Mansions in Poverty – Fear grips officials amidst widening income gap, pathetic living condition

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By Festus Poquie

With more than 80% of Liberia’s 4.5 million population living in extreme poverty, the country’s political elites cannot help but to put on display wealth accrued in public office.

The financial crisis in Liberia is mainly caused by official corruption and failed public policy
The financial crisis in Liberia is mainly caused by official corruption and failed public policy

The situation is becoming alarming and fear is engulfing officialdom.

It is now 10 years since the politicians took over from the war lords to deliver much needed economic transformation. But the unpleasant truth at the moment is that there exist little or no tangible socio-economic development programs implemented for the improvement of Liberians living condition.

This the ruling politicians know yet the outcome of their aggregate performance has yielded what the Central Bank of Liberia called “widespread poverty”.

The Bank in its 2014 policy statement said the lack of diversification of the national economy, acute infrastructure deficit and limited skilled human capacity are condition undermining sustainable economic growth and development in the West African nation.

“These challenges combined have led to the low level of productivity in the real sector, high unemployment and widespread poverty,” the CBL said.

The Bank statement on poverty has so far withstood the test of time with validation from international organizations.

For instance, the Food and Agriculture Organization reports that a 2015 comprehensive food assessment result shows food insecurity affects about 640,000 people in the country. The report further indicates that of the 640,000; fifty-two thousand (52,000) Liberians are “severely food insecure”.

Also the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) 2015 Human Development  report puts the poverty rate in Liberia to 81.86% with vulnerable employment population ration stands at 72% while 94.4% of the country’s workforce  is considered ‘working poor’ as they live on less than $USD 2.00 a day.

But in contrast to these reports, Liberia recorded one of the highest economic growth rates in South-Saharan Africa during the first half of the current administration.

Finance and Development Planning Minister Amara Konneh reports that between 2006 and 2015, the country collected US$3.1 billion in revenue and that 60% of that amount has been spent on 40,000 Liberians [mainly those in government].

So, where did the billions go? Conservative estimates from published audit reports of the General Auditing Commission show that the country lost a little over US$1 billion via official corruption between 2006 and 2011.

Who has been benefiting? While there has been no life style audit to determine the clean and truthful nature of the extravagant living condition of elected and appointed public officials, they are no doubt the prime visible beneficiaries of the regime’s economic boom.

Politicians are becoming millionaires, living in plush homes and solidifying their economic interest with the establishment of lucrative businesses.

The situation is becoming so noticeable to the extent that it is reaching a scandal status. The recent unveiling of House Speaker Alex Tyler’s business holdings is an illustration.

To the astonishment of many, the Speaker narrates President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf rejected his invitation to attend the launching of his million dollar hotel complex because it was unacceptable for the sitting Speaker to construct such expensive villa and that her upbringing would not permit her presence there since it was immoral.

For the Speaker, his investment is simple means of creating jobs and Liberians taking ownership of the domestic economy. Why now? Is the lingering question with various answers depending on who you talk to.

“Speaker Tyler’s investment is being financed from his just and earnest earnings as a lawmaker heading the first branch of government, proceeds from his established businesses and loan obtained from the bank. He is not cleaning dirty or corrupt money,” Julius Matadi spokesman of the House’s Chief told The New Democrat when asked How Much is the Speaker worth?

Politics is a game changer and easy means of becoming rich in Liberia. So, in these years we have seen past and present officials becoming more affluent business folks than when they were outside government.

Defense Minister Brownie Samukai has a flourishing security firm and enjoying the alcohol importation and sale business. Deputy Health Minister Tolbert  Nyenswah constructed a three -storey building while working on the multi-million dollar malaria program at the Ministry of Health. The ruling family is involved in several businesses including banking and restaurant.

But insecurity appears to be setting in officialdom given the widening gap between the few ruling elites and the vast impoverished masses.

Returning at the Capitol for the 5th session of the Legislature, the leadership there seems jittery about the growing inequality. They are now wooing their colleagues to focus on economic development programs that will narrow the gap.

“Let us remember that the hopes and dreams and aspirations of the Liberian people have never been inflamed than it is in this year!

“They are eager to see their lives developed, improved and sustained; they are eager to profit from good laws that will ultimately redound to the stability of the state, to enhance economic prosperity and freedom and to foster the reign of peace and reconciliation in the country. It then becomes so very compelling for us not to afford to let them down,” Ahmed Jallah- President Pro tempore of the Senate said Monday.

And Speaker Tyler joined him from the House’s Chamber: “We must offer them that believability. If the Legislature has failed over the years of the existence of the nation to recognize this, it is most timely that we the Members of the 53rd Legislature muster up our courage and energies to do so and to ensure representation by measuring the expectations of our constituents. We must now exercise those powers conferred on us in ways that bring joy and hope to our people. Our posture and responses must change from early post war measures and realities. We must look at the new trend and our responses should be as such.

Tyler added: “Our Legislative Agenda for the year 2016 is simple and clear: a Focus on development.

“All the projects which have been on-going (or stalled) since 2006, must be brought to an accelerated completion.  Whether these projects are governmental undertakings, initiated by development partners or facilitated by NGOs, all of them must have a work-plan, with time-lines and thresholds, precisely marked out in weekly, monthly, quarterly projections, etc.

The Speaker described how it will be done. “We intend to rigorously superintend our responsibilities, without prejudice to the implementers. Our “Plan of Action” shall, in addition to reviewing the Budget performance on County and District development funds. We intend to “scrutinize Executive programs” [without prejudice] to “ensure effectiveness of cost and efficiency of resources,” especially at a time when things are really tough on our people, we must be doubly accountable.

“Liberia is now 168 years old. Unfortunately, Liberians still do not command their economy. The industrial enclaves; manufacturing industries; trading and commerce are still dominated by foreign investments. The Liberianization Policy has no structure for comprehensive implementation. Real Estates are in the hands of foreign investors.

“It is no news, Colleagues that there have been no concrete efforts over the years to redeem the situation. The people of Liberia are looking up to Government for redemption. We must turn our eyes and ears to calls for Liberian participation in the industrial and manufacturing industries as well as putting trading and commerce on a higher pedestal.”

Then came a caustic response from the Speaker to the President who has just snubbed his “investment effort’. “About two years ago in a speech for the opening of the sitting of the 53rd Legislature, I proposed US$73 million as direct District impact projects. In that speech I proffered that 73 Million Dollars be put into areas around the country which seemed never to have felt the impact of Central Government from its inception, since 1847.

The proposal was made after nationwide tour with fellow Legislators (mostly from the House) to sensitize citizens on the oil-gas sector reform bill. While on that tour, I was privy to the poverty, deprivation, neglect and hurt which our fellow citizens–especially from rural areas–suffer on a yearly, monthly, weekly, daily and hourly basis.

“We have come to realize that there are some officials whose upbringing does not agree with ideas which others generate; while there are others who’s up-bringing does not support the progress of those referred to as ordinary citizens.  We must seek to change these mentalities and upbringings if Liberia is to be developed.”

For President Sirleaf “the agenda at hand is huge” and they must work together and make Liberians happy. The Chaplain of the Senate listening to the nation’s leader characterized their statements as confession to failure and offered apology to God on behalf of them. Writes Festus Poquie.