Monrovia — In two-hours-one-minute, President George Weah recited some of the same old challenges Liberia faces but said the country is "far better of" despite the enormity of concerns about the country's struggling economy, increasing hardship and allegations of corruption.
'Broken Economy' Cliche
The economy is still broken and as ordinary Liberians endure the harshness of the situation, the President, during his speech, tried to obliviously dodge the reality.
"During the course of our first year n office , i can confidently state that Liberia is far better today under our leadership that it was 12 months ago," said President Weah.
In his speech, President Weah discoherantly outlined his achievements and recited age-old challenges as his administration's stumbling blocks.
Many of these challenges were also outlined by his predecessor, Ellen Johnson- Sirleaf.
Said Weah: "It is important to mention that the broken economy inherited by our administration, caused by the risk associated with the democratic transition in 2017, collapse of the country's major export commodities prices on the global market, the UNMIL withdrawal, and the effect of the Ebola Virus Disease in 2014, is still in a struggling state."
Citing economic data, the Liberian leader relied on a 2.5 real GDP growth as progress, which he said will reach 4.7 by 2023 based on growth of the gold, agricultural and forestry sectors, and formation of Special Economic Zones.
Said weah: "Even with these optimistic recovery forecasts, our projected growth rates are still below the pre-Ebola period, when the economy grew on average by 7.5 percent annually."
Already, the Liberian dollar is performing dismally against the US dollar and the President's alluding to the market situation chronologically, epitomizes the real problem dogging the economy.
"This massive depreciation of the Liberian dollar was primarily driven by the deterioration of the country's terms of trade, and an increase in demand for United States dollars to service imports. Other factors were the legacy of the UNMIL drawdown and the lingering adverse impact of the EBOLA crisis," he said.
He recalled how his "economic speech" delivered mid 2018, led to the released of US$25 million dollar to mop up excess liquidity of the Liberian dollars on the market although there have been little or impact.
He revealed that only US$17 million was used and a balance of US$8 million is still reserved in the Central Bank.
His disclosure will certainly reignite further debate in the coming days about the impact of his economic strategy while the exchange rate continues to skyrocket.
The country's trade deficit stood at US$561.8 million from January to November 2018 due to "low export earnings as compared to payments for imports, " he said, boasting about doubling of iron ore from US$57.8 million to US$106.5 million.
He added that the slight growth of rubber exports from US$67 million to US$68.9 million, and suggested that "a major structural transformation" to alleviate the huge import dependency.
Meanwhile, he pronounced a slight decline of the country's gross foreign reserve; this means there might be more economic concerns this year.
Still Heavily Aid dependent
The President also catalogued the support and interventions of foreign partners including USAID, European Union and the Swedish government, hailing them for their support.
According to the President, grants to Liberia grew by 5.7 percent, which is at US$480.6 million as compare to 2017's US$454 million.
Added President Weah: "Tax revenue increased from US$384.9 million in 2017, to US$387.6 million in 2018. Non-tax revenue increased from US$55 million in 2017, to US$64.7 million in 2018, mainly on account of active collection of the Road Fund Levy."
Possibility of More Debts
At the same time, he put the country's current debt burden at US$987.8 million, which he said has increased by US$109.6 million during the 2018 based on borrowing from the World Bank, African Development Bank and others.
"To date, my administration has not added to the debt stock but that does not mean we will not increase the stock of debt. In the interest of our people, we are working on this," he said, signalling that his administration may incurred more debts in the coming months."
Interestingly, the President did not mention his two signature loan deals - Eton and Ebomaf - during his address. Those were agreements he sought after in 2018 although the process was overwhelmed with several missteps and have reportedly collapsed.
L$16 Billion Report Pending
President Weah's mention the much anticipated investigation report of the missing L$16 billion will certainly be the center of discussion in the coming weeks.
Said Weah: "The Report from the Kroll Audit Team is expected at the end of February 2019, and will be released to the public by USAID.
"If it is established that there has been any willful act of criminality, negligence, or malfeasance by anyone implicated in the reports, the full weight of the law will be brought to bear."
What Happened Inside the Capitol?
By: Henry Karmo, FPA Legislative Reporter
As usual, the President's State of the Republic Address is graced by dignitaries from all sectors, including the members of the diplomatic corps, politicians and partners.
On Monday, Guests had waited over three hours for the President's address, which he begun at 1600 GMT.
Unexpectedly, President Weah was not wearing his famous "Pro-poor suits," he rather donned a three-piece navy blue coat suit. Maybe, it was a surprise of many.
House Speaker Bhofal Chambers kept the presence of what is now been dubbed as the most famous attire of government officials - the pro-poor suit.
meanwhile, the atmosphere inside the hall was arguably charged, as supporters chanted pro-government slogans. At some point of his speech, the president's supporters disrupted the protocol with the chanting of pro-campaign slogans - as it as normally done during the party's political rallies.
"Muyan! Muyan! CDC Muyan! Amanda! Amanda!" They shouted.
Absence amongst Liberia's popular political figures was former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who attended Weah's first address in 2018 did not show up.
However, her former Vice President, Ambassador Joseph Boakai - the man who Weah won in the 2017 in the fiercely contested election, was in attendance.
Per the normal legislative practices, when the President comes is at the Capitol ot deliver the State of the Republic Address, the Speaker of the House of Representatives calls the Joint Session to order. The joint session comprises of the Senate and House of Representative.
This time around, the motion for the Joint Session to be called to order was made by Rep. Munah Pelham-Youngblood of Montserrado County's District #9, a staunch member of the president's party, and she was seconded by Senator Dallas Gueh of Rivercess County.
Seeking Legislature Support
Earlier, he urged the Legislature to pass into law several bills, including the Acts to decriminalize free speech, dual citizenship and domestic violence amongst others. He is also persistent with acquiring more sweeping appointing powers.
He promised to submit more bills including an act to pay tuitions of undergraduate students of all public tertiary public institution across the country, national youth act, and a revised LBDI act.
Youth Are 'Potential Threat'
In his speech, President Weah described Liberian youth as "the largest component of our population that hold the ultimate key for the development and prosperity of Liberia".
But he is aware that they are also "potential threats to national security" if existing issues that continue to hinder their economic development and transformation are ignore.
He disclosed that, in the coming year, several youth empowerment projects will target young people across the country.
The President sought to inform Liberians, through their lawmakers about what his administration did for youth in 2018, including projects to improve education.
Highlighted among the many progress on education, he disclosed how the EU made an investment of 20 million Euros for the development of Technical Vocational Education which will enhance the development of young Liberians. He disclosed that "about 15,000 individuals and households" will benefit, while 129 communities in all 15 counties.
Development Partners Hailed
Speaking further on education, Pres. Weah said his administration undertook new measures to improve the sector, disclosing that the Ministry of Education has embarked on a reform, including evaluation of the existing legal and administrative framework.
He also spoke of his tuition waiver for all public universities and colleges and the payment of high school students regional exams fees.
Said Weah: "The government of Liberia paid the WASSCE fees for all 33,931 12th graders, and 17,679 9th graders; amounting to the sum of US$2.03 million and L$41.5 million respectively, as a means of relieving parents and students of the financial burden associated with the exams, and improve performance."
He alluded much of the progress of the sector to the interventions of international partners, mentioning a total of US$17 million dedicated to the development of early grade schools.
Alaskai Moore Johnson contributed to this story