Peeping Inside Weah’s 5th SONA -What Liberians Will Likely Hear, and Want To Hear

MONROVIA: As the President of the Republic, George Manneh Weah, takes to the rostrum of the joint chambers of the National Legislature today, it would be the fifth time he would be doing so. When he did in January 2018, barely a week following his inauguration, he had just little if not nothing to report on regarding the state of the nation, as he was just a freshman. But the President and his administration have now been on the wheels of the Ship of State for four blown years and the nation is just a stone throw away from the end of his first six-year term. Presidential elections are next year. So, many are asking, after more than half of his presidential tenure, what better is there for the Chief Executive to report regarding national transformation consistent with his electoral promises? And what do Liberians expect to hear from the President? The Analyst takes a cursory look inside the President’s State of the Nation Address (SONA).

The President of Liberia is obliged by Article 58 of the Constitution to, 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 on the state of the Republic. In reporting the economic condition of the Republic, the report shall cover expenditure as well as income.

President George Manneh Weah, who was sworn in as President of the Republic in 2018, will for the fifth time face the people of Liberia, through their elected representatives at the Capitol Building, to report on the state of the nation as required.

As he presents what in a sense is his performance report for fiscal 2021, Liberians are poised and anxious to hear those things the President will claim were done and those things they believe were not done and should be done in the next political and fiscal period.

Inside the President’s File

As is always the custom, President Weah, like his predecessors, will begin his report with his legislative agenda—presenting a catalog of critical bills not only to be submitted this year for enactment towards legitimizing his development agenda but also press for the ratification of those that have been dusting in committee rooms of the Senate and the House of Representatives.

Legislative Agenda

It is not immediately clear what those bills will exactly be, but sources confided in the Analyst that the President will be submitting scores of concession agreements which his administration is poised into with international investors. The President is reportedly also going to request the lawmakers to amend several Acts of the Legislature, including those of the General Auditing Commission, the National Fishery and Aquaculture Authority, and other agencies of government to improve performance and productivity.

Besides those pieces of legislation, the President, according to sources, will be pressing the National Legislature to fast-track several bills which have been pending and dusting on the shelves of both Houses.

It is said that, at the Senate, several bills are pending. They include the Nation Youth Policy Act, the Amendments to the Drug Law, the enactment of the National Center for the Coordination of Response Mechanism; the enactment of the law establishing the National Food Assistance Agency; and critical draft amendments to the National Elections Commission Regulations amongst other key Legislations.

There are scores of bills also pending in the Committees Room at the House of Representatives for which the President is expected to push to the National Legislature for expeditious ratification.

Sources say the President will overemphasize his legislature agenda which is accordingly the catalyst of his flagship program, the Pro-Poor Agenda for Prosperity and Development.

Public Expectation

The Liberian people amongst other things will be looking forward to the President on what measures the government intends to take in order to correct some of the concession agreements it signed with major concessionaires in the country to address the harsh and unfavorable conditions Liberians, especially host communities are subjected to. A case in point is the lingering opposition against the ratification of the AML deal being resisted by citizens of Nimba county.

State of Economy

Most Liberians, even including the average citizen, are nowadays concerned about the country’s economic situation, and it won’t be a surprise if President Weah spends much of the pages of this year’s SONA on the economy—both the macro and micro issues.

As the World Bank has acknowledged late last year, the Liberian Economy was experiencing lots of challenges brought about as a result of over a decade-long civil war and serial pandemics—first Ebola and later COVID-19.

Despite those challenges, the Bank revealed that in 2021, Liberia’s economy started to rebound after contracting for two consecutive years.

Real GDP growth was projected at 3.6 percent in 2021, allowing per capita GDP to increase for the first time since 2016, but the World Bank indicated that poverty was expected to slightly increase while per capita consumption started contracting, thus leading growth to be highly driven by export of commodities.

The Central Bank of Liberia and the Ministry of Finance were during 2021 upbeat about the state of the Liberian economy, owing to reform measures put in place by the Government, including no-more-borrowing from the CBL.

Sources say the President will today provide details and tangibles accrued from the economic reform policies.

Pundits will be keen to hear from the President what has been done to increase revenue and reduce current operating expenditure to finance investments and what Government has done to improve governance and boost efficiency of expenditure.

Economic experts have suggested to Government to press donors to focus more on better support for the Pro-Poor Agenda for Prosperity and Development (PAPD) to assist delivery of social services around the country. How this has been achieved may also be elucidated by the President today.

Others say they will be listening to hear confirmations from the President regarding near term growth and how it was driven by the expected recovery in the mining sector underpinned by the recent uptick in commodity prices.

According to the World Bank, Iron ore prices surged by 25 percent in the first quarter of 2021, and prices in April 2021 almost doubled those of April 2020.

The surge largely reflected robust demand for steel in China, whose iron ore imports account for two-thirds of seaborne trade.

The President could speak to the non-mining sectors, services growth which was projected according to the World Bank to rebound (to 3.4 percent in 2021, from –8.6 percent in 2020) if vaccine rollouts prevent a new general lockdown in 2021–2022.

What the ordinary Liberians have seen with their naked eyes despite all the favorable projections and macroeconomic data is the stability in the money exchange regime, where the Liberian Dollar has appreciated over the United States Dollars for a protracted period of time now.

How that magic wand, which caused the near-toppling and near-disintegration of the political administration of George Weah in the first three years will be highlighted. The Liberian dollar depreciated abysmally amid what was seen as uncontrollable inflation.

But for the most part of 2021, the Weah government managed to beat inflation to certain stability, evidenced by the appreciation of the Liberian dollar.

What also appeared to be a landmark economic victory by the Government, which the President will certainly highlight and even boast of in his SONA today is the fact that long queues have evaporated at commercial banks and the shortage of monies in banks has disappeared.

Public Expectation

Citizens are cognizant of the government’s position on the state of the economy but expect reassurance that the performance of the economy will not just be based on statistics and figures put out there which are contrary to the true reflection in the country. There is a serious rise in the level of job losses, deplorable health system, rising cost of living, a poorly managed education sector, poor infrastructure, poor electricity, lack of safe drinking water for vast majority of the people, etc. Until these and others are properly addressed, the economy will not be seen as improving. Hence, the citizens look forward for a message that will take actions to solve these problems.

National Peace, Stability

Sailing the national voyage for years without firecrackers sounding, let alone to see citizens running in panic from homes in 2021 is seemingly a giant achievement that the president may not just leave out of his report.

Stability and peace are an abstract development, and therefore one of the generally overlooked but very critical achievements of the leadership of President George Manneh Weah.

Before he took over the mantle of power in the country, specifically from 1990 to 2017, foreign boots and quasi administrators were consecutively on the soil of Liberia, taking primary responsibility for the maintenance of peace, stability and security, while sharing a chunk of development initiatives.

By the time President Weah took over, the external forces had taken their exit, placing sole responsibility for security and peace upon the Government of President Weah.

It takes pragmatism, tolerance and good-naturedness on the part of the leader to ensure that even under the vicious onslaught of provocation, calm is maintained.

Four years on, President George Manneh Weah has managed to ensure that peace reigns, not only creating and exhibiting those attitude fostering national cohesion but also not engaging into policies that would provide pretext for his opponents to flee into exile or in the bushes and resort to insurrection as it was in the past.

There were sporadic protests and verbal hostility from critics and opposition elements, but instead of using brute force to quell dissent, President Weah would order tankers to splash cold water on protesters and call for dialogue even for those who cursed him. Law enforcement officers were there providing safe drinking water.

The President surely might be a proud man, under the prevailing conditions encountered, to declare the nation safe, peaceful and harmonious.

He is expected to reaffirm his administration’s commitment to remain unwavering when it comes to the transformational development of Liberia within the framework of an accountable and functional democracy.

Public Expectation

We must have enjoyed relative peace and stability compared to the past but the level of insecurity during the period under review tends to dismiss any gains that may have been made. Citizens will definitely be looking forward to hearing from the SONA measures it intends to put in place that will ensure that the security of this country is improved compared to the past.

Beating COVID-19

The ravages of the novel Coronavirus have spread across the world, subduing even the most prosperous nations, mostly in terms of the rates of infection, hospitalization and death. Many development countries are also feeling the weight of the devastating pandemic.

Liberia is amongst a very few nations in the wide world whose fight against the killer disease is acclaimed and hailed by experts monitoring containment responses around the globe, and the President is expected to reveal the secret of his success.

The Minister of Health of the Country told the local media a few days ago that COVID-19 curve is bending down, as there were only five active cases in the country.

The appreciable success of the Weah administration against the pandemic, and its variants of Delta and Omicron, is an epic story he is likely to tell today.

He would however indicate the significant factors that negatively impacted the Liberian economy during the year under review was the Coronavirus pandemic, which has afflicted tens of millions of people in all nations.

The President is expected to hail all Liberians who held together as a country throughout the pandemic, and with the support from our Development Partners, an effective response was mounted.

He will certainly thank all development partners for their strong support for Liberia.

He will call for a moment of silence either at the onset of the speech or when telling the COVID success story in Liberia.

Public Expectation

In as much as the citizens will want to appreciate the government for all efforts made to keep the virus at a very minimum risk, it is important to urge the government to make sure that all resources to its disposal are utilized in order to contain virus. The citizens also look forward to hearing from the President, the government’s transparency scorecard concerning the covid-19.

The Bread and Butter Issues

President Weah might not forget to mention efforts his government is exerting to address the bread and butter issues facing the country, mainly for the underprivileged.

A High Frequency Phone Monitoring Survey Report launched by the World Bank in August 2020 revealed that two out of three households in Liberia are food insecure, three out of four households reported job losses, and two out of three households reported income losses.

It is known clearly that recovery efforts were made in 2021 and how it reduced the number of vulnerable people.

Speaking to the same issue in last year’s SONA, the President said: “We feel the pain you feel on a day-to-day basis as you seek to put bread on your table. I too have felt the pain of hunger and poverty.”

Ears are open to see whether the statement will be repeated in defeat or whether the President will say how many persons his administration pulled out of the bondage of hunger, unemployment and social destitution.

Roads & Infrastructure

In his 2021 SONA, which was the fourth, President Weah provided a rather impressive report on infrastructure building, mainly roads.

He reported the following: 67 km road from Ganta to Yekepa; 47 km road from Sanniquelle- Logatuo.  Along the Bong and Lofa corridor, 80 km of road from Gbarnga to Salayea.  In the South-Eastern corridor, 80 km of road from Karloken to Fish Town.  Similarly, funding has been received and preparatory work is ongoing on the 45km highway from Roberts International Airport to ELWA Junction and the 6km road from ELWA to Coca-Cola Factory.  A contract has been awarded for a 39 km road from Ganta to Saclepea in Nimba County.

As some of those constructions were ongoing, the President will give an update on how those then pending are faring, before reporting on the new ones.

There were reports in 2021 that several urban and rural roads were under construction and they certainly will be part of the President’s report today.

The Government of Liberia announced that construction works on the Madina–Robertsports road in Grand Cape Mount County was expected to start in November last year. Public Works Minister Cocker-Collins revealed that US$7.18 million work was under a pre-finance arrangement.

Early this month, January, the Government also indicated that the Gbarnga-Salayea Road Project had started and would be completed by July 2023. Certainly the President will mention this important corridor.

The President may also give updates on 20 ongoing projects that were reportedly earmarked under President George Mannah Weah’s administration.

The 20 ongoing projects include the Roberts International Airport (RIA) road project; the corridor between Gabriel Tuckers Bridge and St. Paul Bridge; the overpass to be constructed between the SKD Boulevard and the Ministerial Complex and the Somalia Drive road which will be dedicated on July 26 this year.

Public Expectation

While the President’s road connectivity project is commendable, there is still much to be done with the quality of the jobs on those roads. An investigation on the present status of roads reveal that some of the roads constructed during the period under review are currently in bad shape. Citizens will be looking forward to hearing from Mr. President on measures taken to make sure that contractors handling such jobs come up with quality performance.

Political Environment, Liberty

The President has got one main thing to boast of, which the last four presidents before him will not do: a freer political environment.

The speech will pick up this very important development, because it will be paying citizens a bleak past at which political leaders narrowed the political space by harassing and eliminating opponents.

The fight for free speech, civil liberties and media freedom has been an age-old one. In fact, the fight to obtain these human rights as upheld by international protocols and convention and partly by Liberian laws at some point in history produced tragic consequences before the advent of President Weah’s administration.

Many presidents and political administrations of yesteryears legislated a number of draconian laws to maximize their intolerance and crush dissent. The likes of Degree 88A, Criminal Malevolence and other tyrannical precepts raged in this country, with impunity. That’s why some social scientists contend that when writers finally complete their perspectives on the legacy of the administration of the 24 Presidents of Liberia, they would hardly leave out the accelerated push through the corridors of the 54th Legislature and the final signing into law of the Kamara Abdullah Kamara Act of Press Freedom by President George Manneh Weah.

It is a fact that most Liberian historians would hardly leave out the cruelty of successive past political administrations using Degree AA and other legislations and policies that were used by past governments as a canopy to drag journalists, political activists and agitators into prison and to narrow the political space. Interestingly, even political administrations that prided themselves as being progressive and revolutionary failed terribly to thrash those draconian laws that were on the books.

It is an open secret that too many Liberian leaders and political administrations gave press freedom and civil liberties mere lip-service. But before he was four months old in office, President Weah submitted, others will say re-submitted, the Press Freedom Act, having changed its nomenclature to the Kamara Abdullah Kamara (KAK) Act of Press Freedom after one of Liberia’s prominent journalist, the late former President of the Press Union of Liberia, Kamara Abdullah Kamara.

Kamara and other latter-day Liberian journalists had worked assiduously for years to decriminalize free speech and free press towards creating a conducive environment for the unhindered but responsible exercise of civil liberties and larger freedom by Liberians.

Chapter 11 of the Penal Law of 1978 at Sections 11.11 on criminal libel against the President; and 11.12 on Sedition and 11.14 on criminal malevolence were all thorns in the fresh of journalists and human rights advocates for years and a nail on the coffin of democracy. Repealing those sections to allow the unfettered exercise of civil and democratic rights had been a tough one throughout the years.

But the draconian laws could not survive the epoch of the 24th President, not even the first few months of this ascendency. In no time, President Weah quickly resubmitted the bill, now an Act. He ensured its accelerated passage by both houses of the Legislature before appending his signature on February 26, 2019, barely a year after his inauguration.

Only those who are not familiar with the Liberian people’s struggle for rice and rights would shrug off this milestone. Most Liberian leaders had sought shield against vociferous scrutiny under Degree 88A and other laws that criminalize free expression.

The President has been feeling the heat and backlash of the decision to torpedo the speech decriminalizing Act into existence. He now finds himself in the furnace of pernicious verbal attacks that include the cruelest of vituperation on this person.

But it seems the President first developed the immunity or ultra-tolerance against verbal onslaughts before letting such a law, which his predecessors rejected, come into existence.

Thus, for the first time Liberia now exists in an era of unprecedented free speech, such that even in the face of reckless provocations and verbal attacks on the presidency, there are no political prisons.

Public Expectation

There is still much needed to be done to entrench true democracy in the country. Allegations of the manipulation of almost all of the country’s governance system is rife and it appears visible how the state has succeeded to control the judiciary, the security apparatuses, the integrity institutions such as the National Elections Commission (NEC), the Liberia Anti-Corruption Commission (LACC), etc at the detriment of the citizens’ rights to good governance. It is  the expectation of the citizens that the President in his state of the nation address will assure the public that the government will guarantee the rights and privileges of all citizens irrespective of their political affiliations and its non-interference in the work of the integrity institutions.

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