By: Francis W. Nyepon
The Ellen Johnson Sirleaf administration is setting the stage for civil disobedience in Liberia. And if the administration is not careful, the economic, social and political issues facing Liberia will again reached a boiling point, which could become a matter of life or death for many innocent people. During the last few months of 2016, the Christmas holiday shopping season was a nightmare for over 80% of the Liberian people. The government's abrupt austerity measure to raise revenue on the backs of the people so as to avert budgetary shortfalls created by neglect, mismanagement, corruption and carelessness was seriously unnecessary. An increase in the exchange rate between the U.S. and Liberian dollars and levying new taxes on essential consumer goods and services have squeezed the people to such an extent that it has caused havoc and devastation for many.
The Christmas holiday shopping season is the biggest festival in Liberia. It is a great traditional celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ alongside shopping and festive activities for children and families of all religions, ethnicity and age groups. On the one hand, it is a great opportunity that brings Liberians together, to shop, have fun and look forward to the New Year on a good, positive note. On the other hand, it provides retailer, shopkeeper, hawker, vender, market and salesperson a unique opportunity to offer astronomical sale deals that interest Liberians of all walks of life. Typically, months before the Christmas, large crowds from every nook-and-cranny walk the streets merry-making, visiting every marketplace and grabbing the best bargain of the year. For children, it is the only time of the year to get new clothes and shoes from their parents and guardians. Many get dressed-up pretty to walk throughout their communities showing-off the stuff they are made of.
Liberians boastfully speak of fond memories during the war years when warring factions would lay down their arms in celebration of this national tradition. Many even go as far as to suggest that in 2005, before President Sirleaf officially took office, the Christmas holiday shopping season was the most festive with great anticipation for a better Liberia. But, this year 2016, the national festive tradition, was the most dull and unexciting period in Liberia over the past 30 years. Liberians were disappointed, perturbed and severely harmed. The unnecessary increase in the goods and service taxes (GST) from 7% to 10% affected every Liberian and every consumer product.
Since the installation of the democratically elected government in 2006, headed by President Sirleaf, Liberia has been going through its worst period of economic downturn during this Christmas holiday shopping season. Economic growth and the equal distribution of national goods and services has been dismal with sweeping increases in corruption and the criminal use of public authority for personal gain. Liberia has remained a country with a millennia of centralized, autocratic rule as instituted by the True Whig Party, the Samuel Doe military leadership and Charles Taylor's despotic rule. President Sirleaf has been playing the same old political game, which has not modernized the country for well over a century and a half, which leaves Liberia the fourth poorest country on the planet. As a matter of fact, economic growth under President Sirleaf was due to a centralized-driven process, which failed to live up to expectations of the people. In 2015, for instance, the Liberian economy grew at the dismal rate of 0.1%.
Although there has been economic growth over the past decade of President Sirleaf's administration, it has not however kept pace with the country's growing social inequality, massive unemployment, lack of basic services, and president's bleak sustainable development agenda. Concession agreements over the past 11 years has been so one-sided, many benefited only the concessionaire and a handful of well-connected cronies and senior officials involved in the negotiation and management of the contract. During 2014 and 2015 many foreign concession companies substantially downsized their operations, while others simply packed up and left the country severely impacted the economy, thereby, leaving the government with fewer alternatives to generate revenue, but to increase taxes on the backs of Liberians.
This failed policy has now come to a head by making life extremely miserable, depressing and excruciatingly painful for many Liberians. During the boom years of the Sirleaf administration effective development policy were not promulgated to enhance meaningful social change, such as human capacity development, and food production, which together could have significantly help solve the underperformance of the national budget. This lack of attention to structural transformational change during the president's 11 years of leadership now provides opportunities for civil disturbance. The lack of an effective structural development agenda under President Sirleaf caused an unprecedented increase in rural to urban migration without services and opportunities, which now poses a threat to our national security.
Since 2006, when President Sirleaf came into office with massive support from market-women, the rural and urban poor; yet, these segments of the population have gotten the short end of the stick. The administration never matched expectations by increasing productivity, employment, healthcare, education, skill-training and opportunities to improve livelihood. As a result, many Liberians felt short-changed. On the one hand, the administration's style of governance alienated and excluded so many and created a feeling of disaffection and widespread economic suffocation. On the other hand, mismanagement, and local government misrule by cronies demoralized, trap and frozen many Liberians like deer caught in the headlight of a truck.
With over a decade of systemic patronized rule, the Sirleaf administration has failed to vigorously accommodate the country’s impressive diversity of ethnic and religious groups to provide decentralized power sharing and satisfactory distribution of goods and services. Instead, the Liberian people are left trapped in filthy, miserable poverty heavily dependent on foreign assistance despite our country's enormous wealth and abundant natural resources. The president has used the Unity Party to control and divide Liberians by maintaining a privileged class structure as has been glaringly demonstrated in the past by autocratic regimes of the True Whig Party that has institutionalized the disenfranchisement of millions of Liberians.
However, the 2017 general and presidential elections must be about the delivery of real opportunity for our people. It must indeed provide an opportunity for the right leader to emerge so as to deliver our country from the hardship and impoverishment created by successive governments. Our people are restless and the 2017 elections must come to terms with our cruel autocratic practices of governance employ in the false name of democracy. Liberia can no longer be run as a personal fiefdom, autocracy or kleptocracy. Our country has an abundance of natural resources and oil reserves, and cannot remain the fourth poorest country on the planet, with one of the world’s highest infant mortality and illiteracy rates. This is unjust.
Conversely, the opposition is severely divided, apparently unable or unwilling to coalesce into a single effective voice for change. It will be the responsibility of the next government to build pathways out of poverty for Liberians in order to enhance sustainable development and social change. Our economy needs to be improved so as to prevent dissatisfaction and civil unrest. The quality of life of our people needs to be improved in order to achieve sustainable growth and development. Accomplishing this goal, will however require equitable distribution of resources so as to fundamentally transform the lives of our people to enhance better-quality of life. And, whom ever becomes president, he or she will have to promulgate policies and programs that increases income generation, employment, literacy, skill-training and health. In addition, extensive access to safe drinking water and adequate sanitation, couple with efficient fuel for cooking, widespread electricity and social investment will have to take place so that the life of every Liberian can be touched. This is important because real growth will not only depend on global commodity prices, foreign aid, trade, investment, and remittances, but most importantly, on increasing the country's human resource capacity so that every citizen can continue to enjoy the fruits of Peace, which has outweighed the plunder of our brutal and destructive past.