Political tension in Liberia is rising, political activists have called for the resignation of Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, one person at the forefront of these calls is the political leader of the Movement for Progressive Change (MPC) Simeon Freeman, in an interview with FrontPageAfrica, he defends his calls for the President to quit and also gives his perspective of the current state of the nation's economy, electricity and other issues.
FRONTPAGEAFRICA: Good afternoon Mr. Freeman and welcome to the Interview. What is your position on the ongoing calls for the resignation of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and the recent demonstrations held in the US?
SIMEON FREEMAN: I think it's quite healthy and it strengthens the democracy being referenced continuously, because these are all provisions of the constitution. In short, what people are saying is ' we lack confidence in your ability to generate the opportunities that will enable us to live our vision. People are saying in short 'you have managed a little over two billion dollars; that's the total of all of the money generated from the budget over the last couple of years and we have not seen you do anything substantive. People are saying you have been caught bribing the legislators when you gave pickups to them from a company; the president of Liberia should not have been a medium for the awarding of pickups to legislators. That is bribery.
FRONTPAGEAFRICA: People might say you cannot prove what you are saying. How did she s bribe lawmakers with pickups?
SIMEON FREEMAN: She gave pickups, a couple of years ago, it must have been 2007 when mittal steel gave her pickups for the legislators; she gave it to them. I'm sure your news pages still remember that. This was a little over 2million dollars given by the president to the lawmakers. That's clearly internationally unacceptable. Just take one company in America, let's say BP decides to give President Obama items to be given to congress, that's unacceptable. You also have had Moore Stephens, this company from the states, hired by LEITI, that audited the 66 agreement and they found that these agreements violate the Liberian law. It is not that Moore Stephens said that, the property law of Liberia says that you cannot lease for more than 25 to thirty years. The Sime Darby agreement, almost a million acres of land was given out for 63 years. The life expectancy in Liberia is 57; so these are mistakes from yesterday that are being repeated today.
Today, people are being driven off their land; you have a challenge in Bong Mines, you have a challenge in Putu, in Sinoe; all of these different things point to one direction; the lack od capacity to lead. If you look at what we pay in our heath sector as a government, VS what is contributed by donors, we contribute far less and you look at the overall impact of what is realized Liberia is up there among the seven leading countries in terms of maternal mortality. Everything in terms o health challenge is bad. The issue of over 23, 000 students failing is just the tip of the iceberg because consistently you have a challenge that the population of Grand Bassa County for example was about 10-25,0000 when the only high school was built the population has risen to more than a hundred thousand in Buchanan, then what do you have? You have free education so it runs to 80- 100 students in a class, so you expect 25, 000 students to fail. When you have all of these challenges, what do you do? Do you still move on with the existing President? Or do you feel that it is time to give it a change. This is the reason why the people that are doing these things are not doing the wrong thing. All they're saying is 'we do not trust your capacity to lead us anymore.
FFRONTPAGEAFRICA: The president recently highlighted her achievement made over the last seven years before the United Nations General Assembly, has the GoL under Sirleaf not made any progress at all?
SIMEON FREEMAN: You don't expect her to say anything other than what she has said. Madam Sirleaf in several of her speeches said she had to put in place the structures, the processes to enable accountability. That was her own speech, nobody begged her to have said that. The FrontPageAfrica as a newspaper wrote quotations from a general auditing commission report; the President was specific that we're establishing the GAC and the anti corruption commission and when she was Governance Commission chair, she was one o the Crafters of the GAC act to make it autonomous. In the process, a quotation was lifted naming somebody; that person took the newspaper to court and the newspaper editor was indicted and jailed. The President says well I cannot interfere with the legal process. Granted, but when one of her lieutenants, the Chairman of the board of the RIA was indicted, she interfered with the proceedings. When George Korpkor and others were indicted, they were still under the court for treason and the President granted them pardon and there was not a ruling for guilty for them.
The President have consistently shown that she can interfere with legal issues in Liberia but when it comes to this case she cannot. It just points us to the direction of the huge lack of capacity. On the issue of rule of law for the government zero, health, education, infrastructure, the results show. People keep referencing these roads, these roads are just two inch thick. Give it six months down the road; as you can see, the SKD boulevard road was rebuilt. If you build a road in Liberia, it has to be six inch thick, if it's two three inches thick, it is going to be off in two to three years. Every mineral in this country has been sold; government has been able to raise more than two billion dollars taxing the people that are already over-burdened. There is no difference between now and the period when the hay tax was being collected by the former administration. So show me where this government is really strong and then I am going to comment on that.
FRONTPAGEAFRICA: People might say 2011 afforded you all the opportunity to change the government but Sirleaf won a second term why not wait until 2017 to test the polls?
SIMEON FREEMAN: But if I look at everything, everything this government is doing is so bad and I think substantively the government needs to call it a quit. She needs to step down and in fact I was one of the first person to say that on July 26 during my address to the nation, I said she has failed and she needs to go. I think people are being very naïve, for anybody to think that the future of Liberia rests upon this disastrous administration, then that person has a functional problem and that person clearly needs to have a mind check because Liberia was in a better state than it currently in and it is going to be in a better state after Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Those who are suggesting that are suggesting that after the sirleafs leave Liberia, Liberia is going to collapse? They are making a serious mistake. To even make such an assumption is a serious mistake.
FRONTPAGEAFRICA: Let's talk about the Liberian Economy, what's your take on it. There is currently inflation in the currency rate and prices are skyrocketing. The minister of finance was talking about inflation the other day and said the Central Bank of Liberia has a very good monetary policy but we see the rate going up and you as a businessman, how does that affect you?
SIMEON FREEMAN: It is sad that the minister of finance said that; it's also good to note that as minister of finance, he has to be saying some of the things that are positive, hopefully that miracles will be worked after those declarations. The sad truth is fiscal policy looks in one direction. The CBL's own approach in my mind is hurting the Liberian economy even though it appears like it is helping. Most of the loans being awarded by the CBL is in Liberian dollars and most of the beneficiaries of the Liberian dollars are people that are looking for money to import goods to Liberia. So you have a lot of Liberian dollars on the market chasing too few US dollars and that's also causing inflation. The people that are being capacitated are not manufacturing; it is not a sector of manufacturers that you're helping to say raw materials will be imported to lower the demand. You will notice that during the Samuel Doe era, our balance of trade was that we were exporting more and importing less hence low inflation. Under her (Sirleaf) administration the deficit is huge. You have 250 million dollar difference and what wee export is far less than what we import because we're not doing value added. What you have is the demand for imported goods consistently on a wide range, is that even dry pepper is being imported to Liberia ; so you have demand for US$ in all sectors. Currencies work based on demand; currency does not work based on any other factors other than demand and if you're not demanding the US$, the rate is going to drop, so anything that is demanded value goes up.
FRONTPAGEAFRICA: So what is the solution to this problem? We're stuck with these two currencies, the Liberian Dollar and US Dollar.
SIMEON FREEMAN: It has got nothing to do with the two currencies; if you brought one currency in the rate is going to go higher. Look at what's happening in Nigeria, Ghana; if you try to strengthen your economy such that you can have a lot more manufacturing and exportation of finished product, it strengthens your currency on that front at least for the basics for us in Liberia. There are other international dynamics that compel demand for currencies that also cause currencies to fall and rise, but in the case of Liberia its as simple as increasing our exportation. That means we will have to look at industry. And there is this argument of lack of electricity; you see the approaches have been wrong; so now they come up with the same arguments. In 2006/2007 we were the ones saying look your power policy is wrong; the President's response was, small light today, big light tomorrow. We were saying look, you have to be radical like; as much as radical as the Taylor government is not the best reference, but Taylor forgot about this whole telecom thing and let the private sector play in the telecom sector and what do you have today, we have the highest concentration of growth in the telecom sector.
If by 2006/2007 we had let the private sector participate in the electrification of Liberia, you would have a lot more actors. For example in Paynesville you have a guy giving electricity to most of the people in that Dwazohn belt, so you see, he will be able to grow as a result; so if you would have had a private sector playing, you would have had many generators today, people selling power and other private entrepreneurs from outside of Liberia would have bought equity today. We cannot be waiting for them to do their trial and error at our expense. This factory for example is run by generators than if it was a government al approach to invest in things like manufacturing; there would have been a clear definition where they would have said if you open a manufacturing plant we give you this automatically, so you don't have to go begging anybody; once you open your factory you automatically qualify and as a result of that we should have been doing a lot more manufacturing.
At this juncture, they want to do quick fix and it is about the confidence of the people in their ability and their capacity to deliver on those fronts. Failures to be able to realize those things is causing a lot of fatigue; that is why, we support strongly the leave of Madam Sirleaf. Those who demonstrated against President Sirleaf, I just want to thank them immensely for the number of persons that turn up. During the days when President Sirleaf demonstrated against the Tolbert government they were less than five, less than six, people don't know the history. Those guys were more than thirty so they were even a lot more and the fact that they developed the courage as responsible men and women in the diaspora concerned about the wellbeing of their people to have demonstrated, we commend them; the MPC and Simeon Freeman stand with them.
FRONTPAGEAFRICA: Let's talk about this whole electricity issue, the government has set a date for the completion of the hydro, do you think this date is realistic?
SIMEON FREEMAN: Obviously it is not realizable. Do they have the funding now, no they do not have the funding; they're just talking. Let them show the documentation, they don't have the funding. What they discussed with India is only preliminary works. You know these things take time; you remember during the former chairman Gyude Bryant period the world bank agreed to fund the road to Buchanan, and then the World Bank decided to get Stanley consulting into the country; Stanley consulting did a feasibility study that lasted for almost a year and a half; after that they had to take u to a year to find the contractor. The contractor after the bidding process was finally identified; the contractor has to deploy equipment that takes almost three to four years and it may not even happen in the lifetime of President Sirleaf even if this whole loan with India is concluded. It is just a political aspect of the loan that has been concluded. These are some of the things that increase frustration overtime. That's the same thing that came out about 16 billion dollar investment and the total quantity of jobs that projected from 16billion dollar investment was 90, 000 jobs over a ten years period; 9,000 jobs per annum. The second thing is skills; we don't have the exhaustive capacity to assume the jobs that is being referenced.
FRONTPAGEAFRICA: We've seen this new group led by Mr. Musa Bility promoting peace and giving the President a rousing welcome when she returns, what's your take on that?
SIMEON FREEMAN: These are all looters. What do you expect? These are all the beneficiaries of the exploitation and pillaging of Liberia. Musa Bility was just indicted and even though the court indicted him; what happened? Nobody is interested in that. The President has said I've got confidence in him; so that clearly silences a court indictment. What can happen now is the President can enable him financially to go to the court and clear his name; that is what should happen under the circumstances. The entire body does not have credibility. What they are trying to present clearly is to say that those who are calling for Ellen to resign want war, playing on the fact that a lot of people are war fatigue and what we are saying is no, it is a peaceful exercise of the process of changing a leadership. That's basically that; so I think there is a clear misunderstanding.
FRONTPAGEAFRICA: So, the President comes in next week, we will see them at the airport, do you intend to also give her a big welcome?
SIMEON FREEMAN: All of those who are pillaging the economy will be there to say 'thank you because you are back; you are the symbol, so long you remain in power we will be able to maintain the contracts. We will continue to have access to the resources that we have access to. So long you are in power there will be hopelessness for the rest of the people' that she calls the noisy minority yes we clearly understand that. Those who will be there are those who are beneficiaries of the spoils of war.
FRONTPAGEAFRICA: We see two political parties- the CDC is split right in the middle, we see the Congress for Democratic Change which is split right in the middle on this; but the Liberty Party has said let's give the President a chance to complete her term.
SIMEONE FREEMAN: Just look around, the Liberty Party officials have some of the best contracts, if my memory serves me right I think the Liberty Party Chair has some big legal contract of government institutions. The former standard bearer is now saying he is coming back and is lawyer for mittal steel; so they are all part of the beneficiaries of all that's happening. Liberian history has a funny way of catching up with people who plunder the economy.