After stoking expectations among Liberia’s voters for rolling back poverty, President George Weah is facing the twin pressures of time and money to carry out his promises.
On 22 January, Weah became president of the one of the world’s poorest countries after vowing to improve the daily life of a population desperate for electricity, running water and other basics.
The former soccer star succeeded Africa’s first elected woman head of state, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who restored stability after brutal civil wars but failed to raise living standards.
“It is time now to consolidate the peace and to develop the country to be economically independent and prosper,” Liezelle Kumalo, a researcher at the South African thinktank the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), told a seminar in Monrovia in May.
“This is a huge challenge.”
She suggested Weah should not only keep the gains of Sirleaf’s term in office, but see them “multiplied at high speed” to meet the expectations of young people who massively backed him at the polls.
Youth account for some 60% of Liberia’s population of 4.7 million.
“Most of them are not yet trained to the level where we can find them jobs. Jobs are also not adequate to give to them,” Interior Minister Varney Sirleaf said at the seminar.
Weah himself seems clearly aware of the burden of expectation.
He sought to set an example at the start of his mandate by cutting his own salary by 25%. Then he ordered a 20% cut in the price of rice, which is a staple food in Liberia but entirely imported.
During the recent signing of an accord with the African Governance Initiative (AGI), founded by British former prime minister Tony Blair, Weah stressed the need for “achievable programmes and projects in the next two years for the people, if the government is to make impressive marks in six years,” the length of his presidential term.
Blair was reassuring, but also offered practical advice about managing people’s hopes.
“There is goodwill for Liberia at this time because there is a tremendous amount of enthusiasm from the people,” he said.
But he added, “The toughest thing in government, especially when you are dealing with huge expectations, is to try to set priorities to get things done.”
Concern over massive loans
Desperately strapped for cash at home, Weah has turned to funding from abroad to help.
In a trip to Brussels last week he was promised €27 million in aid from the European Commission.
The government has also taken out massive loans — $536 million and $426 million — for building roads and bridges, respectively from a group in Singapore and a public works firm in Burkina Faso.
Both loans, approved last week by the national assembly, are mountainous by the size of Liberia’s economy — and some media commentators have said the country could be saddling itself with an unsustainable burden.
“The issue is not about taking loans, but using the loans for the intended purpose, something our president is committed to doing,” says Weah’s spokesman, Sam Mannah.
“Liberia cannot be developed with our annual $500 million-plus budget that is mostly based on projected revenue and donors’ contributions.”
For projects in hand, Mannah pointed to the payment of 34,000 student grants, the installation of public street lighting, the withdrawal of certain concessions for business and a reduction of import tax on more than 2,000 basic products to help fight inflation caused by a falling Liberian dollar.
The new administration has stressed the importance of good roads in a country where the northern and eastern provinces are all but cut off in the long rainy season, making it difficult to supply the capital.
The goal is build 759 kilometres of paved road in the next three years, roughly doubling the length of tarred highways in the country.