By: Tibelrosa Summoh Tarponweh
Foreign control of Liberia’s economy, especially essential businesses is not only a threat to the social and economic development of our citizens, it is a significant national security risk that if left unaddressed, will continue to deprive and subjugate Liberians, thereby reducing them to be mere spectators of developments in their country. This is a violation of their basic rights. Liberians must own and control their economy that would allow them to succeed in their country and ensure the safety and prosperity of the nation. I am not against foreign investment, who would be? But it has to be done in a way that embraces our foreign partners while at the same time ensuring Liberians’ ownership and control of the overall economy.
One does not have to be a rocket scientist to understand that when foreigners are in control of a nation’s economy, the citizens unduly put up with suppression and the country remains vulnerable to exploitation, capital flight and all sorts of indignities. And sadly, the ability of citizens to control their destiny becomes difficult, if not a distant dream. In short, they live at the mercy of foreigners who do not have a real stake in the social, political, and economic prosperity of the society. They can always go back home when conditions become unbearable or unprofitable, and the profits they generate in host countries are used to develop their home countries.
I disagree with the maxim that Liberians are lazy and Liberians do not have entrepreneurial spirit and interest. No, they do! All they need is the chance and the environment that will allow them to do well. Go to Nimba County and see what Liberians are doing there. At least 80% of all the businesses are owned by Nimbanians. This is happening, because they were given the opportunity, and a suitable environment to initiate and persevere when non-Liberians left during the civil war. Without access to finance and a competitive level playing field, Liberians cannot compete with their foreign counterparts and as a result they are usually forced out of business no matter how hard they try. We need to protect them to stay and persevere until they succeed, because when they succeed, Liberia succeeds.
Foreign businesses dominate the supply of all essential goods and services in the Liberian market today including car dealership, household and office appliances, petroleum products, agricultural products, construction materials, construction of roads and bridges, real estate renting and leasing, hotels and restaurants, etc. These are essential commodities and services that our people need to survive. Putting the supply of these critical commodities and services in the hands of outsiders is like committing a suicide. I believe our people have the willpower and curiosity to take control of the provision of these essential commodities and services within their respective communities. All they need is the chance backed by a good and nationalistic public policy. You don’t see this in other parts of the world. Even in our neighboring countries like Guinea, Ivory Coast, Gambia, Senegal, Ghana, Nigeria, Mali, etc., the citizens owned and are in control of their economies. In these countries, the market is owned and controlled by the citizens. In fact, in Ghana there is nothing a foreigner can do without a specified Ghanaian interest. Yes! Liberians can do the same and do even more. This must be our future course of action, and then will Liberians take their rightful place on the continent of Africa.
As a concerned Liberian, I am recommending that our policy makers reevaluate the business registration permit issuance policy for foreign owned businesses. Such regulatory review should include restricting all foreign investments that may be a hindrance to the empowerment of Liberians. If we prioritize Liberian ownership and restrict foreign domination of our economy, Liberia and Liberians will not only rise but will be the enviable drivers of their future. The widespread poverty across our nation is preventable and unnecessary. Liberia is heavily endowed with tremendous natural resources including water, forest, mineral, and vast arable land across the country suitable for all forms of agricultural production. All we need to take advantage of this God given opportunity is to invest in education and infrastructural development to build the skills of our people and create viable institutions that will allow them to be productive, competitive, and innovative.
The importation of Liberia’s staple food (rice) is controlled by foreign owned businesses (United Commodities Industry-UCI, Supplying West Africa Traders-SWAT, Fouta Corporation, and Fouanni Brothers Incorporated). Some of these businesses may be using few vulnerable Liberians to front for them, but in reality they are owned by non Liberians. In other words, all major decisions are made by foreign majority shareholders. Profits generated in Liberia are repatriated to their home countries, leaving Liberia with nothing except for the meager taxes they paid. Please tell me if this is not a lifetime subjection to poverty? As foreigners, they could manipulate the supply of rice in the market creating panic and chaos. We all know the history of the 1979 rice riot in Liberia. I believe all that matters to Liberia and Liberians must be controlled by Liberians. This is as simple as it should be! This is how it’s done in other countries and they are not smarter than us or better than us. The only difference is the opportunity and the environment their governments or the custodians of their rights create for them to own and control their economies. Liberia is one of the few countries in the world today that is suffering from this menace. It has to stop and must stop now! Our people have suffered too long, because of successive governments’ inability to defend their interests; interests that could take them out of poverty, destitution, and indentured slavery in their own country.
I believe in the free enterprise system and the tenacity of market forces, but a free enterprise system that encourages wealthy foreign investors’ dominance through public policy instruments, is counterproductive. Also, I believe in a free market system that creates an enabling environment, which guarantees full, free, and fair participation of Liberians without being pushed out by sophisticated foreign investors, through the conscious guidance of state actors. The wellbeing of our citizens and the prosperity of our society are moral imperative and obligation that our governments are required to uphold. You cannot be a responsible government if you cannot protect the social and economic wellbeing of your people from foreign domination. And when foreigners in your country continue to flourish at the disadvantage of your citizens, what then would be a justification for your continuous existence in public office? I am not intolerant neither am I a racist. I am a Liberian who believes that the interest of Liberia and Liberians must be paramount in formulating any governance policy. Public policy that does not give our people the needed relief and productive environment they badly need and deserve is tantamount to citizens’ deprivation and abuse.
The Investment Act of 2010 was intended to empower Liberian entrepreneurs. At the time it was an excellent step in the right direction, at least in theory, but implementation has not really benefited our people. It has to be reviewed and radically changed to give our people the ownership of their own economy. In the Investment Act of 2010, certain businesses that were reserved for Liberians are now been operated by foreign entities. Laws are meaningless if they cannot be enforced to achieve the desired intent and outcome. When these protective laws and policies are fully enforced, the hidden talents of our people will surely manifest. Whenever people are challenged with the right opportunity in the right environment, the best of them will come out. Liberians are not different and can rise to the task of our nation’s rebirth. Just create the environment and give them the opportunity.
There are tremendous opportunities for Liberians in the extractive and forestry sector, especially in agriculture and mining, but unfortunately, these sectors are dominated by foreign owned entities, using Liberians as slave laborers. I called it slavery, because any unjust compensation for labor is slavery. This systematic or institutionalized slavery is prevalent in most sectors of the Liberian economy. You don’t have to go to the mining or concession areas to see Liberian slaves. Just go to the Lebanese and Indian stores and warehouses in major cities in Liberia. You will see them working for Lebanese, Indians and other nationalities for little of nothing under harsh and degrading conditions. This situation has continued for so long that our people have lost their self-worth, which is indirectly affecting our children’s self-esteems in comparison with children in other countries in the region. If we don’t act now, the future of Liberia is also at stake. Parents are the natural road models for children, but when parents’ self-worth becomes too low, the children have nothing to look up to. This usually leads to perpetual vicious cycle of complacency, and the biggest threat to creativity, ambition, and innovation is complacency.
There are foreign entities, for example, that dominates the extraction and export of our nation’s resources and has been abusing their workers without consequential accountability. Even in 2017, our people are still trapped in what I called “misery and slavery” in their country while these entities continue to prosper. Apart from skeleton staff and senior staff members, most manual workers are hired on a temporary contract basis renewable at the sole discretion of managements. These workers can be fired at will with or without reason. Such practices are allowed to continue indefinitely in businesses that are not seasonal in their formation and operation. Strange, isn’t it? The fact is it is a violation of the labor laws of Liberia. They are breaking our laws simply to avoid paying benefits the workers and their dependents deserve. The working conditions at these foreign businesses are so deplorable that no reasonable comparable government in this modern age will allow its people to be treated so cruelly by foreign companies in their country. However, our governments’ indifference has perpetuated the exploitation of our people. And this, I submit, makes a reasonable case why Liberians deserve to own and control their economy. Because economic independence and empowerment, not rhetoric or external template driven aid, will reduce the persistent, heartbreaking and unimaginable suffering our people are encountering daily.