The Time Is Still On Our Side, Madam President!

By James Thomas-Queh

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
November 11, 2006


We are on the eve of Christmas and the first year anniversary of our much sought democracy, where peace and optimism are still firmly within our horizon. But then during her last two visits to the United States, President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf struck few warning notes. First, she made it known that the much financial aid promised was “too slow” in coming. Next, the President went a bit further to admit that the time was running out; “it is not on our side” (see - Oct. 18, 2006). While this may not sound too reassuring, we will continue to keep our fingers crossed.

That said, let’s read in between these notes. Is there any reality or honesty in them? Yes, because the international politics and relations have never been real nor honest. The international community –especially today’s – is a redoubtable, unpredictable and crooked specie. And what else can be deduced. For the past nine months, no member of this same international community has yet to say: “let’s wait and see.” The assumption –they are certainly convinced that President Johnson-Sirleaf is undoubtedly an honest, outspoken and no-nonsense manager. She means well for her country and people. And that is all very great, but so long it is not against or infringe on the individual national or business group interests of this international community.

We all know (and we’ve thanked them a million time) that every big power represented on the ground or financing our democracy and peace directly or indirectly through the United Nations – is doing so not necessarily because of a special love and sympathy for Liberia and Liberians, but because they all want a lion share of our national resources and wealth. And what is even more hypocritical and pathetic -while our most experienced professionals and experts abandoned their lucrative international employments to lead their country out of destitution - the developed nations still maintained their dominant mind-set that these very under-developed and poverty-ridden nations that provide them these same highly qualified international professionals and UN soldiers, do not have the right to exploit and utilize their own national resources and wealth for their development and progress. And to add insult to injury, they imposed upon us their experts to tell us how to govern ourselves and be corruption free.

So yes, and logically, these nations do not appreciate to be told this truth; it hurts them as hell. Well, unless you have a razor at the bottom of your shoes like a Hugo Chavez, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or Kim Jong ll to try your luck. But coming from a President whose nation and people are on their knees – it is certainly very problematic. Thus every time Madam Johnson-Sirleaf takes a world forum to speak out her mind, I suspect, our “partners” and donors are circumspect and jittery. And I mean jumping from their seats that they have got some African Jeanne d’Arc on their back –and who, with a very quick success may be setting a too healthy precedent for the continent – a success that could have some domino effect against their interest. So caught with their pants downs -no buffoon leadership, and in effect - run out of pretext and tricks – they sit tight, watching and waiting (because time is on their side)- either that her hand would be caught in the cookie jar or until she shall have come down to their world of real and realistic politics. I mean, probably, some degree of moderation, modesty and humbleness. And doing away now with all the pomp and pageantry knowing that each of those world leaders who scrambled to her side for a photo op in smiles, has done so for the most part – for his or her domestic political gains .

And more. I imagine that being very conscious that her government could be quickly accused of corruption, and wanting every penny promised to be genuinely utilised in the interest of Liberia, President Johnson-Sirleaf has refused categorically to hire one of those reputable Washington lobby firms (this common capitalist practice of intermediaries with its corruption and influence peddling) to run after all the international aid promised. As a result, she is obliged to travel to the United States and Europe (probably using her personal financial conduits) to galvanise her private contacts, but at the same time to lash out her anger. But of course, as soon as she turns her back, then the gossips begin: “Not only is she coming here to cry and beg for aid, but she is also telling us what to do and how to do it.” Notwithstanding, a small portion of that financial aid would come through the pipeline –like a fish bit. But forget the rest until a next trip. Obviously, at the end of it all – not only the fact that those travels would soon become irrelevant, lose interest and news headlines, but the people may also develop a negative impression. In short, Madam President, you may use up futilely and too early your precious reserve in image and prestige. And this is the dilemma.

There could be an option. Having gone out of our way to meet our international obligations and put our country honourably back among the community of nations – I would hire (not in secret but publicly) one of those famous Washington lobby firms to do a permanent PR for Liberia. After the GEMAP, NGOs, and our natural resources pawned (and in their right mind they expect us to develop and not be corrupt from the bag of rice and miserable wages we get in return) – such a PR firm will be yet another guarantee to our partners and donors that over 75% of their promised financial aid will remind on their soil - in the pockets of their own people. And I can bet my head, all other things will soon follow: new loans, debt cancellation, ban lifted on diamonds, forest and the rest. Next, you will quickly be praised as the architect of economic boom; an economy growing at an annual rate of 10% (and mind you, while your people are still sinking deeper into poverty.) Having all this in mind, I would do the second and most important act: roll up my sleeves, and come what may, stay firm on the ground, work shoulder to shoulder with the people; galvanise and mobilise them to action with what little at our disposal because their daily basic needs are becoming more and more unachievable (transportation, job, high prices of goods, rent, school fees, etc. etc.). Because in any event, they would be my true judge.

Now, while we reflect on this hypothetical scenario, there is a need to rethink our policies on other issues - all part of the whole -that may have the potential to undermine our national Renaissance, if not our national security.

The Concession agreements: A Thorn In our flesh
Many years back a good friend of mine came up with this axiom: “The day India, China, Pakistan and others, become the next generation of world powers – it would be time that we in Africa give up.” Exaggerated, perhaps. We are certainly not yet ready to surround our soul, instead, we shall use every opportunity to express our mind.

Let us take India, this historical model of non-violence and social justice, the champion of the Nonalignment Movement (and a nation that provided us some if its brilliant professors during those old days of genuine bilateral cooperation) – has now sent us one of its business gurus, Mr. Lakshmi Mitall, to use the sufferance of our nation and people to sign a concession agreement worst than even what his former colonial master, Britain, could have imposed on the people of India. Can you believe that! And mind you, I am not asking Mr. Mitall to be a humanitarian or some philanthropist, but certainly he would need to take a look at himself keenly in the mirror as he dispossesses Liberians of their mineral wealth (and with it some our sovereign rights).

Is this to mean that we should also harass Mitall Steel or review all the concession agreements signed by Mr. Bryant? Not really. I repeat my opposition to a revision of these agreements unless where there was a clause stipulated to that effect. I would insist – this is no time to pretend to the point of ridicule and irresponsible knowing full well that each of those agreements was signed under the watchful eyes and guidance of our partners, donors and the UN. A perfect illustration that the international community has become inseparable from the global world business. Yesterday we associated Firestone only to the United States; but today Firestone/Bridgestone go far beyond American. And Mitall Steel is not India either; it is the globalisation in disguise.

Thus, conscious of our national security situation - precarious and fragile - it is almost suicidal harassing and running after these multinationals for some belated better deals. If for the same natural resources we have had entrepreneur warlords, 250 000 innocent lives lost, during more than 14 years of civil war – then while don’t we have a Mitall Steel or a Firestone/Bridgestone in return for democracy, peace and stability. And because the time is on their side, the more we pretend to be going after them without much a conviction – the more we lose our credibility vis-à-vis our people. It is therefore time that we begin to cut our loses, accept the obvious, and move on.

Of course the way forward does not mean resignation. Instead, since our greatest achievement does far has been the fact that our eyes are now wide open, where our pen has replaced the AK-47 –it is an imperative that the modest revenues and wages received – be a stimulus to prepare the minds, heads, hands and souls of people and nation to excel us to progress and development, so that, we live and survive far beyond Mitall Steel, Firestone/Bridgestone and all others. This must be our challenge.

Salary Disparities – How realistic and sustainable?
While I strongly support a salary readjustment, realignment and emoluments for public officials - but through a gradual process – a process sustainable at long-term with our economic growth – there is the impression now that we have gone from one extreme to another (a jump from $50 to $4000.00 per month for some Ministers; and from $10 to $30.00 for most civil servants). For those in the upper echelon (apparently a selected few of our own highly experienced and internationally recognised experts) – I suspect the government was obliged to put their salaries and benefits in pair with their counterparts in the GEMAP (individuals who most could be barely the age of our children, inexperienced and probably on their first assignment to tell us how to run our institutions and govern ourselves). Worst, they are maintained in our country at astronomical salaries and benefits from the same international financial aid that should be benefiting our people directly. And true, it is unbearable. But how realistic if we try to compete with them in salaries and benefits at this critical stage of our national existence?

And not too surprising, of course, these same GEMAP experts have not raised any concern on the very unconscious salary disparities and discrepancies of the government. But mind you, when they shall have left at the end of their lucrative contracts, and we are scrambling to pay their debts left behind and can no longer meet our own payroll – it is then that they would be throwing stones and accusations (in their capacity as now famous experts and consultants on good governance in the developing world) of corruption and bad governance of this government.

Therefore, it would be in our economic and national interest to quickly ratify the situation. Because I can not see (economically or logically) how much further we intend to increase salaries of civil servants without not strangulating our economy, not only to the detriment of our urgent national priorities, but also meeting the same salary payments (and without not going out so often to cry on our knees before our “historical” partner and donors for aid and loans). Let us not begin by permanently maintaining our back against the wall. In short, it would be more reasonable, in my view, were we to opt for some minimum increase per annum that can be paid regularly than the artificial high salaries that could remain stagnant for the unforeseeable future, but also impossible to meet on a regular basis. And this is where that real patriotism and a national sacrifice should come into play (something some of us have already done with great pride -sleeping in filth and rats infested Ducor for almost four years; hardly no meal, water, light or anything to be a called a salary; family and children, jobs and plushy homes abandoned in Europe and America – in our bid to salvage this same nation). We must hold our hearts and move cautiously and in austerity to prepare ourselves for the hard days ahead – the day when this international good will shall have abandoned us. And believe me, they will.

That said, do not get me wrong – I have no qualm whatsoever where the services of our own experts and consultants are contracted and paid reasonable and decent fees. But then their positions and services must be quite distinct from that of a government minister or a civil servant. And the fact that most such services are defined deliverables with a definite time frame; they do not have a long-term budgetary obligation as a permanent salary. They may be defunct once that contract is terminated. That is a normal practice around the world (or else NGOs would not exist and then disappear); and this much the Liberians need to know, especially when that money is going into our own pockets to employ our people. But what is not normal, however, is where certain ministers would be disguised under a dual role as expert-Ministers and therefore paid higher than their counterparts. That would be a gross aberration and a dangerous precedent that could turnout to haunt the administration as we have already seen from the controversy at the Governance Reform Commission (see New Democrat- Oct. 9, 2006). And animosity among Ministers cannot also be ruled out.

RICE AND RIGHTS: Where do we go from here?
We do not need a reminder that Rice and Rights have been the tenors of our Revolution since 1979. And the evidence is now latent that we have gotten some rights, but are yet too far away from obtaining our rice. So where do we go from here? Well, I guess from where we started in the first place. Because frankly, I did not expect this government to have gotten itself so entangled and mixed up on the rice issue. I really thought that we were in control of this situation long before we even took office.

What is more, rice is just one of those items out of the many that Liberians can hardly afford today. And I can understand the predicament of the government. We want to satisfy the donors, and at the same time our hungry and jobless population, but at the expense of traders. Because how do you squeeze taxes out of these merchants and at the same time able to control the prices of basic commodities in a nation – not only is it emerging from a long civil way, but also it produces nothing and manufactures nothing. Almost everything it eats, wears, reconstruct itself and the rest, is imported. And before a commodity reaches a Liberian household, it shall have gone through a chain of million petit traders. So what do you expect – the price increase at every level passes right back on to the same suffering population.

This is the vicious circle. Because not only our resources are confiscated for little of nothing, but yet we are also ordered to squeeze taxes out of a poverty ridden society in order to meet our international financial obligations. But be as it may, I have mentioned in these columns before that, rice and including sugar – are among the commodities consumed by the entire world population. Thus there is a mafia business- like control of both products. And woe unto those poor nations that do not produce them or find a substitute – they can be subjected to a continuous political blackmail, and especially where it is a national staple food.

Therefore, for the fact that rice is paramount to our national security – it is time that we put into place a concrete rice policy (different from a long-term food production policy). That is, the government of Liberia –through the LPMC – should invest directly in the importation of rice. Liberalizing the market is not enough; our government must be a full partner and the centre figure of the rice cartel so that it has the clout to stabilize the price in the interest of our nation and people. On the contrary, we will always be undermined not only by the traders (be it foreigners or nationals), but also by the same multinationals that we are demanding better deals.

For example – we understand that Firestone/Bridgestone is already giving out a bag of rice at $12.50 to its employees. LAC, Mittal Steel and others may probably do the same. And if a company can do it, why can’t an entire nation do the same for its people. Or, how can you demand these multinationals to improve wages and working conditions of workers who are privilege, not only having rice available, but more - at a lower price that even their government cannot afford for its citizenry.

It is no secret that the greatest guarantee to a stable national security is when the people are satisfied, and have full confidence in their national leadership. But as this administration approaches its first year anniversary, there seems to still persist too many destabilizing factors (see -July 28, 2006). And what is even more, we do not seem to be in full control of some basic details and elements (and which in essence are very important alerts). For example, the repeated controversies surrounding the training of our new army (VIP treatment of new recruits, etc.) and the very grave fire incident at the Executive Mansion on July 26, 2006. The speedy action in the aftermath of this fire aggravated the already shaky insecurity (from the downsizing effect) within the national security apparatus – the worst security nightmare for any government.

We saw that after the 9/11, President Bush did not fire or accept any resignation from his top security chiefs (but instead created a new homeland security organisation - which for me was not an ideal solution either. I would have simply ordered all those top security bosses in the Oval Office, dressed them down, and then read the riot act: Bring me whoever the culprit in a minute and get yourselves together or else…!) But doing as he did (though the creation of homeland security also generated some confusion), his national security apparatus remained united and that reassured the American people. And this permitted the President to also get the fullest in-dept of what led to the daring and tragic terrorist act and the appropriate response required.

In our case, however, not only did we also reactivated the Ministry of National Security, as I understand and oppose- but heads when rolling immediately. Next, we sought foreign expertise (from South Africa) and not relied fully on UNMIL in collaboration with our own security apparatus. And doing so, in my view, would have created confidence and augment our morale. At the end, we would have also avoided the obligation of having to present two versions of investigations findings (foreign and national). Thus leaving doubts to still persist- both on the mind of the same administration and the population.

And still in our thrust, we are sending our security personnel for training to China (see -Sept. 20, 2006). True, China is playing a significant role in our reconstruction and maintaining our security. But as I have mentioned earlier, the international politics and relations are not real and honest. And even though this Cold War may be over, but there still exists an imaginary line of division, influence, domination and competition. In short, the world is much more complex and unpredictable more than ever; and we should not take anything for granted.

Thus, if I were this government I would have begged the good people of China, Libya or Russia to transfer, for now, their generous Security Sector Reform (SSR) financial aid to other development sectors. I do not think it would bother anyone much if the Chinese were training our business managers and cadres (since the West has become obsessed with African immigrants) and teaching us also their example of how to be self-sufficient; and the Russians or Libyans providing us petroleum products (because that would help us pay our debts and loans to the West). But security is much too delicate and an eye grabbing issue. It could serve an effective argument by our political opponents.

All said, I would prefer not to start drawing a gradual parallel between the Tolbert administration and this current government. Mr. Tolbert -a hardened financial disciplinarian, very eloquent and speedy -had a deep-seated conviction of where he wanted to take Liberia. A sort of vindication and revenge, so to speak, for the lost time. He introduced a transparent fringe benefit scheme and a radical increment of civil servant salaries, among his many positive undertakings; and also diversified the training of our security personnel by sending some to communist countries. But at the same time, he certainly underestimated the long-term financial implications of his actions and the political consequences and backlash. At worst, he was not a very proficient politician. As a result, he was often quick in exhausting his manoeuvring capability before a popular pressure. At the end, he lost his bearing and the confidence of the people.

In your case, Madam President, I have no doubt that the time is still on our side. Most errors made by President Tolbert were set in place from the very onset of his administration, but were not immediately acknowledged and ratified. Thus having had your usual courage and honesty to recognise early the difficulties and problems facing your government - it would be politically expedient to re-design your strategies and change course if necessary. Or else, the going may still get tougher and rougher -against our national interest.

© 2006 by The Perspective

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