The Liberia presidential election is a few months around the corner. Already, people have started throwing in their hats into the race, declaring their intentions. One of such individuals is Ambassador Milton Nathaniel Barnes. Having once served with distinction as Minister of Finance of Liberia and held several diplomatic posts representing the interests of Liberia abroad, Nat Barnes, who is widely revered amongst the Liberian intelligentsia for his sharp wit and beautiful mind, is once again stepping forward to pitch his tent for the Liberian presidency.
In his own words, Ambassador Nathaniel Barnes literally ran away from Liberia during the civil crisis, came to the US and decided to work in corporate America. “I worked in corporate America for 16 years. I always had the issue of going back to Liberia. I realized that I could get but so much in the American system. There was a dire need for my own skills and qualities in Liberia. That thought had always been there. So, one day I just got up and said to my wife, ‘I am going back’. We went back to Liberia and I started to work with the public sector, at the Ministry of Finance, and I haven’t turned my back since. I intend to serve; I will serve Liberia till I die.”
In early 2022, Nat Barnes announced his intention to run as an independent candidate in the 2023 Liberian presidential elections, having participated in the 2005 elections on the ticket of the Liberian Destiny Party and lost. Declaring his intention for the presidency again, Ambassador Barnes held a lengthy discourse with Channel A TV’s Davies Chirwa on Saturday, June 11, 2022 where he carefully laid out his development plans for Liberia, stating clearly that Liberia needs to be fixed from the bottom up, and that his first priority as president of Liberia will be to tackle corruption in order to fix the priority areas of healthcare, education, infrastructure and the economy.
Speaking from the United States via a live podcast presented by Channel A TV in collaboration with the African Diaspora Foundation (ADF), Ambassador Barnes vowed that when he wins the Liberian presidency, he will hit the ground running by ensuring the conduct of appropriate audits of past governments as a means of ending the culture of impunity and stifling corruption.
“We will do the appropriate audits. Anyone in the past government who can be clearly shown that they cheated, stole will have to bear the consequences of their decision. We are going to create a system where we incentivize people better; and then we have reason to punish them when they cheat. Because many times the reason why they cheat is, ‘I am so poorly paid’. We need to look at the entire system, break it apart. The need to rebuild Liberia. We are broken. My country is broken. There is only good opportunity that people can see. We now have the opportunity to build it up right from scratch. So, my approach is going to be, turning the paradigm on its ears, filling it up right from the ground up,” Ambassador Barnes vowed.
The first 100 days
Quizzed on what a Nat Barnes government would prioritize within the first 100 days in office, the Liberian presidential aspirant smilingly and confidently said his administration is going to first focus on the low hanging fruits.
“Basically, we are going to focus on the low hanging fruit. And the low hanging fruit is how we spend money. We are very keen on collecting revenue. How do we expand our revenue base, to pay for projects and services? But we never focus on how we can control costs. We must understand that when our revenue base is limited, we just have a limited cash base. We need to focus on how we can cut costs. I mentioned in my intro about why are we buying an $80,000 car for ministers of government. We need to find ways to cut costs. That’s a quick way to do it.
“A typical teacher in Liberia in the public school system makes an average of $150 a month. A member of the House of Representatives, or the Senate makes 100 times that amount – an average of $15,000. What sense does that make? Who brings more value – the teacher or the legislator? How can we address the issue of managing our cost, our expenses? How do we prioritize and incentivize the appropriate sectors of our society to grow? So those are the low hanging fruits that we will attack right away. There are many people that are being overpaid, many people are being underpaid. The discrepancies are just too many; they need to be fixed. So that’s going to be our very first focus.
“The second thing is, we must change our institutions. The institutions in Liberia are like revolving doors. You get a new Minister or a new head of the institution, and the entire institution changes. From the top to the elevator operator, a whole new crew comes in there. That stifles continuity, it stifles institutional memory, it stifles consistency. So, we must build institutions that are not packed with politicians. We must build our institutions with technocrats.
“So, I am saying, instead of having political appointees throughout the institution, the minister, the deputy minister; assistant minister and lower, let’s get technocrats there. People who know what they are doing, and they are there regardless of their political affiliation and their ethnicity or gender. Can you deliver? Can you do what it takes to move Liberia to the next level?
“Those are what the low hanging fruits are going to focus on right away. But over time, the bastard that we have to deal with in Liberia is corruption. We must stop corruption in its tracks right away. We won’t be able to do the education, healthcare, infrastructure issues when we cannot control corruption. Money is being stolen with impunity; we can’t fix any of those things. Corruption is the number one issue,” remarked a seemingly frustrated Ambassador Barnes.
Regarding how his administration would approach the development of Liberia, Ambassador Barnes noted that the important thing to remember here is to create sustainable economic growth and expansion.
“First, you must have good infrastructure. You must have a good education system. Then of course, you must have good healthcare. You must create a system where there is a certain amount of self-reliance. At this point in time, Liberia is too dependent on foreign direct investment, and that is a whole another challenge. We must find a way to become self-sufficient, and look at areas that are renewable. Much of the economy in Liberia right now is focused on extractive resources – in the gold mining, diamond mining, iron ore, etc. Those resources are exhaustible. They will finish. We need to begin to focus on renewable resources.
“The two most important renewable resources in my opinion are agriculture and human beings. We must find a way to expand our agricultural production. The Liberian government budget right now, less than 2 percent, is dedicated to agriculture. That doesn’t make any sense to me. We need to focus on agriculture. We need to focus on building a working class of Liberians. So, when we go to the foreign direct investment side looking for investors, we need to understand that finding global investors is a highly competitive business. Just as we want investors to come and invest in Liberia, so does Ghana, so does Guinea, so does Nigeria, so does Vietnam. Across the globe there is a competition. Now, if you took Liberia here and Rwanda here as an investment opportunity, where do you think an investor would go? He would go to where the climate is attractive. Attractive in what way?
“Rwanda is stable, politically stable. It has a decent well trained workforce that can be used. It has infrastructure, it has a healthcare delivery system for employees, it has an education system that will be able to provide training and education to its employees. So, we need to focus first, internally. How can we fix all of these issues? How can we create an environment that will make it attractive to investors? It’s not going to be easy to do. But we do need to refocus on the first five areas that we can depend on ourselves.
“Why is it that we import rice, our staple? Liberians eat rice three times a day. At this point in time, we should be growing enough rice so we don’t have to import it. Should something happen, like what happened right now with this global upset with the supply chain situation, and we have a shortage of rice, we could have civil disturbances. So, we do need to really look at how we create an environment that will be attractive for ourselves to invest in, and at the same time by empowering the private sector, and at the same time attractive for foreign investors to come here,” Ambassador Barnes stated emphatically.
Leading by example
Of particular interest to the interviewer was Ambassador Barnes’ leadership style and quality, and whether there is any chance that he would resign if he failed to meet his development agenda for the country within his first 100 days in office.
Ambassador Barnes was, however, upbeat about where he wants to take the country and how he sets about to do it. “On the matter of my ability to deliver to Liberia, I said it before, I don’t see myself as a politician. Politics is the tool of a leader. I see myself as a leader. I have a plan to deliver to the Liberian people. But the Liberian people – and this goes to all of Africa, need to understand that progress and prosperity in any African country is not dependent on one person. The role an effective leader plays is to lead by example, motivate and inspire people. And take hard decisions. In other words, when someone cheats or steals or does something wrong, do not be afraid to let the law take its course. You cannot practice any kind of impunity, whatsoever. I am of the opinion that given an opportunity to serve Liberia, I will deliver for Liberia. If the Liberian people feel that I have not delivered, it will be within their power to say: ‘hey! We are unhappy with you’. And trust me, one thing I will do, I will always have an open door. Because at the end of the day, unlike many politicians in Liberia and Africa, I realize that I am an employee of the people. I am not their boss; I am not their ruler. I am their humble employee. I think there are too many characteristics that any leader in Liberia and Africa must embrace to be effective.
“Number one, you must exercise humility. You must humble yourself to the God you serve and to the very people that you are going to lead. Courage is the second thing that is very important. To be able to change Liberia, to be able to change Africa, we need leadership that is courageous to make very difficult decisions, and the tenacity to stick with it to its conclusion. There have been too many instances where a leader gets in there and makes a decision and he’s bombarded by all of these different factors, exogenous and internal issues, and he or she tends to step away and not do the right thing. You must have the courage to make difficult, tough decisions that require sacrifice. And you must be prepared to be the first to make those sacrifices and lead by example,” Ambassador Barnes said.
Managing expectations- Diaspora Liberians and local population
Making the case for unifying Diaspora Liberians and those who never left the country during the civil war years, Ambassador Barnes said the two sides need each other for Liberia to be fixed.
“Liberia has 15 administrative subdivisions. We call them counties. I believe the Liberian Diaspora has two important characteristics. Number one, it represents Liberia’s 16th county. Politically, it represents Liberia’s 16th county. Economically, it represents Liberia’s middle class. Physically in Liberia, we have a tiny sliver of very wealthy people, and a huge mass of very poor people. Our middle class is outside of Liberia, it is the Diaspora. The Diaspora is largely responsible for some of the progress Liberia has made for the last several years. Ten years of average remittance to Liberia by the Diaspora is half a billion dollars. Nearly as much as the Liberian government’s budget. So, you cannot engage or talk about the future of Liberia without engaging and embracing the Diaspora. There is going to be some friction, but the Diaspora has returned to Liberia. I experienced that when I went back home. And the whole issue is, why when things got rough you left? Now that things have settled down, there is peace; you’re coming back. You are coming back, and you want to take our jobs.
“But what one has to do as a returnee is adjust your expectations. You’ve been in an environment that is first-world; high tech, and you’re going into an environment that is pretty backward. So obviously you begin to feel: ‘I know the answers’, ‘I am smart, I am up there’. But you have to exercise a little bit of modesty. You go there with an open mind, open heart, to try to get an appreciation and an understanding of some of the challenges that your brothers and sisters have faced over there.
“In the meantime, those other Liberian nationals that are in Liberia need to understand, these people are just as Liberian as you are. You must express some love and embrace them, because they are bringing value just as you also have value for sticking and staying in Liberia during the turmoil – it says something about you. There needs to be a coming together of a common ground for those that are returning and those that stayed, keeping in mind that at the end of the day, Liberia is what matters,” the renowned Liberian diplomat and public servant stated stoically.
Borderless Africa vs Globalization
During the discourse, the issue of having an open continent whose citizens use a single passport came up, with the interviewer querying whether a Nat Barnes leadership would support one passport for Africa. As usual, the presidential aspirant broached the subject with a grain of sagacious wisdom.
“I believe Africa needs to be better united. Globalization has made the world a smaller place. I believe that globalization is a double-edged sword. You can either be on the cutting edge of globalization, which many developed western countries are, or you can be on the bleeding edge of globalization like much of Africa is, where we suffer as a result of globalization.
“We need to learn that globalization has empowered us in Africa with many things. One of the important things is that globalization has empowered us with information. The world wide web is an incredible source of knowledge and information, and we need to exploit that and exploit it well. Yes, we do need to get to a point where we are more united, we are travelling on one passport, and able to move freely without borders, but we need to exploit the advantages of globalization. It is very important. And in doing so, it will enhance individual African countries and Africa as a whole. For example, Liberia is a major exporter of iron ore. Do you know that there are two steel manufacturing facilities in Nigeria? Why can’t we exploit it? What if we take our iron ore and send them to Nigeria to process, we get added value, Nigeria benefits, Liberia benefits? I am saying this to say that Liberia must agree that within our continent, there are a lot of opportunities and synergies, and we need to exploit them. Travelling across the continent without being hassled by border restrictions is absolutely key, I agree with it. We need to have one passport. And we’re making some progress. There is an ECOWAS passport that I travel on. But we do need that facility where we can move freely across the continent. We need to begin to see ourselves as Liberian-Nigerian-South African. We need to begin to see ourselves as Africans. To a further extent, we need to begin to see ourselves as globalists. It is very important,” Ambassador Barnes noted.
On the other hand, touching on the same travel restriction issue but one that had to with visa issuance upon arrival and what his administration would do to facilitate Africans travelling to Liberia from being hassled because of visa issues, Ambassador Barnes noted that one of the problems about issuing visas upon arrival is that countries like Liberia, because of the absence of viable, sustained institutions, become vulnerable.
“And that vulnerability leads to having all kinds of undesirables coming into Liberia to operate and do things that are not in the best interest of Liberia. That represents having a relaxed immigration arrangement. However, once we strengthen our institutions, I don’t see any reason why we can’t offer visas upon arrival. Liberia is an incredible opportunity. As far as I am concerned, we have one of the most beautiful countries, from a natural beauty perspective, on the west coast. We do need to find a way to do that. But before we do that, we must ensure that we have systems in place that will keep out undesirables. There is an old adage which says, in the midst of chaos, there is opportunity. And many times, the undesirables of the world come to places like Liberia where our institutions are not reliable and we don’t have a good, solid system. They are coming there and they are exploiting us. So, we do need to be very careful with that,” the renowned diplomat said.
The Russo-Ukraine war
A citizen of Latvia, resident in the United States of America, Kristina is a publicist, writer, social media manager and TV personality. She was keen on knowing Ambassador Barnes’ thoughts on the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Providing insight into a topic which has claimed worldwide attention, Ambassador Barnes said the repercussion of the current Russia-Ukraine war is a manifestation of globalization.
“What happens in one part of the world is bound to have a ripple effect across the globe. But we as Africans need to understand something important. All countries pursue other nations, whether it be in the way of conflict, or peaceful ways; for one reason alone. To pursue their own national interests. The lessons we ought to learn about what is happening between NATO and Russia vis-à-vis Ukraine is we need to understand what are our interests? How can we pursue and protect those interests?
“One never wants to see the kind of suffering as a result of war, but the common issue here is, we all have one common humanity. In the past, people saw those kinds of conflict as only happening in “uncivilized” backward countries like Africa, and Liberia is in Africa. But the lesson to be learned is that all is a manifestation of our common humanity. My heart bleeds for the people of Ukraine, for their suffering. But as we peel away the layers of the onion, we begin to see, it’s more than the interests of the people of Ukraine. It is in the interests of all of the players involved. And we as Africans need to begin to look at it and learn from the lessons. What do we need to do in our own interests?” Ambassador wondered philosophically.
Diaspora participation in Liberian elections
Dr. Francis Uwagie-Ero is Vice President at the African Diaspora Foundation. He was curious to know Ambassador Barnes’ plans for Diaspora Liberians to participate in the Liberian elections.
Addressing the issues, Ambassador Barnes said Dr. Ero’s concern has been a priority for him. “This is an issue that I have thought about a lot because as I have said, as far as I am concerned Diaspora is an integral part of the nation of origin. In Liberia, average 10 remittances have been half a million dollars, and that has made a lot of difference from the economic perspective. We do need to find a way to have these people participate fully in Liberia in the electoral process. As I know right now, many of the issues are more technical. We are having some challenges on the legislative side, the citizenship issue, the dual citizenship issue and all of that. We’re very close to overcoming that. But when I am successful in my bid, I intend to make that a priority so that Liberians in the Diaspora will have the opportunity to participate in the electoral processes in Liberia. The embassies across the world can be used as a point where these nationals can go to exercise their God-given right,” Ambassador Barnes stated.
Mandatory Peace education, Budgetary support
Queried by Mr. Agrippa Ezozo of Palmdale, California whether his administration would consider making peace education mandatory in Liberian schools given recent past history of Liberia where the women and children bore the brunt of civil conflicts, the presidential aspirant said he would go even further than making peace education mandatory in the educational system, but would encourage Liberians to embrace and inculcate peace as a part of their cultural and social existence.
“Liberia had a pretty nasty civil war. Brothers killing brothers. Up until today, people are still trying to figure out why. What caused it? I think one of the reasons was, from the very get-go, from our founding in Liberia, we were established and have lived all of these generations in denial. There were certain things that were happening, certain dynamics that were going on, whether cultural, social or political, that we chose to not pay attention to. At some point in time, the chickens came home to roost. And we had this explosion. It was quite catastrophic. Africa historically, throughout our humanity, has not been known to be in an area of war and conflict. I know in ancient Africa, there were empires going after one another. But in recent history, much of the devastating global conflict was not on the African continent. And that in my humble opinion is a manifestation of the African cultural mentality of peace and stability.
“The whole idea is that we believe in our family. Look, there is a very peculiar concept in Africa that I find most interesting. At least I know for fact in Liberia there are no retirement and nursing homes. Why? Because the intrinsic culture in Liberia is that we embrace our family, and grandparents are seen as a source of wisdom, experience, knowledge and nurturing for our young people. We’ve held our women in esteem. You mentioned the issue of women. Whether we want to admit it or not, women in Africa are the backbone of our society. We cannot run away from that. We may have been in denial recently because of all the exogenous influences and this machismo thing, but let’s not deceive ourselves. Africa is a continent of peace. I am not going to go into all the issues of how colonization and all sorts of things changed us in a certain way, but we basically are a peaceful people. So, the sort of answer to your question is, I will encourage teaching peace, love and acceptance in our school systems. But it should be a cultural practice. One of the things we need to do in Liberia particularly, is we need to address facts – and there is a distinct difference between truth and facts, your truth and my truth may be different. We have lived in denial, we have continued for generations to let politicians who don’t know what they are doing, who don’t have the needs and desire of the people in their hearts decide for us. We need to come to grips with that and change it and work towards it. Once we do that, the peace will come, the peace will be sustained and last forever,” Ambassador Barnes stated.
On the same subject, when asked whether he would deduct 1% from the military budget to add on to peace education, Ambassador Barnes assured that he would not hesitate to push for such a policy direction.
“Liberia’s threat from within is poverty, disease, ignorance. It is not military or one that is physical. In my opinion, we do not have any external threat. I don’t think Guinea is going to invade Liberia, neither is Ivory Coast or any country on the continent. So, the role of a military or the army in my mind, while it may be important, should not be overemphasized. We have a very small military in Liberia, somewhere between 2-3000 man-strong army, and they are generally used for internal border patrol and that sort of thing. I’d like to see them established into an army corps of engineers, that sort of thing, where we can incorporate the military in doing infrastructure and other things, because there is no real external threat to Liberia. So, to take one percent of the military budget for peace studies should not be a problem.
Closing, Ambassador Barnes beseeched his fellow citizens in the Diaspora and at home with a special message.
“I just want to say to the folks in the Diaspora, remember, no matter where you go, you are Liberian. We used to say in Liberia when I was growing up, your navel string is buried in Liberia. Don’t forget Liberia. Don’t give up on Liberia. Pray for Liberia. Help Liberia. And when you get the opportunity, come back to Liberia and make your contribution.
“For the folks in Liberia, I say to them like I said earlier, don’t forget, you have the power. This time around, the elections coming October 2023, use your power wisely. Look at the long term. Look at your future, as opposed to that bag of rice that a candidate may give you. It’s going to finish. Look at your future, especially the young people. It’s your time. It’s your time to lead. So, take your power and use it wisely.
“I want the people of Liberia, the people of the Diaspora and the people of Africa to know this. There is a concept I call the three cardinal questions. In order to move ahead, we need to ask ourselves three cardinal questions. What do we want? What must we do to get what we want? Are we willing and prepared to do what we must do to get what we want? Please remember the three cardinal questions. God bless you. God bless Africa,” Ambassador Barnes stated.
Following Ambassador Nathaniel Barnes’ sterling deliberation, Mr. Victor Okhai, Nigerian filmmaker, took the platform to explain his plans for Nigeria when he becomes president in February 2023.
Mr. Peter Kekana, South African, founder of BIG-SA (Basic Income Grant -South Africa) also explained his case as a presidential candidate in 2024.