Liberia: How is President Weah faring one year on?
One turbulent year after George Weah came to power, the challenges are starting to pile up, but hope remains.
One year ago today, ordinary Liberians for the first time trooped in their thousands to witness live the swearing in of a president. These ceremonies had previously been the preserve of elites, securely cordoned off in the grounds of the Capitol Building. But in 2018, this tradition was promptly broken as the inauguration was held in the nearly 40,000-capacity national stadium.
That event saw George Weah officially become president. He had been elected two months earlier on a wave of hope that the footballing celebrity turned politician could transform Liberia and end corruption. He 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 the campaign, Weah’s humble beginnings and untainted record endeared him to many, and he inspired his supporters once again in his speech to the country. “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,” he said “Rest assured, I will not let you down.”
One year on, it is too early to assess whether President Weah will deliver on his ambitious promises, but it is not too early to pick up on some possible indications.
President Weah’s first challenge on coming to office was in forming a government. He faced the balancing act of ensuring his cabinet was both committed to change and capable. This saw him torn between young progressive loyalists on the one hand, and useful political allies who had served under previous presidents on the other. In the end, Weah appointed associates of former presidents Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Charles Taylor to a third of his key ministerial and advisory positions. This has understandably led some to question whether his commitment to change is real and whether there will be inquiries into war crimes and economic mismanagement as once expected.
President Weah has, however, already made efforts towards some significant and tangible political reforms. His approval of the Local Government Act and Land Rights Act, two major laws left abeyant in the legislature during the tenure of President Sirleaf, has been celebrated by activists as a victory for long marginalised communities. These pieces of legislation seek to empower local communities through the recognition of customary land ownership and decentralisation. When implemented, it should see power shift away from established elites.
At the same time, much has been left unchanged. The rentier economy that enabled the plunder of the state under previous administrations remains in place. Meanwhile rather than dismantling Liberia’s imperial-like presidential powers, Weah seems to be extending them. Despite having no official entitlement to do so, for example, he appointed officials to agencies such as the Liberia Extractive Industry Transparency Initiative and introduced legislation last year that could undermine the independence of the Liberia Anti-Corruption Commission and Public Procurement and Concession Commission and place them under presidential control. Weah also 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.
In the past year, the economy and public infrastructure have been two of President’s Weah key priorities. Since coming to office, his government has reduced tariffs on nearly 2,000 commodities. It has gone on a charm offensive to woo foreign investors. And it has connected slum communities around the capital Monrovia to major roads and made progress in providing public utilities.
Weah’s more ambitious infrastructure dreams have proven trickier. The government intends to build a highway along Liberia’s 350-mile coast as well as connecting roads into the interior, but its efforts to secure financing for these projects have been controversial. Firstly, there were attempts to obtain loans from companies in Hong Kong and Burkina Faso whose credentials were questioned by international organisations and the opposition. Then, the government announced a deal with a Chinese company that will extract Liberian resources in return for development financing. The lack of details around the arrangement and fears of rising debt are of concern to many.
More broadly, however, the economy is in dire straits. It 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.
There have been recent efforts to diversify the economy by investing more in agriculture and supporting small and micro enterprises with capital, but it will be some time before these yield results.
The main corruption story that has dominated Liberia’s headlines under President Weah was the news in September 2018 that nearly 16 billion Liberian dollars ($104 million) of new bank notes had gone missing. This accounts for about 5% of the country’s GDP and 20% of the government’s annual budget. The administration initially confirmed the missing money and, amid pressure from protests, launched an investigation with support from the FBI in the US. The government blamed the previous administration of President Sirleaf, which she denied.
Two weeks later, though, the Central Bank claimed the missing notes could be fully accounted for and 35 travel bans – on former and current government officials, including Charles Sirleaf, the deputy governor of the central bank and son of former President Sirleaf – were lifted. Liberians remain deeply distrustful, however, and are now awaiting the forensic investigation’s report. Whatever the outcome, the mystery will likely continue to haunt the credibility of the government.
There have also been allegations that government officials have accumulated huge wealth under Weah’s administration. Moreover, the president is accused of personal involvement in a number of large-scale private projects himself. These media reports fall short of establishing hard evidence, but until Weah publicly declares his assets, doubts will remain about his ability and willingness to fight corruption.
The year ahead
In the first year of his six-year term, President Weah has faced financial scandal and a floundering economy. Despite these and many other challenges, however, he ended the year with an approval rating of 56%. He also maintains popular support in the legislature. Both will be crucial as he attempts to implement reforms and pro-poor development programmes.
With five years left to go, hope in the president remains high. Weah still has plenty of political capital, but his first year has shown that it is not limitless and will continue to diminish unless the widespread change he promised starts to bear tangible fruit.