Liberia: How Will Boakai Reform Liberia As a New Era Begins?

Today, Monday, 22 January, Liberians will witness the official inauguration of Joseph Boakai, the winner of the presidential election held recently, as the 26th president of the West African country. Today’s inauguration, which is expected to draw dignitaries and international leaders, will be preceded by several other events and will most likely mark the new president’s difficult path to uniting and transforming the country for national development

According to the National Steering Committee for the inauguration of President-elect Joseph Boakai and Vice President-elect Jeremiah Koung, the presidential inauguration will be held on the grounds of the Capitol, the seat of the national legislature in the capital of Monrovia.

Joseph Nyumah Boakai, 79, is a Liberian politician born in the remote village of Worsonga in the Foya District of Lofa County on 30th November 1944. He had his primary and high school in Sierra Leone and Liberia before graduating from the College of West Africa. He later graduated in 1972 with a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration from the University of Liberia.

From 1983 to 1985, he served as Minister of Agriculture under late President Samuel Doe. In that post, Boakai chaired the 15-nation West African Rice Development Association. Having previously served as the 29th vice president of Liberia, from 2006 to 2018, under President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Boakai contested the presidential elections in 2017 but lost to outgoing President George Weah under very controversial and politically extenuating circumstances.

Boakai had committed to an anti-corruption political campaign agenda and became unpopular with Mrs Ellen Sirleaf Johnson, the incumbent president and leader of the ruling Unity Party (UP) at the time. Sirleaf, on political expediency, turned her back against her Unity Party’s choice in Boakai and preferred the younger Weah, who emerged as the 25th president of Liberia. However, Weah and Johnson have long parted ways. Johnson now supported Boakai to win the 2023 elections.

Apart from Boakai’s active philanthropic and wide community efforts, he has a very large grassroot political following. He had participated in organising and fundraising for the rural electrification of Foya Kama in Lofa County, Northern Liberia. Before serving as vice president, Boakai had worked and consulted for several institutions, including serving as Chief Technical Advisor on Agriculture Policy, Ministry of Agriculture. He reviewed and evaluated the Liberian 1986 proposed Green Revolution and FAO World Bank 1986 Agricultural sector Review Document and evaluated AMSCO, the Amsterdam funded training programme for projects in Uganda in 1994 and Tanzania in 1996.

Also, he chaired an enterprise committed to building markets to cultivate a vibrant network for small business owners, so that they could have opportunities to transform their lives and communities. However, in spite of his impressive background in development policy and practices in the public and private sectors nationally and internationally, it is yet to be seen how Boakai will disentangle the fragile country from endemic corruption, multidimensional poverty, and transform Liberia’s economy fore thpublic good.

Realistically, the contemporary post-conflict Liberia has never been short of leaders with very impressive backgrounds (from Ellen – 2006-2018 to George Weah – 2018-2023). There were high expectations of change when Weah took office in 2018. Many expected him to lift them from poverty. They saw a real chance for a better future. Today, a good number of Liberians feel he squandered that bright opportunity and has lost his connection with poverty alleviation and the people who elected a younger Weah into office. Over 50 per cent of Liberians live below the poverty line. The rising cost of basic commodities prevents families from meeting their food needs. But, Weah alone is not responsible for all of Liberia’s problems. His administration inherited irregularities that plagued previous governments.

Yet, according to the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) eLibrary data in 2022, Liberia stands as the 35th lowest out of 43 ranked Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) countries, and well below the continent’s average of US$1,600. While the Gini Index in its 2023 Poverty & Equity Brief states that poverty in Liberia is prevalent in rural areas and is home to 71.7 per cent of the poor, accounting for 68 per cent of the total population. The poverty outlook remains grim, according to the UNDP’s 2023 Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) report on global poverty, which rates Liberia’s MPI estimation of 2019/2020. Based on these estimates, 52.3 per cent of the population in Liberia (2,717 thousand people in 2021) is multidimensionally poor, while an additional 23.3 per cent is classified as vulnerable to multidimensional poverty (1,211 thousand people in 2021). The intensity of deprivations in Liberia, which is the average deprivation score among people living in multidimensional poverty, is 49.6 per cent. The MPI value, which is the share of the population that is multidimensionally poor adjusted by the intensity of the deprivations, is 0.259.

The 2022 World Justice Project (WJP) Rule of Law Index finds that the rule of law fell globally for the fifth consecutive year, with authoritarian trends and some pandemic pressures continuing in the majority of countries, and Liberia’s score decreased as it ranked 20th out of 34 countries regionally. Liberia Ranks 112 out of 140 in the Rule of Law Index globally.

In a related manner, a World Bank 2023 update on the economic overview indicates that Liberia’s fiscal position worsened in 2022. The deficit is estimated to have risen to 5.6 per cent of GDP in 2022, up from 2.4 per cent in 2021. This was partly a reflection of the change in the International Development Association’s (IDA) lending policy (specifically the decline in grants) and lower-than-expected royalties from iron ore due to delayed expansion of the Arcelor Mittal mining project, expenditure overruns on goods and services, transfers, and subsidies. With a debt-to-GDP ratio of 53.4, Liberia is assessed to be at moderate risk of external debt distress and high risk of overall debt distress.

Additionally, the country’s current account balance remained high in 2022, despite booming gold exports. With the higher global prices for food and fuel (of which Liberia is a net importer)

Expectations were indeed very high when the former football star George Weah became president in 2018. But, access to resources such as electricity, infrastructure, housing, water, and healthcare can be limited in Liberia. Safety concerns indicate that Liberia has a high crime rate, and crime and safety concerns are a factor to consider for those living in the country.

The Liberian economy is still predominantly agrarian, and raw materials, equipment, and consumer goods are imported. Production for export is carried out on a large scale through foreign investment in rubber, forestry, and mining. However, Liberia still faces serious issues with corruption, impunity, and violence against women. Africa’s oldest republic has ranked amongst the poorest countries in the world for many years. The six counties in Liberia’s south-eastern region — Maryland, Grand Kru, River Gee, Sinoe, Grand Gedeh, and River Cess — are extremely poor and marginalised. And, going by common knowledge, the southeastern region enjoys the preponderance of political power over all the other regions.

The level of the Liberian youths without work but available for and seeking employment is very high. Also, the cost of coping with unemployment levels remains high, with the absence of any social security safety nets. Liberia unemployment rate for 2022 was 3.63 per cent, which is a 0.04 per cent decline from 2021. According to the World Bank 2022 economic outlook, Liberia’s unemployment rate since 2022 has averaged 3.63 per cent, a 0.04 per cent decline from 2021. There had been a poor government performance on job creation and employment provision since 2018.

Educational attainment and public spending on education are comparatively low in Liberia. Net enrollment is lower than in its Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) and lower income countries (LIC) peers. Only 51 per cent of school-age children attend school and over age and drop-out rates in primary school are high (IMF, 2019). The expected years of schooling of 4.2 years are the lowest in SSA, where they average is 8.3 years. Its harmonised test scores are amongst the poorest on the continent. The share of public expenditure that Liberia devotes to education is only about half the SSA or LIC averages and so is its spending per student in primary education in PPP-adjusted terms, although the deficit is less stark at the secondary and tertiary levels. Education spending is also highly skewed toward wages and salaries, which account for almost 90 per cent of the total during 2015-20. Accordingly, teacher-student ratios are more favourable than the SSA and Least Developed Countries (LDC) averages. But teacher quality seems to be an issue. The Ministry of Education (2016) estimates that only 50 per cent of early childhood education staff, 62 per cent of primary school teachers, and 34 per cent of junior and senior high school teachers have the minimum qualifications for their positions. This may be one of the reasons why the gap between average years of schooling and average years of learning-adjusted schooling is particularly large, with the latter pegged at just 2.2 years.

Large infrastructure gaps hamper Liberia’s growth prospects. The country features the lowest percentage of paved roads among selected Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) countries. This makes domestic and international trade challenging, especially during the rainy season when unpaved roads often become impassable. Similarly, electricity production and consumption are extremely low, in comparison to its peers, while tariffs are extremely high, even after they were cut by about one-third in December 2021. Supply by the Liberia Electricity Company (LEC) is also highly unreliable, with large companies, like the local cement producer or the Roberts Airport (with the poorest connecting roads into the inner town in Monrovia), and most households not even bothering to connect.

Capital accumulation is held back by a lack of domestically financed public investment. Out of total public investment of around 10 per cent of GDP in 2021, only 0.2 per cent of GDP came from the central government’s budget, with the rest financed by development partners. Only modest amounts tend to be allocated to investment in central government budgets to begin with and they are then typically further compressed in budget execution when revenues fall short or current expenditures overrun their allocations. The incremental capital output ratio (ICOR), a common indicator of investment efficiency, suggests that the productivity of new investment has tanked in the last ten years.

Two devastating civil wars during 1989-97 and 1999-2003 plunged Liberia into poverty, with real GDP per capita now only a third of what it once was. At US$680 in 2021, it is the 35th lowest out of 43 ranked Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) countries and well below the continent’s average of US$1,600. The poverty rate stood at 51 per cent in 2021, also significantly above the Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) average of 44 percent. Raising living standards through sustainable inclusive growth is thus easily at the top of the economic policy agenda. The government of Liberia is targeting at least a 5.8 per cent per year growth by 2023 in its national development plan, the Pro-Poor Agenda for Prosperity and Development (PAPD). But how do we get there? What insights does the growth track record offer about Liberia’s drivers and impediments to growth and the economy’s true potential? What policies are most promising to help unlock it? Liberia’s growth performance since the end of the civil war in 2003 is comparable to that of SSA as a whole and other low-income countries (LICs) but has yet to show distinct prospects for capital development.

In all of these, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has remained committed in its engagement with diverse political and economic stakeholders. ECOWAS fosters economic growth and poverty reduction through decreasing regional barriers to trade, such as impediments to goods crossing borders, inefficient transport corridors, and lack of access to power. It is also working to standardise trade and border policy in all member countries.

ECOWAS addresses peacekeeping, humanitarian support and peace building capabilities, as well as the issue of cross border crime. Moreover, its member States also adopted, among others, the Supplementary Protocol on Democracy and Good Governance in 2001 as an instrument to promote peace, security and stability in West Africa. This was in addition to the Protocol Relating to the Mechanism for Conflict Prevention, Management, Resolution, Peace Keeping and Security, adopted in December 1999 and which is arguably the most comprehensive protocol relating to peace and security in the region.

In this context, ECOWAS has established institutions and programmes to realise the commitments of the above-mentioned protocols, including the Mediation and Security Council, Early Warning and Response Network (EWRN), ECOWAS Standby Force (ESF), the ECOWAS Conflict Prevention Framework (ECPF) and the ECOWAS and Civil Society. This is all taking cognisance of the fact there are also external factors that could take advantage of Liberia’s fragility and undermine it’s recent progress at peaceful democratic transitions. For example, the Mano River Union, a sub-regional body of which Liberia is a founding member, remains volatile.

The recent military coup in Guinea, the anti-government protest in Sierra Leone, the general ominous clouds of terrorism, banditry, insecurity with recent unconstitutional change of governments in Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger republic and the violence around Alassane Ouattara’s third-term re-election “victory” in Côte d’Ivoire are signals of vulnerability within the Mano River Union particularly, the ECOWAS region.

It is on the strength of this broad political frameworks and security architectures as well as the need for functional preventive diplomacy that ECOWAS continue to engage in the Liberia electoral processes. This essentially relates to adhering to the early response for stability and on democratic consolidation, with the intention to avert any dire volatility of post-election outcomes. The 2023 ECOWAS Observer Mission (EOM) as led by Professor Attahiru Jega, former Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) chair in Nigeria deployed a total of over one hundred and eighty international election observers across the entire Liberian fifteen counties in both rounds of the elections. Over a hundred ECOWAS observers consisting of long-term observer (LTO) and short-term observer (STO) teams witnessed the first round (7th to 14th October 2023) of the presidential and legislative elections in thirteen of the fifteen counties in the country. In the second round, the ECOWAS in a statement acknowledged it deployed eighty observers (from 6th to 17th November 2023) for the presidential run-off in all the fifteen counties. The regional body also hinted of its support to the electoral process with logistics assistance to the National Electoral Commission (NEC) and the Liberian security services.

No doubt, ECOWAS as a regional economic community (REC) has had a very successful long-standing transformative, reformative and collaborative commitment to supporting not only the government and people of Liberia but generally the entire ECOWAS community in West Africa. The body is evidently rapidly evolving and it is re-strategising approaches to deepen democracy and good governance, consolidate peace, security and stability as well as foster economic development in the region. The 2023 EOM in Liberia was one of clearest demonstration of ECOWAS’ renewed vigour not only on qualitative techniques but with more nuanced quantifiable, evidence-based, social-scientific means of deepening the use of tracks I, II and III diplomacies. These have remained some of the very delicate systems to use within the very volatile climate of socio-political uncertainties to stay engaged in pushing the institution’s agenda-setting for consolidating democratic governance in West Africa.

By and large, the ECOWAS’ observer group had in an 8-page statement on the preliminary declaration on the 14th November 2023 Presidential run-off election in Liberia signed by the Mission Head – Professor Attahiru Jega highlighted its findings on the general conduct of the election cycle/vis-à-vis the voting environment, engagement with stakeholders and briefing on deployment. The statement closes with conclusions calling for urgent steps to foster greater inclusivity in governance, social cohesion for national unity and offering an array of sundry recommendations for all.

The 2023 ECOWAS Observation Mission (EOM) in Liberia has no doubt improved tremendously in recent years both in the conceptualisation and the composition of its team logic, flow of communication and in terms of its deployment methodologies.

However, while the organisation continues to explore improvements for the EOM activities, it has to be noted that ECOWAS’ preventive diplomacy and active positive engagement efforts and supports have largely contributed to the very significant success of the tortuous and very complex political process that would ultimately culminate in the inauguration of president-elect Joseph Boakai as the 26th President of Liberia on Monday 22nd January . Moving forward, this would also readily pave the way to improving on the lessons learned in its next election observation deployment in Senegal’s Presidential election next month and in all future elections in the region.

Boakai defeated incumbent George Weah in the second round of the 2023 presidential election, which was held on 14 November. I was in Foya, the home base of Boakai in Lofa county for both rounds of polls. I witnessed vividly the determination, courage and the tenacity of how the voter population responded to the politically competitive campaign messages of the Coalition for Democratic Change (CDC) who was asking for a second term to ‘continue’ its so called ‘development programs’ across the country. The Unity Party (UP) on the other hand, campaigned for ‘change’ and to ‘end corruption’ that had crippled the country. The first round of the polls that produced Weah’s narrow lead of 43.83 per cent to Boakai’s 43.44 per cent garnered a very high 78.86 per cent voter turn-out, one of the highest in the ECOWAS region in recent years….which is an excellent indicator for a socio-political engineering for change. At the end, Boakai with the Unity Party took the lead in the new alliances formed and the third-party endorsements over Weah’s CDC to clinch the 2023 presidential election victory.

President George Weah and a football legend has already conceded and called for unity in a deeply fragmented country after it became evident that his opponent, Joseph Boakai, secured a narrow yet insurmountable lead.

Generally, in the first decade after the end of the civil war, the economy benefitted from solid economic policies and several important tailwinds. But, from 2014, the economy stalled amid a series of negative shocks and policy slippages. On business climate and access to financing, structural reforms should be a promising avenue to promote growth. Despite the recognition of these reform needs, progress has so far been limited. It would also be highly desirable to advance reforms that promote financial sector development in parallel in a very open and transparent manner.

With that said, Boakai will evidently confront a highly polarised Liberia. Liberia is more divided than it has been since the end of its 14-year civil war in 2003. The war ended with the signing of a peace agreement, but its scars are still visible across the country. Frustration around the soaring cost of living, cronyism, patronage, nepotism, and the culture of impunity which triggered the war is once again tearing the country of 5.4 million people apart. The inaugurated president will have to address three pivotal priorities first around national cohesion to lift the social fragmentation that continue to divide the country. Secondly is the need to work on cultural and endemic corruption. Corruption shows up in many forms and at all levels in Liberia. It disrupts democratic decision-making processes, weakens public trust in government and undermines the rule of law. There are concerns in Liberia that the George Weah-led administration did not do enough to improve living standards. The nation’s integrity institutions lack independence.

They include the Liberian Anti-Corruption Commission, the General Audit Commission and the Liberia Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative. These agencies were created to curb corrupt practices. But they lack political independence, capacity and resources.

The third area relates to the need for stronger state institutions for policy, practice and good governance. This can help to restore hope and confidence in Liberia’s recovery in the areas of education, health, building infrastructure, fighting poverty, combatting impunity, improving rule of law and access to justice. Liberian institutions are further weakened by a culture of impunity. Managerial appointments are often made on the basis of cronyism (jobs for friends and colleagues) and patronage (using state power to reward selected voters for electoral support). Corruption is prevalent in the judiciary too. Judges solicit bribes in exchange for decisions that favour offenders. President George Weah and his predecessor, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, ran on the promise of fighting corruption, however, both failed to live up to their commitment. In 2017, after her terms as head of state, Sirleaf admitted that her government had not done enough to fight corruption.

In 2022, Weah had to suspend three of his top officials after the US imposed sanctions on them for corruption and abuse of state functions. No investigation has been launched and none has been prosecuted. Weah himself has faced serious criticism for his refusal to declare his assets upon taking office and for violating Liberia Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative’s standard procedures. The country ranks 142nd out of 180 countries in the corruption perception index (CPI). It could slide back into chaos unless the President Boakai takes serious actions.

Like Sirleaf, Weah pledged to build an equal, fair and just Liberia. But his lack of action in the fight against corruption sends the wrong message to development partners. And it undermines voters’ confidence in the electoral system.

There is also anger over the government’s failure to establish tribunals to try individuals accused of war crimes, as recommended by Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Victims of the war want to see warlords punished for their crimes. But the call for justice is ignored as Weah and politician Joseph Boakai forge stronger political alliances with perpetrators and war profiteers.

Weah’s 2017 election victory was largely attributed to the support he received from warlord Prince Johnson. Weah was also supported by Jewel Howard Taylor, his vice-president and ex-wife of Charles Taylor, Liberia’s 22nd president, convicted for atrocities committed in Sierra Leone.

An area that will pose very difficult for the newly elected president Boakai is how to implement his corruption agenda in the midst of former warlords who control large voting blocs, sought after by presidential candidates. Establishing a war crime court would amount to political suicide for him. But the new president must partner with the ECOWAS and the development institutions to introduce genuine reforms and promote good governance if he is to sustain peace or govern a region filled with political backstabbing, resource competition and the struggle for new global alliances.

Forging ahead, the new president must act decisively on deep-rooted and unresolved grievances. He must address public sector corruption, grant full independence to the nation’s transparency institutions and provide adequate resources for the Liberian Anti-Corruption Commission and the General Audit Commission to hold offenders accountable.

Transforming Liberia transcend beyond the lone action or vision of one individual leader. It is enough a rough ride for Boakai’s access to the exalted seat at the Executive Mansion of Liberia. It is likely to be a rougher more difficult ride for him amidst the unstable and insatiable Liberian political hawks to fall in line within his change and anti-corruption agenda. Therefore, the new coalition and alliances that paved the pathway to Boakai’s ascendance to the presidency must work with national and international stakeholders to ensure that the recommendations of the General Audit Commission are followed through and empower the Liberia Anti-Corruption Commission to investigate and indict those suspected of bribery, embezzlement and illicit enrichment.

Low-level corruption should not go unpunished. That includes things like patients paying bribes for medical treatment, and teachers demanding special favours from students to pass an exam.

The summary is there are multiple known and unknown socio-economic threats and political volatilities in Liberia. Manu River Union (MRU) remains fragile. The ECOWAS Commission holds the strategic ace for realizing the expectations of potential opportunities for growth and development in Liberia and in the (MRU) area. It should therefore, stay closely engaged. Strengthen its own capacities to initiate programmes that can help Liberia kickstart and sustain its tortuous march towards the reform and transformative agenda for good governance in critical but specific sectors. This can be done from the short to the medium – and long-term basis. Also, the regional body can outline for itself specific key support roles in rallying collaborative joint multi-donor sector-specific basket funds from the African Development Bank (AfDB), the UNDP, UNESCO, WHO, the World Bank, etc to assist in the pursuit of the new government’s agenda for socio-economic development and its anti-corruption drive.

Liberians desperately hope for a better future from beyond the 22nd of January inauguration razzmatazz of its 26th president.

Jide Olatuyi is an international development policy consultant and the executive director at Policy Consult in Abuja.

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