The Missing Presidential Annual Address

By Renford Engelbert Walsh

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

February 21, 2003

According to Article 58 of the Liberian Constitution, the President of Liberia is required to give an annual address to the nation on the 4th working Monday of January in each year. At such time, the President is required to present his legislative agenda and is expected to provide a financial report for the previous year. Unfortunately, President Taylor has failed to live up to yet another constitutional provision and what bothers me is the prevailing silence over the issue.

Maybe, I'm missing something . Maybe, I slept a little bit too late one day or went into a short-lived coma that nobody told me about . Or, maybe, all of the journalists associated with 'The News' , 'The Inquirer',,,,,, , etc. suddenly went on a strike and chose to block out news about the President's annual address. Other than the above possibilities, I find it difficult to comprehend how I could have missed such an important event . I know that I surf the web virtually everyday so such an event could not have passed without my attention. Yet, I fail to see any report about the President's annual address and as a Liberian , I demand to know why !!!

One of the sad things about Mr. Taylor is that he is a very slow learner of simple issues. It is these little things that matter that lead many people to distrust him. It is things like these that donor countries observe that lead them to bypass his administration when they choose to provide aid. I mean - let's be realistic here. If a man can not even give account of the 70 or more million U.S. dollars collected annually and tell us if we had a budget deficit or surplus , then why should the International community provide hundreds of millions of dollars in reconstruction aid ? Is it therefore not surprising that the donors will continue to snub him and treat him with contempt ?

Mr. Taylor may probably take all of us for granted and may have miscalculated that everyone can be lumped into a basket of ignoramuses . Unfortunately for him, some of us take issues relating to Liberia seriously and that seriousness extends to monitoring the state of economy. For every one of my adult years dating back to the end of the Doe regime , I have paid close attention to the President's annual address to obtain some useful statistics about trade balances , balance of payments, and appropriations for health, education, security, agriculture, etc. My interest in this extends to past regimes where I have researched figures associated with the Tolbert regime and on some occasions, I have encountered scanty financial data dating back to the Edwin Barclay era. So, it should not be surprising to anyone if I say that I await , with baited breathe, the President's annual address to the Legislature. How else are we going to monitor the state of the country if we can't get these simple things ? Mr. Taylor really frustrates some of us .

But if anyone thinks that my beef is restricted to Mr. Taylor , then he/she should think again. That's because I have a serious problem with other Liberians who sit silently with complacency and have to be reminded to assert their rights. What kind of a country tolerates such nonsense by a President while everyone claims to be interested in accountability ? What kind of a country is Liberia where many persons grumble about the Strategic Commodities Act but decline to challenge the its constitutionality in the Supreme Court ? Is it that everyone is ignorant about basic civics or has Taylor invested heavily in a 'Molly Man' that has placed us all under a spell to behave like zombies ? I mean -- how can we ever be taken seriously by the outside world if we can't even lift up a finger to protest the little things that matter ? Collectively, we are a shameful bunch .

We could draw some useful analogies between the democratic system and the financial world. In the Republican form of Government which Liberia subscribes to , we have a President which presides over the Executive Branch, and is assisted by the Cabinet. We also have a Legislature which should represent the interest of the people . Finally, we have the people themselves who are capable of raising issues to the leaders. Now, flip the coin a bit to the financial side. In the financial world, we have a corporate entity with a Chief Executive Officer (CEO) who runs the company. He is assisted by one or more Vice Presidents and other officers like a Chief Financial Officer (CFO) . Then, there are the Board of Directors to whom the management team [ the CEO and his subordinates ] answer to. Finally, there are the stockholders who have the right to vote on issues , decide who sit on the Board , and receive annual reports .

Hence, when we look at the Republican form of Government, it's easy to see that we Liberians are the stockholders in a political corporation known as the "Republic of Liberia". Our President is just the Chief Executive Officer . Our Legislature is the Board of Directors. Thus, as "stockholders" , we are entitled to an annual report and failure on the part of the "management team " [ the Executive Branch ] to submit that report should be cause for alarm. Unfortunately, every other person seems to be ignoring this right of ours or maybe people are aware but are awaiting the U.S. Ambassador to take up the cause of Liberians as if we are all mute. What a shameful bunch we are !!!

Now, let's return to Mr. Taylor. For some of us who have tracked his leadership style since the early 1990s, we are not surprised that he hasn't given a report. I recall specifically when 'The Inquirer' newspaper published a headline in January 1992 that Taylor had failed to give a financial report for the previous calendar year. Those of us who were in Monrovia could always look forward to IGNU presenting their report but such things were unthinkable in Taylor 's NPRAG . As a result, we still don't know how much he spent on his NPRAG administration neither do we know the total amount he collected in revenue. One has to read a report by former U.S Ambassador William Twadell , addressed to the U.S. Congress in 1996 , to get some ball park figure of how Taylor NPRAG regime, as well as other factions, collectively received over U.S. 300 million dollars a year from diamond exports alone with Taylor himself reportedly pocketing U.S. $ 75 million [ See and the section captioned 'Revenue Sources' for Twaddell's account of financial transactions ] .

Besides that little revelation which Taylor has neither confirmed nor denied, the only other financial data available from anyone connected to the NPRAG is that of a public comment made by Cyril Allen , boasting of how they spent 350 million U.S. dollars on the war. Now, granted that they did , that means that there may still be hundreds of millions of U.S. dollars unaccounted for and someone, someday, somewhere, somehow, will have to account for that money. We will never move on until Taylor provides a comprehensive report about the NPRAG's financial activities dating back to the 1990s.

Mr. Taylor also insults our intelligence by having the nerve to tell us in the late 1990s that the current administration should honor a 26 - million U.S. dollar debt ostensibly incurred by the NPRAG . Granted that the debt incurred was for legitimate reasons, one wonders how much is being spent every year to service it ? What was the basis of the debt ? What is the interest rate ? What was the repayment grace period ? How long are we going to continue paying down on it ? Who is the creditor and what type of goods or service was provided ? Thus, Mr. Taylor owes us explanations and if it means that I will be the only person who will repeatedly remind him publicly , then so be it. That's because I find it a bit infuriating that someone who is supposed to be an Economist can't discuss such critical financial issues . Then again, this is the same so-called Economist who once said that Britain has no resources so it should not be surprising when he remains mute on serious economic topics.

We can fool ourselves for ever and ever hoping for the day when Liberia will have peace but the reality is, there will be no peace until these little things that matter are taken care of. That's because as long as we don't know what Taylor received as compensation for the sale of Liberian resources, we will never know his true net worth and if we don't know, he will always have a financial advantage over all other politicians and there will never be a level playing field. And if there is no level playing field, not even the presence of 5,000 international observers could guarantee free and fair elections. That's because the man has enough money to dominate the political scene at all times, whether he's contesting elections or not .

Now, I'm not opposed to one being wealthy. Rather, what I'm opposed to is voodoo wealth because no one is aware of Taylor being super rich prior to the Liberian civil war and the absence of a financial report from him leads to reasonable suspicion that he's holding on to the nation's wealth illegally .

The other problem here is that foreign countries like the United States may know what he is truly worth but they may not say it because it's technically interference in our internal affairs. Only when Taylor leaves office and a successor administration launches an investigation and formally requests the assistance of the USG , would we finally receive cooperation from foreign governments. In the meantime, intelligence agencies like the CIA and the U.S. Treasury Department may quietly pass on that kind of information to the IMF and the World Bank and the folks at those financial institutions will always conclude that Liberia should not get a dime if Taylor has enough money to restore all of the basic services like electricity and water. So, we need to ask him how much he earned during the NPRAG days and what he did with the money . Maybe, along the way, we could also ask him if he has paid taxes to the Liberian Government . After all, his administration suddenly chose to collect 60,000 Liberian dollars in taxes from 'The News' newspaper a couple of years ago after an embarrassing story about the GOL's spending habits was reported so why shouldn't we be told if our President and his subordinates have paid their taxes ?

We must ask ourselves a hard question about whether it is fair to an ol' man Kokolo in Lofa county to pay taxes to the GOL [ under whatever nomenclature they call it -- "hut tax" or "development tax" ] while President Taylor doesn't pay taxes ? Is it also fair for us to go after the Lebanese merchants for tax evasion if our President hasn't paid his taxes ? If the common answer to the above questions is no, then maybe it's time for all of us to start talking about tax issues . Hopefully, we might find solutions to our financial problems.

Maybe, if we were advocating for a 'Financial Disclosure & Accountability Act ', we would receive critical information about how much taxes are paid by Government officials, how much per diem is received , for what purpose , and what every other agency of government spends every year. When we begin to demand answers to such questions, then and only then , would we be taken seriously by foreign donors. Until then, we can dream on forever about receiving foreign aid. We will not --- and should not--- get a dime from anybody until we put our house in order.

So, let the President take the lead by providing a financial report for the previous year and let Liberians join me in asking what's the hold-up ? Who knows ? Maybe, enough courage will be generated to ask other warring factions like ULIMO, LPC, and LURD to account for any financial transaction conducted in their respective areas of control.

The President can either tell us now or run the risk of being embarrassed in the future when some of us choose to research the amount of taxes paid by companies. After all, we know that companies like Bridgestone Firestone and Keene Industries [owner of L.A.C.] paid taxes to him and these companies are accountable to their stockholders and the U.S. Government. Thus, some where in America , records are available and it's just a matter of time when they will be dug up. So, let the President come clean and stay clean. He must give a financial report for the early 1990s during the NPRAG days as well as the year 2002 which is the most recent .