Weah’s 3rd SONA -What’s In It? What Liberians Expect?

The Government of President George Manneh draws much grassroots popularity which is while its supporters call it a populist regime just as it draws the fiercest of opposition cynicism since it came to national leadership over Liberia’s well-known politicians and intellectuals. The year 2019 vociferously tested both the regime’s popularity and its criticisms-resistance capacity, all coming from the woes of financial challenges that befell the country. The woes of the year matured quite bitingly to the extent that banks were refusing requests for withdrawals, triggering hardship, widespread apprehensions and denunciations from the public against Government. But in the latest days of year, signs of recovery, also attested to by international economic experts, began to unfold. The Liberian people are poised to hear what and how the President will report to the Legislature today at the end of such a tumultuous year. The Analyst spoke to highly placed officials as well as ordinary people to compile this report.

As President George Manneh Weah mounts the rostrum of the Rotunda of the Capitol Building today, critics and supporters are obviously itchy to see and hear what the President would say about 2019. For the critics, they think the financial crunch of the year has effectively removed from, and denied the President, any meaningful report. For the supporters, they see a lot of developments—roads and other infrastructure projects that were built, peace that was sustained and a government that remained intact.

Those who might be hasty to jump at conclusions might think that not much President Weah can report on the economy since it was obviously a nightmare for most part of the year. Sooner the government announced its wage harmonization program—which slashed huge emoluments from senior and middle-level public servants’ salaries—then it became increasing difficult to pay salaries on time. Some pundits could not reconcile the contradiction—reduction in wages and delays to pay—as the government could not pay some for nearly five months. The recognizable regular pay came only after two and half months, extending payment of December salaries to January 2020.

Certainly, the President will acknowledge in his Annual Message today the economic paralysis suffered by the people of Liberia in 2019—something what created untold high cost of living, hard time and frustrations amongst the population.

How could he have ignored the fact that the inflation that hit the country was unprecedented and that it nearly contributed to toppling his regime during the year as the nation witnessed bellicose agitations, including non-stop street demonstrations?

The Economy

No doubt, the country was on its knees and the President is bound not only to confess to the downturn but also to update the people of Liberia what is in store to keep the ship of state above the waters in the new year and beyond.

Though the President will underscore the many challenges with the economy during the year, challenges that hold their origin in economic mismanagement by his predecessors, he is likely not to dwell more on the blame-game but will underscore substantial efforts his administration has made to keep things afloat leading the news of good prospects in the coming years.

CBL sources likely to be quoted by the President put the low economic growth to less than one percent, an annual inflation of more than 20 percent and depreciation of the Liberian dollar by more than 20 percent. The economists attribute these UNMIL drawdown, other structural factors, weak external demand for iron ore and rubber which are valued export commodities.

If the President is to speak to how much was done in 2019 to address the challenges of the years, he will have to divulge the many policy actions taken to address the problems of inflation and liquidity.

First, generally, the President commenced the restructuring of the CBL which is responsible for monetary policy with the naming of new faces assumed to be experts and fitted to solve the situation on hand.

There is a new Monetary Policy Framework which according to a CBL source reflects a movement from exchange rate targeting to interest-rate based framework in order to contain the rising inflation level in the short-term, increase the value of the Liberian dollar, make it more appreciable, and currency of choice for financial investment, thereby enhancing financial and monetary stability.

The Government via the CBL also reportedly imported US$20 million from its account at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York to meet the Liberian dollar demand of the commercial banks; such that by the end of the year the parity between the US Dollar and Liberia Dollar got it a bit stabilized.

And it is clear that the President will speak to request for the printing of additional Liberia dollar in the tune of 4 billion as well as the launch of a 5-year National Financial Inclusion Strategy.

The President has often spoken of the diversifying of the economy with emphasis on Agriculture. He will certainly report on how much is being done to provide resources, for instance, in strengthening the Rural Community Finance Institutions (RCFIs) that will empower farmers to get involved in commercial agriculture.

Roads and Infrastructure

Many good things occurred despite the economic turn, and certainly amongst these good things are road connectivity that hit most of the country’s poorest communities. Public Works sources, for instance, said the total of 100km of primary road were earmarked to be paved annually in order to meet the high-level national target of paving 517km by 2023. Ongoing works on at least 75km of primary road was upgraded to all-weather paved roads that include the stretches of road from Harper to Pololo Border with Cote D’Ivoire (16km) and Harper to Kaloken (50km); progress on the rehabilitation of Somalia Drive 13km.

The President might mention the construction of the 81-km Gbarnga-Salayea and the completion of 200km of urban roads and 83km of secondary roads by the end of 2023.

With the advent of the dry season, road activities including making additional payments to contractors and signing of new contracts have commenced, according to Public Works Ministry sources.

Consistent with the PAPD, the President continued his free modern housing program in other parts of the country, and this development will certainly be featured on the Annual Message by the President.

Several of those will be dedicated to include the those in his Grand Kru County hometown and Popo Beach on the Bushrod Island.


Legislative Agenda

Many people consider the Annual Address to be more about the President’s Legislative Agenda, which also means he would underscore the importance of the landmark pieces of legislation pushed through the National Legislature.

It will be an elated moment for the President to announce the huge cooperation he got from the 54th National Legislature in the passage into law of 52 legislations 2019. This is to recall a legislative retreat he hosted at a point of the year to allow the politically charged Legislature to understand and appreciate the need for most of the critical laws he needed to be passed.

And he is strongly likely to call on the National Legislature to remain in tune with his legislative agenda in the new year in which it is believed the President will push a number of concession agreements for ratifications. These are to include the new oil blocks, road contractors and other potential investors eyeing the country’s vast natural resources.

Education and Health

Amid the difficulties, there were some enrolls made in the areas of education and health, and the President is likely to boast about the fact that Liberian students during the year made a high mark the West African Exams. This extraordinary achievement will be attribute to the Ministry of Education’s nationwide WASSCE tutorial program intended to upgrade the skills and enhance the confidence of the 12 graders and continued commitment to paying WASSCE fees for all Sr. Secondary Students.

The education efforts made during the year will also come from reports on countless teacher training activities carried out and the high number of graduates particularly in the rural counties.

The Government of Liberia made a huge leap which the President may allude to—the successful garnering of over US$ 148m and over 26 million euros from international partners, including the World Bank in support of an Education Development Plan.

The Health sector also had a boost and the President will not forget to mention that, amongst other things, efforts were made during the year to expand renewable energy for health facilities to solve the perennial problem of electricity outages affecting public health facilities.

It would be electrifying when the President update the nation that solar equipment has now been procured and will shortly be installed in 13 health facilities assessed in Lofa, River Gee, Gbarpolu, Grand Cape Mount, Grand Bassa and Bong Counties. These facilities will now benefit from solar power.

It is also likely that the President will proudly report that Liberia is ranked the highest in the sub-region in terms of institutional capability to respond to any outbreak within 48 hours.

He might feed on an MOH report that the Ministry has been involved with reintroducing Revolving Drugs Funds to reduce lack of medicines in public health facilities.

Other Matters of Governance

That several by-elections were held and many protests rocked the country in 2019 may compel the President to speak about governance, peace and reconciliation.

He would be right to mention that his administration exhibited a high degree of tolerance amid belligerent opposition agitation. To understand this level of tolerance one must take note of the fact that administering or governing Liberia was an equal responsibility shared by a Liberian team and the international community; whether it was ECOMOG in the 1990s or UNMIL in the 2000s.

Taking responsibility for both security and political administration of Liberia is the first the country has seen for nearly three decades, and yet despite the political challenges, he ended the year without one political prisoner.

It is not clear how exactly the issue of reconciliation will be addressed today but reading from his previous statements on economic and war crimes, it is likely that the president will be terser in his Annual Message.

He might ask the regular question, “Why Now?”, in response for the clamor for a war crimes tribunal during the term as President when both national and international actors did little or nothing about this issue for several years earlier.

Beating the challenges of 2019 and facing uncertain 2020, the President might dwell on appearing to the patriotic sensibilities of citizens—requesting patience to allow him bring to bear needed remedies to the economic and political issues prevailing in the country.

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