By James Thomas-Queh

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
June 7, 2006


Though the word “indigenous” refers to the original inhabitants of a land, its roots “indigence” or “indigent” relates to poverty, very poor and needy. Worst, throughout the colonial history we have read “indigenous people” if not “aborigines” or “natives” to mean an inferior and primitive class of people. And precisely, this is why the Americans (well, except that now the Indians who survived the Reservations have come to be recognised as the Native Americans) , French, English, Germans or Italians and even our settlers never refer to themselves as “indigenous.” It denotes, thus, denigration, inferiority and primitiveness.

However, of late our attention was taken on the headline “Indigenous Liberian Businesses” (see -17/05/06). At first, from reflects of our settler history I thought it was in reference to individuals like my peasant cousins still in the village doing wood carving, rotten chairs, crawl fish baskets, palm wine or cane juice brewery, etc. – to sustain our ancestral livelihood. But as I dealt into the topic, it was all in reference to you and me - educated, middle class and Westernised – that were we to operate some ice cream parlours today (one of the 26 businesses reserved for only Liberians under the Liberianization law), we would now be the “indigenous” Liberian businessmen or businesswomen. Good heavens! Some of those renounced veterans of modern Liberian entrepreneurship such as - Sophie Dunbar, Tommy Bernard or Steve Tolbert - should be rolling all over in their graves to hear us referring to them as “indigenous” for their achievements as both national and international business magnates.

What puzzles me most, though, is how “Liberianization” – an idea over three decades old– has suddenly become an “indigenous Liberian business” and just when our country is led by a cadre of World Bank and IMF experts. Could it be because these institutions have common phraseologies and dictions such as “aid or loans to eradicate the worldwide massive indigenous poverty” or “aid to indigenous businesses?” This premeditated attempt to disparage and maintain the rest of the world at a perpetual subsistence and parasitic level while their natural resources are squandered. I wonder.

But take for granted that you and me accept to be the “indigenous” Liberian businessmen or businesswomen, then what about my peasant cousins who are still in the village doing woodcarving and brewing palm wine and cane juice? Should we now refer to them as “Aborigines or Native” Liberian businessmen? No, and I beg, let us refer to them as our “traditional” Liberians engaged in our “traditional” business activities; and for us, well, we are only “ Liberian” entrepreneurs like we say, for example, a Lebanese, French or an American businessman or businesswoman. You will agree me that after more than 150 years of nationhood, we cannot refer to ourselves again as “Natives, Indigenous and Aborigines.” True, we acknowledge our extreme poverty and destitution, but frankly such words are still too much archaic, colonial, primitive and obsolete in our time and age.

The Obstacles to Liberianization
Unfortunately, in the past it was common for our national leaders to make major policy pronouncements that could not be censored by the people or properly reflected upon. That is why “Liberianization” that should have constituted an important national economic empowerment policy agenda, has yet to be reactivated more than three decades on. And each year that has passed since then, the obstacles have been compounded.

Because when this idea was first launched in the early 1970s, the essential of our economy was already dominated by foreign traders and big multi-international businesses. But we ignored or underestimated their ability to fight against the idea knowing all our weaknesses. First, they knew we were not inculcated or educated a business culture. Second, all the foreign traders are paying land or house rental – first it was to our parents, highly respected and patriotic in their own right; and now to us – a lost cultural generation with a chronic penchant for fast money and easy living – all that conditions a syndrome of dependency. So they had no problem in sustaining us with peanuts and corruption so that we serve as their front persons. And third, they knew full well that the idea was not a part to any supportive and coherent national policy. It was a mask as a single family used its entrepreneur prowess to create a business empire in a manner, at time, very unorthodox and antagonising.

Well, not taking the due note, we have since then descended to hell and back. But the situation is even worst and much more complicated as we face “Globalization” and national reconstruction. We need every penny and every friend on earth to help. And then “Liberianization” has curved out 26 businesses for Liberian entrepreneurs only, but businesses that were already occupied by foreigners. Questions: If we are to adequately enforce Liberianization and avoid discriminatory caricatures and economic friction, what is the legal framework or financial compensation for those foreigners already operating these reserved 26 businesses? On what criteria did the legislators chose these 26 businesses for Liberians only – was it to protect our national or economic interest? If so, then what about rice importation, our natural resources, water, electricity and telecommunications which are among the real “cash crops” for the economic survival of any Liberian government?

Frankly, the entire concept of “Liberianization” needs to be re-examined and re-evaluated if we want to take ourselves seriously. And to this end, if this is what the President has in mind as she appeals for international partnership rather than beg for aid – then there is every reason for us to rejoice. In effect, this would be the true process of Liberianization. But for that to be, we need to set up a permanent economic commission or extend the role of that of Monopolies – to serve as the watchdog on government economic policies, keep tract of progress on our national economic empowerment and natural resources, among other things. Next, in our economic policy agenda that would be put to the people, we should clearly state the nature of partnership that we are appealing for. In the past we saw many government joint ventures that left out the people and benefited only a very few. Is this a new partnership that would require the full participation of the people with a total transparency? Then the people need to know that foreign investors must be obliged to have Liberian partners or their financial capital be opened to the nationals and the state. Or if we are constraint to privatize our essential cash making services such as water, electricity, telecommunications, etc., over 50% shares must be held by the state and people. Anything short of that, I am afraid, our country will never resist another economic strangulation and political blackmail. And frankly, do we expect – at our age and experience – to survive as a nation begging for aid eternally and not developing our own national economic capacity in more coherent and proper manner?

That said, I can remember “Liberianization” resurfaced under the interim government of Dr. Amos Sawyer (1990-94). And in a discussion with the interim President on the subject, he said to me in a very serious tune: “Jimmy, if this government had an elected mandate with full control over the economic resources of the country, I would allocate at least $3m to $4m and put into place a proper mechanism to manage and police it in support of Liberian entrepreneurship.” Believe me, this was the first and most realistic idea I had ever heard on the issue from one of our national leaders and away from emotional speeches and pronouncements. Because were we ever to achieve a partial or full economic independence, it would require both a strong, determined political will and also the financial means for implementation.

This leads me to the conclusion that Liberianization (if we should still need a name for our own economic empowerment and independence) would work only were we to pursue a coherent policy that would be based on four conditions: 1. Strong, determined and sincere political will of the national leader 2. Initial state funding and active participation of our banking institutions, 3. Creating the proper mechanisms to manage and police rigorously such a fund and 4. Education, in all its aspects.

We all know that despite all this talk about globalization, liberalization or the free market frenzy (now calm down after the massive corruption, fraud and bankruptcies among companies in the United States and Europe)– much is still being subsidized in the same developed nations to guarantee their national interests and employment to their people. Thanks in part to state financial aid, incentives and other advantages to promote and encourage employment – 225 000 enterprises were created in France in 2005. Just think about that.

And let me add this advice. There are enormous business opportunities for the reconstruction of Liberia. But at the same time the bulk of our people do not have the financial means to engage in any substantive enterprising. Therefore, if we do not put into place the proper measures to either enforce and spread or extend Liberianization adequately and quickly– we would end up, if not worst, on the identical path of past administrations. That is, a situation whereby only a very few and well connected individuals –orbiting around power – will create business conglomerates and enrich themselves on the back of a mass proletariat.

The Flaws of the Liberian Business Association (LIBA)
The irony is that we agree that Liberianization – reserved to only 26 businesses in our own country- has yet to be reactivated. Under the same breath we have a “Liberian” Business Association that we expect to function. Question: Who are its members and with what funding can it function? Or has it any clout to do what?

Let us examine the parallel of failures between the two entities. To mask our own economic and educational policies failures, among other things, we came up with this “Liberianization” as if to free us from the yoke of our White colonial masters. But Liberia was never colonised; every White person then and today in Liberia was and still our guest –no right to our nationality, to a land ownership, and thus no vote nor politics. So how come we had gotten to point to “Liberianize’ ourselves in our own country? Because “Liberianization” –in a literary sense- should mean reinforcing our own specific cultural identity and not economic in a today’s world.

Then came alone the “Liberian” and not a “Liberia” Business Association. The difference is that we have created an “all Liberian” organization that has shielded and isolated itself from the foreign business community that controls our national economy 100%. In my view, the most logical thing would have been a “Liberia” Business Association or the Business Association of Liberia (BOL) –to include every major business entity within our Republic. And they would have been paying their membership fees and making other meaning contributions -sum that could be used precisely to promote Liberian entrepreneurship and guarantee them bank loans. As it stands, we are discriminating against this community, but at the same time we are grumbling about their unfair and advantageous business practices. In the constitution and by-laws of the BOL, we would have already had rules to govern and regulate unfair business practices among members, and make itself an effective policing force of its members and the country’s economic development.

But having failed in every aspect, we have left an opportunity to both the Lebanese and Indian business communities to organize their own separate associations in order to defend and protect their interest. And as any economic dominant force anywhere, they must be reckoned with or else it may still be to the detriment of our national interest.

A Chamber of Commerce
As an entrepreneur in Europe, you would first register your business at the local Chamber of Commerce, and not at the Ministry of Commerce as we do in Liberia. This institution, in turn, would forward copies of the registration to every other state agency concerned – taxes, social security, retirement, health insurance, and you name it. And before you can even catch your first contract, your mailbox is already full with bills. Because the system expects that when you register a business, you are out there to make money to take care of yourself and family, and not gallivanting around and drinking beer from morning till night. Or else, you would be well off not to even try at all. Here, any business that is registered legally must also be closed down legally or else you are still accountable to prove that you are making money and paying your taxes. These people do not throw their business registrations into the dust-ban and go to sleep as we do for common in Liberia.

In every European country there is a local Chamber of Commerce under the authority of the local government. Apart from business registrations and other tasks, it organises seminars and training sessions for prospective entrepreneurs. It maintains an elaborate regional business date base, and also promote local business initiatives.

Now, as far back as I can remember there existed a Chamber of Commerce in Monrovia. Thus, instead of all roads leading to the Ministry of Commerce, with all the bureaucratic hurdles – I think this is something to revisit jointly by the Commerce Ministry and the National Investment Commission. It would certainly provide a more effective state control of businesses within the counties, and in the process encourage, promote and support this Liberian entrepreneurship at every local level.

More than three decades since “Liberianization” was announced, it has been put at the doorsteps of successive administrations, but to no avail. And for the fact that the subject rests on the public mind - is in itself a very encouraging sign, at least, because we are conscious and eager to take some control of our own economy. Thus, as we sincerely wish this government a success in all its national endeavours, we are greatly delighted that the Minister of Commerce has chosen to carefully examine the issues in consultations with all the concerned parties. I am convinced, though, that at the end of the day it is the government’s obligation to lead the way or do the actual “ground breaking” by allocating a substantive sum to a Liberian business initiative, and not only appealing to the banking institutions.

LIBA should transform itself into a national association to include every major foreign business owner in the country. And on the other hand, as a means of reinforcing our economic control mechanisms, we need to re-establish a Chamber of Commerce throughout the counties.

© 2006 by The Perspective

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