By Tewroh-Wehtoe Sungbeh
President Sirleaf’s vision for transforming Liberia took a rhetorical twist during her Annual Message to the 53rd National Legislature recently when she spoke of “a time for transformation” in a nation besieged by abject poverty, nepotism, record unemployment, rampant corruption and violent crime.
Even as Sirleaf carefully mapped out a strategy to possibly change the mind-boggling problems that she created or inherited from previous administrations, living conditions continues to be unbearable for millions who have nowhere to turn for assistance.
For this President to speak glowingly of a time to transform Liberia seven years into her second term is a tough sell, because the visual images of poverty, nepotism and record unemployment are glaringly conspicuous in the tired eyes and hungry stomachs of little children and adults who are at risks everyday of not functioning in Ellen’s Liberia.
The issues of poverty and unemployment are evident everywhere in Liberia. And the best way for this President to make herself and her administration look good is to make something (prosperity) up as if the Liberian people are incapable of seeing and feeling what is happening to them.
In the excerpt below, Sirleaf said these words to mute public criticism of her administration.
“The administration managed the National Budget with efficiency while consolidating existing and instituting new reforms. During fiscal year 2012/13, actual revenue came in very close to expectations for the year, totaling US$509 million, just 2 percent lower than the projection off US$521 million – an increase of US$101 million compared to the previous year of US$407 million.”
“The revenue performance was driven by Tax Revenue sources, which made up US$393 million or 77 percent of total revenue. Of this, taxes on International Trade contributed US$153 million; Income and Profits, US$150 million; Property Taxes – far too low – US2.6 million; US$20 million on other taxes, and Taxes on Goods and Services, US$66 million,” President Sirleaf noted in her annual message.
There are obvious reasons for skepticism even as Sirleaf continues to trumpet her administration’s strongest achievements of debt relief, tax collection, international trade and the institution of fiscal reforms, which are absolutely necessary for any country to have a strong and vibrant economy.
However, with every tax dollars collected, every international trade deal signed, and every debt relieved, Sirleaf’s impractical rhetoric is not matching up with the day-to-day realities of present day Liberia.
That is because the daily lives of the Liberian people seems to be at the end of the totem pole economically; because the so-called ‘good’ things that Sirleaf enunciated in her address are not trickling down to the average “Joe Blow” on the streets of Liberia.
True indeed, unemployment is high in the Sirleaf administration. With such an optimistic assessment of the economy coming from Sirleaf, however, is there a reason why rice, the nation’s staple is still being imported, and the Liberian people are still buying and paying for goods and services in U.S. dollars instead of the government’s own “Liberty” currency? Why did the President not address this particular issue?
Like any group of people worldwide, Liberians want to live in a decent, prosperous and a safe and law-abiding nation. That dream eluded them for over a century when successive presidents and dictators took the aspirations of their people as a threat to their own regimes.
The election of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to the highest political office of the land, even though controversial, signaled hope for many who saw her ascent to that office as a sign of good things to come for their families and the Liberian nation.
However, as is the case with Liberian presidents (in my life time, and in my parent and grandparents’ lifetime), retention and the absolute exercise of raw power and political control seems to be reasons for seeking the office of president, in the first place.
While it is so true that Liberian presidents are required by law to present an annual report or message to the Liberian people, the report at least should be comprehensive, visionary and inspiring.
Unfortunately, Sirleaf’s January 28 annual message to the Liberian people failed the test, because it is not inspiring; it is vague, futuristic and uncertain, and also paints a rosy picture of the ‘accomplishments’ of her administration, which are sadly on par with human suffering, unemployment and corruption that defines her administration.
Sirleaf’s annual message to the Liberian people also intentionally omitted critical issues that are key to the nation’s path to development and genuine reconciliation.
President Sirleaf’s annual message did not adequately address issues such as the seizure of tribal land by the government and multinational companies; the compensation of landowners, and the road to genuine national reconciliation put forward by her own Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).
Instead, Sirleaf appointed the politically un-savvy, confused and reticent opposition leader, George Weah, as her ‘Peace Ambassador’ to lead what? This is her narrow vision of Peace and Reconciliation in Liberia.
Regarding the land issue, the Sirleaf administration, however, gave a vague and elongated political explanation for her actions, which according to the President is “consistent with international best practices” known as “Free Prior and Informed Consent” (FPIC).
Is this Liberian President saying that those poor rural landowners or say, urban landowners will not be compensated for their land because of Sirleaf’s interpretation of some ”Free Prior and Informed Consent” decree crafted by someone across the Atlantic in Europe or North America, in violation of a Liberian citizen’s rights and the sovereignty of the Liberian nation?
According to a recent international press report, the land policy of the Sirleaf administration has led to an uptick in the sale of the nation’s rural lands and natural resources. This has also led to an increase in complaints from rural dwellers and tribal groups and others, who are concerned about their future; as they are being threatened or already thrown off their land to make way for multinational companies.
The government and the multinational companies cannot forcibly grab the land of those people because they have the power to do so. Those tribal lands have to be given back to the rightful owners, or the individuals must be compensated, period!
President Sirleaf also did not touch the burning issue of nepotism during her annual report to the Liberian people, which enveloped over the years. Key to the national grievance is her hiring of her three sons: Fumba, Robert and Charles Sirleaf, to influential positions in government.
President Sirleaf paid lip service to the call for a decentralized government; but did not address term limits for Senators, which is an unbelievable 9 years, and a record 7 years for Representatives. Sirleaf did not address accountability in government and the imperial presidency, and did not discuss the need for a neutral and independent judiciary that focuses on the genuine interpretation of the law, and the rule of law for all Liberians.
NOCAL and LPRC, the national oil and refining companies that her son Robert heads, and also headed by T. Nelson Williams, are in the news constantly for corruption and the mismanagement of funds. The President did not touch the troubles in those institutions.
Education: On the issue of education, President Sirleaf admitted the lack of “adequately trained teachers and lack of textbooks and facilities such as libraries and laboratories.” She however hinted, “a return to the boarding system is being pursued.” Teachers are underpaid, and students are not getting adequate education. Sirleaf did not address those issues.
Transportation..? President Sirleaf vaguely talked about “a master plan” and NTA buses, but did not unveil a comprehensive transportation plan or strategy for the metro Monrovia region that deals with the chronic lack of commercial taxis and buses to take commuters to their various destinations during rush hour.
Healthcare..? Hypertension and diabetes and other treatable diseases continue to be a leading killer in Liberia. What are the government’s plans? Most Liberians are required to pay U.S dollars that they already don’t have before they are ever admitted to a government hospital for treatment. Why? Sirleaf did not touch those issues, either.
Finally, Sirleaf’s 53rd annual message is light on substance and practicality, and high on rhetoric and pageantry.
Sungbeh is editor of the Liberian Dialogue