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A country of crisis

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George Weah / AFP PHOTO / ISSOUF SANOGO

If there is anything that Africa is badly in need of, it is good leaders. It is quite disheartening, that for years we have seen men of goodwill pontificate about their reforms and programme that lift up its people from hopelessness and despondency, but it seems as if when they get into office they tend to easily forget their political will and so, stating reforms without implementing those reforms is a mockery to those who stated the reform. And since corruption and godfatherism play an integral role in our polity, it is hard for clear and well-inspired minds to lead African nations to their path of success. Liberia is struggling to live up to its expectation despite having a popular and one-time philanthropist George Weah, former World Footballer of the Year was elected president of Liberia in a landslide victory just over a year ago. Having been raised in one of Liberia’s worst slums many saw him as a man who understood the needs of the poor. But some are now coming to doubt that, amid allegations of corruption and economic mismanagement. Liberians are increasingly angry over the state of their country. Many are disillusioned by Weah’s government after resting all their hopes on the former football star for a prosperous, corruption-free Liberia. He came to power in what the powerful Economic Community of West Africa States (ECOWAS) and the European Union Election observer described as peaceful and satisfactory. The election marked Liberia’s first democratic transition of power in over 70 years as the country continues to grapple with the legacy of two back to back civil wars between 1989-2003, during which an estimated 250,000 people were killed.

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In March 2018, Weah had said he had “inherited a country that is very broke, depleted by political Malfeasance”. Since Weah became president, inflation has soared and growth has shrunk, according to the IMF, which said in a recent report that the government’s wage bill was too high. The rising cost of living has had a devastating effect on many in a country where 64% of its 4.6 million people live below the poverty line. In July last year, Weah ordered a cash injection of US$25m (£19.6m) into the economy to mop up Liberian dollars and control inflation. Which he later said that $8m of it had not been used and he was trying to find out where it had gone. He announced the retirement of the central bank’s governor and the resignation of the governor’s deputy, saying there was “a major lack of systems and controls” at the institution. An investigation into rumours that $104m in newly printed banknotes had disappeared found no evidence of this but said there were problems of “accuracy and completeness” in the central bank’s internal records. Corruption has scared off foreign investors. Frustrated donors are withholding funds. The Liberian dollar has dropped by a third against the US dollar since Weah took office. Inflation has soared as high as 28%. 12% of the Liberia population has access to electricity one of the lowest in the world. In the capital city of Monrovia, less than 20% of the population has access to electricity, while less than 2% of the population in the rural areas have electricity. Two-third of the children who are supposed to be in school are not in school.

For Liberians, the checkpoints are a reminder of the dark days of Liberia’s 14-year civil war that ended with the exile of president Charles Taylor in 2003. Fighters, sometimes as young as 8, ruled over checkpoints like this—meting out life, torture, and death with a terrifying capriciousness. More than 250,000 people were killed, 90% of the economy was obliterated. Partisan and ill-disciplined government officials have fueled the tension. Last year a soldier took to social media threatening to kill protesters. The president was forced to suspend a minister who attacked protest leaders by invoking old tensions between the Americo-Liberian elite, descendants of the freed African American slaves who settled here two centuries ago, and the indigenous population. It was that same rhetoric that sparked the country’s last slide into chaos. Many see the same clouds gathering again, this time between the haves at the top and the seething mass of Liberians who still live in extreme poverty. According to the civil servants Union, more than half of the 73,000 public service workers across the country were not paid their full salaries in November and December last year, despite the government’s promise to do so. The delay is the result of limited liquidity in banks, which has put restrictions on the amount that can be withdrawn in the local currency. International donors, on whom the government depends on more than two-thirds of its expenditure, are alarmed. In a joint letter leaked to social media nine diplomats from major donor countries warned the government to stop diverting donor funds from bank accounts set aside for agreed purposes.

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Many are beginning to demand to know what happened to $25 million his government withdrew from Liberia Federal Reserve account for inflation in price. Most ominously for the shaky Weah regime, the IMF and World Bank have warned future support will only come with deep cost-cutting, especially to public service wages that account for two-thirds of government expenditure. The legislators alone earn $120,000 a year before entitlements, more than most of their European counterparts, despite Liberia being one of the world’s poorest countries. The outlandish salaries permeate down several layers of government. The IMF/World Bank demand presents a big dilemma for Weah. His position depends on patronage from thousands of lucrative government appointments he makes. A corps of bureaucrats, who had spent 12 years learning their portfolios under the administration of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has been rejected to make way for supporters from Weah’s Congress for Democratic Change party. By cutting wages, he may risk that support, and, eventually, impeachment. Sirleaf refused to make that gamble. But without IMF/World Bank support it is hard to see how the economy avoids calamity.

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Last year Liberia was ranked 93 out of 180 in the world press freedom index from 89 the year before. The shutting down of Roots FM and deliberately vandalism of Joy FM tools when off air shows how the government rejects criticism after it was praised when it came to power. Recently, the international community has been increasing pressure on Liberia to implement the recommendations of the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) dating back to 2009 and never acted upon. UN representatives are taking the government to task. Monrovian representatives were in Geneva on July 9 and 10 last year to answer questions by the UN Human Rights Committee on their lack of action. Meanwhile, 76 Liberian, African, and international non-governmental organizations have submitted a request to the UN to get Monrovia to do more. The people Liberia need more from George Weah which they haven’t done, but if not done will one day lead to a mass revolt, because of the country’s low agricultural production and poor household incomes and Liberia have suffered from chronic food insecurity since the civil war. Healthcare systems are also struggling to recover and the Ebola epidemic of 2014 proved that the system was still too weak. Chronic malnutrition at 32 percent is among the highest in the world. He must also repair the dilapidated infrastructure of the country, by making sure that projects are taken serious creating no room for corruption.

Victor wrote from Lagos.

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