A Fundamental Problem Facing Liberia: The President’s Quest for Mismatched Manpower

By: John S. Morlu, II

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
November 28, 2014


John S. Morlu, II

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf wrote and spoke these words on the eve of the 1997 Presidential Elections against Charles G. Taylor:

“Even though the Constitution calls for a professional, non-partisan civil service apparatus, ours has been a tradition of politicizing the civil service. An efficient, well-functioning civil service requires a cadre of competent technocrats insulated from political interference to carry out the day-to-day functions of government irrespective of whichever party is in power. To accomplish this, the president, legislators, and other elected officials have to resist the urge to treat the entire bureaucracy as a spoil of war.”

But today in 2014, it is the spoil of elections, a “winner takes all” system of governance that rewards mediocrity and misdirects the use of limited manpower, further strangling productivity in Government.

And Sirleaf further said, “Government is a sacred trust and those in positions of trust must be competent. They must be qualified. Nothing is more destructive to a good government than having unqualified people making important decisions.” That was 1997. Let the Liberian people be the judge in 2014. After reading her speech, an American colleague said rhetorically, “then she needs to shut down her entire government if she really believes that.”

Anyway, I have listened to Liberians debate the issues of qualifications and experience of various people appointed and holding positions in Government. The Liberian Government is noted for being the first choice of employment for Liberians, not only because it serves as the quickest and surest way to obtain “wealth overnight” but also because there are not just many opportunities for so many Liberians to earn an honest living.

I believe the debate should not be just about an individual’s experience and education. While a person’s education and experience are important and can serve as a guide for success in a particular position, we should elevate the debate to a much higher level. Unfortunately, even in the United States of America, there are graduates from Ivy League Schools and people with more than three decades of work experience who have succeeded one position but failed miserably in another position.


I have spent some time crisscrossing between Silicon Valley and Washington DC in the past two years and have learned a few things. A client and I went to San Francisco to pitch a disruptive technology to a venture capital (VC) firm. Less than a minute into the presentation, the first question the Panel asked was not about the product, the valuation, TAM, SAM or SOM. I had all these numbers jammed pack in my head and was pretty ready. But then we got hit with this question: What kind of a CEO will you hire for your company? Like business school kids, we started to name all the best CEOs in the world, from Lee Iacocca to Jack Welch. This is one of things that hit you in the face when you are least prepared. We have gone to the VC firm highly recommended. But we flunked this question and it was all over with.

The Chief of Staff in the VC firm suggested that we go and read a book written by one of the partners. The book is called “The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers.” I went downtown San Francisco and got the book. Instead of reading cover to cover, I was so eager to get the answer that I started to flip from page to page looking for the answer. I finally found it on Chapter 5, page 119 in a sub-text entitled “Why It’s Hard To Bring Big Company Execs Into Little Companies.”

The point of the chapter is basically warning against mismatching talent and experience with the strength of the position: a successful CEO at IBM could be an unsuccessful CEO at a small company; and a successful CEO running a big and established company might not be a successful CEO at a start-up, a growing company, a company in declining stage, or a company facing stiff competition and in potential financial ruin, vice versa.


The author, Ben Horowitz, writes, “Nothing will accelerate your company’s development like hiring someone who has experience building a very similar company at a larger scale. However, doing so is fraught with peril.” The basic advice is to look for the right fit, and the right fit should be in line with Colin Powell’s advice: “Hire for strength rather than a lack of weakness.” Had we known better then, we could have simply said, “we want a CEO who has experience building a start-up tech company” and we could have won with flying colors, all things being equaled. After all, we were presenting a start-up tech company but we wanted Jack Welch from GE to run it for us? This was a classic mismatch: A big company man to run a small start-up?

This brings me to Liberia, a well announced and promoted fragile country on planet earth. I have been doing some research and collecting anecdotal evidence on the composition and structure of the current Liberian Government. The goal is to put forth a defendable position as to why this current government will not improve the lives of Liberia or is unable to rebuild the country. In that regard, I have also read the USAID’s “Liberia Governance Stakeholder Survey” which the U.S. Embassy near Monrovia claimed was leaked to FrontpageAfrica. This is a must read for any Liberian interested in the current governance structure in Liberia.

I understand Liberians are too busy to read hundreds of pages of documents, but again, this is a must read. In fairness, the “Liberia Governance Stakeholder Survey” does not present any new information but it just state plainly how expanded and entrenched the political patronage system is in today’s Liberia and how such a patronage system is obstructing and hindering progress in Liberia.

The Government of Liberia has REPEATEDLY classified Liberia as a FRAGILE country with minimal or non-existing institutions. In the quest to get more and more donor funding, the current Liberian Government has over-argued that all institutions in Liberia need to be REBUILD. Some have classified Liberia’s democracy as being an “infant,” meaning it is like a start-up company. But paradoxically, the current composition of the Liberian Government does not support a desire to reach middle income by 2030 nor rebuild a broken society, this 167 years old “infant” democracy. See the pattern of appointments by the current President which has made this unworkable and unproductive structure possible:

I am not going to Wikipedia or a dictionary to define these attributes. I am going to state exactly how they are in Liberia. Each Liberian in Government should honestly assess to see where he or she fits. Be honest!  This current composition is only sellable to the donor community. It makes a good case for more begging!

Politicians: These are people who are greasing the wheels of the entrenched patronage in presidential appointments and the system of sycophancy in Liberia. These politicians usually talk a lot and do very little. These people go from president to president, from regime to regime. Even some janitors in the offices are part of this group. Basically, this is a DO NOTHNG group who believe strongly that it does not matter what you can produce to get ahead; all that matters is how well connected you are to the President, her sons, her sister, or other members of the first family. And they will render useless any plan to make things better for the general good of Liberians. They are unproductive and cannot deliver measurable outputs/results. The politicians constitute 86 percent of the Current Liberian Government.; in a country that is classified as FRAGILE.

Bureaucrats: These people do what they are told and are not interested in doing anything beyond the bare minimum. They are quick to say “this is not America,” this is not part of my job description,” and “this thing has been like this since JJ Roberts’ time.” They are likely to come to work at 11 A.M. and then go to lunch at noon. Come back from lunch, process few documents and out of the door at 3PM. They barely work a 4 hour a day work week. Given the chance, they will want to get pay and do no work. Being efficient and transparent is not their thing and they hate a performance management system that rewards people for doing more than it is required of them. They also do not believe in a time management system. In Liberia today, these people constitute 6.9 percent of the composition and structure of the work force in Government.

Administrators.  This is the most frustrated class. A lot of them come from international organizations (World Bank, IMF, UN, AfDB etc) and from abroad. These people are put in a system to administer, meaning run the day to day affairs of the country. But they have nothing to administer since the entire country is broken and has to be built from scratch. They found themselves highly frustrated in the Liberian Government system and so they spent a considerable amount of their time in “procurement committee” meetings. Nearly 95 percent of their time is spent administering procurement and procurement related issues. Painfully, they are stuck trying to desperately run a ministry, agency, corporation or departments that are not yet built. So many of the “administrators” get so frustrated and joined the politicians in Government, further expanding the political class in Government. These people constitute 5% of the composition of the current Liberian Government.

Professionals/Technocrats. These people have a specialized skill set but have no decision making authority. They are usually pigeon holed into their own respective technical disciplines and do not like to venture out into another person’s territory. They know what to do in their areas of relevant experience and are usually eager to demonstrate competency in those areas. In Liberia, they  are preparing all the policy papers, drafting the laws and serving as the main brain behind many of the issues in Government.


In high performing economies with millions of specialized skills, government agencies in-source these people domestically, giving rise to the shadow government (the big government contracting business). In Liberia, these professionals are mainly internationally outsourced from the West, South Africa, Kenya, Ghana and Nigeria. Case in point: Mr. Robert Sirleaf boasted that it was a “World Bank Consultant” that drafted for him the new Petroleum Law and the NOCAL Act. Interestingly, these people will prepare the best policy makers and make the soundest analysis, but make them heads of anything, they cannot implement their own analysis and recommendations. They are classically caricatured in IBM’s famous commercial: “This is the best strategy plan. The board likes it and it will take the company to the next level and beat the competition. But the only question is, is it implementable?.”

For Liberia, since these technocrats are outsourced from different countries (from the Chinese system, British system, French system, and American system etc), they tend to produce policy papers and give policy advice based on their own experiences from their respective countries. This has confused the Liberian system of governance. It is hard to determine whether Liberia is French, British, Chinese or an American system. In any event, the professional/technocrat group constitutes 2% of the composition of the current Government.

Entrepreneurs. These people take appropriate risks to move society or institutions forward. Modern governments recognize the need to constantly improve process to better serve society. People with entrepreneurial knack are usually sought after when there is a need to build new institutions, reengineer processes or put in place a new system of doing business. These people are innovative and creative, always and constantly seeking ways to be efficient and effective.

Entrepreneurs are most appropriate for a start-up company or  a fragile nation like Liberia that is seeking to rebuild itself after 14 years of civil war. Because they do not have tolerance for inefficiencies and ineffectiveness and they are independent minded and free thinking, they usually confront Liberian politicians and bureaucrats. They also have no patience for wasting their time on non-value added administrative routine. These people are the endangered group in the current Liberian Government. They represent less than 1% of the composition of the current Liberian Government.

Because Liberia is a fragile state, one would expect the President would seek out Liberians with track records or a knack for entrepreneurism. They are the most appropriate group to rebuild a broken nation. But instead, each person appointed is boasting of being a “GREAT ADMINISTRATOR” in a nation that needs innovative people to rebuild it. If Liberia is to grow and build sustainable institutions, the next Liberian Government should look like this, assuming we want to move forward and create wealth and prosperity in a more efficient and effective manner:

I was hired by the European Union to build an independent state audit agency for Liberia, the General Auditing Commission. For more than 20 years, each company I have worked for I had been employed at a time the company needed innovative minds to get them out of trouble or to build up a new line of business. That is why I had so much trouble with the politicians, in particular!

Where do you fit: (1) Politicians; (2) Bureaucrats; (3) Administrators; (4) (Technocrats); or (5) Entrepreneurs. The best and honest way to judge yourself is to state what you have been doing for two years or more since you graduated from college. After two years, we do not count your education as much as we count your years of relevant experience. What have you done with your life after two years leaving college is the question that the President of Liberia should be asking.

A lot has been said about the “administrative” ability of the newly appointed Health Minister but then his supporters keep saying he can build the health sector. Do his supporters know what it takes to rebuild the Health Ministry? And do they know building a health care sector requires different skills and experience than administering a health care sector?

For the current Ministry of Health, does Liberia need an “administrator” or an “entrepreneur” who can rebuild the health sector for the administrator to run it. How can you administer what does not exist or is not functioning? And can anything really get done when 86 percent of  the current Government is POLITICIANS?

“Even though the Constitution calls for a professional, non-partisan civil service apparatus, ours has been a tradition of politicizing the civil service. An efficient, well-functioning civil service requires a cadre of competent technocrats insulated from political interference to carry out the day-to-day functions of government irrespective of whichever party is in power. To accomplish this, the president, legislators, and other elected officials have to resist the urge to treat the entire bureaucracy as a spoil of war,” Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, 1997.   

Instead, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf favors “the spoil of elections.”  Prove me in correct!

T. Max Beer, Jr.
The Republic of Liberia, particularly under the Sirleaf's administration, is indeed a sick country. Were this not so, the government and our market women would not be talking about recovery. It is an indisputable fact that the vitality of any state resides in its economy. Under the Sirleaf's government, nothing whatsoever is done to meaningfully help Liberian entrepreneurs. The corrupt government prefers to give market women loans in Liberian dollars instead of U.S. dollars. We recall an amount of $5 million U.S. dollars was allotted by the World Bank to help Liberian entrepreneurs. The Governor was in full charge of this money. I understand Liberian dollars were disbursed to the poor market women while a lot of Lebanese who were not entitled to the fund, were given loans in U.S. dollars from the $5 million dollars with of course, expected kickbacks. Brother Morlu, thanks for this presentation. You are truly a patriot. I knew your late father.We all attended St. Agnes, St. Phillips, and St. Augustine in Bolahun. He was a straight forward no nonsense man. You have truly hit the nail on the head. God willing, the new Liberia that we envisage will surely implement your blue print because it caters to the developmental needs of our people.
T. Max Beer, Jr. at 09:51AM, 2014/11/29.
Yasuo Dahn
Let us put the blame on Jones Nhinson Williams for making sure this useless lady was elected president. If Mr. Williams had stayed in Liberia and agreed to serve as interim president when the international community asked him in Rome in 2003 after the meeting that ousted Charles Taylor perhaps Liberia would have been a good place.

Williams was the only sober-minded guy the international community trusted when they removed Taylor who was paid by Ellen Sirleaf to destroy Liberia
Yasuo Dahn at 04:55PM, 2014/11/29.
Alfred Anderson
Good morning,

Mr. Morlu,

Thanks for the article. With all of your brilliant ideas, what are you and others like you going to do about the 2017 elections? Your/our country needs individuals like you who seem to have the country at heart. Writing and suggesting are good but we need implementation. We need trust worthy Liberians to remove our country from the "Fragile State" status. Are you and others like you willing to go back and help to rectify the status quo or are we going to sit by and see the continuous destruction of the society? Liberia needs a ton of help. God help our country because it is all that we have.
Alfred Anderson at 10:06AM, 2014/11/30.
solomon fyneah

I couldn't agree with you any further. But have you considered one of the major challenges we now face as a nation-brain drain? I think Liberia needs a robust plan to revive its educational sector which will yield out the much needed entrepreneurs.

Solomon Fyneah
solomon fyneah at 12:13PM, 2014/12/18.
James McGil
Many thanks Mr. Solomon Fyneah for asking this question to Mr. Morlu, "But have you considered one of the major challenges we now faced as a nation - brain drain?"

Ellen inherited the challenge of "brain drain" immediately when she became president of Liberia. The country was in chaos and needed help to jump start the running of government and the delivery of vital services to the public. To add insult to injury, many of the qualified Liberian professionals had fled the country in search of a better life in other parts of the world. This was the beginning of the severe hindrances to development which haunted Liberia and is still haunting her today.

Faced with this predicament Ellen might have been forced to select from the pool of educated people that were left in the country. Liberia has enough educated men and women who could run its affairs efficiently and effectively, but where are they? A good number lives overseas. Why? The wages, salaries,benefits, living standards, and so forth are attractive. The incentives that the Liberian Government might offer may not be comparable to the incentives these highly educated folks often receive while living abroad.

She had no choice but to select from what she had. This is a contributing factor as to why the wrong people are put in positions that do not match their education within our society. It is like a builder who begins a house, and instead of putting the square pegs in square holes, he puts the round pegs in the square holes, because the round pegs are what he has available. Consequently the house begins to crumble because the foundation is not firm.

What if Ellen was to bring in foreigners to become government ministers, to run as law makers and superintendents, and to occupy many of the civil service positions? The public condemnation would have been even greater than today. Therefore she did not take that route, as the country was just recovering from a civil war and the joblessness rate was high. We all know that even now it is still very high!

I hope that my statements are not interpreted to suggest that I am trying to defend a particular person. However, leaders sometimes find themselves in situations where they are forced to make difficult choices. Ellen might have found herself where the rubber met the road!

James McGil at 03:22PM, 2015/02/28.
Anthony z.weegon
The major problems at the Liberians legislatures is CORRUPTION
Anthony z.weegon at 12:28PM, 2017/05/24.

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