Democracy, as we are taught in school, is a form of government by the people, for the people, and of the people. But if the people must form a government for themselves, individuals interested in assuming leadership roles must share platforms or manifestoes detailing policies and strategies for improving livelihood of their electorates. This process is more explicit in developed regions where candidates are thoroughly vetted and researched to ascertain their political ideologies and positions on issues of national and global concerns. Debates and town-halls are organized to further facilitate interactions between electorates and their aspirants for civil engagement and discussions on relevant topics. Contrastingly, in developing regions, especially Africa, the narrative is superficial. We conform to democratic values but disregard core tenets. Unlike western leaders, African leaders are often elected based on popularity, social status or influence among prominent stakeholders in society, with diminutive regards for their platforms.
Liberia is no different in the ambiguous practice of democracy. For 170 years, we have elected leaders based on race, social status or popularity among certain demographic groups. Until 1971, the country was governed by a single party system spearheaded by the infamous True Whig Party. Natives were denied voting rights on grounds they lacked understanding of electoral system. In a nutshell, Liberia has come a long way transforming its democratic institutions based on social inclusion and responsive leadership. Our leaders are more accountable to the public today with systems of check and balance in place to ensure transparency. Amid all this, Liberia still lags behind in several development indicators. And if you were to ask me why, my response would be “our leaders lack vision”.
Come October 10, 2017, Liberians will again go the ballot box to exercise a key tenet of democracy. The constitution mandates general elections be held every six years. The incumbent administration headed by President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf is the first democratically elected in post-war Liberia. This shows the magnitude of importance to the upcoming general elections. We (Liberians) will choose between two options: complacence with status quo and the call to action for robust transformation across all sectors. One thing for sure, regardless the outcome of these elections, Liberians will NEVER turn to violence as solution.
There is plethora of candidates vying for the office of President, including incumbent Vice President Joseph Boakai, former international soccer star now Liberian Senator, George Weah, famous Liberian business mogul, Benoni Urey, former business executive and head of Coca Cola Africa, Alexander Cummings among others. How will this election be any different from previous elections? As a policy specialist, I often ask my fellow electorates to request documented platform or manifesto from each candidate. We will evaluate each candidate based on his/her platform consistent with current dynamics in our country. If the future we all yearn is to be realized, we must hold people accountable to their promises.
In view of the aforementioned, I have read with comprehension the manifesto of the Coalition for Democratic Change (CDC) headed by two sitting senators, George Weah and Jewel Howard-Taylor. I must first of all applaud the committee that worked on this document. It is always difficult to develop comprehensive policy document that covers all areas of development. But the CDC delivered this for the Liberian people to read and decide if they can rally behind the CDC based on these policies and strategies.
This piece is therefore my personal take on the manifesto. I will provide key highlights from the manifesto for those who haven’t seen or read it, and then give my view about the validity of the propose strategies. The CDC manifesto is a 45-page document detailing policies based on 4 pillars with 14 key areas. The four pillars are: Power to the People, Economy & Jobs, Sustaining the Peace, and Governance & Transparency.
The manifesto begins with staunch attack on the incumbent administration while lavishing praises on Senators Weah and Howard-Taylor for their roles in government. Many assertions in the manifesto stood out as blatantly false or simply hyperbolizing the reality. Considering these are modus operandi within CDC, I will instead focus on the main issue, policy analysis.
Pillar 1: Power to the People
Under this pillar, the CDC hopes to address five key areas: education, health and sanitation, gender equity, youth and training, and disability & seniors.
Education: the CDC manifesto asserts that Liberia lags behind and the educational sector is in free fall compared to our neighbors. But here are few facts to debunk this. According to the World Bank Global Development Indicators, Liberia in fact out-performs its neighbors (Guinea, Sierra Leone, Cote d’Ivoire) on some educational indicators. Here are few:
- Adult literacy 15 yrs +: Liberia (47.6%), SL (48.4%), Guinea (30.5%), CI (43.3%)
- Gross enrollment ratio primary: Liberia (95.6%), CI (89.6%), Guinea (91.3%)
- Gross enrollment ratio secondary: Liberia (37.3%), CI (43.9%), SL (43.3%)
The above data shows Liberia outperforming both Guinea and Cote d’Ivoire and lags Sierra Leone by few points in adult overall adult literacy. Interestingly, this is higher than cumulative average literacy rate in sub-Saharan Africa (22%). Additionally, Liberia is one of the highest performers in gross enrollment at primary level (95.6%), again outperforming our neighbors and other African countries. Retention should be the focus, as more students drop out of school at secondary level. To improve retention, I agree with CDC strategy for reintroduction of school feeding program. This will provide extrinsic motivation to stay in school, especially for public school students whose families are often economically challenged.
The manifesto also suggests absorption of WAEC fees for all students. I frown on this approach as I am not sure of its impact and the additional burden it puts on our already strained national budget. The only country fully covering WAEC fee for its students is Nigeria. And of late, their government is scrapping this incentive based on reasons provided herein. On this front, an alternative will be a merit-based subsidy for students with excellent academic performances.
Our educational sector cannot survive without partnership. Yet the CDC manifesto fails to provide any strategic approach for working with traditional partners like UNESCO and Unicef as well as global donors like Gates Foundation, USAID among others. It is also imperative to strengthen our tertiary education system. Universities and Colleges must remain competitive with their international counterparts. Again, the CDC manifesto fails to mention any strategy for reforming our tertiary educational system. Remember in 2005, Amb. Weah lost the election because he didn’t have University degree.
Health and Sanitation: the subject of health system challenge cannot be more emphasized, and it’s a no-brainer for anyone to identify constraints in our healthcare system. I must however applaud the CD manifesto for highlighting an often-disregarded topic, non-communicable diseases. Trainings for medical doctors and allied health professionals are paramount to improving service delivery in healthcare settings. Performance-based financing or incentive-based system in healthcare has proven successful in many countries. Kudos to CDC for thinking in this direction.
Our health system is about 68% donor-driven, yet the manifesto fails to mention reprioritization of donor funds, partnership with WHO, World Bank and USAID for technical support. Though the CDC condemns use of public funds to finance treatment of government officials abroad, this manifesto also fails to provide any strategy on biomedical technology and clinical research.
Gender Equality: the manifesto included this segment to reflect the presence of a female Vice Standard Bearer, but it provides no specifics on the role of women public sector. This is an excerpt from the opening paragraph in this segment; “In many cases our women are the heads of home and are the ones whose supervise activities while their men are out all day fishing to provide for the family.” I am not sure how women will feel about this, but I find it disrespectful to suggest that women are limited to household caretakers while men provide for the families. There is no mention of equal work equal pay for women, though women are paid less than men in Liberia. This manifesto also fails to recommend any program aimed at providing women the platform to assume senior roles in organizations and businesses operating in Liberia.
Youth and Training: I absolutely agree that Liberia, unlike many countries, is not utilizing the opportunity offered by a youthful population. I am happy that the CDC has recognized this gap and approach for redress. I am however disgusted and I absolutely condemn the attempt to divide young people in Liberia. This manifesto asserts that there are three clusters of Liberian youths: those studying abroad because they have rich parents, those gripping with the difficulties in Liberia but still pursuing academic credentials, and the majority of young people plying the streets without any academic status. It is ignorant on the part of the writer, but also very divisive on the part of a leader who claims unity as priority for his platform. This so-called claim of 3 clusters of Liberian youths is a bogus proclamation meant to engender distrust and hate among young Liberians. Not everyone attaining education in the U.S is from wealthy family. I recently graduated from an Ivy League School and one of the best public policy schools in the world, yet my parents are struggling to make living for themselves and my siblings in Liberia. I along with many Liberians in school here in the United States and other parts of the world experienced the struggles but was fortunate to get opportunities in foreign land. So, to assert that every young person getting education abroad comes from wealthy family is simply outrageous and clueless. Please do your research well.
To further create divide among young Liberians, the manifesto states that the CDC-led government will direct it focus and resources on the two groups of young people in Liberia. This means no opportunity for a young person struggling abroad to empower himself and return home. The fact that you will focus on a particular segment of youth is incomprehensible. Young people, if we’re to build a better Liberia, must empower each other by sharing experiences and working together. But if the government focuses on a few and leave the rest based on bogus claim, that’s dictionary definition of discrimination.
Additionally, the CDC manifesto claims that its first approach at creating vibrant learning environment for young people will involve inter-school competitions and social activities. My question is how will you do such when in fact your focus groups are people out of school? The CDC-led government will build sport academies in the poorest counties in Liberia. Another ill-thought strategy considering the level of under-development in Liberia. An academy in Monrovia will struggle, imagine then an academy in Bopolu.
Disability and Senior: another segment of the manifesto I highly acknowledge given the number of disabled individuals from the civil crisis and additional cases of mental health. Establishing programs through National Commission on Disability for these individuals will significantly close the inequality gap and spur economic productivity among vulnerable groups. Kudos!
There is already a mental health division within the Ministry of Health as well as mental health and rehab center. It is not necessary to establish two new centers. I suggest scrapping the Mental Health Division from Ministry of Health and incorporate it as part of National Commission on Disability, and then provide substantial budgetary allotment for its function. This will take the burden off Ministry of Health and improve public accountability.
Pillar 2: Economy and Jobs
Under this pillar, the CDC hopes to address three key areas: Sustained Economic Growth, Agriculture and Forestry, and Infrastructure Development.
Sustained Economic Growth: the introductory segment for this pillar is well articulated. It touches on key issues facing our economy. With foreign direct investment of more than $16 billion, Liberia remains an attraction for investors. But the appropriation of these resources, the terms of concession agreements, and the allocation of corporate social responsibilities are ineffective and unbeneficial to Liberians. I like the strategy for stabilizing the economy through export regulation and currency valuation. Once we increase the buying power of Liberian dollars, the economy will remain resilient to shocks and continue on a growing pattern. This is simple macroeconomics.
To correct misleading information, it is important to note that Liberia’s GDP was actually growing prior to 2013 at a rate of 8.9%, something this manifesto fails to acknowledge. And it also fails to highlight the impact of Ebola crisis on our economy, but instead blames the UP-led government. Though the government is to blame for not having a robust emergency preparedness strategy in place, the effect on the economy was entirely inevitable once the crisis happened. The Ebola crisis resulted to downward trend in our GDP from projected 5.9% to 0.3% (US State Department). So, the UP-led government can be seen as the necessary cause of GDP decrease, but not the sufficient cause.
On manufacturing and industrial policy, I like the suggestion for system overhaul. But it must include a strong mandate on all extractive industries to establish production plants in Liberia. Rubber, Iron Ore, and crude oil are extracted and exported as raw materials. This reduces the net benefit offered by natural resources in the country. Building production plants will produce jobs, stabilize the economy by bringing more investments, and ensure accountability from companies.
Our economy is market-based system and our investment policy is free enterprise. This means that everyone (citizen or foreigner) has the legal authority to invest in Liberia. Now the question we should be asking is how many of our current candidates have introduced investors to Liberia or personally invested in our economy. What mechanism has the government put in place to promote investment by ordinary Liberians. What has the government done to protect Liberians risking their resources by investing in our economy? Liberia is one of few countries with no defined policy for prioritizing their citizens in receiving loans and other resources for investment. There are many Liberians with potential to improve the economy but they are impeded by red tapes and low priority for bank loans.
Key topics not mentioned in this section are school-to-work programs, internship programs to train aspiring leaders, international career development programs for experts in public sectors (thereby reducing reliance on consultants), and remuneration policy for civil servants.
Agriculture and Forestry: agriculture is a major contributor to the economy, but Liberia’s agro sector is underperforming considering the geographical advantage. The CDC manifesto accurately outlines constraints facing the sector, and most importantly sustainable solutions. I am especially in agreement because of its consideration for climate change.
The entire segment however focuses on land rights and small-holder farmers. In Liberia, we consume more carbohydrates beyond the capacity of small-scale farmers. Industrialization in agriculture is therefore a MUST. Our agro-sector must invest in new technologies, trainings, and strengthening farmers’ skillsets for increased yield per hectare. Though there remain debate about the use of genetically modified organisms (GMO), I suggest our agro-policy support research into the role of GMO for both small-scale and industrial farmers.
The manifesto also didn’t speak much on competition faced by small-scale farmers in the market against those importing processed foods. A small-scale pepper producer cannot compete against a mega importer of spicy products in the market. There must therefore be policy on import restrictions on certain commodities in order to make our small-scale farmers more competitive and economic viable.
An important stakeholder not mentioned in CDC manifesto is the Central Agricultural Research Institute (CARI). We need to strengthen CARI’s capacity for research into seed preservation and crop resilience to climate change.
Infrastructure Development: the narrative of deplorable infrastructure in Liberia cannot be more superfluous. Every sector needs improvement in its infrastructure, but this must be done with craft and long-term goals. I agree with strategies for investing in water sanitation, electricity, and public transport. My biggest strategies will however focus on clean energy and road network. Every Liberian agrees that Liberia Electricity Corporation (LEC) does not have the capacity to supply required energy to homes in Monrovia. Clean energy is therefore the coolest thing. Cheap and affordable, clean energy will ensure broader coverage and efficient use of electricity. For a start, we can build solar farms in each county to supply the main cities while expanding coverage. Liberia has about 6 months of dry season when the sun produces more energy that can be stored in solar farms.
The impact of excellent road network on the economy is immeasurable. But the government alone cannot fix all the problems contrary to this manifesto. The craft involves laying out plans with investors to allocate certain segments of their portfolios to creating proper road network in their counties of operation. I always refer to the approach by Felix Houphouet Boigny of Cote d’Ivoire. He invested significantly into constructing roads by mandating that investors focus their corporate social responsibilities on road construction. Today, only few countries in Africa can bluff Cote d’Ivoire about good roads.
Another strategy for investing in road network is actually outsourcing our roads to private investors for a fixed term. For example, we may liaise with a Chinese company to construct modern highway from Monrovia to Harper, and collect toll from cars for a period of 20 years. Such agreement will resolve constraint of deplorable roads while having little effect on government spending.
Pillar 3: Sustainable Peace
Under this pillar, the CDC hopes to address three key areas: Justice and Human Rights, Reconciliation, and Security and National Defense.
Justice and Human Rights: I tried to understand exactly how the manifesto actually touched on anything related to justice and human rights in this segment, but I couldn’t find much. Emphasis is placed on governance and separation of powers rather than burning issues of injustice such as corruption, rape, domestic violence, religious and ethnic discrimination, and criminal justice reform. I will suggest the manifesto committee revisits this and have an addendum with realistic strategies.
Reconciliation: The manifesto indicates that Liberia has enjoyed 12 years of peace and stability. I like to respectfully disagree with the former characterization. Liberia has had relative stability due to willingness among Liberians for sustained growth and development, and the presence of UNMIL. However, I must say Liberia has not had peace to a certain degree. Peace is measure by various indicators comprising of socio-economic matrices. Unemployment, increased crime rate, domestic violence, corruption in higher places, frequent public outcries against government, in addition to the lack of reconciliation among key players in the civil crisis; we cannot say there is absolute peace in Liberia. Liberians are simply interested in national development, but it doesn’t mean we are at peace. There is an urgent need for unconditional reconciliation across tribal, religious, gender, and age groups to ensure that Liberia attains the level of peace required for sustainable development.
Security and National Defense: It is imperative that every law enforcement personnel receives necessary benefits required to keep us safe. The manifesto lashes at the Police for losing public trust while expressing admiration for the Arm Forces. I believe law enforcement is a collection of both units and thus must be given equal accordance. To curb increasing crime, we need to restructure the Police force with specialized military police training style. Corrupt police officers must be disrobed and expelled indefinitely from every public law enforcement position.
Pillar 4: Governance and Transparency
Under this pillar, the CDC hopes to address three key areas: Decentralization of Institutions and Systems, Accountability and Anti-Corruption, and Foreign Policy and Diplomatic Relations.
Decentralization of Institutions and Systems: I am a big proponent of decentralized system because it spurs development and enhances resilience to shock. The CDC manifesto has an ambitious plan for decentralizing political system, especially the executive branch into 3 geo-political regions: Western, Central, and Eastern. I applaud this bold plan, yet I am not sure of the specifics. How will this be different from the county executive leadership? Are we having a new sub-branch of government to provide oversight of respective regions? Can we instead have this as an ad hoc committee comprising Superintendents from counties within each region?
The idea of new capital city is pivotal to economic growth, but also very prone to political upheaval. It will require robust nation-wide consultation among stakeholders to agree a perfect location for this new capital city. The manifesto however fails to outline strategies for these consultations and actionable timeline to resume discussion about this important subject.
Accountability and Anti-Corruption: the CDC manifesto focuses on the need to restructure agencies and institutions responsible to ensure accountability in public sector, while at the same time demanding review of asset declaration process for public officials. Good ideas with high prospect of curbing corruption to a certain extent. However, my suggestion will be to move these agencies under the Ministry of Justice and have them report directly to the Attorney General of the Republic. The process of transferring corruption cases to the legal department takes longer and subsequently leads to dismissal. But if the agencies report directly to the Attorney General, any official found guilty will be immediately charged without due process of inter-agency reporting and paper processing.
Foreign Policy and Diplomatic Relations: this is a major area where the general public questions the competency of CDC standard bearer, Sen. Weah. The international affairs and global policy landscape is not for the fainthearted. Leaders from smaller country like Liberia must be prepared to voice their opinions in favor of all Liberians. But again, there are processes and procedures for doing so, and it requires thorough understanding of geo-politics. The U.S is an example of how dangerous it is to elect a leader with no idea of geo-politics and international affairs.
This manifesto stresses the need to restructure foreign mission (Embassies) with requisite systems of check and balance. Kudos for that. But what mechanisms will be put in place to improve our visibility within the diplomatic corps? What strategy will Liberia prioritize amid simultaneous calls for globalization and protectionism? Liberia benefits from countries with opposing views; how will our leaders align their interests without compromising overall benefit of the country? Is Senator Weah capable of disagreeing with China in favor of U.S relations or verse versa? An important question to be answered in this segment is: how will Liberia position itself as it transitions to middle-income country? These are not clear in the manifesto.