The President’s Annual Message: A View From The Grassroots

By James Kpanneh Doe & Isaac T. Setttro

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
Marcg 4, 2011


On January 24, 2011, Madam Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the President of our country, addressed both houses of the legislature on the State of the Nation. We, The Coalition of Liberian Professionals for Grassroots Democracy (COL), a policy think tank and advocacy group, residing in the United States and Canada, have been examining the facts behind the president’s speech and offers its analysis and perspectives on the state of the nation for a balanced presentation on the conditions of our country and the people since the president took office a little over 5 years ago. The COL is dedicated to providing research, analysis, and other professional services in the interest of the grassroots population of Liberia. COL believes that our education and training would be meaningless if we do not demonstrate concern for the conditions of our people and suggest ways to improve their conditions. COL wants to examine the facts as they relate to National Security, economic development, employment, health, education, governance and the rule of law, peace and reconciliation, and restoring trust and confidence in government.

National security always underpins a country’s human security. In her Annual Address, the president reported that the country is well-secured, and that Monrovia, the capital city is safe. What did we discover and what are the facts. The fact of the matter is that the bulk of the country’s security is provided by the United Nations Military force, UNMIL, and based on the evidence, very little has been done over the last 5 years to have Liberians take over the security of the country when the UN leaves. The UN has already begun to draw down its forces: from a 15, 000-strong military presence in 2003, the UN force is now 8,100 and will continue to be drawn down throughout the year to support other crisis occurring in the region, specifically, The Ivory Coast. Both Liberia’s Ministry of Defense and the United Nations have reported that only 2, 000 persons have been trained to replace the UNMIL forces when they depart Liberia within a year’s time. Clearly, the UN forces continued presence in Liberia is untenable and the country lacks the capacity to fill in this huge vacuum. What is more, the AFL is not prepared to secure and defend the nation. Whether countries in the region, in particular, Nigeria (the head of the Liberian Army is currently a Nigerian), will step in to support Liberia’s fragile security situation remains a far-fetched reality. While there exists no eminent regional threat to Liberia’s national security, there are reports to the effect that caches of arms does exist throughout the country which were hidden by various warring factions and, were not turned in or discovered by the ECOMOG, the West African Peacekeeping force, during the cessation of war in 2003. There are no reports as to whether the Administration in collaboration with UNMIL embarked upon a comprehensive program for a second phase of disarmament. But there have been frequent reports of ongoing conflict between so-called “war veterans” and the Defense Ministry regarding unpaid benefits. Despite the establishment of the Bureau of Veteran Affairs, this continues to raise concerns about the state of the nation’s security. Furthermore, ever-escalating domestic crimes such as, armed robbery, burglary, gang violence, and rape, have become a public safety nightmare for citizens, and a challenge for the Liberia National Police Force. A list of other national security threats include: high unemployment for ex-combatants, the youth bulge comprising high-risk youth without job –ready skills, latent ethnic/religious schism as was evident in Lofa county a year ago, ever-growing, unresolved Land disputes, and labor strikes. COL agrees with UN Secretary General Ban Kii Moon’s assessment that the country “is stable but fragile.”

This fragility has the potential of fracturing due to the ongoing crisis in the region that could have a spillover effect into Liberia. Witness the flow of refugees from the Ivory Coast. The United Nations reports that there are about 2,000 former Liberian rebel fighters who are operating as “mercenaries” in the crisis in the Ivory Coast. The Secretary General’s report further stated that in our country “maintaining law and order remains a challenge, with frequent reported incidents of rapes, and armed robbery, as well as the prevalence of drugs and mob violence. An increasing number of incidents involve firearms; and the seizure of locally manufactured single barrel shot guns from Guinea have increased.”

The central focus of the President’s speech was on the economy and the economic health of the nation. The President reported that her administration has created a strong economic foundation, Liberia’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has grown 6.3%, up from 4.6% in 2009, and that in 5 years the GDP will grow in double-digits. What are the facts? It is no secret that a nation’s GDP provides a good measure of determining a nation’s growth, but where is the evidence that this GDP can be sustained? Projections should not be treated as facts! Assuming that the economy grew 2.3% in 2010, there is no evidence that this growth rate or a larger rate will continue in the next 5 years. A nation’s economic growth rate is influenced by many factors, including investments, labor force, sound economic policies, and control of corruption or the lack of it. According to Transparency International, the UN body that tracks corruption in countries worldwide, ranked Liberia as number one corrupt country in the world. COL believes this does not augur well for the country’s continuing economic advancement.

The president also reported that the government budget has increased by 400% from US $80 million five years ago to $369 currently. The president also said that the total revenue for that period was US $1.03 billion. Certainly, these are impressive numbers but what was not reported was how much of the revenue was spent on basic human development needs such as education, health, and infrastructural development. History is our teacher here: As occurred in the past, particularly during the Tubman Administration, Liberia experienced a larger increase in revenue as foreign investments grew…Liberia’s growth was way ahead of Japan and South Korea in the 50s and 60s, but there was no tangible development though there was growth. Liberian then experienced what economists have come to describe as ‘Growth without Development’. COL believes that this same failed model and approach to economic development and change never worked before and will not work now. The country and its people deserve better in terms of how its richly endowed natural resources can improve the human condition of the Liberian people.

When the facts are examined even further as they relate to public infrastructural development, it is evident that the UP-led government carried out no substantial development in the last 5 years. FACT: There is still only one major public hospital (JFK) in Monrovia, Montserrado County. FACT: The Jackson F. Doe Memorial Hospital was recently built by the Chinese government. FACT: JFK and The Redemption Hospital in New Kru Town are operated by a Belgium group, Medicins Sans Frontieres. FACT: About 79% of the health facilities in the country have no electricity, 57% have no portable water supply, and 36% lack refrigeration for EPI services (RAD-AID). Due to the inadequacy of the health infrastructure in the country, public officials including the president frequently travel abroad to Ghana or the United States, to attend to their health. The ongoing Road Rehabilitation project in the city area was conducted by a Chinese contractor and was funded by an international entity. The Chinese company brought its own laborers from China and used few Liberian ground workers. And although there are more electrified light poles on some streets in Monrovia, most parts of the city have no electricity. It can be recalled that this was one of the president’s promise and social contract she made with the Liberian people to electrify the city in the first six months of her Administration.

Increased Foreign Investment was reported as a keystone accomplishment of the administration that has contributed to the economic health of the nation. The current administration has signed many contracts with foreign investors estimated to be worth $1.6billion. But how has these investments benefited the Liberian people? When analyzed, COL’s economists have determined that government would have received a larger investment revenue with these contracts had the government implemented prudent foreign investment policies. For example, in the Chevron Oil deal, the government gave Chevron 70% of the ownership “in three deepwater concessions”. But with other African countries such as Nigeria and Angola, Chevron received 39% and 40%, respectively. A Liberian economist and finance expert, Mr. J. Yanqui Zaza, in a published article, pointed out that government “signed a mother of all sweetheart deal in exchange for kickbacks.” A culture of corruption can definitely undermine a country’s bargaining power resulting in lower taxes and lower wages. This can also foster intractable poverty. To date, it can be recalled that no explanation has been offered as to why the former National Investment Commission boss, Mr. Richard Tolbert, was forced to resign.

The President also pleasingly reported that Inflation, that defiant dragon, has been contained, almost slayed. That Inflation in the country has decreased. In other words, the cost of goods or basic commodities needed for daily living has gone down. But what are the facts? The fact and reality is that the price of goods, particularly food, has substantially increased over time. For example, as also stated by Counselor Charles Brumskine in his rebuttal to the President’s address, the cost of a bag of Rice, Liberia’s staple food, has gone up from US$25 to US$35, and a bag of cement has increased from US$7 to US$16, but has currently drop to US$10 after a public outcry. Meanwhile, with increase in the cost of living, the income of the average Liberian has not increased, simultaneously. The average Liberian lives on less than $2.00 a day, while some government employees make US$15,000 to US$25,000 a month (Frontpage Africa). Another negative economic trend that has not helped the economy is that according to banking information, including Moneygram and Western Union sources, more private money leave Liberia to foreign countries than money coming into the country from individuals. The ‘US money Syndrome’ has now replaced the ‘Switzerland money Syndrome’ of yesteryears. On record, the money transferred is being done by individual government officials, mostly prominent senior government officials. With this trend, domestic investment in the Liberian economy has experienced inertia as Liberians with resources are aiding and abetting in ‘capital flight’, while non-Liberians, Lebanese, Indians, Chinese, Nigerians, among others, continue to have a stranglehold on the local economy. There is also growing and ever-widening income gap between the Rich and the Poor. This has created a phenomenon of the Rich getting richer and the Poor getting poorer. While there has been much talk of creating a Liberian Middle Class, it has only remained that: Talk. No substantive program exists to bridge this gap, and this in many ways presents a serious national security dilemma where some people ride SUVs while others have to walk the streets and cannot afford the fare for public transportation.

In an attempt to demonstrate that things are going well, economically, the President used her address to showcase some Liberians who have “made it”. The COL agrees that despite the difficult economic environment, some Liberians have made progress, but generally most Liberians are still trapped in poverty. Below is a story of an ordinary Liberian named Hawa. Her story was told by Vee Ward, a Liberian who wrote about her visit to Liberia recently.

“Imagine selling kidney beans all month only to make $25 for your family. Butter Rice (the cheaper rice) costs about US $35.00, so that means many people buy rice by the cup for the month after paying your $10 rent. One lady said to me I ain’t got no man oh..da jes me and my chayren…please help me.” She is only 28 years old. If her situation has not changed, she will die a poor woman. She has never seen a dentist; she only goes to the neighborhood clinic when she and her children have malaria. There are days when she doesn’t have water, so she buys water in 3 gallon jug to cook. When I saw the jug, I cringed because I saw enough dirt in it toi keep me safe for the rest of my stay in Liberia. Her name is Hawa, and she lives in what I called the First Liberia.” (Culled from Vee Ward’s Blog).

According to Vee Ward, the “First Liberia” is the Liberia of the Have Nots, the masses of the people who face the daily struggle to survive in our country. The “Second Liberia” is the Liberia of the Haves or The Rich. Hawa’s story is the story of ordinary Liberians, the majority of our people. The COL share this author’s description of the economic hardship being experienced by most Liberians which does not align with the picture painted in the President’s message.

One of this Administration’s crowning achievements that is frequently touted is Liberia’s Debt-Free status. This administration deserves credit and must be applauded for meeting the HIPC completion point and freeing the country from the debt overhang that suffocated development efforts over the years. But some perspective is necessary here to grasp the full picture of Liberia’s debt forgiveness. The question to be asked is whether Liberia’s US $4.6 billion debt has been totally forgiven? COL’s economists’ findings suggest otherwise. Liberia’s debt obligation has only been lessen, but the country still remains in debt. What have basically been forgiven are the interests and penalties owed on the debt. But with this relief, The COL is concerned that the government has not put in place committed policies to keep Liberia out of further debt. The Sierra Leone experience should serve as a Warning here:

After going through civil war and disaster like Liberia, Sierra Leone too received debt relief, but the country went back into a heavy debt of US $1.6 billion in 2009 after receiving a debt relief of US $1.659 billion three years prior. Certainly, Sierra Leone fell back to her former state of indebtedness.

In spite of the fact that the country has attracted multi-billion dollars foreign investments to the tune of $ 1.6 billion, this has yet to translate into meaningful employment opportunities for Liberians. The fact of the matter is that most of the high-paying jobs by these Multi-National Corporations(MNCs) are occupied by non-Liberians, who in reality send a large portion of their income home to help the economy of their respective countries. For example, many of the concession agreements the country has attracted are within the mining sector, with Arcelor Mittal Steel being the largest so far. But sadly, Liberia hardly has 20 well-trained Geologists that can occupy strategic positions with these MNCs. Another sad fact, in the area of appropriate technology, which constitutes an important building block for launching a country on the path to technological and scientific development, Liberia also lacks capacity in this area. There are not many well-trained plumbers, electricians, welders, air-condition technicians, and technicians of all sorts, let alone, engineers, chemists, physicists, hydrologists, and a readily available cadre of technicians. Where is the program to spur real capacity-building? How has the government aligned its economic development strategy with its human resource development strategy?

As a progressive policy think tank and advocacy group, The COL believes that an economic development strategy that can create jobs and provide a decent, livable wage for Liberians is a sensible strategy to pursue. We must not repeat the experience of the past and allow the country to suffer the “Dutch curse”, “oil curse”, or “resource curse” where a country fails to efficiently plan its economy from revenues generated to meet its development needs. The old extractive industry model of just having an MNC to come in and take out our resources without adding value to it should be vigorously discouraged. For example, Marcelo Mittal, should be able to add value to the Iron Ore being extracted by creating a manufacturing plant that can produce Steel; Sime Darby, should be able to add value to oil palm and rubber being extracted by creating a manufacturing plant that can produce oil, soap, and rubber products of all kinds. By so doing, COL believes that tremendous job opportunities can be created for the Liberian people.

Unemployment in the country continues to remain grim without marked improvement over the last 5 years. Currently, as reported by various sources, such as the International Labor organization (ILO), the country unemployment rate stands at 85%. Joblessness pervades the society even amongst college graduates- the ‘educated unemployed’. Majority of Liberians, the labor force- those of working age and able to work, less those in the military and those sick, cannot find work. The lack of jobs is major reason Liberians are experiencing severe economic hardship.


COL agrees with the president that small business is the backbone of national economic development. But where are the policies and programs to help spur small business development in the country? With many Liberians desiring to own their own business, but lacking the start-up capital, government can play a significant role by creating the enabling environment, perhaps serving as a guarantor, by encouraging banking and other lending institutions to provide affordable loan products to promising Liberian business men and women. In the 70s and 80s, a study was conducted that showed that 5 out of every 7 small business enterprises in the country were owned by foreigners. While the administration has not provided any solid statistics through its Department of Commerce, COL economists preliminary research suggests that this has not changed substantially in recent years, in fact, this has worsened. Certain small business such as ‘Used clothing’, sometimes referred to in Liberian parlance as “Dokafleh” that was once the exclusive domain of Liberians has become areas of competition with foreigners who have the resources. “Yanna Boys” have also become front men for Lebanese merchants.


The COL agrees with the president that despite infractions here and there, the civil liberties of Liberians- freedom of speech, freedom of association, and freedom of press, has been protected and widened, compared to previous eras. COL also agrees with the president that the Liberian Judiciary is dysfunctional and has not been effective in the performance of its constitutional responsibilities. The COL shares the prevailing view that there exists a breakdown of moral, ethical, and professional standards within the Liberian Judiciary system. There are numerous instances and examples, where the evidence has been overwhelming, but the court has chosen to render decisions to the contrary. Bribery of judges and jurors has engulfed the court system, making it almost difficult for the judiciary to assert its independence as witnessed recently in the case of Dr. Chris Toe versus Frontpage Africa Newsorgan.

The COL however is concerned about governance as related to Corruption and Accountability. With more than 40 audits completed by the General Auditing Commission (GAC), the administration has not mustered the courage to prosecute those who have pilfered the nation’s treasury and broken the law. Even Liberia’s development partners have raised concern on the “credibility and commitment” of the Administration on the issue of corruption. Dr. Linda Thomas-Greenfield, The US Ambassador accredited to Liberia, for example, has called for the ‘Naming and Shaming’ of public servants involved in graft. The COL believes that the administration’s failure to treat Corruption as a national security question has the potential of putting cracks in our governance structure and, subsequently, doing irreparable harm to our democratic gains. The COL firmly believes that frequent rationalizations and excuses being made, are totally unacceptable for strong policymaking to curb such bad governance practices.

The President stated in her Annual message that her administration has built 220 schools and, currently, 2.1million Liberian children of school-going age are enrolled in pre-school and primary school. The COL applauds the administration for taking steps to ensure that Liberian children, its future generation, are provided opportunities to grow, develop, and become mature and contributing member of society. The COL believes that through education, people not only better themselves, but also acquire the knowledge necessary for participation in a free economy and democratic government. Notwithstanding progress made, the Liberian educational system still remains systemically and structurally dysfunctional. The COL’s education experts have identified two key challenges facing the educational system, especially at the primary and secondary levels: An ever-widening Achievement and Learning gap, and the lack of Equity in the allocation of resources. In the absence of a Standardized National Curriculum, there exists a learning disparity between what the children in Grand Kru County are learning, versus what the children in Montserrado and other counties are learning. The learning gap becomes even more prevalent when public schools are compared to private schools. Are their literacy and numeracy levels the same? No! Are they all Reading, Counting, and Writing at the same level? No! This is evident in the massive failure for the last several years of Liberian students in the Exams administered by the West African Examination Council (WAEC), the regional educational body that helps maintain standards in the region. This has also contributed to the high percentage of high-school drop-out rate. Besides, per pupil expenditure, what government spends to provide quality education for a child in public school on a yearly basis, has not fundamentally changed since the 80s. While the Liberia Ministry of Education is engaged in myriad initiatives, their efforts appeared to be focused more on expanding the educational bureaucracy by creating such structures as “School Boards” rather than developing core knowledge and skills that Liberian children need to compete regionally with their neighbors such as Ghana, Sierra Leone, and Nigeria, as well as in the global economy.

According to the UN children’s Fund (UNICEF), “over 48% of Liberia’s population is 20 years and under, with 24% of children underweight and malnourished, causing stunting in 7% of them. The number of children enrolling in school since 2004 has dropped due to overcrowded classrooms, inappropriate teaching materials, insufficient books, and dilapidated buildings, desks and equipment. Schools are staffed with teachers that are badly paid, untrained and lack motivation; forcing children to frantically hunt for shortcuts as a career path and means of completing school”. COL believes that a well-thought out, comprehensive, visionary, and reform-oriented approach is needed for transforming the archaic public school system which is the anchor of our democracy. COL contends that our democracy is threatened if our children are not provided with common values, common standards, common civic awareness, academic proficiency, and common workplace literacy skills to survive the global economy.

It is said that a Nation or People without a Vision, is doomed to perish! The President concluded her Annual Message to the Nation by offering what she perceived as her Vision for a future Liberia. Among other things, she stated that years from now, we would have “super highways”, “express ways”. There would be fine bridges; there would be electricity all over the country; children in the town and villages would be able to do their homework under the lights at night. She stated there would be hospitals and clinics all over the land. What was most captivating was a vision to create a new Capital City in a town bordering Bong, Nimba, and Grand Bassa counties, called ZEKEPA. The COL’s City and Urban Planners have looked at the President’s vision and offer their analysis on whether this is a realistic vision. Having examined all factors, COL believes while the vision is worthy, Zekepa does not represent an ideal site based on basic planning principles. First, Zekepa is functionally a mining site, a “company town”. The COL believes that a better location consideration would have been Gbarnga in Bong County, by reason of its central place factor in relation to other counties. Second, the area is commercial as well as residential, and is in close proximity to Monrovia than Zekepa. But Zekepa is not the problem here. What is wrong with this idea and what are the facts?

What is clear is that Liberia does not have the money to build a new capital city. Building a new city entails serious planning; location study, feasibility study and cost analysis. It also involves analysis of the present site, Monrovia, to determine if existing conditions can be improved to avoid relocation. It is accepted that Monrovia is congested, but COL’s analysis shows that this is due largely to rural-urban migration, urban migration, and the absence of resources and infrastructure to accommodate urban growth. In other words, people leave the countryside for better life; there is increased city birth rate, but at the same time the city does not have adequate services, such as transportation, housing, and employment to keep pace with the growth. A city can grow, develop, and can become a beautiful entity as time passes. A city can also become an ugly and dying entity as time passes. Monrovia is like the latter. The city is dying. It continues to look old as the year passes. But the problem of urbanization, in this case, Monrovia, is the direct result of rural neglect. The COL believes since its founding, Liberia has experienced an uneven, unbalanced, and lopsided development in its landscape. With changing times, the COL firmly believes that the nation will be better served if it changes its development approach by localizing and decentralizing development.

Whether it was an oversight, or whether it paled in significance to other matters affecting the state of the nation, the issue of peace and reconciliation, was not addressed in the President’s Annual message. With the country poised to hold its second and most significant democratic elections, COL believed this was the right moment to share with the nation what progress has been accomplished, and setbacks encountered as related to ensuring the sustainability of peace and reconciling all of the disparate forces that make up the Liberian mosaic. The COL believed that an opportunity was missed! Liberia went through 14 years of civil war which killed thousands of our people and destroyed properties. It would be pretentious and dishonest to think that the country has put its ugly past behind her and has “let bygones be bygones”. The COL religious experts have consulted with a broad-range of people in the faith community, including Liberians from all walks of life, who share the prevailing view that the sore of this war has not healed. The country needs deep healing which has to be an ongoing process! The COL shares the view that a key part of this process involves addressing the Recommendations put forward in the Report of Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). The COL strongly believe that the TRC recommendations must be treated with reverence, and implemented to bring healing to the

nation’s soul so as to ensure that a solid foundation is laid for the peace and security of our country.

As a policy think tank and advocacy group, the Coalition of Liberian Professionals for Grassroots Democracy(COL), considers it a patriotic duty to pledge its allegiance to our Republic by sharing its views on the future of our country, and by so doing, helping to ensure that this young democracy is build on a rock- solid foundation. This is our responsibility as engaged citizens who do not want to complain after the fact!

James Kpanneh Doe
Coalition of Liberian Professionals for Grassroots Democracy

Isaac T. Setttro


Contacts: Kpannehdoe@live .com or

© 2011 by The Perspective

To Submit article for publication, go to the following URL: