By Prince Kurupati
“It will be my task, my duty, and my honour, to lead this nation from division to national unity, and toward a future of hope and prosperity…Rest assured, I will not let you down.” The above is the statement that George Weah said when he was concluding his inauguration speech in January last year.
When Weah said that he will not let the nation down, he just had promised to deliver “change” in a country in which the majority live below the poverty line and deliver basic social services, provide jobs and strengthen rule of law. In light of this, let’s see how Weah has fared in his first year in office.
When Weah came into office, many ordinary citizens wanted him to tackle the cancer of corruption. Liberians believed that the main cause of all the challenges the country is facing is down to corrupt top government officials who channel and syphon state resources to their benefit. During his first days in office, President Weah would every now and then publicly call upon all those who engage in corrupt practices to desist from doing so. While at first the nation embraced and welcomed the remarks by the president, the failure by Weah to put in place punitive measures for all those convicted of corruption has affected public confidence in him on the corruption issues more so, when he himself has not yet publicly declared his assets up to now (some quarters report that he has declared his assets but the report is yet to be published).
To make matters worse on the corruption front, Weah’s government in its first year has had to deal with a massive corruption scandal. In September last year, reports emerged that the government had lost nearly 16 billion Liberian dollars ($104 million) of new banknotes. The administration initially confirmed the missing money and, amid pressure from protests, launched an investigation with support from the FBI in the US. During the investigations, the government blamed the previous administration of President Sirleaf. President Sirleaf vehemently denied the allegations, despite that, however, the Liberian government placed travel bans on former and current government officials, including Charles Sirleaf, the deputy governor of the central bank and son of former President Sirleaf.
While awaiting the investigation report, the government surprisingly lifted all the travel bans. Though the nation is eagerly awaiting the forensic investigation’s report, Liberians remain deeply distrustful.
Furthermore, on the corruption front, Weah did not cover himself in glory when he replaced the head of the secretariat for the Liberia Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative. Along with opposition figures and the media, the transparency watchdog Global Witness insisted that the president is not authorized to make such an appointment and warned that the move threatened to undermine the critical anti-corruption body’s independence. In addition, reports that three of Weah’s brothers had been employed at the Freeport of Monrovia raised eyebrows. According to AllAfrica, not only was this reminiscent of former president Sirleaf’s appointments of family members to key positions, but an investigation by FrontPage Africa suggested that the new recruits were being paid four times the salaries of even the heads of their departments.
On the economic front, Weah has recorded some huge wins while at the same time, he still has a lot more to do in order to raise the country’s fortune. On the positive side, Weah has gone on an offensive charm in an effort to lure investors while at the same time he has done remarkable work in reducing tariffs on nearly 2,000 commodities. On the negative side, however, Weah has struggled to deal with low commodity prices, low export earnings, and low foreign direct investment. The Liberian dollar continues to fall against the US dollar, while inflation soared to an all-time high of 26.6% in October 2018. Widespread reports that Weah sought to finance his ambitious infrastructure plans of a highway along Liberia’s 350-mile coast as well as connecting roads into the interior by obtaining loans from companies in Hong Kong and Burkina Faso whose credentials are questionable has not covered him in glory.
On the political front, Weah also has his positives as well as his negatives. On the positive side, Weah managed to approve the Local Government Act and Land Rights Act, two major laws left abeyant in the legislature during the tenure of President Sirleaf. The approval is seen as a victory for long marginalized communities. These pieces of legislation seek to empower local communities through the recognition of customary land ownership and decentralization. When implemented, it should see power shift away from established elites. On the negative side, Weah took the unprecedented step of appointing an Ambassador without Senate confirmation as required by the constitution, a grave violation of Liberia’s system of checks and balances between the three branches of government.
On the social front, Weah has been doing some remarkable work including exam fees for around 34,000 secondary school students and scrapping tuition fees for all undergraduate students. Weah has also started taking action towards fulfilling his promise of paying the salaries of hundreds of teachers and filling vacant positions. Weah also commissioned the construction of a military hospital, setting aside $200,000 for a feasibility study and mandating that half the funding for the hospital be made available immediately.
More Work to Be Done
Despite managing to record some achievements in his first year in office, there is still a lot of work to do for Weah.