Liberia's Weakest Link To Recovery


By George-Daweh Yuoh


The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

December 31, 2004

Today, when you speak with ordinary Liberians wherever they are, there is one common wish they all share, and that is "for the country to return to normal." For them, normalcy is anything but the seemingly perpetual fate of doldrums they find themselves confined to every day; anything but the extreme insensitivity of their current government and leaders; they will prefer and will cling to anything but the shameless thievery that has become the hallmark of governance in Liberia today. Liberians are not necessarily suggesting a pre Samuel Doe regime, nor the conditions that existed before and during the reign of the exiled tyrant. They pray daily for circumstances under which they can take their pepper and palm-nuts to the market, sell them without fear, and from the income, sufficiently feed their families and be able to send their kids to school. They want hope for a better future for their kids. That's all they want! Is that too much to ask?

National Reconstruction Support

Liberia is crying so bitterly to get on the fast track of national reconstruction and recovery, so that it can once more be the proud and respected country it once was; when neighbors considered her the next best thing to the USA; when students from around Africa came to her University of Liberia (Lux In Tenebris) for solid and "free" education; when she spoke for the freedom of the nations and people of Africa; when every head of household could feed his family without thinking that there may be no tomorrow; and when every year, Liberians would converge on the bald-headed ATS to support their respective counties football teams during the month-long National County Meet.

The international community is standing firmly by our side, gently prodding, and sometimes out of frustration, pushing hard and threatening to abandon us, just to ensure that we catch up with the rest of the "third world nations" that are trekking gradually towards sustainable development. The UN, EU, ECOWAS, AU, and the United States of America have all being supportive of efforts to move the country forward. Other national and international relief organizations continue to work tirelessly in bringing much needed assistance to the people of Liberia.

Ordinary Liberians are playing their role too, sometimes risking everything just to support the national reconstruction efforts. They take their meager earnings and set up businesses, putting what they could have otherwise invested elsewhere back into the economy so that others can get jobs and feed their families. Liberians, in the midst of extreme poverty as a result of joblessness, are refusing to look gloomy, rather, preferring to be cheerful to give the country the smiling face she needs to wake up. They are clinging on to hope that is constantly eluding them, nevertheless.

Liberians living abroad too are pitching in handsomely to keep the country alive. They transfer tens of millions of US Dollars annually into the country for their love-ones, and the money goes into the economy through individual consumption, and helps to keep businesses afloat, and as a result, contributing to government's revenue generation and to the general sustenance of the government. Some are building homes and picking up all the other tabs where there are no fingers to lift them.

So, with everyone else carrying more than their normal share of the load, what is the government's (NTGL) own contribution to this endeavor? How has the NTGL contributed to our national recovery? What is the NTGL doing to help lift our people out of their conditions of desperation, hopelessness, and poverty?

Mixed Up Priorities

When a government comes to power, it does so with an agenda and not in total isolation of targeted objectives. For the NTGL, the international community helped it to narrow down what should have been its focus. In Part Eight, Article XXII of the CPA (Comprehensive Peace Agreement), the NTGL was mandated to scrupulously implement the peace agreement, in addition to performing the normal state functions. And in the preamble of the same peace agreement, the former warlords and their collaborating "political stakeholders" indicated, among others, that the reason they accepted mediation and agreed to work together was because they were "concerned about the socio-economic well-being of the people of Liberia". Tell me about it!

First, the NTGL cannot boast of anything close to scrupulously implementing the agreement. Had it not been for the unbending will and determination of, particularly Amb. Jacques Paul Klein of the UN and the US Ambassador, John William Blaney, III Liberia might have still been engulfed in total chaos today. These gentlemen and their institution and government respectively, insisted that the warlords and their bedfellows abide by their own agreement, and sometimes threatened them (warlords) of severe consequences if they cause the process to be derailed. The only part of the agreement the NTGL implemented to the fullest was the dividing of jobs.

The NTGL was charged with the responsibility of performing the normal functions of government, part of which includes the provision of basic social services for its people, including the availability of safe drinking water, electricity, health care, and other badly needed social services. With the international community picking up the bills for most other aspects of our reconstruction, you would have thought that the government would have concentrated some of its resources to the provision of some of those desperately needed services that would have further enhanced the reconstruction efforts. But instead, it has all been about filling individual pockets. And despite the constant tongue latching from the international community and other concerned Liberians, there is no letting off.

Following continuous badgering from the monitoring group and the UN, the government finally came up with a budget of US$80 million. Whether this was a surplus, deficit or balance budget is anybody's guess. Frankly, I would
love to see the assumptions used in determining the figures, especially the revenue/income portion of the budget. I would also love to see their notes to the budget, particularly of how they expected to monitor spending against allocation, and to compare actual against budgeted so as to provide a basis for future budgetary assumptions. Aside from those, the NTGL allocated about US$22 million for national security, when national security was not being totally controlled by the government. How did it come up with that figure? A pitiful US$1 million was allocated for agriculture. About 12.5% was allocated to paying domestic debt when those debts were never independently verified, especially since we can assume that most of those debts were created by the immediate past regime, a regime noted for open and remorseless thievery. Besides, we had just come from war, and so a suspension of debt payment why those figures were being vouched would have been logical. And to add to that now, the government has spent about US$8.6 million outside of their own budget!

The first major spending of the government was to buy cars, luxury cars for those who hold greater responsibility for our sorry state. About US$3 million was spent for this purpose. OK, granted that they needed cars, but why luxury cars? What is it that they needed to do so much that a US$12,000 car couldn't do, and for which they needed US$30,000 cars? Had the NTGL had its priorities straight, the government could have spent about US$1 million on the same number of cars and then put the balance US$2 million towards providing electricity to the city of Monrovia. I am very well sure that US$2,000,000 would have gone a very long way in helping to electrify the city. What pride do these people have when they are purportedly running a government in a dark city? Now you can understand the saying, "old wine in new bottle". The wine will always taste the same.

Could All Be Lost?

The National Elections Commission (NEC) is howling for funds from the NTGL to begin the all-important aspects of voters' registration, education and information dissemination. Not a cent yet from the NTGL. The LRRRC needs assistance to resettle internally displaced people (IDPs) and help with repatriation of Liberian refugees from neighboring countries. Zero dollars from the NTGL! The government is depending 100% on relief organization to do all of its work. I am surprised they are not asking the NGOs to cook their food and feed them too!

The international community is complaining about the lack of accountability, the leakages of revenue, and extra budgetary spending. Why is the government giving a blind eye and playing deaf to these calls? Yet it finds it expedient to go back to the same people, requesting them to lift the sanctions on logging and diamond mining. How brilliant!

The best categorization befitting the NTGL actions of non-compliance, particularly, in ensuring financial accountability and protecting revenue leakages is one of financial sabotage intended to economically cripple the country by the time they vacate the scene. For what explanation is there to give to justify spending US$8.6 million that was never budgeted? By all accounts and means, the US$80 million budget (in terms of revenue generation) is about two-thirds of what could have possibly been a more respectable figure given the size and the low level of vibrancy of the current economy. Arguably, the Government has encouraged and condoned the siphoning and pilfering of about US$40 million (since it took office) from direct government revenue intake; amounts that certainly could have rehabilitated a lot of our deplorable physical infrastructures.

The NTGL can earn for itself some amount of respect in the coming year by committing itself to financial openness. The first thing it needs to do is to tighten the loopholes in government revenue generation. In one of my earlier articles, I suggested that government revenue generation be placed in a centralized authority, preferably an autonomous bureau of revenue, where the bureau collects, the Finance Ministry manages and reports, and the bank (preferably the Central Bank) serves as custodian. This way there will be three separate institutions of government reporting the same figures.

But for this to work, revenue must first be protected. The best way to stop a rogue from freely walking into your home and stealing your valuables is to lock the doors and windows of your home. Even inside your home, with the doors and windows locked, you still don't leave your cash and other valuables lying all over the place. Why should it be different with the government? Government's revenue must not be in the hands of everyone. I also suggested that it must not be a function of every government ministry to collect taxes, duties, fines, fees, etc. This should be left to the Bureau of Revenue. The Bureau should then set up revenue collection posts in areas where revenue collection activities are predominant, including the Freeport, RIA, ministries and other agencies. These taxes, duties, fees and fines should be pre-coded, and automated receipts issued based on what was received and entered into the system. Even with this process, there should still be limits. Maximum thresholds should be set for amounts that are payable at revenue centers and those that must be paid directly to a bank. And the government needs to get away from the old system where revenue is received through physical cash! Our people must be encouraged to use the banking system. This is a simple and elementary process, but one which is very essential in creating financial credibility and accountability. We cannot have it any other way.

I am no big fan of multinational financial institutions that create financial solution templates and believe such templates can unconditionally be applied effectively to any and every financial condition, particularly with their fixed homogeneous solution templates (SAP) they carry around for use to address the debt crisis of all "third world' countries, irrespective of individual situations. However, in every financial situation, there are minimum standards that must be met. A government like ours, which is badly in need of international and multinational debt cancellations, cannot afford to flaunt basic international financial controls and reporting requirements. The international community has been asking the NTGL to keep its spending within budget limits, and to prioritize spending so that it can positively impact the lives of ordinary Liberians (spending with macro-economic benefits). The NTGL must also meet the minimum accounting standards for reporting its financial transactions. It's a disgrace, not only to the NTGL, but also to every financial savvy Liberian if, every now and then, international "financial experts" have to be placed in our institutions to tell us how to manage and account for our finances, as if we come from another planet.

The NTGL must shape up. It cannot continue to impede the country's recovery efforts by its refusal to heed to calls intended to move us forward. If the Government must receive continuous assistance from others of goodwill, then it must be responsible and accountable. Everyone cannot be wrong.

Author's note:
If I may, it pleases me to express my profound thanks to the staff of The Perspective for providing Liberians everywhere with a forum to interact and exchange their views, and for bringing us current news from and about Liberia. I wish you the best in your future endeavors, especially for this coming year.

Also, it was an honor to have shared my views with those who stopped to read my articles, and many thanks to my critics as well as those who lauded my efforts. I wish all of you, as well as the peace loving people of Liberia, a very Happy New Year. May the New Year turn our weakest links into our dependable strength. Happy New Year!!