Former footballer George Weah was elected president of Liberia on the back of generous policy pledges but two years later the country is beset by problems, as Charlie Mitchell reports.
When Henry Costa landed in Monrovia in December from a trip abroad, he was given a rock-star welcome by hundreds of supporters. In an ostentatious open top car, he sped into the city.
However, Costa is not a musician or a politician, but one of the loudest critics of Liberia’s President George Weah, who is currently facing the greatest crisis of his short presidency. Costa’s arrest in January, for allegedly falsifying a travel document, will energise, rather than deter, his supporters.
In July, his Council of Patriots rallied thousands of people. Since December, a new wave of protests has seen 3,000 people regularly fill the streets of Monrovia demanding Weah sack his entire economic team.
The former radio host’s support reflects Liberia’s economic decline since Weah assumed office two years ago. Under the leadership of the former international footballer, who promised to restore power to the people, inflation is bobbing around 30%, unemployment is high, the central bank is short of foreign reserves and civil servants have gone months without pay.
Still, the president’s supporters have expressed no willingness to compromise. In December, Bhofal Chambers, an MP from Weah’s Congress for Democratic Change party, accused the protesters of “treason, terrorism and subversion.” Throughout the crisis, Weah’s allies have framed the demonstrations as a quiet coup by a political elite determined to undermine the authority of a political outsider.
But how did it go so wrong for a president who won 70% in the 2017 presidential run-off promising an unvarnished, more collaborative style of leadership?
“Weah’s economic management has been notably lacklustre; however he is only partly to blame for the situation,” says Eric Humphrey-Smith, senior Africa analyst at Verisk Maplecroft. “He inherited a huge operational deficit at the Liberian central bank and a hefty public wage bill that obstructed state-led investment.”
The World Bank has projected the Liberian economy will contract by 1.4% in 2019. One of the world’s poorest nations, Liberia has an annual GDP per capita of just $688, according to the IMF.
Disgruntled Liberians will have their say at the ballot box later this year, when half of Liberia’s senators will run in mid-term elections. Some ministers have suggested the country is too cash-strapped to hold the vote, but the US and other international partners would likely not accept a delay.
“Ordinary Liberians are facing the brunt of high inflation,” says S, University of London. “There is exchange rate volatility meaning the price of commodities changes every day.” Small business owners who buy in greenbacks and sell in Liberian dollars are struggling to make ends meet.
Liberia was one of a trio of countries, alongside Guinea and Sierra Leone, hit hard by the 2014 Ebola outbreak in the region. In Liberia alone the disease killed 4,800 people and deterred investors. Liberia’s small but vitally important tourism sector has not recovered from the outbreak. GDP growth fell from over 8% in 2013 to zero in 2015.
However, while Ebola hit local businesses, the current economic malaise is largely self-inflicted, analysts say. And while his predecessor Ellen Johnson Sirleaf – who won a Nobel peace prize for guiding Liberia’s post-war reconciliation – could fall back on international goodwill, Weah cannot.
Nyei says the president promised too much during his election campaign, with a series of policy pledges and guarantees of infrastructure. Without the money to pay for it, he was forced to dip into Liberia’s foreign reserves.
With a population of just 4.7m people, Liberia’s economy is sensitive to change. Having concluded its work, the UN peacekeeping mission in the country packed up and left in March 2018, hitting the tourism sector, housing market and the profits of local businesses.
Multinational corporations, chiefly Firestone, which operates the largest rubber plantation on earth in Liberia, have also scaled back operations, shrinking the tax base required to pay for infrastructure and civil service wages. Firestone – which is to Liberia what the auto industry once was to Detroit – has laid off more than 3,000 workers over the past five years.
Just as Weah’s economic credibility was being questioned, two scandals struck. In September 2018, Liberia’s information minister announced that shipping containers holding L$15.5bn ($104m) had gone missing, an episode that brought the issue of corruption – an endemic problem in Liberia – into stark relief.
It later emerged that the containers had not gone missing, but that the central bank had ordered three times the amount of banknotes it had been authorised to print and could not account for how they had been infused into the economy. A case concerning the overprinting of an additional L$2.6bn is currently in court.
Then, last June, protesters demanded Weah account for $25m his government withdrew from the country’s Federal Reserve account in New York to boost the economy, amid allegations of impropriety by officials.
Weah’s development of nearly 50 high-spec residential buildings on land he owns in Monrovia and his private travel by jet have also met with anger. Meanwhile, more than half of the country’s 73,000 civil servants were not paid in November or December.
There are some reasons for optimism on the back of a poor 2019 for Liberia’s weakened economy. GDP growth is expected to recover and hit 1.4% this year and 3.4% in 2021, according to the World Bank.
The electricity, iron and gold sectors have growth potential, while Liberia’s vast supply of rubber will continue to support its economy. Its population is young and entrepreneurial. Yet before growth can return, stabilisation is the name of the game.
“Mr Weah urgently needs to stabilise the Liberian dollar and inflation before hard currency reserves fall to dangerous levels,” says Humphrey-Smith, whose firm’s Civil Unrest Index suggests there is a 79% chance of disturbances in Liberia in the next two years.
The IMF recently called the Liberian economy “fragile”, a term generally given to economies bordering on crisis. The lender has offered Monrovia $250m over four years, with a string of austerity conditions, not least laying off hundreds of civil servants.
“While hard for Mr Weah to swallow, the strict execution of IMF guidelines would likely dodge a recession and revamp the country’s image with creditors,” Humphrey-Smith says. “Doing so will drive a wedge between him, investors and the electorate; but it may just avert disaster.”