By all standards, Liberia is a country rich in natural resources. The country's rich natural resources include iron ore, diamonds, gold, fertile soil, fishery and forestry, just to name a few. But despite its rich natural wealth and strategic geographic location, Liberia remains one of the poorest countries in the world.
Traveling with President George Weah on his recent tour of six of the country's 15 counties in the southeastern region provided me the opportunity to actually discover the place I called my country-Liberia.
It was a firsthand experience driving over 1200 kilometers on mostly bad road networks from Monrovia through thick rain forests and backward communities amidst abundant wealth and beautiful serenity.
The level of backwardness in the wake of underdevelopment and extreme poverty were overwhelming to the eyes. The deeper we travelled, so was the declined in everything; infrastructure and road networks.
Monrovia is not Liberia, as we say and the truth was available for all to see. Extreme poverty and backwardness begin to stare you in the face as soon as you leave central Monrovia by way of Mount Barclay in Paynesville or Robertsfield, in Margibi County.
The level of underdevelopment and poverty within these counties are beyond comparison to any modern civilized nation-not even in our sub-region. The country's economy is extremely underdeveloped.
Some say the economy of Liberia is extremely underdeveloped, largely due to the First Liberian Civil War from 1989-96, but I beg to differ. It is as a result of lack of leaders with vision to develop and distribute the wealth of the country evenly or maybe, maybe they did not set the priority of the country right.
Most of the past concession agreements and whatever negotiations that went into them does not show any landmark or infrastructure to count as a gain on deal.Liberia is 173 years old. This coming July 26, the country will be counting 174 years amidst increasing poverty and underdevelopment.
To be honest, our forefathers did not help this nation. As you go deeper into rural Liberia, so you see a decline in infrastructure development but yet abundant wealth-mostly being exploited by just a handful of multinational companies that shipped out the raw materials, leaving the host communities poorer with damaged roads and bridges most of which are made of timbers.
And so, it was not surprising to hear rural dwellers making roads their number one request to President Weah on the heels of it comes agriculture at all the town hall meetings hosted to interact with him.
Our first stop-Bong County
One would argued that the central Liberian region is blessed to have paved road passing through it to Ganta, Nimba County. But the challenges faced by the people outside of central Gbarnga, in Bong County are enormous.
In Kokoyah, for instance, where President Weah held his first town hall meeting during his tour, the citizens were vociferous. They did not hold back their desire for a better road condition to enhance their agriculture activities-farm to market roads.
They complained that due to the bad road condition trade in agriculture commodities have slowed down. They even mentioned how Alpha, a logging company in the district has threated to pull out if a bridge there is not rehabilitated by the government.
Kokoya is a district that links four counties; Bong, Bassa, Nimba and part of Grand Gedeh and the bridge in question links with St. Johns.
Here, for the first time, I listened to President Weah speak presidential as he responded to the citizens particularly in reference to the threat by Alpha Logging Company.
"I don't believe what was said but if it is true then they (company) needs to rethink... Our Government will not be afraid of any company because of Bridge. We will find company that is willing to build a bridge and stay." Said president Weah.
"If a company will want to leave because of a little bridge, then we have lawmakers that should be looking for another company to make bridge and stay," he added.
However, "if it is our responsibility to make sure that the bridge is fixed and the road is good then we need to sit and see how we can move forward. But they cannot abandon a contract and our country because of a little bridge that can be fixed."
"So we have to go back and revisit this document. So we can alter this document to make sure it benefits our people," the president noted. He pointed out that people needed to be serious on what they do in the interest of the country and the people.
The response by President Weah in Kokoya had me thinking throughout the entire tour as I reflected on concession agreements that have been entered into by past leaders and yet have not added any value to our economy in terms of going beyond just shipping our raw materials abroad to manufacturing locally.
In this Firestone Rubber Plantation stands out as a classic example. Since its establishment in 1926 it has not been able to manufacture a rubber tea spoon here locally but manufactured its tyres in South Africa from rubber latex harvest in Liberia.
Nimba is arguably Liberia's bread basket, take it or leave it. Most of our current local agriculture products are produced in the county. The county's agriculture potential is huge. But sadly, the lack a better road condition linking Ganta, its commercial capital to Sanniquellie, its political capital leave much to be desired.
Yekepa, where the President also visited in Nimba is home to Arcelor Mittal, a multinational steel company. But since its establishment in 2006, the road leading from the main road between Karnplay and Sanniquellie to Yekepa is a disgrace to Mittal Steel which has over a multibillion dollar investment in the area. Sadly, local workers there are dwelling in containers. The concession area does not represent the image of the company-plain and simple but yet the ores are being shipped from there daily.
From all indication, road connectivity to counties here is one of the major reason behind Liberia's underdevelopment.
Take Tappita for example, where the Jackson F. Doe referral hospital is situated. From Ganta to Tappita is about 200 kilometer. But the road leading to this state of the art hospital is so deplorable to an extent that it can best be described as a death trap for any patient in critical condition.
President Weah while there, broke grounds for the construction of an isolation unit to treat VIPs but with such a deplorable road condition, am just wondering whether it will serve its purpose.
One of the most challenging routes in the southeast is Grand Gedeh. Unlike the little villages and towns you see on the road while traveling through the rain forest from Bong through Nimba, Grand Gedeh is just quite the opposite.
It's a risky route with poor road network and unseen villages along the route just in case one is traveling alone and needs help when there is a breakdown of a vehicle or something, you better think again.
But despites its rough and dangerous route, Zwedru, the capital of Grand Gedeh is well-organized. Here President Weah received the highest number of people who turn out to welcome him.
Many Grand Gedean are very outspoken in making claims that President Weah is the son of slain President Doe.Meanwhile, individual efforts in Grand Gedeh is paying off as huge structures scattered over the Zwedru.
River Gee County
Established in 2000 by jailed former President Taylor for political patronage, River Gee, with its capital as Fish Town is one of the most backward counties in the southeastern region of Liberia.
There are no internet services, mobile networks don't function properly, and worst of all the county is lacking behind in everything besides basic services. In fact the CLSG electricity lines passes over the county from Grand Gedeh and hit Maryland.
Political rivalry in the county has not move it any further in terms of development. Most of its sons and daughters residing in Monrovia and other places appear to shy away from the county.
The county's political leaders were conspicuously absence when the President visited the area.
Here, we slept in a house that was horrible. In the first place we could not lock it from inside. The room was filled with crawling insects and rats. We took turns to sleep as we watch over each other. We could not even take bath in Fish Town.
Fortunately for the county, the Asphalt pavement from Harper is almost in the city and maybe when it passes through Fish Town, it could also help bring some relief.
Maryland is arguably one of the well-organized cities in the southeast-better organized than Zwedru. Unfortunately, the city skylines are littered with huge abandoned ancient buildings which showcase the past wealth of the county.
The huge houses of the Tubmans and Allisons spread across Harper in their dilapidated state. Their remains reminds first time visitors of its former glory-but the city now lies in ruins.
The county enjoys 24 hours electricity same as villages in Nimba, and the Grand Gedean capital-Zwedru. Economy activities here are very slow same as other counties. The much talk about Harper Port does not represent its name to the eye.
This county has one of the most beautiful serene environment in the country with nice coconut beaches. Grand Cess and Sass Town beaches reminds travelers about the Caribbean. But access to this beautiful landscape is its problem-bad road networks and other places- the lack there of has isolated it.
The county is home to President Weah, Senate Pro-tempt Albert Chie, Deputy Speaker Fonati Koffa, Police Director Patrick Sudue, Liberia Revenue Authority Commissioner General Thomas Doe-Nah and a host of several other current senior government officials.
The layout of Barclaysville was done by current General Services Director Mary Broh ahead of former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf tour of the county doing her regime.
The Presidential tour ended in Sass Town, the President's home town and so we had to head back to Monrovia through Sinoe, River Cess and Grand Bassa Counties.
We left Sass Town on the evening of February 27, at about 5:30 PM and headed for Greenville, Sinoe County. We were warned about the terrible road condition from Sinoe through Rivercess to Bassa, but we decided to take our changes ahead of the convoy.
We arrived in Greenville at 1:30 A.M. We made all efforts to find a hotel, motel or a guest house to rest our tire bodies, but all were filled.
A group of boys leaving a beach club house called Jamaica directed us to another club guest house called Meet Me There. By now, it was around 2:30. We got to Meet Me There and we were told the rooms were filled. So, we asked the keeper if he could open his bar for us to sit. He obliged and brought us seat but we asked to be seated on the sidewalk. He agreed.
Philipbert Browne and Sam Dean ordered for drinks, Stanley Seakor stayed back in the vehicle to sleep. Emmanuel Conway of Heritage also joined us outside as he also ordered for his drink. The driver, who has driven over 6 hours from Sass Town to Greenville also ordered for his drink. After sipping my Malt I joined Stanley in the car to take nab.
Philipbert, Sam and the others talked the boys out for the next one hour and half offering them drinks just to stay up with us.
When I woke up, we all look at our time and it was 3:45 AM. We washed our faces and bought the driver an energy drink and headed for River Cess. Remembered I said the Grand Gedeh route from Saclepae to Kpelleh Village was dangerous because of the distance and isolation right, well the Greenville Rivecess is the most terrible in terms of passage.
If we thought the route from Ganta through Tappita to Zwedru and Fish Town were bad, than the Greenville to Yakba Town in Rivercess was the most terrible.
We had to endure these routes just once and not returning to distances we had covered during our trip except once, from Karplay back to Ganta. But imagine the citizens that have to travel these routes daily back and forth.
Now, the government has shifted its focus on agriculture because of its potential to provide food security. But if the government is dare serious on its program and investment in the sector, road should be its number one priority.
Until we make roads our priority and join our counties-Liberia will remain underdeveloped and backward.
Don't listen to the donors that come with their own templates. It's time we tell them what we want and if they are not really to do that, let them go with their packages.
It's time that the donor community listen to the people. Have they ever wonder why they keep making interventions that have not made any impact in our country? It's simply because they think what work in country 'A' can work in ours.
No, the challenges are different and for Liberia road is the gateway to our economy prowess.