NEWLY-ELECTED Liberian President George Weah has unveiled his plans to rebuild a country that he says is facing major economic challenges. These will be based on four pillars: power to the people; economy and jobs; sustaining the peace; and governance and transparency.
Addressing the start of the 54th assembly of the legislature, he said in his State of the Nation Address. ‘Our economy is broken, our government is broke, our currency is in free-fall, inflation is rising, unemployment is at an unprecedent high, and our foreign reserves are at an all-time low.’
In attempting to mend things, he said his administration would ‘introduce appropriate legislation for your consideration and approval that will be based on the four pillars of our [election] platform…’ In empowering people, Weah said his government would ‘focus on reviews and revision of our education system, improve health and sanitation, promote and strengthen gender equality, and provide for youth re-orientation and empowerment through training of all kinds, the creation of jobs, and the expansion of sports.’
By focusing on young people, Weah plans to reward a segment of Liberia society that voted overwhelmingly for him but which has had a raw deal under previous regimes. On health, his plan is to address the parlous state of the sector, which was exposed by its lack of preparedness to deal with the Ebola crisis four years ago. For instance, funding from the European Union for the health sector was not put to the use it was meant for and this exacerbated the situation when the Ebola outbreak occurred.
In working towards boosting the country’s economy and to create jobs, Weah said his administration would “develop and expand agriculture, and address our very large infrastructure deficit, with particular emphasis on road construction and the provision of affordable and adequate electricity for all our people”. He said the comprehensive road construction programme ‘will link all county capitals with all-weather paved primary roads.’
Weah added: ‘They will be built to the highest international standards, and linked to paved secondary farm-to-market roads that will enhance agriculture, trade, and tourism in Liberia.
Particular priority will be given to a coastal highway that will run from Buchanan to Harper, which will eventually end the complete isolation of south-eastern Liberia, a condition that has existed since the formation of this country.’
He acknowledged that this would ‘take several years to complete.’ Weah said that his administration would nevertheless proceed with the project, which is expected to cost about $3bn. ‘This is going to be challenging, but I am convinced that, with the assistance of friendly governments and institutions, this can be achieved before the end of my tenure.’
On his third pillar for changing things in the country, Weah said the aim was to ‘improve the judiciary system to ensure that the basic rights of all Liberians are protected.’ Even though the country has had a modicum of peace and stability over the years, there are still underlying tensions that Weah would like to get rid of. ‘To that end, we will propose legislation that will be intended to create new processes and avenues to ensure that all our people are fully reconciled,’ he said.
On the thorny issue of governance and transparency, Weah said his administration would introduce legislation ‘that will focus on the decentralisation of institutions and systems of governance, review and build upon the current Code of Conduct in order to increase accountability of public officials and reduce the incidence of corruption.’
Touching on an equally problematic issue in Liberia – land ownership – the new Liberian leader said his administration would change the law that restricted this to citizens, arguing that foreign investors would be put off by this. ‘No foreign investor – in fact, not any investor – will be willing to make significant direct investments in our country if they cannot own property in fee simple,’ Weah told legislators.
‘Furthermore, direct investments placed on leased properties are virtually unbankable because most banks are reluctant to accept leaseholds as collateral for loans to persons and business entities for projects that could very well enhance our development and create jobs for our people.’
Weah said the country’s land law was ‘inconsistent with my pronouncement that “Liberia is open for business”, while at the same time denying those who would heed our call and come to Liberia to invest when they are presented from owning property because of their lack of Liberian citizenship.’
To show that he means business, Weah told legislators: ‘…in view of the rapidly deteriorating situation of the economy…I will reduce my salary and benefits by 25 per cent and give the proceeds back to the Consolidated Fund for allocation and appropriation as they see fit.” He then urged legislators “to follow my lead, in the interests of your constituents.’