Former Dept. Foreign Minister Speaks on Foreign Service Issues -Weighs on Liberia’s Developmental Agenda

MONROVIA: The Dean of the Cuttington School of Global Affairs & Policy and a former Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Elias Shoniyin,  has been sharing his thoughts on pressing national issues covering the present Liberian diplomacy, the quagmire of Liberia’s investment climate and development including decentralization of governance when he recently appeared on the State broadcaster, the Liberian Broadcasting System where he said the Liberian foreign affairs has declined but lauding the current leadership of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for its initiative aimed at saving the country’s image to the global community. 

Mr. Shoniyin, with over 23 years of experience in international affairs, development, and diplomacy said the Liberian Foreign Service made a very significant decline over the last six years.

He recalled that when he joined the join the Foreign Ministry in 2006 the Liberian the Foreign Service witnessed a lot of conflict, lot of commotion, reputational issues globally, noting that in fact  Saudi Arabia had basically banned, disconnected and stopped Liberia’s operations in that country.

“They shut down our embassy and decided that Liberia will not be able to open an embassy in the Saudi area.  So we have to work towards restoring confidence – reimaging ourselves, not just in Saudi, but many other countries that we had issues,” naming countries like Egypt and Senegal amongst some of the  many other countries.

“All of those problems were resolved during my time at the Foreign Ministry, and it took significant efforts to do that. In Saudi we restored our embassy and expected to deploy a diplomat at a full ambassadorial level in Saudi,” he noted, adding however that over the last six years, Liberia had eleven of its embassies absolutely without ambassadors and “I think Government wasted so much money deploying an embassy when it knew there weren’t ambassadors to serve in those embassies”.

Diplomacy, he said, is a very bureaucratic and hierarchical institution pointing out that without a diplomat as head of a full ambassadorial level mission a country basically has no strong voice in its mission abroad, a reason for which he pointed out that the absence of fully represented heads of mission at ambassadorial levels in those eleven missions was not helping the country.

He said this was so  because once that person  who is the charge’ – a lower ranking officer in an embassy  goes out to meeting or goes out to a conference, he or she normally doesn’t have a voice as much as the ambassador would as ambassadors present would obviously  be recognized before any other lower ranking person.

“So I thought we should have opted shutting those missions down instead of wasting taxpayer’s money in places where we definitely don’t have much strategy to engage. But today, it has just being few months already since the new team took over the Foreign Ministry,” he explained,

Counting on his experience at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Shoniyin said experiences of people in service differ from one group of people to the other.  “I don’t think it’s symbiotic; it depends on the team that you work with. And I always feel very lucky for the level of professionalism and selflessness of the team that I met when I entered government.

“When I joined the public sector in 2006, I joined a team of highly professional personalities – people who have served Liberia 30– 35 years up to 40 -47 years.  People like George W. Wallace was the Foreign Minister at the time, Ambassador William V. S. Bull was the Deputy Foreign Minister. We had Ambassador Grisby, we had Ambassador Charles Hansford who actually drafted the MOU in 1957 when President Sekou Toure, Kwame Nkrumah and President Tubman met in Sanniquellie; So we had one like Ambassador T. Ernest Eastman around, Ambassador Trohoe Kpaghai, Ambassador Carlton Karpeh – so that was an incredible team whatsoever. It was really a professional and credible team,” he recounted.

He maintained that the sole ultimate goal of all of them was to ensure that the institution worked and it worked well.  Decisions professionals he worked with took, Shoniyi noted further, were not on the basis of who they knew or loved, or based on tribal or other affiliation, or because they like or hate some people, pointing out that their decisions were purely professional.

“They were not making decision because they like you or because they hate you, or because you’re from one tribe or another. So I think that my engagement of issues with that team as a young assistant foreign minister at the time has influenced not just my public service but my life generally in the private sector and in academia,” he asserted.

Asked to compare his public and private life, Mr. Shoniyin said, “I think the public service prepared me for what I do today. I’ve been able to leverage very significantly my experience and network and contact and interactions in the public service and I brought that to bear on the way I want for my office.   Currently, we run an office of about 13 staff and not a single one of those staff is related to me and my partner.

“All of our staff we do not know them – no brother, no cousin, no niece, no nephew absolutely not. And that was the practice I adapted when I was in the public service. Every time I moved to one position or another, I do not change anyone that I inherited. I work with the special assistant; work with the research analyst and everyone else in the office. And I did not bring any new person to that office.  I even work with all of the drivers I inherited- I use them,” he continued.

He explained that he exhibited the same attitude even at the Cuttington University where he serves as the Dean for the School of Global Affairs and Policy – a new school which was established in early 2022. “When we were looking for staff, I could have brought some of my family. But I make sure that I subjected that process to the HR module, we went into a selection process where we chose –  and of course I was not part of the process – I accepted whatever they gave me  that I knew was the best option. And in that way I expect nothing less than full efficiency and competence when I work with people and so I tried to subject my own personal feelings to allow the process go on so that I get the best options that are available,” he indicated.

Accordingly, he weighed in on the present foreign service of the country saying that it is too early to pass judgment upon them.  However, he extolled the Sara Beslow Nyanti administration judging from its initial steps of handling the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  “From the initial decisions as seen made, I am little bit impressed because the Foreign Service require a full reform. A full reformation of our Foreign Service institution is required and I think that’s where I am sensing that the Minister seems to be headed in that direction”, he said.

“In terms of personnel we had, I am told more than 200 persons were deployed to the Foreign Service without going through a very rigorous process that was set by the law. The law set very clearly modalities and process as to how a person can be deployed to the Foreign Service. I thought that was ignored over the last six years; so we have many persons sent to the Foreign Service who should not be there in the first place,” he said.

Elias Shoniyin furthered that the passport issue is a totally different issue when it comes to Foreign Service operations; he notwithstanding agreed with Minister Nyanti hundred percent on her passport retrieval initiative.  “First of all the passport law around the world   is basically tedious. But I am told   the law was changed to allow passports to keep the validity for six years. That was a disservice to the country. And I am told that the [current] minister has banned all of those passports, requested their return and has now gone onto status quo that is returning diplomatic, official passports, including service as well.   I think that is the international standard that we have returned to”, he said.

He believed that there is a glimmer of hope because he is very impressed with the few initial steps being taken by the Minister, believing that she and her team will continue to go deeper in reimaging again the reputation of our country, “trying to redeploy the best in our society to represent the country internationally”.

“You know the reason the Foreign Service is treated differently in many countries is because many persons around the world wouldn’t have the opportunity to visit Liberia. Our country should be mirrored by the people we sent to our foreign service. When you meet Foreign Service personnel, the level of intelligence, the level of competence, the level of sophistication should reflect what Liberia is.  That’s why nations around the world should send their best, their very best into Foreign Service. And the process leading into an appointment into the Foreign Service in many countries is very rigorous; and we have a law, we have a procedure here on the books and we need to confine our process to that law,” he justified.

He said the issue of Foreign Service should be an apolitical decision. “Foreign Service is not political in the first place. Look, the Foreign Service is like the military personnel who go according to ranks just like the military, the Foreign Service is not supposed to be political; it’s supposed to be independent to serve any government, any political institutions that will take over the leadership  of the country”, he said.

“That is why the Foreign Service is not supposed to be politicized.  So I really hope that Minister Nyanti as she already started, I hope she is going to keep pushing and ensuring that she finds a way to incubate  the Foreign Service to protect the institution from any future political manipulation”,  he said.

On the economic front, he told the interviewer which was the State broadcaster that there are two things which he named most importantly as economic prosperity, and international affairs since he said Liberia is a poor country that will obviously be counting on international engagements to be able “to fund some of our projects, and also to increase our investment inflow”.

“For me that is an incredibly important focus area.   And I think the government is going to pay attention to support the NIC and empower and equip the NIC to be able to go out there and compete with other countries because the field of those trying to attract and woo investment to their countries is an open field”, he said.

He said “investors don’t come to your country because they love your country”, adding that “investors come to your country because your country is stable, because your country has energy to power industries, because your country can keep contracts and because your country has local skills to be able to help them achieve the objectives they try to establish in your country and education level of your people”.

Accordingly, he said it is therefore sad to always hear the waves of protest in concession sites around the country. “It worries me because those are not good news because the more we hear these kind of news, the less we will see investors coming on  our shores.”

With the interviewer suggesting that the protests come on the backdrop of the realities and the realities on the ground sometimes is that concession companies don’t live up to their corporate responsibilities,  Elias Shoniyin said when concession companies do not live up to their corporate responsibilities, there is clear medium under the rules law where the communities can take their grievances and “I believe clearly that the communities should be taken care of”.

“I believe that it is the government institutions that have the responsibility and not the communities to take the law into their own hands because once “our communities continue to take the law into their own hands, Liberians should not worry about investors coming”.

“Look let me tell you something – just last year alone, just few hundreds of kilometers from here in Cote d’Ivoire  right next door do you know how much new investment stock that went to Cote d’Ivoire last year – 13.9 billion dollars just next door  in one single year, 2023. Do you know how many investors came to Liberia last year? Zero! Are we not concerned? Are we not questioning what Cote d’Ivoire doing that we are not doing – or what are we doing that is wrong that Cote d’Ivoire is not doing? We need to think about it, we have to balance it out.” He said

He pointed out that it is not the role of the communities to fight when it comes to the question of community interest; it is not for the communities to fight for their own interest; it is the government’s responsibility because the community went hours voting them as its leaders.

Shoniyin pointed out that the communities gave their voice to their national leaders when “you vote for them”, adding that it is the government’s responsibility, therefore to advocate and protect the people and the concessions

”One fine Example – ArcelorMittal pays $3 million per annum to the government of Liberia for all the communities besides the taxes and royalties. I have also been informed that $38 million has been paid to government for the three communities, Nimba, Bong, and Bassa. The question is, -Is the $3 million going to the communities?   Because when you look into those communities   do you think that anyone has spent one million into those communities? So that is the problem. So these people sit there seeing their iron ore leaving every day and they see nothing happening.

“Notwithstanding, the company is fulfilling its requirements – paying the money that is supposed to help bring development to that community that is where the risk to investment is seen,” he cited a scenario.

He maintained that Liberia must conform with international standard, saying we will not be operating differently here and we expect different results. “We have to standardize the way it is. If the company is paying money for development within the community, that money should go back to the people, period. The money should go back to the people,” he averred

SHoniyin recalled “Do you remember during the elections period when Senator Prince Johnson of Nimba consistently said he will not support the Weah administration because ArcelorMittal has paid seven million dollars to government and the money has not gone back to the county.   That money should have gone back; that is what causing the problem. So if the government failing to give to the people what the people deserve then unfortunately the people takes the laws into their own hands and all we do at the end of the day, who get hurt? It is the very people; it is the very society because new investments will not see and get that kind of report and come to Liberia sadly.”

He said a mutually happy relationship between the communities and the concession companies will facilitate operations of the concession and will also make the communities happy with the company because it sees clearly that the n is providing support exchanging their resources to development initiatives on the ground. And it makes the company very happy as well that they can operate in a very safe area and they can even continue to reinvest and they can also encourage other companies to move to Liberia as well.

He drew a scenario, using for example Sime Darby.   “Sime Darby left this country and many people don’t even understand the implications. Sime Darby is like one of the largest, if not one of the largest but the largest palm oil company in the world.  And Sime Darby left Liberia; that was a big deal and I think that should be really and truly concerning  every Liberian because if any company wants to invest in Liberia and they try to investigate Liberia’s investment profile and they realize that a massive company like Sime Darby left this country, they will be concerned”, he said

He added that no investor will just walk with their money and put it in “because you know any investor putting their money in they will find it difficult to get it out”, noting that any investment prospecting to come to Liberia will absolutely contact the investment on the ground; they will not just read, the will contact the existing investment on the ground and ask them what’s the condition”.

“But in the event where the company is actually fulfilling their investment and the money is not returning into the community and the community is angry and then vent their anger on the company it’s not good. But then on the other hand you cannot blame the community entirely because the community see that their natural resources going; and government is not providing the support from the company”, he said.

Elias Shoniyin, speaking on the future of the country’s development underscored the need for the decentralization of authority of fiscal administration and political authority “if we really want to spur out development across the country”.

Using his past experience when he visited Greenville, Sinoe County, where he said he saw no economic activities, he suggested the need to give greater responsibility, give greater expectations to the superintendents. “I think the current module of what the superintendents do across the country is never going to bring development to the country,” he said.

He is encouraging this government to consider holding an annual superintendent conference that will be chaired by the Minister of Internal Affairs   and co-chaired  by the Minister of Finance  who is in charge of development which will provide the opportunity for superintendents to come to town with their teams and give their agenda for the year to the government.

“Let them tell us how many new jobs they are going to create in their counties, how many new companies they are going to ensure will stack in that county ; and then the following year they have to give us report on the accomplishment of the commitments they’ve made.  And then first year and second year when a superintendent cannot give us what they’ve achieved the person should be gone,”  he proposed.

He then added that the superintendents go about hanging ID cards and riding cars around towns without the responsibility to the people they are appointed to lead, saying that the responsibility of superintendents is to ensure that the lives of the people in their county change.

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