Monrovia — When President George Manneh Weah delivers his third annual message later this month, he will no doubt be looking to seize the moment and chronicle his achievements of the past year, one which from all indications proved to be a rather daunting one.
Mired in a state of political and economic uncertainty, the rising wave of protests and a polarized environment, the President is entering the half-way point of his presidency, a gauging point from which the outcome of his presidency could be determined.
During his first two years, President Weah gambled on neglecting the bread and butter issues and instead directed his focus on infrastructural developments, a gamble which delivered a pyrrhic victory for a government engulfed in criticisms from an antsy nation, on the verge of restoring its economic sanity when Mr. Weah took over, to now staring down the barrel of enormous contradictions and challenges, flirting with obscurity.
Much of President Weah's survival will be determined by the outlook and state of the economy in the new year.
A low-income country heavily reliant on foreign assistance and remittances from the diaspora finds itself in a rather complicated dilemma at a time when the value of traditional mineral resources like gold, iron ore and rubber which served as a major revenue generator for the past century is on the decline.
A climate favorable to agriculture remains close to dormant with major concessionaires Sime Darby and Golden Veroleum all reassessing their stakes in the post-war, transitional nation while massive layoffs at the Firestone plantation is forcing residents to reevaluate their living conditions just to stay afloat.
Finance and Economic Planning Minister Samuel D. Tweah is hopeful that macro-economic stability will be assured this year, a far cry from the previous year when the exchange rate went through the roof and many struggled to get by.
According to the Ministry of Finance, strong fiscal policy is key to containing the deficit amid assurances from the government that it has stopped the accumulation of arrears through a new fiscal regime that forces it to only spend only it has, thanks in part to a rigid program orchestrated by the International Monetary Fund(IMF), that has ended the policy of massive borrowing from the Central Bank of Liberia.
The administration is also hoping that new interest rate monetary policy framework and new standards at CBL will improve effectiveness of fighting inflation through exchange rate stability.
But even if the administration manages to stabilize the economy, the major challenge would be where the growth from?
Government insiders say a big push on agriculture will be the key that drives the government in coming months although the President, often criticized for his indecisiveness is still dragging his feet on filling the void at Agriculture. Sources inform FPA that a new agriculture Minister will be announced before end of this month.
In the coming weeks, FrontPageAfrica has learned that the government is planning to release some money through commercial banks to local rice producers. The current budget has some $US1.7 million for public sector investment in agriculture which is intended to guarantee flexible lending to local rice and good crop growers.
The administration is also working to scale up investment in agriculture beyond the 1.7 million with the World Bank agreeing to pump in more money in the sector in hopes of spurring a drive in the economy.
This year, all eyes will be on the much-anticipated senatorial mid-term elections which is expected to dominate the political sphere
Some fifteen senators are expected to go for re-election in 2020 in keeping with the constitutional provision although the sticking point would hinge on funding. Late last year, Finance Minister Tweah expressed doubt about sourcing money to fund the mid-term senatorial election while promising that money generated as civil servant salary will not be used to fund the electoral process.
Appearing on state radio (ELBC) last November, Minister Tweah said the administration will not dip into its already struggling payroll to fund elections as much as the election is important. "We need to find resources; we have balanced the payroll and want to pay regularly. We are not going to affect the payroll because of elections. We will not take civil servant pay to fund elections if that will mean I am no more Minister Finance, so be it. We will have elections but that means we will have to find the money to do that. We are working on a lot of ways for money to come in. If some of that money comes in, it will be used to fund elections. Elections funding is a major process. We could rephrase some of the budget line items so the money that should be going to agriculture in the budget will be affected. This election is a major one but I am only flagging some of the major challenges the government is faced with."
Despite the minister's skepticism, much attention will be placed on the National Elections Commission and its ability to be ready for the process at hand.
Key for NEC would be how it factors its financial readiness in the wake of a reduced budget of US$17 million from initial US$24 million.
NEC has penciled in October 13, 2020, as date for midterm senatorial elections across Liberia. Bearing any financial hiccups, that date may likely be pushed, as has previous recent elections.
More importantly, the new makeup of NEC will also be crucial. The tenure of Chairman Korkoya and all of his commissioners are up in the first quarter of the new year and the opposition community would be keen to see who President Weah will tip as new chair and commissioners heading into both the Mid-Terms and the 2023 presidential and legislative elections.
The current chair Jerome Korkoya told the Senate last year that and of the Liberian Senate at the Capitol that the Commission needs about US$17.6 million to the conduct the 2020 Special Senatorial elections and national referendum.
His initial budget of US$24 million was rejected by the MoF on grounds that the Government Liberia lacks financial capacity to generate such amount within the set timeframe.
Minister Tweah has explained that after a downward adjustment, the Commission arrived at US$17.6 million, covering national referendum and the senatorial election.
Elections aside, political stability has been undermined by protests which the Government believes are driven by politicians who are craving lost opportunities in Government or seeking some form of inclusion. This is evidenced by the demand of a group like COP. While the Weah administration says it remains open to dialoguing with legitimate groups like the Civil Servants Union of Liberia, who recently protested for salary and other issues, those issues are being resolved with the CSUL and called on its leaders and supporters of the Council of Patriots (COP) to abandon Monday's protest.
In a statement Sunday, the organization says while it applauds and supports the efforts being made by the international community and the Interreligious Council to mediate between the Government of Liberia and the COP to promote and sustain the peace of the country, it also understand the enormous challenges facing the country and the rights of the people to express themselves freely. "However, these challenges must be addressed in a way that protects the peace and security of the country."
The union says it believes peaceful assembly of citizens or protest are essential elements of a democratic society. "Notwithstanding, exercising those rights, as guaranteed by the Constitution of the Republic of Liberia, must be done in the way that respects the rights of other citizens and preserve the peace, security and stability of the country."
The country has been tensed of late amid uncertainty over protests. But even more importantly, rising incidents of armed robberies with men under the guise of legitimate officers of the Liberia National Police is becoming a major dilemma for the government.
Just last week, the LNP took many off-guard when it distanced itself from a series of robberies. In a statement, the LNP said: "Unscrupulous individuals claiming to be Anti- Robbery Agents of the Liberia National Police are in the constant habit of going from community to community harassing, searching homes and intimidating peaceful residents thereby taking their personal belongings."
The LNP says its Anti-Robbery Unit of the LNP are properly identified with Identification Cards, and specific vests with the inscription, "Anti-Robbery/LNP".
The explanation came a day after more than 15-armed security officers stormed the premises of Tropicana Beach and Resort to effectuate a writ issued for the discovery and seizure of 'drugs, arms and ammunitions, and the payment of checks to individuals' planning to stage a 'Weah Step Down' protest in the country.
The armed officers, led by two (2) court Sheriffs, were acting upon a search and seizure writ issued by the Stipendiary Magistrate of the Paynesville, Magisterial Court, Saygah Williams.
Sources hinted FrontPage Africa on Friday that a number of items including CCTV camera, computer, camp bags, and several dozens of 'employees t-shirts', were taken away by the armed security officers.
The latest mandate from authorities of the Ministry of Justice comes just few days after the Chairman and Secretary General of the Council of Patriots (COP) visited the Tropicana Beach and Resort to amuse themselves with family members and friends on December 29 and January 1 respectively.
In the new year, the administration is reportedly eyeing major investments and enhancements in the security sector.
With the current police force said to be short by some 8000 troops, much of that money is said to be aimed at recruitment. Critics are concerned that the government may be experience paranoia with recruitment of para-military groups outside the traditional security agencies.
Nevertheless, the administration says other security institutions also have to be strengthened but the challenge is resources. The UN peace keeping troops had about 16000 personnel here and current levels are said to be too small for present challenges. Investments in security is expected to be made as the budget is reformed.
President Weah, a former Peace Ambassador is often accused of striking divisive chords with his political opponents. During his watch night sermon at his Forky Kloh Church, the President while throwing an olive branch to the opposition, threw pointed jabs: "Those who are telling you that this time is difficult, look, let us not waste our time, what you spoiled that is what I am fixing and I can guarantee you. You left a debt of US$1.2 billion and I am paying it small, small. At the same time, I am building roads, giving free scholarship, free WAEC fees and you are crying because one week you don't have a pay? But we were here six months, seven months in other regimes, nobody went into the streets to protest."
The President blamed the opposition bloc of "running in the streets to destabilize the country. "This is unfair. If you don't want to talk then we don't talk but you want to talk we talk, so when you say something that makes sense, we buy it but if it doesn't make sense we move on. But nobody will blackmail your government. They are hearing me those that want personal stuff and not general stuff, they can go and sleep. I am not going to negotiate with nobody for personal stuff."
Many of the president's opponents and critics have taken his administration to task for failing to unify the country and establish a government of national unity. Emphasis on jobs for only partisans of the ruling party has been one of the President's biggest flaws of the past two years. How he addresses the issue going into his third year could prove to be a deciding factor for his presidency.
Last week, Chief Cyril Allen, a leading member of the ruling Coalition for Democratic Change's governing council acknowledged in a Facebook post that the nation would be naïve to assess the impact of the Council of Patriots protest on the country. Despite being postponed, Chief Allen said the December 30th protest brought the entire city to a standstill. "In fact; there was no social nor economic activity. Me and my colleagues drove by road through Kakata, Totota, on through Bong County in to Ganta, every and all market stalls on the usual very busy commercial route was empty. Public Transport was scarce and vehicles on the roads were few and far between. The GOL/LRA did not collect its daily tax revenue of over US$1 million. Every and all other commercial transactions and interactions was paused. Banks and other financial institutions were closed and Mobile Money transactions were stalled. These are some of the signs and symptoms of the results of an effective Peaceful, non-violent protest."
Chief Allen said the COP should consider it an overwhelming victory whilst moving to the next level in their continued advocacy to keep the Weah administration's feet to the fire to adhere to the rule of law, transparency, good governance, the improvement of the living standards and the provision of a better life for all Liberians.
More importantly, Allen said Liberians must work together to promote the creation of an enabling environment to induce investment in mechanize agriculture and mining with industries and factories to transform our many raw materials into semi-finished and finished products, create skill and semi- skill jobs, and develop our human resource."
War Crimes Court
During the past two years, the Weah-led government has been overwhelmed with calls to push for the establishment of a war and economic crimes court for Liberia. The President has been inconsistent in his response by not giving a definite stance on the establishment of the court while suggesting that Liberians would have to decide between development, reconciliation and war crimes court. "I think what we need to do is that, we got to find out what we need. Do we need war crimes court now to develop our country? Or do we need peace to develop the country? That's where all of us Liberians need to sit and talk about advancement and what is necessary for us," said President Weah while responding to questions from reporters upon his return from Paris, France last year.
His statement came as the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution reassuring the U.S.-Liberia ties and at the same time calling on Liberia to fully implement the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) recommendations and the establishment of war crimes court. "The best thing for us is what the leader will do. So, if it means for us to reconcile this country, if it is the way that Liberia will develop and progress, then we have to work towards that," President Weah said.
Prior to his departure for the UN General Assembly, the President was hailed for taking a major step to bringing justice for atrocities committed during Liberia's civil wars by endorsing a war crimes court. The President, in a letter to the legislature dated September 12, 2019, wrote: "I ... do hereby call on the National Legislature to advise and provide guidance on all legislative and other necessary measures towards the implementation of the TRC [Truth and Reconciliation Commission] report, including the establishment of the Economic and War Crimes Court."
The President again shifted gear when he addressed the UN, telling reporters upon his return: "I don't understand what the Liberian people want. You have been calling for a war crimes court. I told the international community what Liberians have been saying. I am only asking, 'Why now?'"
Much of the president's apprehension is said to be driven by the presence of several former warring faction stalwarts in his security circle and remnants like Emmanuel Shaw, Charles Bright.
While international stakeholders are said to be watching developments from the sidelines, there is no clear or definite stance from the Weah-led government on the issue.
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