geometrical population explosion, from a mere 1 million to 4.5 million (UNDP, 2015). The national income per capita of Liberia today is less than what it was in the 1960s or ’70s. We were happier, richer, and were able to live a better life in the 60s and 70s than today. There are few people who have made a lot of money and living well today, but the generality of Liberian presently is living in abject poverty. According to the World Food Program (WFP), 83.8% of the population lives on less than US$1.25 a day. It ranks 176 out of 189 countries in the 2019 Human Development Index. Out of the 174 years since Independence, the military ruled the country for a total of ten years, or thereabout.
In my opinion, the issue of whether it is a democratic or military regime is only a matter of franchise. Some civilian presidents, particularly in Africa, are arguably worse than military dictatorships, while some military dictatorships perform better than the so-called democratically elected presidents in terms of meeting the needs of their citizens and running the economy as evidenced in recent coups in Guinea, Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, Sudan etc. In Liberia specifically, poor policies implementations such as the Open Door policy, Green Revolution, Vision 2024, Poverty Reduction Strategy, Vision 2030, Pro-Poor Agenda for Prosperity and Development (PAPD) come to mind. The adverse effects of these failed policies in Liberia are social decay, lawlessness, 14 years of civil war, insecurity, and above all, pervasive corruption that characterize our polity today.
We simply choose to make a mess of any type of system with each regime ending up worse than the previous one. It is not only the system but we the people. As a people, we need re-orientation from how to discharge our responsibilities to queuing up for funds at the West Union or Money Gram at local banks or putting a helmet on while riding a motorcycle, or staying on the right lane in a traffic jam regardless if you are government officials or not. We are as bad as that. Period! Maybe, our abundant resources are a curse rather than a blessing because come to think of it, it is the center of all our present political, economic, and social predicaments as a nation. Otherwise, why should limited natural resources and landlocked countries like Botswana, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Zambia, etc be more habitable than our country? Even where we copy systems religiously, sold, or imposed on us hook, line and sinker, we never seem to get it the right first time. Why? This is a BIG why!
Previous and successive governments have adopted the continuity of the “get- rich- quick- syndrome.” Overnight wealth is nothing strange and therefore conveniently accepted by society and overlooked by the government. Some had argued that if you steal, but build properties in Liberia then you are a “good thief.” The few Liberians with a genuine desire to contribute to the political economy are frustrated one way or the other. Government structures are now the convenient conduits of enrichment. Most, if not all public officials, see their positions or appointments as convenient avenues of making money: they will either convert government funds entrusted to them for their personal use or use their positions to make money, one way or another, or both. They are no longer public servants, but public masters: “Chief or Boss Man” as they are called in some quarters.
Our universities are ruined and offered sub-standard education; our students are massively failing the Liberia Junior High School Certificate Examination (LJHSCE), for 9th Graders; and the West African Senior School Certificate Examination (WASSCE), our hospitals changed from mere consulting clinics to mortuaries while our medical doctors or best minds slip out of the country for greener pastures even if they will end up doing professional nurses jobs or security guards, etc. With the population explosion, unemployment continues soared and our graduates cannot find jobs – any jobs! Some will continue to blame the deplorable state of affairs on the 14 years of civil war, but we had those problems even before the civil war. Religion groups are busy competing with one another on whether Liberia is a non-secular state or secular state while others are busy meddling in politics, competing in establishing their own universities, in most cases without professional feasibility studies.
My dear readers, visit your alma mater today and you will be shocked at the sight of the structures you left behind. This is the sorry state of our education system today. Experts have said education is the bedrock of industrialization just as industrialization is the path to the Promised Land for any country. This has been proved by many countries of the world – ask China, Germany, Japan, Singapore Brazil, India, China, and closer to home, Nigeria and South Africa. It is beyond theory. Unfortunately, education did not top the priority lists of the previous regimes and as we speak history is repeating itself under the present regime; the education sector is less funded. Former President Ellen Sirleaf admitted that “Liberia’s educational system is a mess” and for such she and her then Minister of Education were trying to outsource our entire education system to private American firms.
The situation is even worse with the economy. Since the introduction of the plantation economy in Liberia in the ’60s (Open Door Policy), our leaders back then picked up the mantra of money not being our problem, but how to spend it. Previous and present governments spent money impulsively, budget or no budget. No expenditure discipline as most of the expenditures was outside the budget, priorities were lopsided and more often than not, the governments did not get them right even though Liberia is blessed with renowned economists, accountants, lawyers, bankers, etc. According to the current Deputy Minister for Fiscal Affairs, “with rising expenditures, and widening fiscal deficits, the country risks defaulting on its debt service obligations.” While the country is groaning under the heavyweight of foreign debt repayment and interest recapitalization (after 4.5 billion debt cancellation), the revenue being generated from natural resources is being squandered through misappropriation, corruption, presidential pork projects, and patronage politics while other productive sectors of the economy such as agriculture, education, and manufacturing are abandoned.
Armed robbers and Zogos (disadvantaged and vulnerable youths) strike at will in broad daylight and at night, economic and financial crimes transactions are prevalent; drug smuggling, sycophancy are some of the “professions” we thrive on. Lying, tribalism, nepotism, blind loyalism, praise-singing, religious bigotry, as well as laziness, are our common characteristics. While some are like this by choice, the system and environment forced others to acquire these infamous characteristics. It is no surprise then that our nation occupies the unenviable top spots on the lists of anything negative in the world: from Transparency International, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the Ease of Doing Business (EoDB) index or Travel Advisory Watch, Travel & Tourism Competitiveness Index, etc. This situation runs from previous administrations to the present administration.
Are we going to remain like this? Is there no hope? Don’t we as a nation aspire to drop the shackles of underdevelopment and catch up with even the emerging nations of the world? If the answer to this last question is in the affirmative, then from where do we start? And how do we start? Nothing best describes Liberia as Psalm 11:3 ‘when the foundations are being destroyed, what can the righteous do’. Righteous in this sense means good meaning citizens. I contend that the foundation of a functioning society is missing in Liberia. People care more about themselves to the detriment of the country. If we care about our society then politicians would invest in our roads, local hospitals instead of seeking medical help exclusively in places like Ghana, the USA, Europe, etc. Our politicians will do well to start by seeking political office to serve and not as an investment with upfront and compound interest payments. Their desires should be to serve the nation and make life better for its citizens – value-adding laws should be of more interest than their salaries and allowances. Contracts that will directly impact the lives of the citizens should be awarded to professionals through a rigorous due diligence process instead of sharing it amongst government officials or their cronies. They, or indeed any Liberian, should not pay lip service to think of what the nation can do for them, but what he or she can do for the nation. It is as simple as that! We have to get our priorities right. Pervasive corruption, nepotism, illiteracy, mismanagement and wastes, lawlessness, and dishonesty are the main vices militating against our progress as a nation. In overcoming these vices our leaders must show the way – political, religious, traditional leaders, and civil society all have key roles to play in this immense task. He and his officials must publicly declare their assets. When they lead by example without secret or dishonest activities or maneuvering and fear or favor the path will be clear for all and sundry to copy and follow. Liberia has the potential of becoming one of the great nations in the world – the human and material resources are there in abundance to achieve this. What we need is the fighting spirit of the Japanese, the determination of the Germans, the I-can attitude of the Chinese, and the nationalism of the Americans. It might be a cyclopean challenge, but we can do it and change things for the better in our country.