On Monday, January 25, 2016, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, consistent with Article 58 of our Constitution, provided the 53rd Legislature a report of the activities of Government. As a political institution, it behooves us to critically analyze the President’s report with the hope of supporting those initiatives which present opportunity for the amelioration of the lives of our people as well as to decipher the facts from the fiction, uncover the misrepresentation and to make suggestions on the way forward. We take this responsibility seriously and fear nothing in the discharge of this moral obligation. But as we do so, we must hasten to draw the attention of those who see our performance of this responsibility as a mere attempt to criticize and bring the government into disrepute with the people. Our Party, a law abiding institution, can never be a part of such.
The deeply entrenched economic catastrophes of the last decade, suggests that President Sirleaf was unprepared for national democratic stewardship, which is why her government continues to pursue misplaced priorities that only favor a few above the collective interests of the ordinary population. Clearly, you will agree that President Sirleaf may have not known of the challenges ahead. Obviously, this is why we are where we are today- a broken economy, an inefficient government and a dispirited people who must deal with another deceit.
The President’s State of the Nation Address vindicates our belief that the promise of a better day in Liberia remains a thought unaligned with present reality. This is why we are not surprised that the State of the Nation Address has received the utter disdain, absolute rejection, and total ridicule of ordinary Liberians who find the President’s characterization of the events in Liberia as deceptive, imaginative, misleading and unfortunate. The Mighty Congress for Democratic Change, shares the trepidation, understands the frustration and abhors the continuous practice of the President to misrepresent the facts. Our country is indeed headed the wrong way and we, the people, know this. The facts are easily discernible. We will present them. But, even the President understands that over the last year, her government made very negligible progress. That is why, rather than report on the activities of 2015 the President took on the previously beaten path to recount the “achievements” of her presidency since 2006.
In this, you will agree, rested an attempt to beguile our people, and as you can see – clear as day – the President’s assurances of a “safe and secured” nation state, has been largely eclipsed by the despicable murder of Honorable Harry Greaves, whose suspected killers seek to mislead public opinion, by the release of an irreconcilable and doctored autopsy report. But, the consciousness of our people have evolved and they can no longer be taken for a ride amid the lethal targeting of perceived opponents, as the leader of the MPC, Mr. Simeon Freeman is being baselessly put to flight by a government that treats murders as “Death by Drowning” while perpetrators walk free. Nevertheless, we continue to share the President’s belief that “progress inspires hope”; yet even the most “hopeful people can pursue their aspirations and overcome their challenges” only in a functional democratic environment that thrives on equal opportunity and guaranteed security for all. Lack of progress only leads to frustration; frustration undermines productivity, instills despair and wrecks the fragile hopes of even the most optimistic. No wonder the Unity Party led government continues to suffer defeat in the course of the year.
We shall now delve into the speech, present the clear failures and offer the alternatives to what this government under Madam Sirleaf has offered.
The President applauded the Legislature for the passage of several legislations. We are elated by this level of cooperation between the two branches of Government. With this, the President can no longer veil her ineffectiveness with the excuse of lack of “cooperation” of the Legislature. But, how impactful have these legislations been? How have the lives of our people been affected by these legislations? Putting it bluntly, if there has been any impact then it has been of adverse effect – putting our economy even more in the hands of “foreign investors”, unnecessarily expanding the size of government, creating more bureaucracy, discouraging Liberian-owned businesses, giving unfettered access of the State’s resources to a few, furthering the agony and struggles of the masses and continuing the same agenda of failure.
Additionally, the promise to advance a bill to create a “Fast Track Corruption and Financial Crimes Court” is a promise fraught with deceit. Why now? Why after the people have seen the mismanagement of NOCAL and other State enterprises? Why after eleven years? Why now? Clearly, it is now because by the time such law is enacted, this government would have folded; the alleged perpetrators of these heinous crimes would have left the scene with impunity. Nevertheless, we embrace such a court because in the CDC’s 2011 Agenda for Prosperity, we proposed to “…create special anti-corruption courts to fast-track corruption cases.” We further proposed that “We identify, appoint and develop judges and prosecutors competent in anti-corruption law so that those who embezzle and mismanage public resources do not walk with impunity.”
So, we say, the President’s Legislative agenda failed our people. Legislative agendas are not only about passing a volume of bills but implementing those bills in a way that impacts the daily lives of our people and enhances the operations of government. The President’s Legislative Agenda has failed in that regard. It failed to lay any framework for the forward thrust of our country and the path to a society with liberty, justice and equality for all.
A fair and just measure of the effectiveness of any economic policy is the living standard of the people. The President chose to recount the economic gains of her administration over the duration of her Presidency, or specifically from 2006 to 2013. We must make it clear that if there were any gains over these years then it came more as a result of:
1. The lifting of sanctions on Liberia, the cessation of war, and the automatic economic activities from a restart;
2. Goodwill of generous and friendly countries;
3. The resilience and hope of the Liberian people to re-engage in nation building;
Our gains did not come as a result of the actions of this UP-led government or any specific economic policy. The “cancellation of foreign debts totaling $4.9 billion” came as a gesture to not just Liberia, but also to other countries with no realistic chance of servicing those debts. This cannot be touted as a gain. It was a goodwill gesture. So, ordinary Liberians are interested in knowing about the present, about 2015. The attraction of the proclaimed $16 billion in foreign direct investment was simply a farce that totaled the 25 year investments of our foreign corporate partners and never represented true direct foreign investment in Liberia but included domestic capital formation. As indicated by Madam Sirleaf herself, only US$4.2 billion of the proclaimed FDI has been operationalized and contrary to what she has said, those monies have not created the jobs promised, improved our infrastructure, or generated the level of expected revenue. Madam Sirleaf’s claims of the adverse effects of “land and labor related disputes” clearly illustrates the illegality of these concessions signed by the Sirleaf government as demonstrated by the Moore Stephens process audit of Liberia’s concession agreements that found out that 66 of 68 concessions were illegal and violated numerous laws of Liberia and international best practice.
To ignore the impact of the outbreak of the Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) on the economy will be disingenuous and unfair. There can be no denying that the effects of EVD permeated every facet of our lives and engendered strain on our economy. But, equally so, to attribute the dismal performance of key economic indicators on the EVD will be an act of chicanery and mischief. The economy was crumbling even before the outbreak of EVD. Poorly negotiated concession agreements, failure to diversify our economy, reliance on outdated models of revenue generation, mismanagement, and corruption functioned harshly against the achievement of high economic performance. In fact, it can even be argued that the EVD resuscitated a dying economy to the tune of the infusion of $385,000,000 by our international partners as reported by the World Bank. To date, no retrospective or performance reports have been done to truly assess the impact of Ebola, the actual injection of money into the Liberian economy, and the full accounting for all those monies, equipment, and materials.
Fellow Liberians, the widening of Liberia’s trade deficit which was put at a staggering US$590.1 million by the Central Bank of Liberia in 2013, US$462.96 million in 2014, and a horrendous US$1,028,520,000, YES $1 BILLION, by August 2015 demonstrates the total imbalance of the Liberian Economy. In nearly eleven years, the Sirleaf government has not meaningfully reduced the unsustainable importation of rice of over $200 million annually, nor the heavy reliance on the export of rubber and iron ore as the major revenue source, despite numerous calls from the CDC on the diversification of the economy, especially towards agriculture, housing, tourism, and light manufacturing. All of these negative indicators are symbolic of an ailing and soon to crumble economy.
More so, our economy could not fare any better when concessional agreements were not structured to spur growth and empower ordinary people. Even with the alleged $16 billion investments, the job outlook remains precarious, low wages prevalent where jobs exist, and the buying power grossly feeble. The government holds an enormous responsibility to ensure that foreign concessions are compliant with their country plans, promises of jobs, and embedded corporate social responsibility. The government of Liberia has not handled its oversight role or its fiduciary responsibility for the Liberian people.
Another troubling facet of our economy is how quickly the government of the Unity Party spiraled our nation back into debt which requires annual servicing, thus putting social programs in jeopardy and undermining the confidence of honest investors. While Madam is still touting debt forgiveness of $4.9 billion, primarily constituting badly negotiated interest and penalties – under her leadership, Liberia’s debt is close to $700 million today and estimated to surpass $1 billion by October 2017. Unfortunately, the Liberian people have yet to see the impact of our foreign and domestic debt. It is clear to most Liberians that the significant infrastructure development has occurred courtesy of our international benefactors and not as a result of government expenditure. Numerous projects by government have failed with no true accountability, including $100,000,000 of “authorization to proceed” contracts from the Ministry of Public Works.
Now, even more contentious is the claim that despite declining revenue forecasts, the economy was expected to perform well while millions went to officials of government as “incentives and compensation”. Our national budget is overburdened with recurrent expenditures of $534.1 million in 2014 and $515.9 million in 2015, 84% and 82.8% of total budget expenditure respectively. Of those numbers, compensation for employees were $246.7 million in 2014 and $254.6 million in 2015, amounting for nearly 50% of recurrent expenditure. Yet, our civil servants’ salaries are in the dungeons and the earning disparity between government officials and civil servants continue to widen. The CDC has propounded that government must move away from the current stale and half-baked budget process and revert to a zero-based budgeting where allocations are set based on priorities and percent of budget.
Fellow citizens, in a market economy, incentives and spending must be responsive to the changes in revenue projections. To ignore same and expect anything other than failure is pursuing voodoo economics.
CORRUPTION AND MISMANAGEMENT
Fellow Liberians, to proclaim that rampant corruption and thievery is undermining our economy will be an understatement. With the protection of people in high and strategic places, government officials continue to exploit our national coffers indiscriminately. The acquisition of wealth by people in government has taken such an unprecedented accelerated pace. Too few are getting very wealthy, so quickly, while our national coffers are deprived of the resources needed to rebuild our country and serve our people.
When the President launched her Asset Declaration Initiative in 2008 with the enactment into law of the Liberia Anti-Corruption Commission Act, our expectation was that the eyes of government will be on those unscrupulous officials who will soon see their bank accounts of $200 balloon into a $5,000,000 account in less than ten years. Again, the President and the Liberian Anti-Commission Commission have failed to live up to her promise. Even in instances where it is clear that government officials cannot account for assets, the LACC has not pursued prosecution. The LACC already has prosecutorial powers in its Act if the Ministry of Justice does not prosecute a case of corruption “within three (3) calendar months of the receipt of the request to prosecute” from the LACC. Hence, the move to grant direct prosecutorial power to the LACC is simply a failed explanation for incompetence and lack of political will to prosecute corruption.
This level of dishonesty and the accompanying impunity remains a potent menace to the survival of our nation and has the propensity to undermine the level of peace and tranquility. The people continue to find such actions repulsive and are demanding clear and uncompromising consequences for those who continue to siphon off public resources to their personal bank accounts.
REAL ESTATE AND PROPERTY TAXES
The President has on numerous occasions lauded our people for their resilience. Indeed, we are a resilient bunch. As our nation transitioned from war, ordinary Liberians were ready to sacrifice. They reclaimed their properties, renovated their homes, invested in the construction of new homes and re-opened their farms. In many instances, these activities brought jobs, empowered some and restored the confidence of the people in the return to normalcy. Some of our people had to make sacrifices to pay their fair share of taxes on their properties. They expected services because their understanding is that the payment of taxes provides government with the needed resources to invest in social programs, education, health care, etc. When government fails to live up to expectation of its citizens it creates a reluctance to pay. Simply put, government must deliver if it expects the people to pay taxes. The people must see the construction of roads, they must see well equipped and well-staffed schools, they must see hospitals and health care centers and they must feel that their government is working for them.
We will encourage our people to pay their taxes but equally so we call on the UP-led government to fulfill its end of the bargain. Our people should not be taken for a ride. We call on the government to publish delinquent real estate and property taxes; they must engage in business closure and property seizure to ensure that the national coffers are not cheated of sorely needed revenue. We call on government to vigorously enforce payment of taxes through automation and the appropriate mechanisms rather than shift the blame on Liberians.
INFRASTRUCTURE: ENERGY, ROADS, WATER, SANITATION AND HOUSING
Our national debt now stands at nearly $700 million. This debt has been accumulated while our country lacks a reliable energy grid, this government provides access to safe drinking water to less than 5% of the population, significant portions of the country remain inaccessible by roads for nearly half of the year and, our housing stock remains inadequate. Yet the President wants our people to believe there have been significant gains. While the CDC appreciates the patching of numerous roads and the new roads that our international partners have built, we call on government to provide clear evidence that US$750 million was spent on roads from 2010 to 2013 as stated by Minister of Public Works, Gyude Moore. It is inconceivable that $750M was spent on roads but the proclaimed road to Belle Yallah that nearly US$18 million was spent on does not even have laterite on significant portions.
Our education system is in need of an overhaul. The President touts the increase in the enrollment at schools, the establishment of more community colleges, increase in the number of four-year degree granting institutions and the training of 15,345 teachers. What the President prefers not to talk about is the amount of investments in education and the quality of the product provided by these schools, colleges and universities. In this we see yet another testament of a determination to hide the facts and mislead the people.
The state of our nation’s education system is worrisome. The national investment in education as a percent of GDP in Liberia was at 2.8% while that of other countries of the West African Examination Council, WAEC – the Gambia, Nigeria and Sierra Leone were 4.1%, 4.5% and 3.1 % respectively in 2012. This disparity in spending is why our Liberian students continue to produce substandard WAEC examinations results.
The overall national budgetary allocation on Education in Liberia in 2015/2016 was, US$83.9 million, an increase of approximately 27.9% from a budget of US$65.6 million in 2014/2015. Majority of these increases went to the Ministry of Education, US$7M, University of Liberia $5M, Booker Washington Institute US$1.5M and William V.S. Tubman University $1M. However, those increases have not been manifested into a difference in new “initiatives” that have impacted the student population. This math, we know is wrong. Increased dollars imply new or better or expanded programs and greater benefits for the targeted population. However, in the case of education in Liberia, the end result has been a catastrophic failure.
The President claims “Today, our country has 5,571 public and private schools educating more than 1,579,058 students, 48.5% of these are female.” Contrarily, the Ministry of Education 2014 Statistics Booklet indicate that there are 4,460 schools in Liberia, only 80% of the President’s claim. The Stat Book further states that there are an estimated 1,153,316 students in school in 2014 because even though they had actual data for 1,025,524 students from 4,038 schools, they estimate that the missing or non-reporting 422 schools have approximately 128,000 students.
According to available statistics from the Ministry of Education as captured in the April 2015 Governance Commission publication, “Reaching the Middle Income Country Goal: The Human Capacity Issues”, in 2010, only 48% (10,617 out of 22,120) of primary school teachers trained “were considered qualified to teach primary education. For junior high 63% out of 8,574 teachers were reported qualified. At the senior high level, a reported 63% trained but only 27% were B certificate holders trained for basic junior high school, not senior high. 21% of the 63% were trained to teach at basic primary levels, not senior high. Technically, out of the reported 63%, 48% were not qualified to teach high school level. In 2014, the situation with our teachers have improved at the primary level but has grossly deteriorated at the junior high to high school levels which clearly provides some explanation for the massive failure at WAEC exams and University of Liberia entrance exams. In 2010, 63% of the teachers were trained at both the junior and senior high levels. In 2014, only 31.6% of teachers and 36.2% were trained at the junior and senior high levels respectively.
This level of unqualified “trained” teachers tells the Liberian people the bleak state of affairs of the education system. Disparity of training among counties is also wide. In Sinoe, only 29.7% of primary teachers in Sinoe are trained, while in Nimba 77.8% of the primary teachers are trained.
On water, sanitation, and hygiene level, only 187 primary schools had access to pipe borne water while 1,570 had hand pumps available out of a total of 3,854 primary schools. In the secondary schools, out of 1,265 schools, only 120 had potable water and 720 secondary schools had hand pumps.
At her last state of the nation address, the President promised that all girls were going to be provided free education. In her 2016 address, she failed to tell the Liberian people how much progress has been made in that direction.
Our children’s future is again being tampered with by the Ministry of Education through the introduction of an unproven nursery and primary system of public private partnership where the government has been negotiating with education corporations to take over our education system on a 5-year trial basis. The CDC is unequivocal in its objection to this new direction that holds no guarantee of improved facilities, better teachers, better learning environment, and better systems.
Our children deserve better. They deserve schools where they can learn to be better and productive citizens. They need schools that add value to their worth. Our schools must be aligned with the human resources needs of our country. When our students leave school they must have something to offer. This government has not seen it this way. We see the traditional and outdated models of one-size-fits all, no value added and an underachieving education system. We cannot continue along this way and expect better results.
The CDC applauds the government’s effort at enhancing the vocational training capacity in the country and its incursion into the construction of agricultural training centers. The CDC believes that agriculture training should be directly tied to all our higher institutions of learning and recommends that government attaches more urgency to developing robust agriculture programs at the nation’s higher institutions of learning in order to educate the next generation of entrepreneurial farmers as the shift from subsistence farming to entrepreneurial farming is the path to poverty reduction.
Our health care workers continue to strive and work under very desperate conditions. They remain under paid, they lack the necessary in-service training, there is a lack of the needed equipment, safety and protective gears; furthermore, they must put in countless hours to meet the growing health needs of the citizenry. We find this unsustainable. In the wake of this dismal performance of government in the health sector, especially as exposed by the EVD, the President wants to tout success. Obviously, this is deceptive. When nurses are paid on average a meager salary of $225 monthly while others take home a salary of over $10,000, there should be no boasting of investing in the health care system. When doctors who spend 60-80 hours a week working are paid $1,000 monthly, there can be no celebration of success.
Our people continue to die from easily curable diseases; we still lack a well-structured national immunization program, our community health centers where they exist, are overwhelmed, state owned hospitals are ill-equipped and under staffed. Our people expect and deserve better. They deserve a health care system which is on par with those of neighboring countries in the least measure and ultimately on par with international standards.
As unemployment remains high and food security uncertain, we are constrained to wonder why this UP-led government, under President Sirleaf and Vice President Joseph Boakai has not seized the opportunity to invest in agriculture. We still eat what we don’t grow; we spent in excess of $200 million on the importation of rice while we boast a fertile soil, favorable climate and an abundance of young people needing employment.
The President claims to be “excited” for the “first time” by the potential for growth in the agriculture sector and promises more as she “finalizes a detailed two-year action plan”. The question we beg to ask is why now? More concerning to the CDC is that this plan must be a major job creation conduit for the nearly 80% of Liberians that are unemployed. While the CDC embraces assistance from our friends in China, we expect the agriculture sector to be Liberianized with new Liberian business opening along the entire value chain in the areas of food production, food value-add preparation, food marketing, food distribution, and food exportation. We hope that the Letter of Intent with the Chinese government will not be a staged opportunity for China to export labor to Liberia but rather – an opportunity for them to export technology, expertise, and equipment to enhance our agriculture sector and our trade balance.
The Congress for Democratic Change has continuously drawn the attention of Liberians to the opportunities within the agricultural sector for food security, job growth and relocation of people from urban centers to rural areas. We have maintained that the formulation and implementation of sustainable development agricultural models can spur true growth, reduce our import of agricultural products and empower our young people.
SECURITY, JUSTICE AND THE RULE OF LAW
With the drawdown of UNMIL forces and the lack of trust amongst ordinary Liberians in the security forces under this UP-led government, the situation in the country is tenuous. The President in her address suggests the contrary. But, in the wake of mysterious deaths of critics of government, the most recent being Harry Greaves who has been vocal in that respect, the continued brutality against defenseless women and children by members of the security forces and the growing tension between competing security agencies, the concerns of the people are legitimate. Most recently we’ve seen security forces barricade the home of an opposition leader citing an intent to question him based on a quote he repeated from a newspaper source. These actions by and attitudes of our security forces do not bode well in the face of the fragile peace that exists in our country.
Equally worrisome is the performance of the court and the judiciary systems. Liberians continue to be arrested, detained without charge and violated by people entrusted with the responsibility to protect them. The judiciary has been wanting in being a last resort of hope, respect and restoration of basic human rights. Cases continue to drag in court. More and more women and children are becoming the victims of sexual and gender based violence as the perpetrators are left with impunity to prey on others. As occasioned by the President’s pardon of rapists, we see that rape, being a non-billable offense stands not in grandeur of a law made to be revered, and to serve as a deterrent to would-be-rapists – but rather as a place-holder for one of the many whims had by the Presidency.
Our foreign services remain bloated and in many cases inefficient. Our diplomacy has seen a deviation from the tradition which focuses on partnership with countries and institution with something to offer. Today, we have taken to encourage bilateral relations which allow for the taking away of jobs rather than the creation of jobs. The CDC proposes a reversal of this barren policy and suggest a bold diplomacy of mutual benefit and engagement.
Fellow Liberians, we acknowledge that it is easy to criticize – but we also embrace the fact that it is better to criticize and offer an alternative – which is what we have set out to do. We believe our country can be better. We believe we can create more jobs, improve our schools, revamp our health care delivery system, ameliorate the infrastructure, and restore the confidence and trust of our people in government. Our Party is a grassroots Movement. We believe in our people and so we offer the following:
1) We call on government to launch an uncompromising war against corruption and graft by strengthening institutions entrusted with such responsibility, and to allow for citizens’ actions against those whose ambition is to rob our people and infringe on a journey to prosperity;
2) We call for the end to payment of “incentive” to government employees and the reduction of fringe benefits to people within the top echelon of government;
3) We call on the government to attend to and strengthen the Healthcare sector, by investing in human resource capacity building and ensuring health institutions are fully manned with functional equipment and medication; that health care practitioners are able to take advantage of training opportunities, receive comparative salaries and benefits befitting their work output.
4) We call for the institution of a value-added economic model and the further diversification of the economy and revenue generation capacity;
5) We call for a National Education Funding Policy which allocates a minimum of 10% of our GDP on education;
6) We call for a National Human Resources Inventory and Projection and match same with our National Education and Training Agenda and the full implementation of the Education Law of 2011;
7) We call on the Sirleaf government to see the abysmal face of insecurity engulfing our country and join us in appealing to the United Nations Mission in Liberia to reconsider its’ drawdown schedule, pushing it back until after a new government has been elected and sworn into office peacefully in 2018.
Concluding, fellow Liberians, contrary to what was read to us on January 25th, 2016, the State of the Nation is not strong, nor is it secure. The President and the UP-led government must acknowledge this. We are however sanguine that with the right policies, honesty and interest of the people, we can right this path and bequeath to posterity a better and stronger nation.
May God bless the people and save the State. In Union strong, we will prevail.