Transforming Liberia With A Post-Epidemic Agenda: What Now?

By Arthur GeezayTarr, Ph.D.tarr.arthur999@gmail.com

With its blue lake, lagoons, rivers, low mountains, and three hundred and sixty miles of beaches along the North Atlantic, it is universally acknowledged that Liberia is naturally beautiful, but successive governments have failed us in enhancing this beauty. Our hopes of transforming the country towards “higher heights” are always impeded by poor governance and by difficult problems such as the coup d’état of 1980, back-to-back civil wars and mayhem, quasi and venal dictators, and now the Ebola epidemic. Again and again, our nation has triumphed over numerous problems. This national nightmare will become history, too. The world is watching, so let us make post-Ebola the beginning of a new chapter in the life of our nation.

Where do we go from here when this deadly disease is brought under control? Thanks to the global alliance, Ebola will be eventually contained in Liberia. When President Barack Obama authorized 4,000 U.S. military personnel to help fight the Ebola epidemic,the American President said, “…Every outbreak of Ebola over the past 40 years has been contained, and we are confident that this one can, and will be as well.” According to press reports, 51 medical personnel from Cuba, 487 medical workers from China’s People’s Liberation Army and over 300 German Health Experts are in Liberia to combat this epidemic.We do appreciate the assistance. What then should the country’s agenda be post-epidemic? Our national challenges are many, but they are surmountable with ingenuity and creative problem-solving. To redefine or even reinvent this country, we should honestly address ten focus areas as follows:

Health Care.Critics say that the health care failure is responsible for the government’s poor handling of the Ebola outbreak. The New Democrat newspaperreported recently that health workers of the John F. Kennedy Medical Center in Monrovia described the country’s health sector “as a rotten environment with officials doing whatever they feel like.”The ruling elite must provide the health workers with the necessary funding, materials, equipment, logistics and expertise so that that they can serve the Liberian people to the best of their abilities. “At the start of this outbreak,” says President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, “the country barely had 50 doctors to care for a population of 4.4 million.” How do we strengthen our healthcare delivery system? Will we shrewdly use the outpouring of the international goodwill and assistance to upgrade this sector?

Slums.Here are some of our slums: Sonewein, Slipway, Clara Town, West Point, NewKru Town, Buzzi Quarter, Bassa Community and others. Have you visited them lately? They are extremely gross and disgusting. We should make them fit for human habitation. Our people deserve the best this country has to offer.   The inadequate sewage disposal, very few public toilets, no running water, and dilapidated shacks are some of the critical health concerns. In a specific case, the lack of means to collect human waste and garbage could lead to other health issues.Also, we need to cleanup along the Mesurado River from Waterside to Jallah Town. By so doing, we could provide jobs for the people who will participate in the cleaning and beautification efforts.A view from the Gabriel Tucker Bridge, we envisage a vibrant river-front community from Slipway to Jallah Town and beyond. Can we create bike paths, scenic routes, decent housing, and water sports for our people and foreigners alike? If we build it, they will come!

Education.Massive West African Examinations Council (WAEC) failures and massive University of Liberia (UL) Placement Examination failures have become commonplace within the educational sector, thus making us the laughingstock of the region. What a dirty rotten shame! “Out of the thirteen thousand candidates that sat the University of Liberia entrance examinations, only fifteen have successfully passed,” UL President Emmett Dennis recently announced. Also, in August of 2013, all 25,000 applicants (including some of UL graduates) who sat the placement examinations for admission into the university undergraduate and graduate programs failed.

For how long will this nation tolerate mass failures of students? What strategies and modifications were utilized in order for students to pass the examinations? Stop playing games with the students; put a tutorial program in place for them to help them succeed. The nation needs them to participate in its reconstruction efforts. We cannot afford to throw them away; our inclination should be to build each other up.

Roads.The lone road between Gbarnga and Zwedru is impassible about this time of year because of its deplorable state. Neither raining season nor dry season lessens passengers’ road woes. Cars are blanketed with dust in the dry season, or they are stuck in the mud in the raining season. And there is the infamous Ghankay Hill, around the vicinity of Tappita in Nimba County, brings traffic to a halt due to the muddy condition. Because of this situation, people do spend about 24 to 72 hours by car from Monrovia to Harper City. Every year we hear the same chorus of Ghankay Hill being horrible, but nothing is ever done. How do we solve this problem? Employ some able-body individuals as road crew to be responsible for road maintenance.

Imagine this! A transatlantic flight from Roberts’ International Airport in Harbel (just outside our ocean-front capital) to John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City takes about ten hours; a trip by car from Monrovia to Harper City, Maryland County lasts a whole day, two days or three days. You do the math! What a shame! We do laugh about this ordeal nowjust to stop wailing for the beloved country.

Unemployment.“Unemployment, especially youth unemployment, remains the crisis of our times. Creating gainful employments for young people are vital for peace, security, and economic transformation,” states Madam Laymah Gbowee, Nobel Laureate. With at least three quarters of the population living below the poverty line—that’s US $2 a day explains why our people are so grumpy and grouchy. An old saying states that a working person is a happy person. In this environment of massive unemployment, our people are not happy. Put them to work so that they will be able to provide for their families, thereby developing the work ethics needed to transform the society.Create the opportunities for the unemployed youth, especially the college graduates, the car loaders, et al who are tirelessly poundingthe pavements of Monrovia in search of real jobs. The country needs everybody to serve; stop picking and choosing. Remember: “Turtle wants to fight but no hands!”

To tackle the issue of youth unemployment, National Orator H. Varney G. Sherman admonished the nation two years ago with these words: “…in order to alleviate unemployment among the young people, especially young university graduates, the government should consider a program where all university graduates, regardless of class, social status or otherwise, be deplored to counties other than their counties of origin and work for a period of three years.” Emphasis added. Because the unemployment rate amongst young Liberians is skyrocketing, we have to do something, anything to solve this dilemma. Are the lawmakers listening? I will simply add that after their tour of service, these young Liberians could then be awarded scholarships to pursue their Graduate degreesoverseas. After completion of their studies, they should then return home to contribute their new knowledge, skills and talentsto the national reconstruction efforts. Can the government put a program in place to ameliorate this sad state of affair?

Environment. Is Liberia’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) just another “toothless bulldog”? Have you seen the heap of garbage around Monrovia lately? Is this agency empowered to develop rules, guidelines, and regulations in cleaning up where we live, learn, and work? Train some of the young people to become Nature Conservation Officers, Recycling Officers, Waste Management Officers, and so on tomonitorand care for the environment. Flooding is a main concern during the wet season. For starter, clean up the water front (the Atlantic Ocean and the Mesurado River); protect the environment; solve the problem of flooding in this delightful ocean-front city.This beautiful land is in peril from sea erosion. What’s the plan for dealing with this perilous issue along coastal areas like Monrovia, Lower Buchanan, Cestos City, Greenville, and Harper City? If we do have a plan to save these places, when will it be implemented?

Agriculture.What have we learned in one hundred and sixty-seven (167) years of nationhood? Did the Rice Riot of 1979 teach us anything at all? According to a local newspaper, the Ebola virus disease which broke out in Liberia on 22 March of this year has negatively affected food security, commerce, and agriculture.In fact, what is the Ministry of Agriculture doing in Monrovia? Locate it elsewhere. Food is not grown in Monrovia. Liberia’s climate is favorable to agriculture, yet we are still importing rice, bitter balls,collar green, pepper, etc. For one example, importing abouthundred thousands of metric tons of rice each year is not only a waste of money, but it traps the country in poverty. When will we ever learn?

Corruption.This area is a major obstacle to progress in the country; it’s endemic across the land. In 1969, Fletcher Knebel, an American Peace Corp, wrote “Zinzin Road” set in Lofa County. Knebel’s novel described a country suffering poverty, ruled by a ruthless minority, and filled with corrupt, incompetent leaders? Well, when are we going to turn the corner concerning these issues? The New Dawn newspaper recently reported the indictment of several officials for bribery, fraud, misappropriation of entrusted property, criminal facilitation and economic sabotage of over US$250,000.

The Liberia Anti-Corruption Commission (LACC) has forwarded names of several officials to the Justice Ministry for alleged mismanagement of funds and corruption.The chairperson of the Liberian Anti-Corruption Commission, Counselor James N. Verdier states, “corruption has been parading the Liberian society since the country’s independence in 1847.”With the Ministry of Justice and the LACC working in concert to curb corruption, perhaps the country could minimize the effect of this economic crime against itby finally combating special or narrow interests.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) Recommendations. The TRC was established under the terms and conditions of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) of 18 August 2003 that brought the back-to-back civil wars to an end. The Commission was mandated to investigate the following: “gross human rights violations and violations of international law as well as abuses that occurred, including massacres, sexual violations, murder, extra-judicial killings and economic crimes, such as exploitation of natural or public resources to perpetuate armed conflicts…” The reports are there. It’s no time to throw the baby out with the bath water, or to sweep these egregious acts under the carpet.The wars caused the death of more than 250,000 people out of a population of 3 million.

Unsurprisingly, the recommendation for prosecution of leaders of warring factions and lustrations and debarment of the president et al. from holding public offices for 30 years have attracted much attention and controversy. First and foremost, implement a National dialogue process for the Liberian people to discuss the final report. Second, to move the country forward, carry out this key recommendation: “reform of public institutions to promote good governance and human rights, to reduce poverty, to alleviate illiteracy, and to provideequal access to public services.”

The Non-African Descent Question.According to the Economist Magazine, since its independence in 1847, Liberia has played host to countless Lebanese merchants and their families in search of greener pastures to fuel growth of their country’s economy. Liberia’s economy is in their hands. Like Nicodemus, some government officials go to these businessmen by night for bribes and loans. The Lebanese control a sizable chunk of the Liberian economy at least 60-75%. Of course, no accurate figures are available, butLebanese businesses like George Haddad’s Bridgeway Corporation, Shawki F. Fawaz Construction Company, Ezzal Eid’s City Builders Incorporated, Arun Brothers, and othershave a strangle hold on the economy. Liberians do not own generator dealerships; neither do they import of fuel and lubricants, owners of modern vehicle repair facilities, nor stationery stores, wholesale food suppliers, or supermarkets and building material stores. The Lebanese mainly trade, sending money out of the country rather than investing.How do we persuade them to invest in Liberia?

The punchline is Liberia’s citizenship laws: People of Lebanese descent, and all other people of non-African descent are not permitted to hold Liberian citizenship even if born in Liberia. In my view,it is time to amend the constitution so that anyone not of African descent can be a citizen. Simply put in place some legal safeguards to protect indigenous Liberians. For example, the president and vice president should be reserved for natural born Liberians.We should act wisely now!

To sum-up, we can’t change what happened to us pre-Ebola, but we must certainly pursue a different path. Liberia ought to tacklethis wide range of areas: road networks, energy, corruption, infrastructures, ecology, and jobs creation in the future; a new vision for the future starts after Ebola. The country is and has always been an elephant meat to the nation’s ruling elite; they come to power, cut their share, and then go away. For instance, in a letter dated March 2, 1940, United States Ambassador to Liberia Lester A. Walton noted that there were Liberian officials who had “…the reputation for acquiring a big bank account on a small salary.” Now the salaries are even bigger, what next? At the present time, for instance, theDaily Observer reported recently that each Associate Justice receives US$9,000 monthly while the Chief Justice receives US$12,000 per month. The Supreme Court of Liberia comprises of a Chief Justice and four Associate Justices. The Agenda: Give our brothers and sisters a fighting chance at success by making them players and not just mere spectators in the homeland. Finally, to change this country for the better, it is imperative that we put the people first; provide their basic needs such as food, water, housing, education, and healthcare.

Robert Frost puts it best in the last stanza of his poem, “The Road Not Taken” when he writes:

“I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.”

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Arthur Geezay TARR is a bilingual educator, concerned citizen, and co-author of Bonjour L’Afrique. Follow him on listenupliberia@blogspot.com

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