20 March 2014

Liberia: Looming Implosion - Liberia - On the Verge of New War, If...

Many critics believe that the international support that she enjoys is causing her to ignore the dire economic circumstances in the country. It is alleged that millions of dollars have been spent on international lobbying to consolidate her international support. There is a major controversy that a lot of resources are being used to bolster her international image. As a result Liberia is on life support, aided and abetted by the international community.

"Many of the issues that drove the country into violence remain just below the surface, waiting to bubble up when the right combination of factors align" - US-Backed Liberia Governance Stakeholder Survey

Monrovia - Post-war Liberia risks sliding back into a civil crisis unless the administration of President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf races against time in dealing with many of the issues which drove the country to war, according to a sensitive but unclassified US. Government-backed Liberia Governance Stakeholder Survey. The 120-page revelation in possession of FrontPageAfrica was done with the guidance of the United States Aid for International Development (USAID) and relied heavily on the analysis and relationships of the USAID Economic Growth, Health, Education and the Democracy and Governance team.

While citing the progress achieved in the past few years, the report states that a lot of challenges are keeping many Liberians at the bottom of the economic ladder. The report notes that economic conditions are poor with eight in ten Liberians surviving on less than a dollar per day with a lot of infrastructure in ruins. "The institutions of governance have not yet matured enough to allocate resources fairly and mitigate differences." A culture of impunity that already existed before two civil wars, according to the report, is in some ways, worsened by the conflict, which destroyed the social and moral fabric of certain aspects of society and fundamentally-altered notions of right and wrong. "Many of the issues that drove the country into violence remain just below the surface waiting to bubble up when the right combinations of factors align."

$US16 Billion Investment, Nothing to Show

The report attributes much of the problems to urban elites privileged by colonial circumstances who continue to control nearly all aspects of political and economic decision-making, excluding the mostly-uneducated, rural indigenous population from economic and political power. But the most startling revelation is a word of caution in the report that if nothing is done to breach the divide between the haves and have-nots, it could increase the potential of the country sliding back into war. "If the exclusion is not addressed, the potential for renewed conflict remains high, jeopardizing the progress that has been made because so many powerful interests benefit from the current situation-mainly powerful urban elites- there is often little incentives for change."

In recent weeks many Liberians have decried the poor state of the economy marred by the depreciation of the local currency and the accompany high inflation, especially for food and transportation, which makes life difficult, if not impossible for many of the country's hapless citizens, struggling to make ends meet. The banks are also struggling to keep afloat and many financial institutions are stressed and could be insolvent in short order unless the Central Bank of Liberia infuses millions of dollars to keep the financial sector above water.

All this coming in the wake of a purported $US16 billion investment in the post-war nation, but little to show. Many of the country's infrastructures remain in ruins and consistent electricity remains a problem for many. In areas where electricity exists, very few can afford.

The report points to the massive discrepancies in the fact that the country has been unable to take care of itself despite an abundance of resources. "Concessions are by far the most significant element of the Liberian economy. Some estimates that they have resulted in $US16billion in investment in the country. Yet the sector is plagued by several fundamental structural problems."

'Elites make decision'

Part of the problem, according to the report is the fact that Iron ore, timber, palm oil, rubber, petroleum, gold and diamonds could offer tremendous opportunities to Liberians but the process of awarding concessions to private companies to use land to explore and extract or cultivate those resources is opaque. Little-known companies like China Union and Elenilto, unknown before their foray into Liberia have won major concessions even when competing against major international companies such as Rio Tinto, Vale and Tata with known provenance and the necessary financial requirement to develop the projects. As a result many of the iron ore and mineral concessions are slow to develop and cannot reduce the rising unemployment rate in the country. Eighty five percent of the labor force is unemployed or engaged in vulnerable employment.

Many critics believe that the international support that she enjoys is causing her to ignore the dire economic circumstances in the country. It is alleged that millions of dollars have been spent on international lobbying to consolidate her international support. There is a major controversy that a lot of resources are being use to bolster her international image. As a result Liberia is on life support, aided and abetted by the international community and there are indications that fatigued is creeping into her international support. This is dangerous for the administration as her tenuous hold on to power in the domestic political arena has often been validated by her supposed international support. If it is perceived by her domestic adversaries that she is weakened internationally, it might encourage opportunists to engage in unorthodox political measures to either ensure lame duck status early on even though she has more than three years to govern or worse, street politics could steer the country into unchartered terrain such as the Arab Spring. In the past few weeks, the government has been unable to brush away the controversy trumpeted by Rep. Bhophal Chambers(CDC, Maryland County). Sirleaf has denied allegations that her government spent more than $200 million in lobbying fees to foreign firms in the United States as claimed by Chambers. Chambers' allegations have been bolstered by a report in the Roll Call, the newspaper of record for the United States Congress, quoting the Department of Justice, which reported that while foreign countries were spending less to lobby America's federal government and while several countries and foreign interests spent less in 2010, other countries, including Liberia, is cited by the publication as one of those country which boosted its lobbying outlays by about 36 percent to become the largest-spending country in 2010 with $45.9 million.

Sirleaf told the legislature in a letter to plenary last week, that it is "preposterous" for anyone to believe that her government could spend such an amount. She said only the US firm KRL lobbied on behalf of Liberia from 2007 to 2013 and was paid a total of a little over $368,000. The Roll Call suggests that Liberia spent most of the money to lobby for debt relief, litigation and defense issues. "As is often the case with foreign countries, those with little often have to lobby the most. Liberia has endured several economic issues during the past decade, including a civil war. In 2010, it lobbied Congress on debt relief, litigation and defense issues. Cote d'Ivoire, commonly known as the Ivory Coast, came out of nowhere to spend $6.1 million in 2010, according to the DOJ. The country, located on Liberia's southern border, spent just $56,000 in 2009. The Marshall Islands also spent more, boosting its spending by 135 percent last year as its lobbying expenditures rose to almost $8.8 million in 2010."

Chambers is calling for an inquiry and has cited a US State Department report, stating that from 2006 to 2009, 102 lobby payments were tracked by foreign lobby trackers, amounting to an alleged $263 million. "I think the communication from the President, if she says from 2007, now she has not looked at 2006, which we discovered to be the amount of $19 million. Let's say $19.7 million that was spent for 2009 for lobbying and public relations."

As critics continue to pound on the Sirleaf administration over the lobbying scandal, many contend that the government has not yet communicated how or why it spent so much on lobbying, adding weight to the US report which suggests that decisions concerning the country are made by the urban elites in Monrovia "who do not seek the input of the local communities or adequately consider the impact of their decisions on the livelihoods of citizens in local communities or the environment in which they live."

The report notes that although the country may benefit as a whole from concession revenues or see how concessions revenue, many communities in and around concessions do not receive the direct economic benefits of concession revenues or see how concessions revenues benefit them. A few elites benefit financially from the current system. Information systems designed to manage information about concessions lack appropriate data on which multiple companies have claims to the same piece of land, either for the same type of concessions or different ones. These problems are driven by a sense of urgency to improve Liberia's economic condition, almost at any cost."

Weak Law Enforcement, Regulations

Besides the issues with concessions, security and the rule of law continues to pose dangers for many seeking justice. The report says that a vast majority of the laws in the country are not enforced, businesses not effectively regulated, and justice is not carried out in accordance with the constitution mostly due to the culture of impunity and weak institutions. More importantly, the report appears skeptical about the ability of the post-war army and police to maintain the peace after the departure of UNMIL by suggesting that Liberia cannot maintain its own security or enforce laws through the Liberian National Police(LNP) alone. "It's role is bolstered by the United Nations Mission in Liberia(UNMIL) force, which has been 15,000-strong at times, but is now drawing down, " and poor leadership have left the capacity and will to regulate." The report points to decades of neglect, "brain-drain", and poor leadership as a key reason why the judicial system remains in shambles. "Prosecutors have difficulty building basic cases and the courts rarely make independent decisions, meaning that contracts are unlikely to be enforced. Most citizens - and nearly all of the indigenous rural population - do not have or want access to the formal legal system. Yet, the traditional system that they trust lacks consistency, fairness, transparency and documentation."

Star-Power Prez; 'Unchecked' Executive

Adding to the problem, according to the report is the president's stature in the international community which at times derails the check and balance amongst the three branches of government.

Says the report: "The President is very strong, both as an individual and as an institution. Weaknesses in the legislature and court systems, coupled with her stature in the international community often allow her power to go unchecked. Multiple interviewees told the US surveying team that the president and her close advisors make many key decisions with little external input or transparency. "She has proven that she is willing to act under the right circumstances, but weighs the political and economic consequences carefully even if there are effectively no checks and balances. For example, many interviewees say she has personally overseen the renegotiation of certain concessions agreements."

Corruption, according to the report, as defined by Transparency International, the United Nations and other international organizations, takes both grand and petty forms. "In payroll and auditing /accounting, corruption is primarily classified as petty in nature in the form of ghost workers, double dippers, and leakages, even though the overall amounts of loss can be quite large. In land and concessions, it is both petty and grand in nature, because it affects both day-to-day bureaucratic transactions(e.g. surveying, deeds, etc.) and enables a small number of private sector interests to capture the state and adapt the rules of the game to their own interests(e.g. concessions, negotiations.) Specific allegations of corruption are next to impossible for journalists to investigate because they lack the capacity and the deep tradition of public sector opacity."

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