A Salary Reform Strategy Meeting Depicting ‘The Last Supper’
By James Thomas-Queh
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf
Liberia, like Burkina Faso, has been run by a conglomeration of “our partners’” NGOs, carrying our petit development projects, while the government goes around with an extravagant life-style, salary bonanza and hyper-corruption – ignoring the plight of the people and its national obligations. Then suddenly the bell tolls, these NGOs disappeared, and the emperor is naked or simply runs out of town in shame.
It is under this spectrum that the Liberian government has found itself. Its back is hard against the wall -either reduce drastically its extravagant life-style and exorbitant salary disparities or file for a bankruptcy. But of course, the first option is unthinkable for an imperial President; so it is preferable to cut corners, engage in the tactics of diversion by involving everybody in a “Salary Reform Strategy” with the hope that the initiative will fade away naturally or Liberians, with their extraordinary passivity, will once again swallow this heartless pill. And at the end “our partners” will sign blank credit checks for our efforts.
So, in a bid to make the initiative all real and credible as possible, the government had prepared a sort of a “confidential paper” to down-size or right-size 44,000 civil servants in the midst of an Ebola traumatized and poverty-stricken population. Can you believe that? But the National Legislature aborted the sinister project in its infancy; thus the blame is put squarely on the Legislators, and not the President. Excellent performance, Madam.
Then came the next act, the Liberian leader quickly convoked some of her most preferential high earners – heads of state-own-enterprises and autonomous agencies - to a meeting at her Foreign Ministry office. On the agenda was not a discussion on the Ebola virus (now declining – thank God), but instead a tête-à-tête on how to come up with “a more equitable compensation scheme which reflects the level of differentiation in size, function, responsibility, and financial performance” (www.frontpageafricaonline.com/index.php/news/3462). And this round-table initiative was in connection with the government’s “salary reform strategy which aims to narrow salary disparities across the public sector to attract and retain talents for efficient and effective service delivery.”
Of course, this is the carbon copy from the script of 2006, where the entire security apparatus and most civil servants were made redundant –downsize/right-size. But this time around the President is talking about “a more equitable compensation scheme” (information to her preferential group of higher earners) and “aims to narrow salary disparities across the public sector” (message to the general civil service). Both explanations are vague on what the President intends to do with the salary mess of her own making– increase all those of high earnings to the highest salary among them or reduce them all to the lowest salary within the group- it’s anyone’s guess.
Notwithstanding, the task was given to the Director-General of the Civil Service Agency (and not the Honourable super Minister of Finance and Development Planning). To do what? “To work with all concerned to conduct the study that would lead to a compensation scheme and appropriate staffing levels among state-owned-enterprises and autonomous agencies.” Do you get that, just when the state coffers are emptied the Director-General of the Civil Service Agency is now empowered to play his role and be left later holding the blame. Another great foot-work on the part of the President.
At the end of the meeting, all of the President’s invitees noted, in unison, that her initiative was ‘timely.’ Yes, it took them almost nine years to realize this flagrant preferential salary aberration.
But something first took my attention on this round-table meeting. That is, the image of the President at the head of that table, surrounded by the heads of these state-own-enterprises and autonomous agencies – all sitting resignedly after nine years of scraping dry our national coffers. The solemnity and rigidity of the image brought to mind the old painting depicting “The Last Supper” – that last dinner of Jesus Christ with his twelve disciples. You could see the tension and the absence of trust; everyone in the meeting was like a suspected traitor – especially since the Minister of Justice resigned with a damaging indictment of the government. So they all sat there only in their physical presence, but totally absent in spirit.
In short, I saw a meeting that resembled a perfect wake-keeping, contrasting profoundly with the conviviality and enthusiasm at the now defunct cabinet retreats at luxurious beach resorts, where at the snap of a finger we would call “our partners” to bring the ‘brown envelopes” and shoulder our bills. But today the accumulation of events has brought the government to size; the party is long over, and it is the truth as the Ebola epidemic.
A drastic salary reform is urgent, but how the initiative can be made credible and acceptable by the people
Remember, it all started with the much talked about “budget shortfall” – Liberia’s newest economic terminology just before the Ebola. The government was already begging “our partners” for budgetary support. After this public relation rehearsal (oh, I mean transparency), the Honourable Minister of Finance and Development Planning announced the standardization of the salaries of senior civil servants: US$6000 per month for Ministers; $3000 per month for Deputies; $4000 per month for Ambassadors, etc, etc. Apparently these figures took into account the salary structures in other African countries, but certainly not in tune with the general living standard of Liberians. Further, nothing was mentioned (or I never saw it) on the salaries of the President, Vice President, Legislators, Chief Justice and Associate Justices, Commissioners, Managers of state-owned enterprises and other autonomous agencies, etc. There was also silence on the exorbitant board fees, retainers’ and consultancy.
Well, long after this announcement was made I talked to someone who should have been affected by this standardization, and the lady told me bluntly: “No one knows from where this Minister got his idea; I know nothing about it, and no one is touching my salary, period.” This daring statement shows how some of those within the circle of the salary bonanza think it is their birth right to earn such hefty sums; and that even the President can not change it. And true, since then I have not heard much on this Minister’s “idea.” Thus it is my believe that some of these “untouchables” stood their ground; thus obliging the government to extend the salary reform in a very irrational manner. If not, will someone please me the status of that proposed standardization – is it an integrate part of the salary reform strategy? Or, were those figures mentioned in it drown up by the Civil Service Agency?
Whatever the case, there can be no doubt an urgent salary reform is needed (if not a general economic overhaul) to correct the economic and salary mess created by this administration. The dilemma, however, is that for such an undertaking to be credible and acceptable by the people, the President, in my view, must do one or two things.
First, she must make a public mea culpa before the Liberian people. Because it is beyond imagination or any rationality that a President, who took over a war-ravaged country and inherited a $4 billion debt (and foreign economic experts-GEMAP – to re-establish the national economic), could have sapped the nation’s meagre resources with such a selective and disproportionate salary scheme and extravagant life-style for almost nine years. She must convince Liberians that it was not a deliberate, organized state corruption scheme intended to enrich a particular class of people. This is the deep generalized perception, and trying to down-size again almost at the end of the mandate only enforces that thinking.
Second, good training must first start at home. If the President really means business she should start from her own salary and the budget of the Executive Mansion. When President François Holland of France took power two years ago his first act was to reduce his own salary and put the entire Ēlysée palace on austerity. The French people quickly understood that the economic situation was critical and thus required some sacrifice and efforts from every citizen.
In today’s Liberia the President’s salary, plus the huge Executive Mansion budget and her own extravagant life-style are all the references for the Vice President’s, Legislators’, Chief Justice’s and Associate Justices’ and other members of the oligarchy. So, until the President can reduce her own privileges, follow by those of the ruling oligarchy, there can be no guarantee that the public will accept the salary reform.
Third, if the reason for the current salary reform strategy is to “attract and retain talents for efficient and effective service delivery”- that is, the same justification yesterday which created the astronomical preferential salaries – then certainly the Liberians leader considers all Liberians to have mud and not brains in their heads. But if the real reason is due to bad governance (corruption, economic mismanagement, etc) –then credibility requires that the President tells the Liberian people the whereabouts of the $16 billion investment.
And lastly, credibility also requires bold and decisiveness, and no beating around the bush. The President must first do a radical salary reduction of the entire ruling oligarchy, and then increase the salaries of those professionals (health workers, teachers, army, police, etc) who are the genuine servants of the people.
I therefore propose the few examples below to give a lead.
President $4500 per month
Vice President 4300
Chief Justice 2200
Associate Justices 2000
Medical Doctors 4000
County Superintendents 3000
District Superintendents 2000
Paramount Chiefs 1500
Managing Directors, etc 2000
Additionally, all the Commissions (including the National Election Commission-NEC) should be dissolved and their activities (if any) be reverted to the parent Ministries. The activities of NEC should be transferred to the Ministry of Internal Affairs as is the case in most of Europe and other parts of Africa; and its building should be used for the National Library.
Well, all the exorbitant board and retainers’ fees must be abolished. Government must appoint the necessary experts in the various Ministries and agencies as before.
If such drastic salary reform measures were implemented, I foresee an important impact in two orders: political and psychological. Politically, the President would have vindicated herself, and her legacy would certainly be on course. Because she arbitrarily created the salary “kenja” of a catastrophic economic disaster, and then had the wisdom and farsightedness to straighten it on time in order to lessen the financial burden on your successor. It would reaffirm her will to see Liberia continue in economic prosperity
Psychologically, the arrogance and extravagant life-style would fade away naturally. On the down side, however, it will not produce the needed patriotism, commitment and efficiency. On contrary, there will be a greater corruption – the last rush, grab all you can get -because the administration’s life span should be over in the next 36 months. And your may not know what could be on the mind of the successor. What is more, some of these folks who have made it so good for the last nine years, might not even have a dime in savings nor can they survive a day without a government job.
On the very optimistic side, it should be the next administration, genuine and serious, that will reap the benefits on the long-term. True, corruption may not go away, but can certainly be controlled and minimized. Because I have the deepest conviction that even with the lowest of salaries, there are experienced, competence and genuine patriots awaiting to serve their country diligently.