Town hall meeting by the Boss Lady , President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf
What a grand occasion was this town hall meeting of the Liberian Diaspora in the Europe, many had travelled far. And in a typical Liberian fashion, decked in their Sunday best, had waited, linked up with old pals and family for a couple of hours to welcome the Boss lady, make requests, harangue and hear about plans. They had trekked from all over the UK and Europe to have an audience with the Boss Lady. On the whole it was friendly and positive, with one fracas revealing the challenge for Liberia in its march to developing and sustaining a democratic culture.
The event started with speeches by representatives of the Diaspora, generally supportive but demanding the Liberian community in Europe is equally considered in consultations as the US community which has up to now taken a more prominent role. Other items on the wish list included granting dual citizenship, building up capacity in embassies in Europe to process passports and developing culture and arts through a major event. The host, London University unveiled a capacity development programme, in which a Liberian is enrolled, that is a perfect fit for Liberia.
The big moment though was the speech from the Boss lady, vintage Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. A policy wonk she may be but she has a way of giving the audience a synopsis of her administration’s achievement and vision in a way they can absorb, avoiding the temptation of rattling on. It was concise, comprehensive and not full of jargon.
Ellen’s government agenda has been poverty reduction, peace and security, economic revitalization and debt relief and her record has been impressive. The overriding issue of peace and security has seen a large UN force and training of a new army which will mushroom to take over from the UN force in the next two to three years. Economic revitalization has seen investment of $16 billion in the Liberian economy since peace was established nine years ago. Mines have been reactivated, the agricultural sector is ramping up with investment in plantations and smallholder schemes. The government is committed to diversification, to tap the huge natural resources and provide employment.
A major focus has been the rehabilitation of the infrastructure and developing a new development model. Major developments are taking place in the road network in towns and cities and national networks. Major efforts are being made to develop and extend power, water and health clinics. Capacity building is taking the form of a decentralized structure, with county development funds being managed by counties and a transparent budget process which clearly specified funds from the national budget that are controlled by each county. All mining and agricultural concessions have a clause to establish social development funds in the locality they are established. The government is also supporting the development of Liberian entrepreneurship, so Liberians in the country and abroad can engage in the development process through the private sector. On the national level, the government has been making efforts to improve the delivery of government services.
The government’s agenda would not have been realized without the major developments in the fiscal position. A major push by the President, no doubt using her considerable clout in international finance, saw a significant debt relief for Liberia. The debt relief combined with an aggressive push for new revenue streams has seen some startling changes in the Liberian government’s finances. Government reserves have leaped from $5 million to over S300 million. The budget has more than quadrupled from $80 million to $356 million.
The president noted that there were challenges, notably the corruption issue. This is being addressed with the carrot and stick approach. Salaries for civil servants were raised and they are paid on time. Initiatives being implemented include a revamped General Audit Commission. In the criminal justice system efforts are underway to increase the use of magistrates, well trained lawyers who are properly paid. Unemployment, a major issue, is being addressed firstly by measures noted above to revamp the economy and develop a relevant skill base and specific measures to assist small businesses. A major effort is being made to develop vocational training to develop skills that will be required in all sectors. While the administration has an impressive record in education with enrollment up 40%, with even more impressive improvement in enrollment of girls, it is still a major challenge.
By far the biggest challenge is the democratic process. Ellen’s impressive record should speak for itself and residents, the Diaspora and foreign observers will hope for a transparent process in the forthcoming elections. While everything the president has done suggest she is committed to the democratic process, an anecdote, at the meeting indicates that over zealous supporters may damage her reputation. Two delegates at the meeting with placards and shouting to be heard were jostled by officials until Ellen ordered them to leave the protesters alone as it was an opportunity for all to be heard. Another minus was the fact that so much time was taken up by officials singing praises that there was not enough time for questions. The president’s minders must realise that the best way of gauging public opinion and responding by implementing appropriate policies, is to listen to the demands and grips of the electorate. This could involve unpalatable truths but it is an opportunity to lance a boil by either setting the record straight or changing policies where there are logical grounds to do so. Town hall meetings are the politician’s best market research tool, if the crowd is from the cross section of the population.
On the whole this was a first class performance by a woman who knows what she is talking about, has demonstrated a sincerity and capacity to address pertinent issues and has a vision for Liberia. That vision, to move Liberia to a middle income level country sounds ambitious, from the low base that the country had been forced into. But her record, expertise and drive may make it achievable, watch this space. Africa may not have an Obama but in Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf Liberia has its own change President.
J Boima Rogers
Media and Event Management Oxford
14th June 2011
Tel: 01865 790924