Liberia: First Annual Message - Pres. Weah Opens Pandora Box On Economy, Citizenship

Traders in Monrovia's largest market district of Waterside

Monrovia — In the first most important speech to his compatriots since his inauguration, President George Manneh Weah on Monday outlined his government's policies and reforms that would form the basis of his administration.

In fulfilment of his constitutional responsibility, President Weah presented to the 54th Legislature and the nation his plans for the next years. Many Liberians hailed his speech, but some were critical about his support for dual citizenship and land ownership for people of non-negro descent.

Weah outlined how his administration would achieve quality education, economic improvements, and road connectivity. He vowed to also cut his salary and benefits by 25% despite concerns about a full disclosure of the exact amount.

With just a week in office, Weah was quick to separate the economic status of the former government from his, while reporting the collection of US$489.1 million, which shows 13% decline in the 2017 budget as compare to the previous year that amounted to US$565.1 million.

"I cannot vouch for the accuracy or completeness of this information, in the absence of verification by a full and proper audit conducted by a competent authority," he said of the figures obtained from the Sirleaf's administration.

He emphatically admitted that his administration has inherited a broke government. It is unclear whether President Weah will order a complete audit of the Sirleaf's administration.

The Good Plans

What many see as the defining moment in the President's address to the Legislature was his pronouncement about slicing his salary and benefits.

Weah's decision obviously appeases many Liberians who have lamented the whooping incomes of top public officials. His decision now puts members of the 54th Legislature under pressure and renews calls for them to also reduce their salaries amid Liberia's shrinking economy.

Some lawmakers claim they have also been considering similar move.

"The issue of salary reduction is nothing new for the Senate as there is already plans by him and few of his colleagues to introduce a law that will call for salary reduction," says Senator Alphaso Gaye of Grand Gedeh County.

"We have had the issue of salary reduction on the table for some time now Senators Nyounblee Karngar and Armah Jallah - have talked about it - but with a lot of conditionality and we will need to discuss it."

President Weah also drew applauds on Monday when he announced that his government would underwrite the WAEC exam fees of senior high students as a way of improving the educations system.

And he assured the introduction of new legislations and policies for sustainable economic growth and expands agriculture; address the country's infrastructure deficit including road construction and the provision of affordable and adequate electricity.

Achieving the President's plan would require initiating robust economic reforms and policies to curb waste and corruption.

In the address to the Legislature, he promised to submit to the body a bill on the decentralization of institutions and systems of governance to augment the Code of Conduct in order to increase accountability of public officials and reduce the incidence of corruption.

Also, Weah assured that his administration would embark upon a "comprehensive road and highway construction project linking all county capitals with paved primary roads.

"They will be built to the highest international standards, and linked to paved secondary farm-to-market roads that will enhance agriculture, trade, and tourism in Liberia. Particular priority will be given to a coastal highway that will run from Buchanan to Harper, which will eventually end the complete isolation of south-eastern Liberia, a condition that has existed since the formation of this country," he said.

But Weah would have to relied on "the assistance of friendly governments and institutions" to raise US$3 billion dollar to solve Liberia's dire road connectivity problems.

"This is going to be very challenging, but I am convinced that, with, this can be achieved before the end of my tenure," he said.

He promised to, in the coming weeks, make recommendations to the legislature for actions.

"This is the challenge that we face. In order to overcome these constraints and reverse these trends, we, the Executive, will have to work in close collaboration with you, the Legislature, as separate, but coordinate branches of Government, to find solutions to these obstacles to our progress and development.

The Bad Plans

Weah also made known his plans to recommend to the legislature some of the debatable issues that surround dual citizenship and property ownership for people of non-negro descent.

He claims the decision by Liberia's founding fathers as enshrined in the constitution to bar people of non-negro descent from holding citizenship was only "appropriate for the 19th century" and that the "threats and conditions" that existed at that time are no more.

"... I am of the view that these threats no longer exist, and that these conditions have changed. In these circumstances, it is my view that keeping such a clause in our constitution is unnecessary, racist, and inappropriate for the place that Liberia occupies today in the comity of nations," he said.

But Weah's plans to amend the right to Liberia's citizenship may sparked jitteriness amongst many Liberians who have often expressed concern about granting no-negro descents citizenship amid fears of handing them absolute controls of the economy at the detriment of indigenous Liberians.

Senator Gaye argues that dual citizenship and citizenship to people of non-Negro descent is "bad".

"I don't support dual citizenship if you want to be a citizen of Liberia go and denounce the other," he said.

It can be recalled that that President Weah, in his inaugural speech, outlined the disadvantages of Liberians being spectators in their own economy. His comment was drawn from existing concerns over the dominance of foreign nationals in the Liberian economy.

However, giving green light to foreigners by potentially supporting their citizenship or property ownership rights opens another debate about his policy "pro-poor" policy.

Some lawmakers supports Weah's call to amendment the citizenship laws.

Senator Morris Saytumah of Bomi County says dual citizenship for Liberia is "doable."

"If the law requires that foreigners should buy properties in Liberia I will support," he said.

And Representative Fornati Koffa of Grand Kru County claims that the President's speech was "bold" and he supports the vision.

"It is a bold policy initiative; we are in a far more modern and advanced world," Koffa said minutes after the speech. "The President hit the nail on the head. In this modern world where people and nations are interdependent the necessary restrictions we had in 1960 no longer applied."

Weah's administration has taken on an incomplete dual citizenship initiative launched by former President Sirleaf.

He is also concern about the restriction placed in Constitution on Liberians holding dual citizenship and he believes that most Liberians who are also citizens of another country probably acquired the additional nationality as a means to escape from the terrible atrocities, which characterized the country civil conflict, and for economic survival in their new countries of residence.

Weah believes many Liberians in the diaspora have heard his clarion call to return home and bring their energies, skills, talents, and expertise to build of a new Liberia.

President Weah: "We need them, and so long as they were born in this country, they were Liberians first, and I believe that they should be welcomed back home with open arms whether or not they are required to renounce their adopted nationalities, should be a matter of their consciences and the laws which govern their naturalization in their respective domiciles. They should be free to make those choices and decisions.

"And if conditions now exist in Liberia that make them want to return home and contribute their quota to the development of our common patrimony, then I do not think that it is fair to treat them as noncitizens in the land of their birth."

Liberia has had a bad past with dual citizenship involving positions of trust. When Ellen Corkrum, a diaspora Liberian, squandered hundreds of thousands at the Liberia Airport Authority it sparked distrust in Liberians about people with dual citizenship.

She was indicted for theft of property and economic sabotage in line with a deal that was intended to revamp the country's lone international airport (Robert International Airport) which was devastated by the civil war. Corkrum fled the country and could not be prosecuted or extradited because she had an American citizenship.

There are also concerns of massive capital flight, which would severely impedes Liberia's economic growth as many public officials with dual citizenship remits most of their incomes out of the country instead of investing in the local economy.

A recent report by the Central Bank of Liberia showed that over US$449 million was remitted out of Liberia in 2017.

This, according the CBL, is a factor responsible for the country's economic woes.

Also, a survey conducted by an global group, International Journal of Sciences: Basic and Applied Research, shows that Liberia have lost about $10 billion in capital flight from 2004 to 2013 with an annual average of $966 million.

Increasing since 2004 capital flight reached its highest at $1.9billion in 2007 and continued to fluctuate in reduction after 2009.

Reacting to the President's plans, Liberia's Ambassador to the United Nations, Lewis Browne, said its is a "bold vision" and should be discussed to determine is its is supported individually or not.

"It doesn't matter whether you agree or disagree but let's talk about it and move forward and discuss a bold vision that has been given to the country.

"The issues raised are issues he said should be debated by the country this is a big issue that the country needs to be serious about."

"I represent the view of the Liberian people at the United Nations and wherever the people of Liberia stand on the issue that's where I stand."

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