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Important Issues This 2017 Election Year

By Ciata Victor

July 30, 2017, Monrovia: 2017 is an election year in Liberia and discussions of who will be our next president can be heard in all circles around the country, on the Internet and in the diaspora, especially since the Code of Conduct has cleared some important presidential and vice presidential candidates.

After 12 years of leadership by President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, much has changed in Liberia. 

Civil Servants salaries have increased; Major roadways have been and are being repaired and rebuilt; Mount Coffee is operational while we wait for the final turbine to come into service.  The electrical distribution network is being expanded; Water and sewer is operational; The National Transit Authority is providing service to Monrovia and some of the counties; All government hospitals and clinics in the counties are operational and some new ones are being built although we still struggle with the level of service, the number of doctors, availability and access to sophisticated medical machines and certain kinds of medical treatment; Our children are back in school although we still struggle with lack of books, teachers, access to science labs, computers and many times inadequate structures serving as schools; Our courts are functioning although they are backed up; Regulatory bodies like the LRA, our tax revenue entity have been established and are operational.

Yes, Liberia of 2017 is not Liberia of 2005. 

The Difference in Election Years

In 2005 the people needs were basic, at the time they had no access to basic services. 

In 2017 the problem for many Liberians is the state of the Economy.  Rising prices; Liberia’s dual currency and the ever rising exchange rates; high charges at the Freeport of Monrovia to clear containers, cars, goods and equipment; Increasing taxation on Liberian businesses while issuing tax breaks to foreign entities who are being given 15 to 30 years tax breaks; Corruption and mismanagement of government resources; Foreigners getting an unfair advantage and the illegal acquisition of Liberian passports, especially by the Fulanese, are some of the issues on the minds of the people.

Other issues on the minds of voters are a House and Senate where the lawmakers continues to demonstrate that they do not have the interest of the citizens at heart. Fourteen counties have little to show on how their County Development Funds (CDF) were used, only Nimba county showed positive results.

Recently, 34 members of the House of Representative voted in favor of granting the President’s request to grant the Farmington Hotel, owned by Abi Jaourdi a Lebanese Business Entity, a 30 year tax break. Liberians found this outrageous and points to this approval as a case in point where the current representatives do not represent the Interest of the country. Some say that even if the president requested the tax incentive, members of the House of Representative should have rejected it, in the interest of Liberia.

Liberia's Dual Currencies (Liberty & Dollars)

In 2017, Liberia’s dual currency has become a burden as the value of the Liberty Dollar depreciates the people are finding the weight unbearable.  The price of food has gone up with the exchange rate, the price of transportation has gone up, even the price of water has gone up, the 5 LD sack is now 10LD.   

The people are screaming for price control in a free market system. 

Can Liberia afford to keep both currencies or should the country move to a single currency? If so, which one?

If Liberia does move to a single currency which presidential candidate can best help us handle the transition?

Corruption

Another key issue is corruption.  In 2006, president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf declared corruption “Public Enemy number one”.  Some eleven years later, corruption is still public enemy number one, and it seems like no one is trying real hard to beat it. 

Unabated corruption has created this perceived notion in the general population that if you work in government you are corrupt, even if it is not true, it is perceived as true by majority of the people, which unfortunately is a consequence of unabated corruption.

Unfair Business Advantage

With little access to financing, rising prices at the port, increased taxation, and the high exchange rate, many of the jobless in Liberia who support themselves as petty traders or as the government calls them “the vulnerably employed”, are finding it difficult to compete with the Lebanese and Fulanese who are primarily the business people in Liberia.

In the government’s explanation, giving tax incentives to foreigners is an attempt to encourage investment, in the people’s minds, giving incentive to foreigners who have already made millions in Liberia, who can afford to pay taxes and who should be made to pay taxes is a smoke screen that creates an unfair advantage for the foreigner and is a disservice to the country. 

The government claims that these foreign companies create jobs and they do for a while. But before long and after receiving their many incentives, they lay off employees creating even more hardship for the Liberian people

The question then becomes, is it better to offer tax incentives to a handful of foreign companies who hires 100 employees each, receive their tax incentive, than lay the Liberian employees off after a while? Or is it better to offer tax incentives to 50, 100, 200 Liberian companies that hire 20 or more employees?

Increase taxation and charges at the Free Port of Monrovia

The Freeport of Monrovia is known as the “Gateway to Liberia” and it is.  In a country where everything is imported, from food to clothing, to furnisher, heavy equipment, cars and all, it is a huge source of revenue for the government of Liberia.  When the prices of Liberia’s historical exports, Iron Ore and Rubber dropped on the world market, the government needed additional sources of revenue and made adjustments to prices at the port.  Yes it creates needed revenues for the government, but is creating hardships on an already stressed economy.  The jobless that made their living from selling in the streets can no longer afford to buy goods to sell, the wholesalers are also selling retail, competing with the very people who buy from them for the sole purpose of selling retail. All that is left for most of the vulnerably employed are rising prices, rising tuition cost, hungry children and goods that just won’t move.

The high exchange rate means higher prices and lower or no profits for the small businessman.

If the intent of the government is to discourage street selling, they will succeed.  The high exchange rate and high cost for clearing containers at the port means “there is no money in street selling” as the Liberians are beginning to say. 

The question then becomes, how do the hundreds of thousands of Liberians who currently make their living as petty traders or “vulnerable employees” support themselves and their families?

Liberian Passports for Sale

When I talk to Liberians on the streets and in the shops, many are insisting that Liberian passports are being sold in large numbers to the Fula people from Guinea. There are accusations and street talk of Keckec drivers, Fula shop keepers and Lebanese business people slapping or disrespecting Liberians over payment disputes and after the police are called and money changes hands nothing happens, at least not in favor of the Liberian. 

If this is true, Liberia has a new worry, the constitution still protects us from the possibility of a Lebanese presidency through citizenship, but if we are not careful, and we are illegally selling Liberian passports to the people from Guinea, in the not too distant future our President will come from Guinea. "Passport equal citizenship and citizenship equals voting rights and privileges".

Mismanagement of Financial Resources

Every Liberian can tell you what our historical natural resources and major exports are, and Iron Ore and Rubber top the list.  Exports that made us money in the past are no longer profitable, as prices on the world market have dropped.  This means, the government is looking more to inner sources to generate revenues. The problem is, many Liberians who are still trying to improve their living conditions think that the taxes are high and would like to see a lower tax bracket especially for Liberians.

In my discussions with Liberians, many say they do understand the government’s need to raise revenues, but still complain about the government misuse and abuse of financial resources, especially now, saying “they have stolen all the money, now there is no money to pay themselves salaries.  Then to add insult to injury, after enriching themselves, they are issuing tax breaks to private foreign partners and heavly taxing the Liberians".

What's on the minds of Liberians this election? Some politicians would like to make it a country - congau issue, but that won't hold, as they say in Liberia. This 2017 election, it's about the economy, corruption, and the unfair advantage Liberians feel foreigners have over them in their own country!

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 Ciata Victor lives and work in Monrovia, Liberia