By: Cllr. J. Fonati Koffa, National Chairman
Our Political Leader, Senator Franklin Siakor, the members of the National Executive Committee, officials of other Political Parties here present, partisans, members of the fourth estate:
Our presence here today is a continuing symbol of great democratic value. That for only the 7th time in our recent history, a party not in power can offer its frank, honest and opposite view in response to the constitutional exercise which occurs around the last Monday of January each year, that we have come to call the President’s Annual Message.
Liberty Party once again feels duty bound to take advantage of this democratic space to give its assessment of the President’s Message and offer, to the extent necessary and prudent, observations and advice and well as a prescription for our future.
While the President spoke under the theme and banner of “Agenda for Transformation,” the Liberty Party will deliver its response to her speech under the theme and banner, “Options for the Poor;” Because our constituency are the desperate, the damned, the disrespected, the disinherited and the despised. After 10 years of continuous peace, they have yet to cash in the peace dividend in the form of jobs, education, healthcare and housing. They are restless and seek relief. They have invested the faith, hope and trust that they have in us; we pledge our best not to let them down.
Most of the President’s speech was spent on a litany of accomplishments; and indeed there is a lot to hang her hat on:
The share volume of work that seems to be going on at the executive level, reflects a commitment to transformative governance that has not been experienced for a long time in this country.
The return of Liberianization to the policy agenda. It is the ONLY sustainable path to economic development. Reliance on extractive industries will boost GDP growth in the short term due to the inflow of capital; but an economic enclaves will be created AGAIN. The recognition by the President and a renew look at the Liberianization policy is a laudable transformative approach.
Efforts to rollout the conversation on constitutional reform is also laudable; With additional resources ear marked for the Constitutional Reform Committee serious work and sustained debate can result in our organic law which reflects our values and legislate our future.
Continuing commitment to press freedom; we have not known a time when the press was more free and unencumbered to be the neutral referee of our democratic space;
Fortitude and progress to address land rights and access to land; we are proud that the President especially recognize the Special Task Force on Womens Land Rights as an integral part of the system of land reform and administration;
Continuing commitment to better fiscal governance–balanced budget, modest borrowing, separation of revenue and expenditure, introduction of new fiscal instruments (T-bills), and decentralization with some measure of resource sharing in our local government scheme.
But in as much as the President highlighted many noteworthy accomplishments, the speech was equally noteworthy for disappointment in crystallizing and articulating the broader national vision. For those at the bottom of the ladder, the rural poor and unemployed urban youth, there was much to be desired. Poverty levels remain alarmingly high. At 7% annual reduction, it will take 27 to 30 years to bring poverty levels below 10%. And that does not take into consideration social inequity…or distribution of wealth. How to acceleration poverty reduction should be key to an agenda on transformation.
The tax regime remains regressive and unaddressed. Taxes that impact the poor disproportionally (trade, goods, and services) totaled $219 million. Taxes that impact the wealthy and can re-balance the wealth distribution (property, Income, profits) totaled $172.6. Inflation, an unofficial tax on the poor, is 7%; this means, the real net growth in GDP is only 1.7% (GDP per capita minus inflation). While this is largely inherited, no measure is being considered to reform the tax code with the goal of leaving more discretionary income in the hands of the poor. The poor will continue to rely on donor handouts to meet their survival needs with no end in sight.
We would seriously discourage the President from considering a price control regime. Except in areas of national staples, Price control does not work. It only creates shortages, scarcities, and black markets.
The efforts in agriculture appear back to the future and reads like President Tubman’s “Operation Production”. If they want to grow more, give them seed, train them to grow, give them farm to market roads, etc. It did not work before, it will not work now. We need to rethink how to link local producers to the production and marketing systems of the large plantations throughout grower programs. We must shut down LPMC and replace it with a quality inspectorate under the Ministry of Agriculture and Ministry of Commerce. Open the produce export market and the local market to competitive buying. Accelerate the development of the value chain for crops where there is a comparative advantage in order to get more money into the farmer’s hands through open and competitive farmgate buying prices.
The President lamented our current education system. But where is the road map? Where are the new ideas? We need to create a professional standards and licensing regime and give more incentives for teachers and students to achieve. We must abandon this national delusion that a Liberian education is comparable to education in stronger parts of Africa and even in the advance countries of the World. Education needs reform but no new ideas were put forth. Reward institutions through competitive grants for all those with 70% of students or more passing specific benchmark tests. Reward schools with grants for effect programs to retain the girl child. Take the money out of the hands of the MOE and decentralize the education system by creating school districts that can be directly accountable for the needs and success of local students;
Our health care system is also in need of dire reform. A Liberian citizen formed in the womb has a poor likelihood of survival within the first few months of dropping its navel string on Liberian soil. At the other end of the spectrum Liberians who can afford health care generally seek health care services in Ghana, South Africa or the West. We should build more technologically advance health delivery system at the John F. Kenney Medical Center and the just commission Medical Center in Tappita, backed by a robust system of mobile health centers in the rural areas and community health centers in the urban areas. Central to this program is preventive health education. Our people must be taught the proper methods and techniques of good hygiene. Those practices that prevent one from getting sick and imposing additional burden on the system must be taught in schools and in the communities. The creation of a health maintenance organization could gravitate our health care system more to an institutional arrangements for a pilot scheme where we can means test a private insurance system for health care financing.
Noticeably absent from the speech was anything about our oil industry. Was this an oversight? Given that oil can be a blessing or a curse and sometimes both, the Government owes it to the people to keep them continuously abreast of progress in the oil sector. This omission was the most serious lapse in the Annual Message, especially since there was not mention of reforming the petroleum law as part of the legislative agenda.
While we applaud the just announced mortgage system for affordable housing, we fear that such a system will benefit only the emerging middle class. For the urban poor and unemployed youth, housing will continue to be a challenge, especially now that we have begun a facelift of Monrovia to remove squatters. A trend towards the development of low cost housing apartment buildings in the environs of Monrovia and the corresponding relocation of services to those points will go a long way in alleviating the critical affordable housing shortages.
It is high time we move from giving lip service to Liberianization. As we previously stated, Liberianization is the only path to sustainable economic growth and development. Make no mistake, the single most impediment to successful Liberianization policy is the lack of access to capital. Few Liberian businesses can get loans from the banks. The overall lamentation of the default rate among Liberians is simply insufficient to immobilize our Liberianization policy. WE must create a small business agency which assist Liberians obtain capital, manage their businesses and meet their financial obligations to keep their businesses viable. Government participation is essential to give backing to these loans and management expertise and accountability to Liberian businesses.
Even in our emerging economic prosperity, we cannot afford to create a foreign middle class. It is ridiculous to see Liberians selling water down waterside competing with a Chineese investor. To encourage Liberian businesses we must put greater restriction on wholesale and retail investment, limiting the bulk of them for Liberians, while encouraging foreigners to go into manufacturing and industry. It is time that the Lebanese investor graduated from selling building materials to producing building materials.
Reconciliation cannot just be reduced to a mere football game or football tournament. The deep seeded wounds of this nation which led us to decades of internal self infliction cannot be glossed over. We must prioritize and give real meaning to the national palava hut process so that psychological healing can begin.
Further, those who were disproportionally affected by the war, the youth of Liberia should be given more robust attention. WE must create a system of vocational and training centers around the country that absorb our urban and rural youth and help them learn and earn even as they develop valuable skill sets in carpentry, plumbing, masonry, farming and other high value skills. Liberty Party has designed a $53 million dollars per year, five year vocational rehabilitation and training center development. Copy of that plan has been submitted to the Government of Liberia.
With the international love for sports, especially football, it is about high time we begin to prioritize football in a truly meaningful way. Beginning with next year’s budget, the Ministry of Youth and Sports should present a proposal for the development of a national football academy so that our young population devoted to football cannot leave their talents to chance vying in an ad hoc system that cannot properly develop and improve them. It will be a source of national pride and a boost to patriotism if we set a national goal to participate in the world cup within 10 years.
Our corresponding legislative agenda is to work with our legislative caucus to craft a bill implementing the constitutional mandate against nepotism and corruption; a bill to reform the petroleum law that is currently being worked on in the legal sector; a bill creating national vocational and training system; and a bill to reform the electoral laws and system in Liberia.
This is a great time to be a Liberian. In spite of the numerous challenges that face us, Liberty Party believe that we have finally craft a formula as Liberians to live and work together in peace and harmony. Our democratic space appear secure; our economic trajectory looks upward; and our social fabric strengthening. We continue to have some small but significant differences on policy prescriptions which are reflected in our advocacy. We must turn greater attention to our at risk youth population by developing more robust jobs program, housing program, education and health care. If we do those things, we will always be together; we will always be proud; and we will always be free.