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Uche Igwe: Open Government Policy and Liberia’s political future

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Uche Igwe: Open Government Policy and Liberia’s political future

By Uche Igwe

One of the most fascinating quotes I have come across lately was the one I read on my way to Liberia which says that Africa is not poor and Africa is only looted. Coincidentally, no other country confirms that sad reality better than the resource rich west African country. On your arrival at Monrovia International airport you will notice that one of the terminal buildings destroyed during the war many years ago is yet to be re-constructed. The Presidential Palace that was gutted by fire many months ago is yet to be fixed. Yet this a country that is rich in iron ore, gold, diamond, vast forest for logging and timber harvesting, vast agricultural land including the recently discovered crude oil.  Recently, the UK based non-governmental organisation Global Witness published a report where it was revealed that some logging companies owe the country about 25 million dollars of unremitted payments.

After surviving two civil wars which ended formally in 2003, where more than seven hundred thousand people were killed including women and children, the development situation in Liberia is still considered to be deplorable. Of 3.8 million Liberians, 64 percent are said to be poor with 1.3 million persons living below the poverty line.  The adult literacy rate was estimated at 47.6 percent in 2015 while the health infrastructure still remains very challenging with less than 300 medical doctors said to be catering for the entire population. No wonder it was difficult to contain the outbreak of Ebola virus which lead to the death of more than 4800 persons between 2014 and 2015.

Analysts insist that the under-development in Liberia is partly due to the protracted conflict and partly due to the high level of corruption in the country. It is believed that the country’s abundant natural resource wealth has been squandered by the political elite and laundered out of the country, especially into the United States of America. Implementation of policies that improve transparency and openness is generally believed to be of potential benefit to the country to relaunch her to prosperity. Initiatives like the Open Government Partnership(OGP) and Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative(EITI) offer great potentials in this regard. Since Liberia joined the global Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative in 2007, progress has been made in publishing the receipts and payments in the extractive industry. In 2011, the country also joined the Open Government Partnership(OGP) and is currently making efforts to implement their commit areas especially in opening a public beneficial ownership register.  A regulation expected to monitor the financial dealings of politically exposed persons is currently awaiting attention on the table of outgoing President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

In less than thirty days, Liberia will be going to the polls to elect a new President after President Sirleaf would have completed the constitutionally allowed tenure of twelve years. Her tenure witnessed significant progress and stability although she was unable to tackle the issue of corruption headlong. She was accused of promoting nepotism for appointing her three sons into lucrative government positions including one in the country’s Central bank. One of her biggest achievements in office is the way and manner in which she mobilised international support to successfully subdue the Ebola epidemic.  She is said to have demystified the Presidency and made her office much more accessible in the history of that country.

However, many Liberians criticize her for being unable to give the country a definite political direction as her tenure comes to an end. Analysts believe that the forthcoming election will be hotly contested, one which may potentially produce surprises.  Although there are about twenty candidates contesting to replace Mrs Sirleaf, only three persons seem to have the highest chances – Joseph Boakai of the ruling Unity Party, Senator George Oppong Weah of the Coalition for Democratic Change and Alexander Cummings of the Alternative National Congress.

Incumbent Vice President, Joseph Boakai is said to be one the strongest contenders. His experience in governance having served with Mrs. Sirleaf for twelve years has offered him an important political advantage. His supporters insist that the country needs someone like him who is older and favour continuity and stability. He is likely to benefit from the networks he developed during his tenure in office as well as the positive record of the current administration. He does not appeal much to young people who consider him an extension of the outgoing regime and who generally feel that the country needs a “fresh hand”. Furthermore, his relationship with his boss is not entirely rosy especially after he turned down her nominee as running mate.  President Sirleaf is said to be subtly supporting Charles Walker Brumskine of the Liberty Party rather than her deputy who is the standard bearer of the ruling party.

On the other hand, Senator George Oppong Weah, an ex-football star tends to appeal more to the young people. He contested for the position first in 2005 which ended in a runoff that produced the incumbent President. Although he has been criticised as not being very educated, Mr. Weah’s supporters do not think such flaw is any barrier. Recently Mr. Weah went into a coalition with the party of former President Charles Taylor (now in jail) led by his former wife Senator Jewel Taylor. This move is seen in two ways. One side considers it as a master stroke that will allow Mr. Weah harvest votes from Bounty County where the former President is said to still enjoy fanatical followership. Others believe that his choice of running mate in Mrs Taylor is an electoral burden as it means a possible return of the former President’s loyalists on the national stage – a development that some people are afraid of. Two other Presidential candidates Boakai and Cummings took their running mates from the same county in a bid to take a share of the votes and neutralize any advantage for Senator Weah.

For Mr. Alexander Cummings, his popularity especially among the younger people in Monrovia is said to be because of his message which resonates with them. He tries to connect with them and frames his campaign messages around issues of unemployment, poverty and political marginalisation – issues that appeal to the youth. However, as a returnee, his critics dismiss him as someone without a political base and who has no link to the grassroots.

It is generally believed that fighting corruption will contribute to unlocking additional revenue that is necessary to development and alleviate poverty. Regardless of who wins on October 10, after a likely runoff, the issue of a more judicious use of the resource endowments of Liberia for the benefit of the people will continue to be an important feature in the political and policy arena. Whether the incoming government, like the outgoing one, will leverage on the Open Government Partnership to continue to implement policy changes in favour of good governance and accountability and how this could contribute to the country’s recovery from fragility, remains a matter of conjecture. What is clear is that Liberians are tired of leaders who cart away their resources illegally to foreign country.

  • Uche Igwe is the Communications Adviser at the Nigerian Open Government Partnership Secretariat Abuja.

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