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Liberia (Vol 17, 2020)

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Ibrahim Al-bakri Nyei
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Political and socioeconomic developments in Liberia, in 2020, were dominated and severely affected by the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (Covid-19). Liberia’s rapid and proactive response may well have saved the country from mass community transmission. Long before the first case was recorded in Africa, Liberia was among the first countries in the world to institute epidemic control measures. Early in February, Liberia instituted a thorough virus control protocol (hand washing, temperature checks, and contact tracing) at its international airport for travellers coming from abroad. On 16 March, the country recorded its first official case of the virus in a government official. With experience from dealing with the Ebola virus disease epidemic (evd, 2014–16), the Liberian government reactivated emergency response measures, and communities quickly adapted to new rules and went on high alert. This saved the country from widespread community transmission of the virus throughout the year; but due to the spread of the virus in other parts of the world, particularly Europe and America, and mutual border closures that affected the movement of goods and people in the sub-region, the fallout from the outbreak of Covid-19 weighed heavily on political and social development in the country. Production slumped, and workers in many sectors suffered lay-offs. The greatest blow to the government was its defeat in the senatorial election held in December, when the ruling party lost in 12 of the 15 senate elections. Alongside the senatorial election, Liberians finally voted on proposed changes to the country’s constitution after years of debate on constitutional reform. The opposition called for a boycott of the referendum or a ‘no’ vote on all items while the government supported a ‘yes’ vote on all items, but no item was passed in the referendum.

See also Liberia 2004 | 2005 | 2006 | 2007 | 2008 | 2009 | 2010 | 2011 | 2012 | 2013 | 2014 | 2015 | 2016 | 2017 | 2018 | 2019 | 2021 | 2022.

Contents Volume 17, 2020.

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Political and socioeconomic developments in Liberia, in 2020, were dominated and severely affected by the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (Covid-19). Liberia’s rapid and proactive response may well have saved the country from mass community transmission. Long before the first case was recorded in Africa, Liberia was among the first countries in the world to institute epidemic control measures. Early in February, Liberia instituted a thorough virus control protocol (hand washing, temperature checks, and contact tracing) at its international airport for travellers coming from abroad. On 16 March, the country recorded its first official case of the virus in a government official. With experience from dealing with the Ebola virus disease epidemic (evd, 2014–16), the Liberian government reactivated emergency response measures, and communities quickly adapted to new rules and went on high alert. This saved the country from widespread community transmission of the virus throughout the year; but due to the spread of the virus in other parts of the world, particularly Europe and America, and mutual border closures that affected the movement of goods and people in the sub-region, the fallout from the outbreak of Covid-19 weighed heavily on political and social development in the country. Production slumped, and workers in many sectors suffered lay-offs. The greatest blow to the government was its defeat in the senatorial election held in December, when the ruling party lost in 12 of the 15 senate elections. Alongside the senatorial election, Liberians finally voted on proposed changes to the country’s constitution after years of debate on constitutional reform. The opposition called for a boycott of the referendum or a ‘no’ vote on all items while the government supported a ‘yes’ vote on all items, but no item was passed in the referendum.

Domestic Politics

The outbreak of Covid-19 was the first major crisis to confront the George Weah government. Previous crises of economic governance had been met with short-term interventions that minimised their effects, but Covid-19 presented the first major leadership test, since its impacts were multifaceted. Despite it being a health epidemic, the outbreak impacted political and socioeconomic development and posed major challenges to the government in dealing with the fallout. But before the outbreak of the virus, the government was already facing waves of opposition protests due to declining economic standards and allegations of corruption against key allies of the president. On 6 January, opposition pressure group the Council of Patriots (cop) staged another mass protest at the seat of the government – the second in less than a year. This protest was violently disrupted by security forces, and the cop leader, radio talk-show host Henry Costa, was charged with forging an immigration document during his return to the country ahead of the protest. He fled arrest and returned to the United States, where he was based. The cop, which is aligned with the opposition Collaborating Political Parties (a coalition that comprises the former ruling Unity Party, the Liberty Party, the Alternative National Congress, and the All Liberia Party), reported in August that its attempts to obtain an official registration document had been rebuffed by the Liberia Business Registry.

On 16 March, a senior government official who had returned from Geneva was diagnosed with the novel Covid-19 – the first case to be officially reported in the country. The government responded by imposing a state of emergency and declaring a curfew in Monrovia and surrounding counties and by restricting the movement of people to and from these areas. The military was deployed alongside the police to enforce these public-health-related regulations. But their intervention saw an increase in harassment of citizens, as they deployed excessive force to enforce the measures. The press and local civil society organisations also accused the government of using the public health enforcement measures to harass opposition figures and suppress dissent. In response to these allegations, the solicitor-general reminded them that ‘Liberia is technically at war’, and so all rights, including freedom of speech, were suspended under the state of emergency and anyone spreading ‘fake news’ would be arrested. This became pertinent when a cop executive, Manipekai Dumoe, was arrested for sedition after he questioned the government’s Covid-19 relief programme and suggested in a Facebook post that the citizens should be given guns instead of rice.

On 22 July, the government ended the state of emergency and lifted most of the restrictions. Citizens largely complied with the health protocols, thanks to their experience in dealing with an even more deadly viral epidemic just four years earlier.

As a result of the state of emergency, the planned special senatorial election for half of the senate’s 30 seats and the constitutional referendum were postponed from October to December due to logistical challenges posed by the spread of the epidemic and the containment measures. The National Elections Commission (nec) also suggested that there were financial constraints to holding the elections, in addition to the Covid-19-related constraints. This decision to postpone the election was resisted by members of the opposition, who insisted that the polls be held in line with the constitution and warned of a potential constitutional crisis should the government fail to hold the elections before January 2021, when the tenure of the sitting 15 senators was due to end.

The president reorganised the electoral commission in April after the tenure of some of its members ended. Those appointed in this reorganisation were mainly members and supporters of his party, a move condemned by the opposition and civil society organisations. They accused the president of departing from a precedent in which appointment of commissioners took place in consultation with opposition parties and civil society organisations. Despite the criticism, the president did not back down. However, his initial pick for the position of chairperson was rejected by the senate due to the failure of the nominee (who was Nigerian-born with no Liberian ancestry) to prove his Liberian citizenship.

Ahead of the senatorial election, opposition parties organised themselves into various alliances to mobilise and strengthen their bases against the ruling party. In August, the Collaborating Political Parties (cpp) received certification from the nec to operate as an alliance. Another group of seven opposition parties, including the True Whig Party (Africa’s oldest and longest-ruling political party, which ruled Liberia from 1869 to 1871 and again from 1876 to 1980), received its certificate from the nec to operate as the Rainbow Alliance. These alliances led the parties to pool resources and strategies in fighting the ruling coalition, which was already experiencing its own internal problems due to a long-running feud between the president and his vice-president, who are members of separate parties within the ruling Coalition for Democratic Change (cdc).

The outcome of the senatorial election and the constitutional referendum showed an increase in support for the opposition and a corresponding decrease in support for the ruling party. The ruling party won in three of the fifteen counties – Grand Gedeh, Maryland, and Sinoe, all in the south-east. In Nimba County, the second most populous county, a candidate supported by the ruling party in a rather loose alliance won in a very tight race with the cpp. The leading opposition cpp won in six counties, including Montserrado, Bong, and Lofa, while smaller parties and independent candidates won the remaining four counties. The greatest blow to the ruling party was in its defeats in vote-rich regions, particularly Montserrado County, which accounts for one-third of the national vote. Montserrado, in which the national capital Monrovia is located, has been a heartland of Weah’s Congress for Democratic Change, while Bong County, which the ruling party also lost to the cpp, is the traditional heartland of vice-president Jewel Howard-Taylor and her National Patriotic Party. Their defeat in these counties by the cpp undoubtedly makes their position untenable and is a bad signal for their future and the stability of the ruling coalition. The vice-president declined to support the candidate of the ruling party in her home region of Bong even though the president personally campaigned there. Her low profile during the election and failure to support the ruling party’s candidate confirmed how deep the rift between her and the president had become. Following the election, factional fighting in the ruling party deepened as grassroot activists called on the leadership to resign and further pressed President Weah to implement rapid reforms and reshuffle his cabinet, whom they blamed for poor performance and corruption. The cabinet and the party leadership remained intact up to the end of the year as the rift widened.

The senatorial elections were held alongside a constitutional referendum. Liberians began discussions on constitutional reform in 2012, when former president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf established a Constitution Review Committee to hold consultations on the 1986 constitution and make recommendations for reform where necessary. At the end of the review process, in 2015, the committee’s proposals were forwarded to the legislature for approval. However, the approval was obtained only in 2019 and a referendum held in December 2020 as provided by law. The eight propositions presented to voters were: (1) to amend Article 28 of the constitution to provide for the inalienability of the citizenship of natural-born citizens of Liberia and allow for dual citizenship for natural-born Liberians; (2) to amend Article 83(a) of the constitution to change the date for general elections from October (the rainy season) to November (the dry season); (3) to amend Article 83(c) of the constitution to reduce the time frame for resolution of complaints emanating from general elections from 30 days to 15 days; (4) to amend Article 50 of the constitution so that the term of the president is reduced from six years to five years; (5) to amend Article 45 of the constitution so that the term of senators is reduced from nine years to seven years; (6) to amend Article 47 of the constitution to provide for election of a president pro tempore for a term of five years; (7) to amend Article 48 of the constitution so that the term of the members of the House of Representatives is reduced from six years to five years; and (8) to amend Article 49 of the constitution so that the terms of the speaker, deputy speaker, and other officers of the House of Representatives are reduced from six years to five years.

The propositions on dual citizenship and reduction in presidential tenure were the most contentious during the referendum campaign. Many Liberians oppose dual citizenship because they believe it might benefit only people of Liberian ancestry based in the diaspora, who might have divided loyalty. On the issue of presidential tenure, the opposition contended that it might provide justification for President Weah to launch a third-term bid with arguments that his initial six years would not count under the new constitution. Weah’s party debunked this assertion and offered reassurance that he had no intention of seeking a third term. The ruling party supported a ‘yes’ vote on all items, while the opposition and civil society organisations called for a postponement of the referendum due to the lack of public knowledge and voter education on the final items. After the government rejected this proposal, the opposition called for a massive boycott or, where necessary, a ‘no’ vote on all items. The returns from the referendum showed that none of the eight proposed changes passed the two-thirds threshold required for amendment. It is unclear whether voters responded to the call from the opposition to boycott the referendum or declined to participate due to lack of knowledge on the propositions.

Other politicians seem to have identified entry points in the last year to remake themselves through new parties. The nec announced that it had received several applications from potential parties. In December, the nec certified the newly formed People’s Liberation Party (plp), which comprises former executives who had lost internal factional battles in existing parties. For instance, the chairperson of the plp, Wilmot Paye, is the immediate past chairman of the Unity Party. Paye was removed from that position in July after nearly three years of internal squabbles and blame-trading over the party’s defeat in the 2017 presidential election. His removal paved the way for the election of a Liberian businessman with no known political experience, Amin Modad, as chairperson. The plp only added to a flood of smaller political parties seeking to establish themselves in a terrain that is gradually lurching towards a two-party democracy dominated by the cdc and the cpp.

Foreign Affairs

Liberia maintained peaceful relations with its neighbours and the wider international community. Its strategy of economic and aid diplomacy, with foreign engagements focused on wooing more investments and development aid to the country, was severely undermined by the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic. The president and his envoys could not go on their usual year-round diplomatic ‘charm offensives’ due to restrictions meant to stop the spread of the virus. However, engagements continued remotely, and Liberia’s traditional development partners supported the country throughout the year, particularly with resources meant to fight the spread of the epidemic.

Despite the stalling of diplomatic engagements, 17 ambassadors from friendly countries presented letters of credence in Liberia. The country maintained 23 resident foreign ambassadors, 19 non-resident ambassadors, and 15 honorary consuls-general. Liberia also maintained foreign missions on all continents except for Oceania, where the government announced it was exploring the possibility of establishing a mission. The country had 26 diplomatic missions, including two consulates-general spread across Africa, Europe, Asia, the Americas, and the Middle East.

Liberia remained a member of major international organisations. The country hosted 29 heads of international organisations, including the UN and some of its specialised agencies resident in Monrovia. Liberians held leading positions in the Mano River Union, where the secretary-general is a Liberian, and in ecowas, where a Liberian sits as one of the leading commissioners. At the au, however, its status and influence diminished in 2020 due to a failure to pay its dues or access contribution, which had climbed to about $ 1.5 m. Member countries indebted to the au are usually denied certain rights, including voting on crucial issues and speaking at the assembly of heads of state. As a result, Liberia had low-profile participation at the 2020 assembly of heads of state in January, with both the president and the minister of foreign affairs conspicuously absent. However, the country restored those rights when it made payments to the organisation in September. It is unclear why Liberia has demonstrated waning interest in the au over the last few years. This lack of interest was shown by the absence of a permanent representative to the au for nearly three years. Liberia’s ambassador to Ethiopia doubles as the country’s permanent representative to the au, but since the end of 2018, the post has been vacant. On the other hand, the au mission that included a military attaché closed in 2018, the same year that the UN peacekeeping mission closed. While there has been no diplomatic row between Liberia and the au, these developments suggest declining interest in the au as a strategic focus for the country’s foreign policy and international development engagements.

Socioeconomic Developments

The Liberian economy had not fully recovered from the fallout from the Ebola epidemic of 2014–16 when the Covid-19 pandemic struck. In 2018, the UN Mission in Liberia (unmil) closed, and the withdrawal of the thousands of peacekeepers inflicted another blow on the Liberian economy, mainly in the housing and service sectors. Structural reforms were underway to cushion the economic effect of these events before the outbreak of Covid-19. Before 2020, Liberia was implementing an imf facility meant to stabilise government finances. The pandemic derailed progress made on recovery and sank the country into deeper economic crisis. Although the country did not suffer mass community transmission, as had been the case with the evd, it did not escape the recession caused by the pandemic. Prospects for growth were frustrated by the outbreak of the pandemic, which led the economy to further contract by 3% in 2020.

Liberian workers were hit by the pandemic as companies began laying off workers. The government immediately negotiated a policy that ensured redundant workers got their due benefits, and that conditions of lay-off followed due process. As a result of this intervention by the government, some companies avoided mass lay-offs but kept some employees under a category dubbed ‘non-essential staff’. These staff, while given leave of absence from work, still received a proportion (about 50%) of their monthly salaries. At the Firestone plantation, the largest private sector employer, 20% of workers were declared non-essential, while Golden Veroleum Liberia, a palm plantation company, and Bea Mountain, a mining company, each declared 10% of workers redundant. By May, most companies had already begun to implement this policy. The government similarly gave leave of absence to some civil servants under the ‘non-essential staff’ category, but unlike those in the private sector, these workers received their full salaries throughout while remaining at home. This was the government’s own strategy to reduce crowding at workplaces, a strategy previously deployed during the evd pandemic, and it proved effective at minimising the risks of transmitting the virus.

However, in August Firestone announced it was still laying off more than 350 workers due to ‘unsustainable business’. This situation also affected smaller rubber farmers who sold harvested natural rubber to the company. The company extended a previous moratorium on the purchase of rubber from independent farmers due to the pandemic, and this forced thousands of them into very precarious financial situations. Similarly, mng Gold, which operates in Bong County, laid off 250 Liberian miners and 62 expatriate workers in the same month. mng did not cite Covid-19 as reason for the lay-offs but said rather that the miners’ contracts had ended when they closed one of their pits. But closures in other sectors meant that these workers would struggle to find new jobs.

The government’s Covid-19 response measures implemented during the state of emergency included daytime curfews which affected many businesses, the self-employed, and people in the informal sector whose subsistence depended on daily labour wages or sales. The government designed a relief package valued at $ 25 m that distributed food to vulnerable households. An additional $ 2 m was approved to support market women and petty traders in the informal sector.

Despite the shock caused by the pandemic, the government of President George Weah remained primarily focused on road connectivity as its ‘flagship’ infrastructural development project. The success of this programme is likely to open up the country and speed up productivity in sectors such as agriculture, tourism, and manufacturing, particularly in rural areas that remain disconnected from major economic centres. By the end of the year, the government had completed the surfacing of 66 km of primary roads, while construction works were ongoing on an additional 365 km.

Liberia’s major challenges were perhaps in political governance and fighting corruption. Despite President Weah’s promise to fight corruption, Liberians remained sceptical of his commitment, and the institutions charged with supporting the fight against corruption suffered a legitimacy crisis. For instance, the Liberian Bar Association refused to cooperate with the chairman of the Liberia Anti-Corruption Commission after it was uncovered that he had falsified citizenship documents – his citizenship came under question after he was nominated to head the nec. The Corruption Perceptions Index for 2020 published by Transparency International reported that Liberia scored a dismal 28 out of 100 points (the same as in 2019).

Some high-profile corruption cases were heard in the courts, with wins and losses for the government. In March, a criminal court found former defence minister Brownie Samukai and two other former officials of the Ministry of Defence guilty of theft of property and misuse of public money involving the pensions of members of the Armed Forces of Liberia, and they were ordered to refund $ 1,147,656.35. The officials appealed the ruling at the supreme court, and based on this appeal, Samukai was allowed to contest the special senatorial election in Lofa County, which he subsequently won. However, in August the same judge acquitted former officials of the Central Bank of Liberia (including its former governor) in the landmark case of 16 bn Liberian dollars (lrd) in missing banknotes.

The fallout from the lrd 16 bn case continued to haunt the Liberian economy. There have been occasional periods of inflation, declining value in the local currency, and acute cash shortage experienced mostly in July and December for each year since 2017. Ordinary Liberians felt the pinch of the economic crisis during the Christmas season when they could not easily access cash from the banks due to an acute shortage of both US and Liberian dollars. The year-long monetary crisis peaked in the third quarter of the year, at which time banks had run out of cash, particularly the local currency, and began rationing daily withdrawal. This crisis was worse than previous cash shortage crises, as it came at a time many Liberians had lost their jobs and were relying on remittances which they could not easily access. Rises in prices (inflation rose to 12% by year’s end) resulting from the pandemic also meant that Liberians received little value from their savings. The central bank attributed the cash shortage crisis to the pandemic and to the ongoing reforms at the bank that were supported by the imf and the usaid. The reforms were recommended in 2019 after an audit into the missing billions uncovered several procedural lapses in the operations of the bank. The legislature had also refused to approve the printing of additional lrd 17 bn which the bank had previously requested in response to the 2019 cash shortage crisis. As in previous cash shortage crises, the government partly blamed citizens and local businesses for not trusting the banks and largely keeping their savings at home or in informal saving clubs, thus leaving the banking system with only about 10% of local currency in circulation. Some members of the legislature proposed criminalising cash hoarding as a policy response to the situation.

While the pandemic affected overall socioeconomic and political development, governance and political development indicators showed that the state of governance did not change much in 2020 compared with the immediate pre-pandemic years. The Freedom in the World 2021 report (published by Freedom House) categorised Liberia as ‘partly free’ in 2020 – Liberia has been in this category for at least five years now. As noted above, the state of corruption – as perceived by citizens – remained the same according to ti. But the eiu’s Democracy Index pointed to a backsliding in democratic culture. While the index categorised Liberia as a ‘hybrid regime’, the rating of the overall state of democracy slightly declined, from 5.45 in 2019 to 5.32 in 2020 on the index’s 0–10 scale.

These indices are instructive and come very close to explaining local realities. Liberia’s public institutions suffered severely in 2020, partly due to Covid-19 and partly due to pre-existing economic challenges. These unfortunate developments gravely affected the capacity of the government to deliver basic services. The government’s inability to respond to the basic needs of citizens led to numerous demonstrations in communities regarding access to electricity, water, and policing. The most prominent of these took place from 21 to 23 August, when citizens took to the streets to demand action from the government on the rise in cases of rape and other forms of sexual and gender-based violence, which peaked during the pandemic. The Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Protection had received reports of about 1,000 cases of rape and other gender-based violence. The demonstrators demanded answers from the government and petitioned for the speedy prosecution of rape cases. In response, the government organised a national conference on sexual and gender-based violence in September at which the president declared rape a national emergency, promised to appoint a special prosecutor for rape cases, and announced an additional $ 2 m in funding for the Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Protection.

The eiu Democracy Index showed that the government’s capacity to function (‘functioning of government’ indicator) declined from 3.07 in 2019 to 2.71 in 2020. The call for governance reform continues to ring in Liberia, and the UN has centred ‘governance and transparency’ in its Country Development Framework (2020–2024). Certainly, Liberia’s post-pandemic recovery and long-term stability will depend on crucial reforms to its public institutions.

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