George K. Fahnbulleh

Ideas and Opinions...

Notes from Liberia John Berestecky 08 09 2014

Here is a letter that I just received from my friend "Mustafa" who is working with the ebola response in Monrovia. This is very important to read.:

Dear friends and partners,

I bring you a thoughts on the current ebola crisis in my country, Liberia.

Since I begun working with the ebola response in Liberia, I have never been as sadden as I was today. I stood with my tracers and watched the ambulance team transferring two of the Catholic Sisters from their St, Joseph Catholic Hospital Compound. As the two innocent young Nuns from the Democratic Republic of Congo mounted the ambulance to be taken to the treatment unit at the ELWA, I shared tears. I share tears because we could have prevented them from contacting this deadly disease. They had trusted us and our ability to manage the ebola response; we cause all of them to be infected. After serving this country for over 40 years and saving thousands of lives, is this the way we could repay them. As the ambulance made its way out of the deserted hospital with the first badge of two nuns, I became too overwhelmed with sorrow. The ambulance was returning for four of them including a medical doctor. How could we have disappointed them....I reflected painfully:

Three weeks ago, Brother Patrick, the business manager from Cameroon got infected by a case that was brought to the hospital. He was a contact until he started showing symptoms. The laboratory had taken his specimen and his result was negative. Based on this result,the other sisters and brothers decided to nurse him back to health. Despite their treatment he progressively began to shown signs and symptoms that were typical of ebola. He decided that he would leave for his home country, but the airline recognizing the signs and symptoms ask for a repeat of the test. Behold! This came back positive.

The sisters, brothers and doctors who treated him were in a state of shock and dismay. Brother Patrick was kept in one room of the hospital for treatment. The confidence of the brothers and sister in our ebola response system was seriously corroded. Brother Patrick became weaker and weaker and others stop coming around as they pondered over their own status. Then Brother Patrick died. His body was among the 52 bodies that were buried in a mass grave one week end ago. Then the sisters and brothers as well three of the Liberian health care worker (including a laboratory technician, a social worker and and a nurse) started getting sick. In all seven of them became positive for ebola. One of them, a Nigerian Medical doctor, was told he was negative. However, he told us that every symptoms in his body indicated to him that he too had contacted the disease. We then ordered for a new result. We are awaiting this result, but he is getting sicker and sicker each day.

Even as I write to you, we are arranging to take the remaining two cases tonight. We were told that previous attempts to take them to the treatment unit were met with resistance with resistance. But their reluctance was due to the fact that we destroyed their confidence in our ability to handle this Ebola crisis. They had decided that they would rather die in their compound then follow us to the treatment unit. If we had failed them with our laboratory results, how could they trust us to provide the kind of intensive care that is required in the treatment unit? As if to make matters worse, the Liberian Social Worker who was confirmed with ebola escaped today in the population. Her daughter came and took her away, when she heard we were moving them to the treatment unit. This is worrisome as she could be a source of new transmissions in the community. Are we really winning this war against ebola?

I would say NO!!! Just a few days ago, our only internist was suspected to have been a contact with Dr. Samuel Brisbane who had died from ebola. Dr. Brisbane had contacted ebola from a patient because he refused to use gloves and barrier nursing. Dr. Borbor was asked to do his laboratory test. It came back negative about one week ago. To our greatest dismay, he was taken to the treatment unit last night when he started manifesting severe symptoms of ebola. They are now repeating his test. Such inconsistent test needs tos top because it only exposes more people to the infection.

I have investigated the laboratory procedure and I noted several sources for potential errors. There is a single team of laboratory technicians that are working over ten hours a day and seven days a week without any time to rest. This would lead to lapses and increased risk for errors. One of the technicians told me sadly that they worked these very long hours and no one provides them with food. They begged for food and were given a 100 pound bag of rice with no soup kind and no one to cook for them. Many of them had not being paid for three months. How could we trust our lives in in the hands of people that are overworked, staved and not given their just compensation? Are we wining this war against Ebola?

I was trying to get the burial team to pick up a body that had being lying out for two days. The dispatcher from the Red Cross, who is a friend said to me, “ I beg you Dr. , the number of bodies we have in Monrovia is more than the two vehicles and two teams we have today.” She said that even as I was speaking to her, two of their vehicles were already filled with bodies.

Even, where we have our clinic, a man had started vomiting and toileting blood two days ago. I was called to intervene. I call the ambulance team but no one responded. I called those of my colleagues in authority at the Health Ministry, but they too were powerless as the system and the logistics were not in place to respond to such a call. The treatment unit was overflowing with sick people. They just could not pick any one up in the community because there no bed available in the unit. Then the man died. His body stayed in the house for two days, while his poor wife and children slept in the open. No one wants to come closer to them. After two whole days of begging every authority I knew, they finally removed the body today. The home was never spread. The poor woman and her children are again sleeping outside today. I have tried to call the guy on spraying but his phone is off. But, I will press on and will call again tomorrow.

This evening the Catholic Bishop asked that Sister Shanta (who died around 2 am this morning, the second victim from the Catholic Hospital) be buried in the compound. The authorities honored his wish and her remains were lay to rest on Liberian soil thousands of miles from her native DRC. We can point to her grave and memorialize her in the future. But, Brother Patrick and the over fifty bodies that were buried a few weeks ago will never have such honor. The remains of the over 60 bodies that have so far being cremated in the Indian crematorium on the Marshall Highway will never have these memories.

I pray that their memories and the memories of those who will survive this deadly ebola will remain in our hearts. As I walked out of the deserted St. Joseph Catholic Hospital, I remembered that it was here my father was treated during his last days on earth in 2011 and it was here my sister Marie receive her treatment before we transferred her to Ghana. But today, the hospital is a ghost town.

Maybe, as some of us fight each day to make some kind of difference, it will at least amend for all of our mistakes and failures in the Ebola Response. May God save our country and those countries affected!!!!

 
John Berestecky can be reached at johnb at hawaii dot edu

Re-Imagining Liberia: A Protocol for Asset Declaration & Verification

As Liberia continues to make progress towards harnessing and leveraging the technologies of the 21st century, my musings have turned to thinking about solutions to some of the issues which have bedeviled us and our governance. 

 In a series of posts I will ask and try to answer some questions which have vexed us.  I am persuaded it is not enough to say "this is what is needed;" we must answer what, why, and how.  I am not an economist, I am a technologist.  We look at questions and try to provide solutions based on process, policy, and technology.  This is what this post is attempting to do.  I invite all Liberians to make this a vigorous discussion.

This particular topic today deals with how we can implement a reliable asset declaration protocol which will allow the government to attest to the veracity of the asset declarations made by government officials.

 WHAT ARE ASSETS?

 An asset is anything to which a monetary value can be attached.  The issue with assets in Liberia is that it seems people employed by the government seem to be able to increase the amount of assets they have at a rate that far outpaces their salaries.  The government has no reliable mechanism for establishing the value of a person's assets before he/she enters government, and no reliable mechanism for establishing their value after they leave office.  As a result, prosecution, which relies on facts is next to impossible.

 There are several components required for this protocol to work, three of the most important are:

  1. There must be means of establishing ownership of assets which is non-refutable. 
  2. There must be a legal framework, thru the legislative process, that establishes the use of identifiers and technology to ensure such a system is trustworthy and reliable. 
  3. There must be a legal framework which ensures the ability of all the government agencies, required in the verification process, to communicate electronically effectively and efficiently.


ESTABLISHING ASSET OWNERSHIP WITH A SINGLE ENTITY IDENTIFIER(SEI)

In order to establish the ownership of an asset, we must have the ability to issue universal identification numbers to every entity (individual or corporate entity) that can own said asset.  This single entity identifier can be separated into two distinct groups, with different government agencies taking ownership and management of the groups:

Group I:  The Single Person Identifier (SPI) - In every developed country there is an identifier that distinctly identifies every individual.  It is a one to one relationship, and it is non-refutable.  In the United States, this is called the Social Security Number.

For the purposes of Liberia, we can also use the social security number, and the logic is simple:  Every person, at one time or another will have to interact with the national social security corporation.  As such, every person born in Liberia, every person who works in Liberia must have a social security number.  This must be mandated by law.

What the social security number will allow us to do is to distinguish between Mary Blapoh from Ganta, and Mary Blapoh from Logan Town, even if they were both born on the same day. 

NASSCorp already has in place the system to verify identities and issue social security numbers. 

Every asset, bank accounts, property deeds, business ownership (whole or partial) must have a social security number(s) attached to it, in a uniform manner in computer systems.  Those systems must, by law, allow for the query and response, of that data, to establish the identity of an applicant for any of the above kinds of services.

For example, if Mary Blapoh (Ganta) wants to open a bank account, she must present her indentification and social security credentials to the bank.  The bank, in turn, must be able to send an electronic query to NASSCorp seeking to establish the veracity of Mary Blapoh's credentials.  Once the bank receives an affirmative response, the account, with Mary Blapoh's SSN can be opened.  The same scenario would work for any other type of service.

Group II: Business Entity Identifier

This type of identifier is given to every registered business by the Revenue Bureau of the Ministry of Finance when a business is registered.  However, since businesses are owned by individuals, the social security numbers of the owners must be attached to the incorporation documents.  There must also be procedures to change the ownership percentages, in a filing that can be done electronically.

The challenges now for the government are to institute the legislation, begin the process of issuing social security numbers to every Liberian citizen and non-citizens doing business in Liberia, and affixing a social security number(s) to all asset records.

This process, in my opinion, can be accomplished in 24-36 months and includes legislation, system updates, and account updates.

Any entity that is the holder of records of assets, must have the ability to respond to an electronic query for records tied to a specific social security number. This means if the government wants to do an asset verification on an individual, it can send out a query to the banking sector for all accounts owned by a specific SSN; it can send a query to the National Archives for all property records owned by that SSN; it can query its corporate registration database for all corporations owned in whole or in part, by that SSN.

Lastly, because these protocols are already established in the developed world, any person who previously lived outside Liberia, must provide the government with the authority to do asset verifications on his/her foreign identifiers.

US Lawyer Seeks Sirleaf’s Intervention

The letter appeared in Frontpage Africa on February 10, 2014

Dear Madam President:

I crave your indulgence and attentiveness to weigh in with some legal analysis about the punishment the Supreme Court of Liberia imposed suspending the professional license of the Minister of Justice, the Honorable Christiana Tah. I have closely followed discussions arising out of this ill-considered judgment. The court imposed this punishment against the Minister for invoking a valid legislation to act on behalf of your good self, Madam President.

“It is a gross abuse of power for the Supreme Court to punish the Minister of Justice for contempt”

This case is of great interest to me as human rights advocate and as an international legal practitioner who continues to pray that Liberia realizes its potentials as a beacon of hope for post-conflict societies in transition. Listening to the BBC broadcast about this dispute and reviewing other related feedback, I realized that some degree of misunderstanding about the law cut across the gamut of both some supporters and critics of the Court’s decision. It is primarily for this reason that I write to address the bone of contention by clarifying some key points of law.

It is indeed for the potential or actual collision of powers, as illustrated at this historic moment of dispute between the Judiciary and the Executive, that democracies venerate the values safeguarded by the principles and doctrines of separation of powers enshrined in the Constitution, which is the supreme law of the land. By definition, the separation of powers delineates the content and outer limits of the respective powers of the three arms of government, namely the Executive, the Legislature, and the Judiciary. It is one thing to concede that the Judiciary may well be the arm of government best equipped to interpret the Constitution and underpinnings such as the separation of powers doctrine. It is another thing to act as if this fiduciary capacity entitles the Judiciary to truncate the values of the Constitution, let alone trump the powers of the corollary arms of government. In the realm of objective reasoning it is neither for the Judiciary to arrogate to itself the authority to circumscribe an act of the Legislature, nor is it for the Judiciary to appropriate the powers of the Executive.

More specifically, I will itemize my argument as follows:

  1. The Supreme Court Justices allege that the Honorable Minister of Justice exceeded the scope of her authority by granting compassionate leave to Rodney Sieh. In their opinion, such leave was narrowly construed to only apply to criminal prisoners and not for persons detained for civil offenses such as the libel for which Sieh was imprisoned. Yet the plain terms of the relevant laws actually substantiate, rather than undermine, the propriety of the Minister’s authority.

    All parties agree that §34.20(1) of the Liberian Criminal Procedure Code governs this dispute. It is clear that the statute vests unequivocal, exclusive, and final authority in the Minister of Justice to establish and oversee the administration of compassionate leave and other decisions for prisoners. It appears that what the parties disagree on is whether Sieh was eligible for the leave approved, and whether the Minister of Justice should have first obtained the approval of the Justices before granting the leave. The Justices claim that because the statute regarding leave is set forth in the Criminal Procedure Code it only applies to criminal prisoners, rendering it inapplicable to Sieh, who was detained for a civil offense.

    It is untenable and without concrete basis to claim that the administration of civil prisoners is governed by a body of law distinct and separate from the comprehensive guidelines provided by Chapter 34. Chapter 34, section 2, expressly applies to all individuals held in custody, including those incarcerated “under civil commitment”. It therefore stands to reason that Sieh, who was imprisoned for libel which is a civil matter, was eligible to be considered for compassionate leave. Accordingly, it was valid for that prisoner to petition the Minister of Justice. As stipulated in §34.20(1) of the Liberian Criminal Procedure Code:

    The Minister of Justice shall formulate rules or regulations governing compassionate leave from institutions and, in accordance with such rules and regulations, may permit any prisoner to leave his institution for short periods of time to return to his home for other compelling reasons which strongly appeal to compassion.

    It is not in dispute that the appropriate legislation had been set in place.

  2. The Justices asserted that Minister Tah was required to consult them prior to granting Sieh’s petition. They do not, however, provide any constitutional, statutory, or administrative basis for this prerogative which they baldly claim. The governing law remains §34.20(1), quoted above, which in no uncertain terms vests in the Minister of Justice the power to grant compassionate leave. In light of the unambiguous legislative provision, it takes no divination to appreciate that it is ultra vires the powers of the Supreme Court to impose a preconference obligation on the Minister of Justice and the Attorney General of the Republic of Liberia.

    Going by the Court’s exasperation with the Minister, it is almost as if she granted an outright pardon, as opposed to a temporary compassionate leave. And even if that were the case, my research indicates that the power of pardon would still inure to the Executive and not to the Judiciary.

  3. It is a gross abuse of power for the Supreme Court to punish the Minister of Justice for contempt, simply because the Court disagreed with her interpretation and application of powers which the Legislature of the sovereign state of Liberia autonomously reserved by statute to the office of the Minister of Justice. Nothing on the face of the relevant statute or the history thereof as much as hints at a legislative intent for the judiciary to share this power with the Minister.

    Censorship for subjective interpretations of the law is antithetical to the life of the law. Given that legal minds are not monolithic, the very legitimacy of the legal system is without question jeopardized if lawyers, who are the officers of the courts, would rather capitulate to an authoritarian court than follow their conscience in the fearless submission of competing interpretations of the law in the best interest of justice. As succinctly put by a former Attorney General of Liberia’s close ally, “If lawyers are imprisoned each time the courts reject their view of the law, and then it will not be long before every lawyer is in prison.”

  4. The Supreme Court lacks jurisdiction to punish the Minister of Justice for contempt in a matter independent of any actual proceeding before it. Sieh’s petition to the Minister, as a representative of the Executive, was extrajudicial to the extent that it was made independent from an active legal proceeding before the court. In the same vein, the Minister’s concession of leave was not as an adjunct of the Judiciary but as an autonomous agent of the Executive, outside the purview of the courts even if relating to an issue which arose out of an act of the Judiciary.

    By definition, contempt of court requires the willful disobedience of a direct order of the court in a matter properly before it. Again, §34.20(1) which is a legislative act, authorized the Minister independent of the Judiciary to grant compassionate leave. In this light, it cannot be overemphasized that Minister Tah neither acted in contravention to any particular Court order, nor did she encroach on an ongoing proceeding before the court. Whatever the differences of opinion, there is no shred of objective evidence indicating that the Minister was motivated by an intention to “impugn the dignity of the court”.

  5. Even if one were to concede by the farthest stretch of the imagination that there was a potential for a valid finding of contempt in this matter, of all the arms of government, none better than the courts ought to defend the cardinal principal of justice captured by the Latin phrasenemo judex in cause sua. Simply translated, this means that one cannot sit as a judge in ones own case.

    Granting this precept, therefore, a sitting court that alleges an offense against an officer of the court knows better than to be judge and jury in its own case. As an eminent commentator on this case put it in a different context, “Since the contempt alleged did not occur in the face of the court, the Supreme Court ought not to have tried the case itself. The case ought to have been heard by another court. In the instant case, the Supreme Court was a judge in its own cause.”

    Equally noteworthy are the observations of a constitutional law expert of great global renown. In his analysis, even if it is assumed as the Court alleged that the Minister of Justice violated the doctrine of separation of powers, such violation cannot amount to a ground to hold anyone in contempt; the proper recourse is to void the Executive act that constitutes the violation.  As this scholar put it, “Contempt is an important power of the judiciary and should be fully respected, but at the same time it should not be allowed to morph into an unreviewable [emphasis added] power to punish officials who take action that the judiciary ultimately concludes is ultra vires [or] to enforce the judiciary’s sense of righteousness.”

  6. There are so many other compelling points of law that one could go on to enunciate. However, for the sake of brevity I wish to conclude on this note, which is that the Supreme Court’s finding of contempt and punishment by suspending the Minister of Justice’s license to practice law makes mockery of the role of the court as the arbiter of justice, which is the linchpin of democracy. Minister Tah’s license which is her credential to practice law is her hard-earned personal asset which predated her appointment as Minister, and in fact justified her appointment as Minister. Should the Court take exception to her exercise of duties arising out of her portfolio as Minister, common decency dictates that the punishment should be confined to that portfolio and not be globalized to strike at the core of her professional credentials.

    To reinforce my support to vindicate the Minister, I will borrow again from the poignant observations of the former Attorney General quoted earlier that, “In most African nations today, the press is often the only viable opposition and nothing should be done to stifle it as was done by this windfall award of damages” [by a court which was presided by the brother-in-law of the plaintiff who sued Sieh for libel].

Madam President, in a response to the Open Letter written to you by a Susan Peyton on January 28, 2014, a comment sympathetic to you reads, “As eloquently as the writer has made her argument, I don't seem to understand what she wants Mrs. Sirleaf to do about the Supreme Court's decision. For the record, the president would be totally wrong to attempt publicly getting involved in this matter. The court has obviously erred, but the president has absolutely no right to review or criticize their decision. That should be left to public sentiment.”

I can understand the perceived dilemma from a lay person’s point of view. However, the commentator whose address ironically indicates an affiliation with a law school should know if he indeed earned a law degree, that where one branch of government exceeds the limits of its powers, it is incumbent upon the branch whose powers are infringed, to push back. There is judicial precedent in Liberia for that matter to establish that when the Supreme Court in the past attempted to suspend the license of a Justice Minister, the President intervened to safeguard the powers of the Executive in keeping with the separation of powers doctrine.

Although it may not be typical in some circles to affirm much of former President Doe’s footprints, in this context, he actually set a precedent which is relevant. Apparently, during his administration, the Court attempted to hamstring the sitting Minister of Justice, Jenkins Scott, through a sentence suspending his license to practice law for two-years as a penalty for implying in a local newspaper that only the rich had access to justice in Liberian courts. The President publicly criticized this judicial overreach and threw the full weight of Presidential Powers behind the Executive Cabinet Minister who carried on with the crucial demands of his portfolio.

Madam President, may I humbly submit that should you, as the Chief Executive of Liberia, choose the path of least resistance to placate the judiciary; you will create a slippery slope which is bound to undermine your legacy. If you elect to remain ambivalent and pass the buck, so to say, on this foundational constitutional concern, we will have the self-same separation of powers doctrine hereby compromised to thank for the possibility of a legislative redress.

Permit me to leave you with the incisive conclusion of the prolific former Attorney General, whose expert input was elicited for this analysis. Per his advice, “I am firmly but humbly of the view that the Attorney General acted within her jurisdiction. If it is felt that this is a power which she ought not to have then the law should be amended accordingly.”

Respectfully,
Kate Chang, Attorney-at-Law, California

Is There Nothing Wrong with the [Liberian] Economy?

Amin Modad is a Liberian businessman.

There is an ongoing debate on the state of the Liberian economy. I am compelled to put aside sentiments, personal relationships, and political allegiances to enable me objectively respond to this debate. It is high time that we all did to prevent further decline of what we have all worked so hard to build and preserve. I also believe that it is my obligation (like many of you) even more so when I have all at stake as a Liberian entrepreneur. I fervently believe that being conscious of where Liberia has risen from over the last 8 years, significant progress has been made to normalize the socio-political and economic situation in the country; one only has to have lived in Liberia since 2005 to appreciate the levels of growth and development Liberia has experienced as well as the foundation of peace and goodwill Liberia enjoys through the savvy leadership of President Sirleaf.

Despite this, being an entrepreneur and a trade development professional, I must say that the economy is severely stressed. Unless those of us entrusted to safeguard the interests of the Liberian people begin to realize our limitations and except our mistakes with conscientious efforts to make changes, we are on a downward trajectory. Liberia experienced a surge in investment and commercial activities in the last couple of years of the first term. Government initiatives and programs conceived in the early years of the administration began to show fruition as the government began implementing areas of the national development agenda. This spurred private sector activities in diverse sectors for example, construction contracts were in abundance with the construction of roads, schools, and hospitals. The procurement of goods and services generally improved while other service sectors piggybacked. Opportunities for wealth creation were being visible and Liberia experienced an unprecedented emergence of a TRUE decentralized middle class. However, immediately before the elections, there was an impasse; the world held its breath to see how the elections would end, which was a major test to our resolve for peace and stability. The economy began to gradually recede immediately after the elections as investors and donors continued the ‘wait and see’ attitude due to the then brewing fracas over the election results. FDI took a plunge as with ordinary investment speculation. Hotels like mine experienced a drop in occupancy especially from business clients. This was exacerbated by a reshuffle that did not meet the expectations of the public and partners. Delays in completing and passing the budget had the most cataclysmal effect on the economy and nation as a whole.

Having served on the board of a commercial bank during this period, the banking sector immediately experienced widespread defaults on loans by contractors, suppliers, and service providers who had borrowed in anticipation of being paid by the government or like myself, in anticipation that the surge in commercial activities seen in 2011 would continue. There is a ricochet effect; in simple terms, when there is a budgetary crisis with long delays in disbursements (especially so when the government is the most dominant employer and purchaser of goods & services), government employees, services providers and suppliers of goods will not get paid; people go into defaults with their banks and banks performance ratios (such as loan to deposit) go out of balance and they in turn don’t lend; local entrepreneurs are not able to cover their overhead or obtain short term financing to keep afloat most often leading to downsizing or even closure. Consequentially, a bulk of the population (publicly and privately employed) cannot support their families and must curtail spending. Activities that parallel economic growth such as the building of new homes, starting of domestic enterprises, and increase in employment all systematically decline.

Equally challenging even to the most experienced leadership is, when the budget is over ambitious & concluded without capturing the inputs, programs, and strategies of the individual entities. As such, there is a disconnect between the agenda & work plan of the individual agencies and what they will end up being compelled to do with the scanty allocations they are spared. As a short-term fix, which we are experiencing now, the government will attempt to raise revenue at all costs thereby imposing further stress on businesses that already don’t have the incentives to operate and succeed. We forget to realize that when there are no counterbalancing measures put in place to circumvent budgetary lapses, the economy implodes.

We created phenomenal policies and strategies over the first 6 years of the administration, but have begun faltering in their implementation by developing ad hoc agendas to fit budget lapses. For example, the Ministry of Commerce to which I once served as Advisor to the Minister, developed through broad based engagements with the private sector and donors, contemporary Trade, Industrial, and SME policies. However, the ministry is unable to implement these without the budgetary support. Thus, even though there is an ambitious administration with revived interests and plan, there is not enough money to implement them or jumpstart programs that development partners might be interested in funding. In the case of many agencies, the Ministers might actually accomplish more if 80% of their staff just stay home and get paid. This way, the institution could conserve and use savings to implement a couple of tangible programs such as establishing a Value Addition Center to support light processing or a Trade Store to promote Made in Liberia products.

The President needs to intervene perhaps drastically to improve interagency cooperation at the Ministerial or top level (predicated upon a concerted national agenda); currently, there is an infectious disconnect that is unsupportive of her vision and is affecting productivity in various agencies. It is so easy to slip into the trap of shifting responsibilities and attempting to solve such situations with short-term individualized interventions that most often create artificial and formal barriers. There is another caveat, donors and partners a becoming weary due to lapses in the implementation of key planned activities and the unnecessary ongoing public debates and internal frictions. From experience, donors and development partners are very sensitive to poor coordination.

The government needs to realign the functions of the various institutions/ministries to resolve overlapping functions and the evolution of super bureaucracies.

We have made progress to liberalize trade through the development and implementation of World Trade Organization (WTO) compliant trade policies as well as alignment of our tariff system with the ECOWAS Common External Tariff. A key part of WTO commitments is reductions in tariff rates, and removing unnecessary nontariff measures. To effectively facilitate trade, Liberia is obligated to improve and simplify customs procedures, streamline and increase the predictability of the systems for doing business. Many short-term interventions to stabilize the economy might lead us to administer contravening measures that would raise concerns with our trading partners; these actions might not have to be systemic.

Let me use this medium to suggest few interventions that the Government needs to focus on to attain sustainable economic development:

  1. Knowing that our comparative advantage lies in our natural resources, the Government must begin to fund programs that support the emergence of vibrant Small & Medium Industries (SMIs). Concomitant to this, quality improvement and standards must be prioritized to ensure the competitiveness of locally produced goods in order to access other markets. Liberia has been often classified as a Net Importer because we import almost all our consumables (such as sardines that is abundant in our waters or edible oils). By developing SMIs, we could make significant strides towards balancing our trade and avoid some of the effects of global trends that we might not be able to control. This also ties in to the current debate re increase in foreign exchange rate. Many factors affect the availability of foreign currency on the market. However, taking a look at our Balance of Payments and current trade flows we need to increase exports and retain capital in country. I don’t believe the export of raw/unprocessed resources by foreign companies would optimally improve our net foreign assets since these companies by virtue of their models expatriate profits and capital. Whereas, a domestically owned SMI that adds value to say rubber or timber for exports will most likely bring back and retain in country most of its earning. 

  2. Create both fiscal and non-fiscal incentives for businesses (especially Liberian owned) to thrive; such need not be discriminatory or contravening to multilateral obligations. Undue stress on the business community also affects the survival of local enterprises, discourages FDI, and heightens uncontrollable corruption especially when several agencies are compelled to raise revenue or blamed for the budgetary shortfalls. Even when the intent is not corrupt, just the mere fact that multiple agencies begin to inspect businesses and firms, impose fines, or prosecute businesses all at the same time borders harassment and create poor public sentiments. Government must not be deterred from its desire to strengthen the business environment and facilitate trade.

  3. Increase (rather than cut) the budgets of agencies that affect Trade and the proper exploitation of our resources such as the Ministries of Agriculture, Commerce, the FDA, and LPMC (or a similarly reconstituted agency). Focus and money must be placed on programs that support value addition, the increase of local production, and improvements on quality & standards to ensure Liberia’s trade competitiveness. Increased trade results in increased revenue for both the private and public sectors, and increases net foreign assets without imposing business barriers or fighting around the budget. There is no sustainable way of generating revenue without offering something for money (which is called Trade); what do we have to trade? Our resources. But I stress here again, we must make the move from just exporting unprocessed resources to adding value for greater returns.

  4. Implement a rationalized reorganization of government that would bring in competences and experience rather than merely reshuffling officials (this recommendation doesn’t in anyway conclude that there aren’t competent officials already in government.). We have a savvy and experienced President with enormous integrity, goodwill and support from development partners; but she cannot do the work by herself and must be able to rely on able lieutenants. It is like building a 20 story building with 4 inch blocks from the foundation up and then using gold bricks for the top floor. 

  5.  Great work in being done re the construction of roads. This must continue strategically to open access to markets, facilitate trade, and improve access to social services rather than for political gains. 

  6. Tourism is a great but underexploited opportunity that the government must begin to prioritize. Our rich and diverse culture & history and geographical assets could make Liberia a touristic destination. Relatively, there is a need to improve the country’s image; we must market Liberia. Despite the many good news that have come out of the country since President Sirleaf’s ascendency, we are still a post conflict nation that has been scarred by years of economic mismanagement, mediocre leadership, complex fragmentized society (not limited to tribal, religious, gender, and fraternal), and unfavorable international relations.

    The world still sees a nation ravaged by corruption, wars, etc. Where as, with our turn for the better and the goodwill this administration has, we could market our experience in conflict resolution & peace building and make Liberia a destination for global conferences, and peace talks in addition to ecotourism. Why do we have to go all the way to cold Geneva to settle regional disputes?

    Government must pay attention on developing the skills needed to drive tourism and cater to increased economic activity; the hospitality sector must be supported and incentivized. Hospitality must be included and subsidized at the University Level. Providing quality hospitality service is a challenge for hoteliers and restaurateurs as there are no formally trained Liberian chefs, hotel managers, and etc.

  7. Existing concessions must be reviewed without intimidating investors with the intent of ensuring that corporate social responsibilities and other obligations of the concessionaires are being met. Furthermore, government needs to be more prudent in negotiating new concessions. We are yet to experience the optimal effects of the over $16B we have attracted especially when concessionaires are not fully utilizing or developing local skills and resources or procuring from domestic suppliers. Partnership with local businesses must be embedded to ensure that concessionaires invest into building local businesses to supply their needs as an alternative to bank financing.

  8. BUILD LIBERIAN MILLIONAIRES! Concessions must be encouraged to establish partnerships with Liberian entrepreneurs and the communities in which they operate. This applies to the emerging oil sector. From the onset, government needs to award a couple of oil blocks or sell shares to Liberians even before prospecting rather than merely allowing large multilateral companies acquire all the blocks and give out X percentage to Liberians at their bargaining terms. With such discretion, these shares would be available only to the few elites and those in power who can advance the agenda of these companies. On the other hand, if say shares of just 3 out of the 13 oil blocks are opened to 1000 Liberians each who will own and in turn negotiate or partner with foreign investors, the chances of spreading wealth and building Liberian millionaires would be greater. Let us learn from the mistakes of other oil rich countries and neighbors such as Ghana and Nigeria. How else would we develop vested interests in peace, security, and a vibrant political system?

  9. Provide customized lending facilities to support entrepreneurship, mortgage & home construction, education & specialized training, healthcare, and manufacturing. In the developed world, Home Starts (measuring how many new homes are built in a period) is a critical indicator of economic strength and directly relates to the performance of other industries such as banking, the mortgage sector, raw materials, employment, construction, manufacturing and real estate. In a strong economy, people are more likely to build new homes; conversely, in a weak economy, people are less likely to.

    There has been condemnation of the CBL from some quarters for injecting funds through the commercial banks for lending to Liberian businesses. I don’t know how, why, and where that argument is coming from. Unless it was not strategically implemented and lacked the monitoring mechanisms, it was an unprecedented and overdue move by the government that is HELPING us. 

These and several other interventions can develop a sustainable capitalistic private sector driven economy with more revenue generating opportunities to drive an ambitious development agenda.

In Liberia: Engineering the Failure of LIBTELCO

This article was written by George K. Fahnbulleh and Omar Fahnbulleh

The Liberian government recently announced a policy wherein the government would roll the cost of government official's communications into their salaries.  While this policy has been greeted with cheers by the people of Liberia, this writer believes there is something much more dubious afoot:  the deliberate bankrupting of LIBTELCO thru a series of seeming innocuous policies which I will detail.

To get the fiber optic cable here, we spent about 25 millions under a private-public venture called the Cable Consortium of Liberia. We have a problem; we don't have the required infrastructure to the get the cable operational. We need about 7 million dollars to get it going and we have not been able to get Government funding and this is why the connection process is slow. But we are making efforts to get banks to fund the project. At the moment we moving small small. ~ Paul Muah, Deputy Managing Director LIBTELCO 

The gains for the government and people of Liberia, with the implementation of high speed internet connectivity, in terms of increased efficiencies, communications, accountability, education, health are on a scale of orders of magnitude.  It is mind boggling to us, why the government would allow this entity to struggle when it is the entity which was built for exactly this function.

As we examine the latest policy, we realize the civil war destroyed the telephone line infrastructure in Liberia. However, in today's communications, most telephone traffic is no longer analog, but digital in the form of VoIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol) transmitted via fiber optic cables.  This is the same fiber optic infrastructure LIBTELCO is struggling to raise money to construct. 

If the Infrastructure is built efficiently LIBTELCO could offer the Government and it Para-statals (IE. Central Bank, GSA, LPRC, NOCAL) and others, VOIP, VIDEO, DATA, Storage and Cloud based services from it’s current Data Centers.  With Liberia not having an abundance of qualified ICT professionals, the government should make a concerted effort to leverage LIBTELCO's expertise in providing these services. 

In Liberia, government offices do not have desktop phones, instead the government spends quite a bit of money annually to provide telephone service, by paying for "telephone scratch cards."  This means ALL GOVERNMENT BUSINESS, is conducted via private cell phones.  We had hoped this would be a temporary solution to the absence of the land line infrastructure.  With the coming of the fiber optic cable, we had hoped, the government, led by the Minister of Finance, a man with an Information Technology background, would have made this a top priority.

It should have been common and accepted knowledge, that the Government of Liberia, would have been the largest initial purchaser of services from LIBTELCO for desktop telephony, computer network communications (for operations health and education), data center services (the Ministry of Finance's IFMIS is currently hosted at the LIBTELCO data center).  However, the government has done all it can, to pull the rug from under this entity, and refuse to purchase the services only this company can offer.

The following government entities all have a need for massive data transportation and storage services:

  1. Central Bank of Liberia (this entity has diverted government funds to construct its own data center in Virginia).  Every service provided by this CBL data center, is currently available at the LIBTELCO data center.  As a matter of fact, any and all high speed internet service to the CBL data center can only come from LIBTELCO.
  2. NASSCorp (this entity is building its own data center)
  3. National Archives is currently building a massive database of digitized property records
  4. NOCAL has a need to provide secure managed data storage and transmission with its international partners
  5. GSA - Asset Management and Tracking Services Hosted at LIBTELCO
  6. National Security Apparatus
  7. Education - distance learning, record keeping etc
  8. Health - the ability to bring medical professionals to the desktop to assist Liberian medical providers.

The annual purchase of the services required to sustain the above needs, would far exceed what LIBTELCO needs to build out its infrastructure.  The argument cannot be made that there is no money, when you have at least two entities (Central Bank of Liberia and NASSCorp) duplicating the physical infrastructure and service offerings of LIBTELCO to the tune of several million dollars.

There is no argument any competent ITC professional can make, as to why the Central Bank of Liberia would undertake the extension of the fiber optic cable to Virginia or why NASSCorp would extend same to Red Light, and undergo the expense of providing triple redundancy for power, when all of the capacity and capability needed is already IN PLACE at LIBTELCO.

There is no argument any competent ITC professional can make, as to why the Central Bank of Liberia would undertake the extension of the fiber optic cable to Virginia or why NASSCorp would extend same to Red Light, and undergo the expense of providing triple redundancy for power, when all of the capacity and capability needed is already IN PLACE at LIBTELCO.  When taken into to consideration with the severe financial constraints facing the government, and LIBTELCO, one can only wonder what these folks are up to. 

One can only hope, the intent is not to bankrupt the company and sell it of to private "investors" for pennies on the dollar; but I am hard pressed to accept that the above confluence is simply a misadventure of the keystone cops.  There are too many smart people in this government, for the deliberate and willful ignoring of LIBTELCO.  Ralph Ellison wrote: "I am an invisible man, not because people cannot see me, but because they refuse to see me." LIBTELCO is the Liberian Government's "Invisible man."

The Way Forward

What is required is a UNIFIED NATIONAL COMMUNICATIONS AND TECHNOLOGY POLICY, which would drive the implementation and adoption of a single government wide strategy. We had hoped by now such a policy, which would put all of the communications and computing initiatives under a single budget line item, and a single management agency would have been done by now.

The Bureau of Data Processing currently under GSA, is the statutory agency RESPONSIBLE FOR ALL DATA PROCESSING SYSTEMS WITHIN THE GOVERNMENT OF LIBERIA.  This Bureau should immediately be seconded to the Office of the President, while legislation is drafted and passed to create the Bureau of Information Technology, headed by a cabinet level Director the Chief Technology Officer.

This BIT and it's predecessor will be THE SOLE ENTITY responsible for ALL, YES all computer and telecommunications systems within the government.  This will remove the IT decisions from people in Ministries, who decide whether or not to spend their budgetary allotment on internet services.

It is time to do better.

 

An Open Letter To the President of Liberia

we cannot grow the Liberian economy, if we do not transition from a cash economy, to a credit economy.  The most fundamental concept which a functional credit economy is based, is the ability to uniquely identify every individual participating in that economy, in a manner that is reliable and non-refutable, and the ability to tie every asset to one or more individuals based on that identifier

Dear Madam President

As we approach the beginning of your 8th year in office, we need to examine the steps you need to take to place Liberia on a solid footing for growth, after you leave office. 

As an Information Technology professional, my suggestions are based on the need for a unified and managed approach to the acquisition and implementation of technology for the government of Liberia. 

In my opinion, this is the single most important legacy you can leave for Liberia, bar none. 

As things currently stand, there is no central authority which manages all of the Information Technology initiatives of the government.  Ministries implement their own systems, programs outside on their own and there is no professional oversight, neither is there the capacity for these systems to talk to each other.  There are three things which can be implemented on very short order to begin to leverage the technology for the future. 

1) Information Technology Management

The Government of Liberia should set up a government wide technology management agency, which will manage and oversee ALL technology projects for the government and the para-statals.  Fortunately, Madam President, the laws of Liberia already provide for such an agency.  The Bureau of Data Processing, currently under GSA, is, by law, in charge of all data processing systems within the Government of Liberia. 

I recommend you second the Bureau of Data Processing as a stand alone entity, within the Office of the President, while at the same time begin to work on legislation to transform it into the Bureau of Information Technology, to be headed by a Chief Technology Officer, and contain:

  • A shared services group - which will provide integrated architecture, development and implementation of all data systems within the government.  Yes I do mean all.
  • Database Management Group
  • Network Infrastructure and Security Group
  • Telecommunications Group


This Bureau of Information Technology will also examine all systems to ensure they meet the requirements of the National Security apparatus as well as the Records Management requirements of the Freedom of Information Act.

2) Growing the Liberian Economy

The government of Liberia must implement a single entity identifier, i.e. social security number, which NASSCorp already has the capacity to do, as well as a Business Entity Identifier.  These were spelled out in a previous paper, entitled "A Protocol for Asset Declaration and Verification."

Madam President, we cannot grow the Liberian economy, if we do not transition from a cash economy, to a credit economy.  The most fundamental concept which a functional credit economy is based, is the ability to uniquely identify every individual participating in that economy, in a manner that is reliable and non-refutable, and the ability to tie every asset to one or more individuals based on that identifier. 

Yes there are more than 10 John Flomo's in Liberia; however, if each is assigned a social security number, it is possible to determine who each of them is, which assets each owns.

Today in Liberia, banks do not serve the economy because of the risks involved for lending.  The biggest risk factor, faced by banks, is the inability to reliably determine each applicant's risk profile, his assets and his liabilities.  It is ONLY possible to this by using the above mentioned unique identifier.

People cannot buy and sell property, raise capital, because it is not possible to reliably establish the ownership of a piece of property.  Even with the current effort of the National Archives, which is digitizing all land records.  It is still not possible to definitively determine ownership of a piece of property.  The requirement that each property record be tied to a social security number, will allow property to be bought and sold in a reliable, irrefutable manner, which will lead to an explosion of capital investment.

The ability of banks to provide long term (20+) mortgage loans as well as automobile loans will also lead to an explosion of building construction and purchasing, putting many Liberians to work, while both increasing and expanding government revenue.

It will also have an impact on reducing corruption.  You see, in a cash economy, I have to come up with $25,000 to purchase a car. In a credit economy, I may only need $5000 and a reasonable monthly payment.  If I have to come up with $25000 at one time, where is the best place to find it?


3) Recruiting Talent

The government MUST establish a database of Liberian professionals in the Diaspora, who it can call on for assistance.  There is no field of human endeavor, in which Liberians have not excelled.  We cannot educate or teach our way out of the brain drain.  Today much of the capacity gap, is being filled in by ex-pats, who while doing a admirable job, are in it for the furtherance of their careers after their Liberia assignments are over. In too many instances the cost for these services is too high, but Liberia has no say because the funding is being provided by "partners." 

Now is the time for government to systematically begin to take ownership of these projects, to ensure their long term survivability, and the success of Liberia as a whole.


Sincerely,

 

George K. Fahnbulleh