By: Jones Nhinson Williams
Every president of a nation is like a CEO in whose ability citizens and residents entrust their wellbeing and livelihood, including their national resources and future. In the corporate world, investors do the same to the CEOs of major business institutions under whose control they put their resources, confidence and assets. Like business CEOs who are accountable to their shareholders and investors in the corporate world, presidents are accountable to their own unique shareholders and investors: The citizens of the country. Also, in the business world, when things are not working or when the status quo is terminal or puts a business at risk, a good CEO admits what is wrong, changes course and strategy, and moves on. Similarly, President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf is the CEO of Liberia but her 2015’s annual address to the nation delivered on Monday, January 25, 2016 falls flat below what is expected of a good CEO.
The president has not realized that using the same rhetorical strategy year after year may be comfortable because it sounds great and pleasant to the ears of those who benefit from the spoil of the status quo in Liberia; it is realistically not changing anything in the lives of millions of struggling Liberians who are unemployed, dying from hunger, disease and poverty, and whose children are forced to engage in unwholesome acts such as situational prostitution, armed robbery and a new wave of migration/refugee flow due to economic hardship, institutional dysfunction, and societal paralysis.
To be fair, our president said nothing new that Liberians and the world have never heard from her since 2006 when she assumed office. Even other facts that the president knowingly omitted are also known to most Liberians and the rest of our world. In essence, the Liberian leader 2015’s annual state of nation’s address is a bridge to nowhere. Here are facts:
Firstly, when the president came into power/office in 2006, the economic conditions of Liberians in-country was far better than it is today. After a decade of her rule; hardship, poverty and corruption accompanied by indecency intensified than never before. According to the United Nations Development Programme’s (UNDP) Human Development Report 2015: Briefing note for countries on the 2015 Human Development Report, 83.8% of Liberians are below income poverty line; 35.4% are in severe poverty; 21.5% are near poverty; and 50.8 remain at intensity of deprivation. The report in outlining the contribution of key variables to the overall poverty deprivation in Liberia maintained that 25.6% of severe poverty in Liberia is attributable to the lack of healthcare or poor health care; 23% is due to the lack of education or poor educational system, and a staggering 51.4 is as a result of poor living standards. These troubling stats do not seem to bother this former World Bank and ex-UNDP’s senior official who happen to be the president of our country.
Secondly, Liberia makes more international news for street prostitution, nepotism, corruption and armed robbery than it had ever been in the last 167 years.
Thirdly, more Liberians are becoming economic migrants than they have ever been since independence in 1847.
Fourthly, there is more youth unemployment, abuse against women, and empty political, social and economic promises than any other Liberian administration since 1847.
Fifthly, there is more religious tension in Liberia today than it ever was since the founding of the country.
It is not that these bad, corrupt policies and socio-economic ills cannot be addressed, or that the president is incapable of dealing with them heads-on by designation. The problem lies in the fact that the current Liberian administration is caged with a mindset that all praises and accomplishments must be accorded to the presidency despite having a nation of 4.2 million people. In short, there is tremendous talent and wisdom available in Liberia and to Liberians, but the willingness and goodwill from the power that be is non-existence. Consequently, manpower and capacities are eroded and continue to erode in the country so long the praises would be given to another Liberian other than the power that be.
Parts of the president’s annual address was somehow believable, especially when she said: “Our ability to live together in peace has improved tremendously”. While we have some ways to go, together as a nation, we no longer limit our aspirations because of differences in gender, religion and political association”, President Sirleaf stressed. This is a true statement and the President is absolutely right and for this we must commend her. However, in this same address the president grossly omitted some very critical points: Corruption, theft of public funds, nepotism, cronyism, authoritative grudge, unwarranted cover-ups of allies and friends, and mind blowing wages for zero-level professionals parachuting as former Wall Street’s executives when in fact many of them have never seen Broadway in New York City not alone Wall Street.
In the President’s very long speech, she was more idealistically statistical than practical. The president fails to mention that corruption and theft of public funds have and continue to limit the collective aspirations of Liberians and the development of Liberia. Almost all of the data enumerated are idealistic, nothing empirical so long it has no tangible impact on the lives of the governed, our people. To people like me in public policy and with a shrewd background in philosophy, everything the president talked about sounded like assumptions and estimations. Estimations and assumptions are unproven. My Grebo people in the villages in Maryland, Sinoe, Grand Kru and River Gee counties in south-eastern Liberia would call it “guess work”. This is precisely why the 2015’s annual address was an abysmal failure.
After an estimated $16 billion dollars free-fall mortgaging of Liberia to not-so-good investors who have no regard for foreign corrupt practice acts, the benefit for Liberia and Liberians is economic hardship, loot and the riches of a few who, just yesterday, were dirt poor. With such a shadowed failure after a decade of state power, if the president was the CEO of entities like Goldman Sachs, shareholders and investors would have asked her to tender her resignation before the end of her speech on January 24, 2016. Unfortunately, Liberia is a different animal.
As a Catholic, and in particular as someone who once studied for the Catholic priesthood, I learned that confession is necessary to rebuild one’s trust and relationship with God and their fellow human beings. No one is forced to go to confession but when one voluntarily chooses to go for confession, and while in the confession booth decides on omissions rather than confession, it is even more serious an error than not going for confession at all. In short, it would have been a good idea had the president opted not to give Liberians an annual address than to go and tell the Liberian people and the world what they have no interest in hearing. After we overwhelmingly gave our president a solid decade in state power, she has the audacity to say we are going to be worse off than when she took power in 2006. Madam President, why waste our time and anticipation on a faithful Monday with familiar talking points?
Instead of establishing another unneeded entity nicknamed “Corruption Court”, wasting additional resources and increasing the size of the Liberian government (which is by far the largest employment institution in the country), empower existing institutions. The establishment of a corruption court is unnecessary and unwarranted. All you need to do Madam President is to just prevent executive interferences; empower entities such as the Liberia Anti-Corruption Commission, the Public Procurement Commission, and the entire judiciary. Some of these institutions have credible, qualified and experienced Liberian professionals, but the entities themselves are weak because they remain unsupported by your administration and besides, executive interferences as well as ‘connections,’ double-dealings, and wheeling and dealings impede their work and autonomy.
In life, at certain point reality needs to hit in. Liberians are wondering as to why that has not happened with this administration and presidency considering that the administration has less than two years to go, and considering that the chairman of ruling party admits the truth about the administration’s failings and the resulting untold economic consequence that the poor will bear; when the speaker of the ruling party (an accused person for corruption himself) admitted and resigned from the ruling party on ground that the government has not delivered; when the president’s All-Powerful national security advisor says officials and loyalists in government are arrogant; and when you yourself, Madam President, clearly insinuated that the empowerment program carried out by your economic team, central bank and the finance ministry, is undesirable, particularly in the case of the bogus and imprudent politically charged micro loan scheme that puts the nation at risk of losing millions of unaccounted dollars. Some of us knew this would happen and as an ‘economist’ we expected that you would have known anticipated results given the political mechanization of the so-called loan exercise–––a scheme that nether created jobs nor wealth for Liberians–––it was bound to fail. Yet, the administration did nothing to halt this regression economics that harms the country’s fiscal policy than advance the country’s development agenda.
What Liberians expected from the president was a true and honest confession that would have pave the way to a change of course, strategy and direction for a better Liberia. Something that should require a change of the old guard. Rather than keeping a bunch of loyalists around, the president would have meant well by talking about bringing in new and fresh minds instead of the same more people who have produce no rewarding result other than giving blind loyalty and flattery praises.
In conclusion, this is what the president should have said: Fellow Liberians, for ten years, we have made some big mistakes but now that I have two years to go here is what I want to do differently. I am not going to tell you what I think I may have done, I am telling you what we need to do together to put more Liberians to work, to reduce corruption, reconcile and unite the country, and speed up tangible economic development by investing in key priority areas such as innovation, alternative sectors other than the extraction industry, in manufacturing, industrial agricultural, financial market, and in science, technology, engineering and math.
This approach does not require non-existent statistics as outlined in the President’s annual address, instead it would have indicated a glaring roadmap to the way forward. Unfortunately we got the same litany that we have had for the past nine years. Nothing new, nothing change, and nothing refreshing. Same more boring story that lists subjective accomplishments with no tangible values to improving our people’s lives. Thus, the annual address would have been saved from being a bridge to nowhere if our president had committed to a new paradigm. Sadly, Liberians will walk on this bridge for another difficult twelve months, if not, for the rest of her presidency. Once again, we can do better if the president expresses openness to welcome new ideas that are willing to offer free services for the good of Liberia.