Against the backdrop of a slew of media reports suggesting that the controversial ETON loan agreement passed into law by the legislature had indeed fizzled out, the ETON company has taken up the charge and dispatched a highly ranked official to Monrovia to clear the air surrounding the controversy in an apparent attempt allay growing public concerns about the loan which observers say smacks of a "419 deal.
ETON executive director, Dr. Yungseoung Jin, a South Korean national, arrived in Monrovia on Wednesday night, a development that CDC supporters believe should put to rest all the uncertainty centered around a deal whose momentum has waned in recent weeks.
Dr. Jin, according to Finance Minister Samuel D. Tweah, is here to sit with top government officials in an effort to finally consummate the deal that would see the commencement of work on the projects in weeks.
"He is here on a two-day visit with top officials to discuss and finalize financial and technical details of the proposed $536 million loan financing agreement," a top official within government told the Daily Observer yesterday.
While in country, Minister Tweah noted that Dr. Jin will meet with the Ministers of Finance, of Justice, of Public Works and of State.
He is also expected to meet with the Legal Advisor to the President, Cllr. Archie Bernard, and other relevant officials of government.
The much talked about ETON deal was hastily ratified by both houses of the National Legislature weeks ago and subsequently approved by the President.
It can be recalled that the ETON loan agreement had generated intense controversy about its viability. and its potential to provide desperately needed financing to construct roads in South Eastern and Western Regions of Liberia.
Critics slammed ETON as a sham company, and the loan agreement a fraud. They argued that the company lacked a demonstrated and proven capability to provide financing of such magnitude given that it had no visible assets and its management shadowy.
It was struck off the Singapore business registry and has been dormant for at least a decade. It has no online presence, and its registration in Hong Kong in March this year was activated just for the loan agreement with Liberia, a critic observed.
What seems to have baffled many is that on the Liberia side, there is no project document on record anywhere that can justify the technical details of the Liberian project (the coastal highway). No economic or social rate of return analysis has also been made. There is also no environmental or social impact analysis in the contract which was sealed early March between the government and Eton.
The agreement also awards a construction contract in the loan agreement without international competitive bidding. No attestation by the Public Procurement and Concessions Commission (PPCC). Until government's reticence on the proposed arrangement was broken a day or two ago, the public appeared to have harbored the belief that the deal was dead and forgotten.
However, in a press conference last Thursday, August 2, the Minister of Information, Lenn Eugene Nagbe, dispelled all notions that the government was considering the cancellation of the agreement. "The ETON Loan Agreement is now a law of the Land, thus cannot be easily cancelled," Minister Nagbe said.
Another argument put forth by critics was that the 50-day period stipulated in the agreement for the conclusion and disbursement of the first tranche of the loan has since expired with no sign of progress in the works. Based on this perception, public opinion appeared to weigh in favor of cancellation of the agreement..
But Finance Minister Tweah indicated that a close examination of the agreement contradicts the above argument.
He made reference to excerpts from the agreement that states: "WHEREAS, it is agreed and understood by the Parties that the transaction contemplated shall comprise the total disbursement of US$536,400,000.00 (United States Dollars Five Hundred Thirty-Six Million Four Hundred Thousand) financing to the Government of Liberia, deposited into the Central Bank of Liberia, in two (2) tranches; it being understood and agreed that the first (1st) tranche of at least fifty percent (50%) shall be disbursed within fifty (50) banking days after ratification of this Loan Financing Agreement by the National Legislature of Liberia and the issuance of sovereign guarantee by the Central Bank of Liberia; ... "
"This means the beginning of Fifty Banking Days commenced after the ratification by the National Legislature, signing by the President and issuance of Sovereign Guarantee by the GOL. A careful examination of the timeline since the signing of the agreement by the President on June 14th shows that the 50 banking-days have not yet expired," Minister Tweah said.
Banking days are determined by total number of business days in a month, that being 20 days, he also noted. "Calculating from June 20th to July 20th there are 20 banking days. From July 20th to August 20th would be another 20 banking days. Up until today's date less than 30 banking days have elapsed since the issuance of the Sovereign Guarantee by the GOL to ETON," Minister Tweah said.
According to officials, the loan is meant to finance the country's coastal corridor-connection of County Capitals Road Projects -- construction of the Buchanan-Cestos City-Greenville Barclayville Road. This amount will also see the pavement of the Barclayville-Sasstown Road, Barclayville-Pleebo Road, and finally the Medina-Robertsport Road and Tubmanburg-Bopolu Road.
Also included under the agreement or financing arrangement are rest stops and roadside service areas; the construction of a vocational training center in Greenville, Sinoe County; the construction of mini-soccer stadiums in Harper, Maryland County; Barclayville, Grand Kru County; Cestos City in Rivercess County; Zwedru, Grand Gedeh County; Robertsport, Grand Cape Mount County, and Bopolu, Gbarpolu County.
The visit of the ETON Finance boss, according to Minister Tweah, is to verify all that is there to verify and seal the deal for the good of the country once all goes on well as it should.
"The deal is still valid and in process. What the visit of the ETON boss signals is for him to respond to all the critical questions, such as the source of the money he wants to loan to Liberia and its good standing with international financial procedures," Tweah said.
He said now is the time for Dr. Yungseoung Jin to say to the Liberian people what ETON is, where its offices can be located and how it generates its funds to loan those in need anywhere around the world.
"We have been told by our partners, including the World Bank, that if ETON can clearly state and authenticate its good standing, then the deal we are about to get into with them is a great concession deal. All that is needed is the cleanliness of the money that is coming from ETON," he noted.
Tweah emphasized that ETON will now have the chance to distinguish itself.
"We are pleased to inform the public that once all that is required of ETON is settled, we will have nothing to worry about. The interest rate is very reasonable for our country that is striving to leave the ashes of poor or lack of good infrastructure, basically roads and several other sectors' infrastructure," he noted.
He admonished that people should have no reason to worry about the deal even if it fails.
"We will be losing nothing if, due to lack of proper and well-respected measures from ETON, the deal collapses. In fact, the 50-day finance delivery period is still ongoing. One week or more days are still a part of the agreement and I think neither ETON nor our government has failed in any way yet," Tweah noted, clarifying recent speculations that the delivery period had elapsed.
He said whatever discussions go on today with the ETON boss will be made public through the various media outlets in the country.