MONROVIA: Another historic moment is dawned today, as the 26th President of the Republic of Liberia, Ambassador Joseph N. Boakai, takes the rostrum of the National Legislature to deliver his first ever state of the nation address also simply called SONA in short. Barely a week since he took the baton of national authority, having been sworn in January 22, 2024, President Boakai technically has got nothing much to report on to the nation, but is required to do so consistent with Article 58 of the Constitution which states that the President, on fourth working Monday of January every year, should present the administration’s legislative program for the ensuing session of the National Legislature. Pomp and color therefore return to Capitol Hill where President Boakai will yet again face the people of Liberia, this time on how he intends to the plant the social, economic and political cornerstones of his administration. Little or nothing is exactly known about what the Chief Executive will say or outline in his oration today; however, as The Analyst reports, a number of Liberian commentators have been conjecturing what’s in the President’s 2024 SONA file.
The 1986 Constitution of Liberia obliges the president of Liberia to face the nation through elected representatives and senators at the Capitol Building, the seat of the National Legislature, known as the first branch of government, to brief the nation on his or her stewardship.
Specifically, it is stated at Article 58 of the Constitution: “The President shall, on the fourth working Monday in January of each year, present the administration’s legislative program for the ensuing session, and shall once a year report to the Legislature on the state of the Republic. In presenting the economic condition of the Republic the report shall cover expenditure as well as income”
Just a week in the presidential seat, the formation of his very administration yet to cross 20 percent, President Boakai is understandably not in a better position to significantly report details to the Liberian Legislature, by extension the people of Liberia, on the state the Republic let alone to present the state’s balance sheet or “economic condition of the Republic” covering expenditure and income.
What is however clear, according to political commentators, is that the Liberian leader and his Unity Party are on record for making a number of promises made either verbally or in writing on how they would govern the country. It can therefore be easily conjectured that what he will be presenting to the Legislature and the nation would not be far from the promises made and how those promises will be implemented and achieved.
Liberians also have expectations for which they also look up to the President to provide answers; how his administration is going to meet them.
Pundits have the view that since the President could not fully exhaust his inauguration address on stage due to “heat exhaustion”, he is expected to use his SONA to restate and reemphasize some of the most important policy measures he had intended to present during that historic oration. Others also believe he will take excerpts from the official manifesto of his Unity Party called ARREST—the acronym for Agriculture, Roads, Reconciliation, Rule of Law, Education, Sanitation and Tourism.
Perhaps the most immediate concern of the listening nation and the president himself is how the economy will be handled under this administration—in the first 100 or 200 days. It is thus highly expected, according to UP insiders, that the President will use the platform today to lay out his economic plan, beginning with the 2024 National Budget passed under his predecessor.
Economic commentators told The Analyst the new President will be resubmitting or speaking of the resubmission of a recast national budget that reflects the ruling party’s priorities.
Though the erstwhile George Weah administration had spoken of a better economic condition leaving behind in the hands of its successor, there were predictions that all is not rosy of the economy which was accordingly losing more US$20 million in revenues in the fourth quarter of last year.
Some of the issues the new President is therefore expected to discuss today include the fact that, according to the African Development Bank, “the share of people living below the international poverty line ($2.15 a day) remains high, at 35.4%. Unemployment was an estimated 4.1% in 2021”.
The AfDB indicates also that Liberia’s GDP is projected to grow at 4.8% in 2024 but it got to be driven by expansion in mining, services, and agriculture.
“Inflation is projected to edge to 8.2% due to election-related speculation in 2023 but will ease to 6.5% in 2024 due to a stable exchange rate and calm after the election,” according to the Bank which also warns that the “fiscal deficit is projected at 4.1% of GDP in 2023 will stabilize at 4.0% in 2024 on account of fiscal consolidation.”
It is not known if President Boakai will heed warnings from experts who think that the Government’s policy over the 2024-25 should focus on “launching mining sector reforms, reining in the fiscal deficit and advancing infrastructure development, which supports our positive growth outlook”.
Other urgent issues of interest to the people of Liberia including rising prices of essential commodities, such as foods, gasoline, transportation fees, and employment and business opportunities.
Liberians look out today how the President will speak to the people’s felt needs.
In President Boakai’s 13-paged inauguration statement (Times New Roman, 12-point size), he mentioned the word “reconciliation” only one time and “unity” only one time, all without any details on what he would do about healing wounds created by both the 2023 elections and the civil conflict.
The 2023 elections results speak to a deeply divided nation, as the bitter exchanges amongst the citizenry generated enormous bad blood along political and regional lines.
The nation is almost squarely divided, as the results shows. President Boakai won with a thin margin of 20,000 votes, which means nearly half of the citizenry or electorate disapprove his leadership.
How he gets that huge chunk of disapproved citizens approve his six-year leadership is something Liberians would like to hear today.
The President himself acknowledged this fact when he said on January 22, at the grounds of the Capitol Building: “This presidential election was hard fought and looked to have further divided our country politically and regionally. But what unites us is bigger than what divides us. I am therefore extending a hand of cooperation and peace to my political opponents, knowing the common bond between us is ‘Liberia’ and the need to harness its potential for the good of its people. I am, therefore, assuring all Liberians that I will be the President for all irrespective of whether you voted for me or not, your party affiliation, county, religion, gender, region, and social and economic status. There is no contest between so-called ‘Green Liberia’ and ‘Blue Liberia’, ‘Southeastern Liberia’ and ‘North Central Liberia’. There is only one LIBERIA! We share a common CITIZENSHIP!”
But that major national oration failed to say how the President will avoid “green Liberia” and “Blue Liberia” which is the divide between his ruling party and predecessor Coalition for Democratic Change and other cleavages formed during the election.
Pundits project that the President’s SONA could put forth details of his national reconciliation plan since unity and reconciliation cannot be overlooked in terms of stability and peace in the next six years under his leadership.
Though the ruling Unity Party’s official national platform does not specifically strategies and programs on national unity and peace, it however proposes novel programs for national transformation. The Manifesto, as its acronym suggests, lays out specific plans for Agriculture, for Roads, for Rule of Law, for the Economy, for Sanitation and for Tourism.
As the President delivers his first State of the Nation Address (SONA), the nation looks about to hear and see how the new Chief Executive will convince the population and international partners on the achievability of the ARREST plan.
Agriculture production as a cornerstone of national growth and a key program of the current ruling establishment being an all-time elusive endeavors, it is expected that President Boakai will use his first SONA to explain how his Agriculture Strategy will be different from those of his predecessors.
The Plan speaks of the UP government developing the Agriculture Sector Development, including the Liberia Agriculture Transformation Agenda (LATA), the second generations of Liberia Agriculture Sector Investment plan (LASIP) was transitioned to the National Agriculture INVESTMENT Plan (NAIP).
Amongst other things, the UP promises to established the National Agriculture Identification Registry and recorded 5,000 farming households, comprising 1,000 upland rice farming households; 500 lowland rice farming households; 3,000 cassava farming households; and 500 vegetable farming households across the country using this data-base. We distributed 70 kg of assorted vegetable seeds (pepper, eggplant, cucumber, cabbage, etc.) and 100 bags of sweet potato vines to 500 farming households across the country.”
Regarding promises of strategy on Roads, something former ruling party CDC passionately pursued, the President’s ARREST Platform articulates the reinforcement and appropriation of investment in roads and bridges to expand access across the country.
The President as he takes to the rostrum of the Chambers of the Capitol Building, Liberians will be listening how it will “continue the pavement of highways connecting county capitals to create easy access to all regions of our country; pave all highways connecting the country to neighboring countries in the region to enhance cross-border trade and interactions with our neighbors; construct feeder roads throughout the country to enhance farmers’ access to local markets and enhance local agriculture development; Ensure Proper Management of the National Road Fund (NRF) to Achieve it Legislated Mandate; establish a National Road Authority and give it oversight for implementation of the national road fund to realize its legal mandates of:
Road infrastructure construction; Road infrastructure maintenance; Road infrastructure upgrading and rehabilitation; Ensure transparency in the implementation of the Road Fund to restore donor confidence to recommit their contributions.”
Will the UP administration achieve the milestone? Perhaps the President will say it today.
If the President will last longer on stage compared to his inauguration oration, he will be expected to give a bit of details on his education plan, his sanitation plan, his tourism plan, his rule of law plan and his legislative programs.
Taking queue from his inauguration speech, particularly on “flaws” he claims are in the 1986 Constitution, the President might also clarify what he meant.
It can be recalled he said: “We must rectify the flaws in our present Constitution to address the devolution of power and other pressing issues. I look forward to working with members of the Legislature individually and collectively, to advance the people’s agenda.”
There were no further details, leaving listeners to wonder how the Constitution expressly inhibits the devolution of power and “other pressing issues” he spoke about.
Will he provoke a national debate on “flaws” in the Constitution on the devolution of power? Will the President call for a referendum? Liberians will be listening to his first SONA to get the answers.
If the people get a shorter speech, perhaps to avoid recurrence of “heat exhaustion” much of what is expected to be heard on his propositions, including promises and vows made before and after his election, may only come in real time, physically, and not in words—in long orations.
The nation is watching today.