Liberian President-elect George Weah accepted the presidential run-off results with grace in his recent acceptance speech. In his speech, he thanked his family, the Liberian people and, notably, female Liberians, various party leaders, and President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. Weah also honored the partisans who lost their lives “in the struggle for change” before broadly outlining his plans to improve the lives of all Liberians. He spoke of social transformation, fighting the menace of corruption, and building on the institutional gains made under the Sirleaf administration. He also had messages for diaspora Liberians (come home), investors (Liberia is open for business), and other political parties (let’s work harder toward national unity and development).
Weah hit the right notes without having to go into much detail. This was an acceptance speech after all. Inauguration speeches are different. Weah’s upcoming inaugural speech will likely include similar elements such as gratitude and a call for unity, and because of the historic nature of the first peaceful transition of power in generations, you can expect Weah to highlight this momentous occasion.
His inauguration speech will need to dig deeper than his acceptance speech. Not only will it set the tone for the administration moving forward, but it must also illustrate Weah’s understanding of the challenges Liberia faces and his solutions.
The Liberian people who voted him in, and those who didn’t, want and deserve specifics beyond feel-good phrases like “improving lives.” Below are just a few of the many areas that, if improved, could make a meaningful difference in the lives of ordinary Liberians. These are areas that Weah must address in his inaugural speech.
Roads / Infrastructure
The rehabilitation of road corridors in rural Liberia in recent years, such as the Suakoko Highway that links Monrovia to Gbarnga and Guinea has helped ensure the uninterrupted transport of goods and services, reducing transport time and cost as a result. Improved roadways also reduce travel time and improve access to markets, hospitals, educational institutions, and social services.
Weah appears to understand the importance of road improvements. At a campaign stop in Lofa, he promised to prioritize roadways in Lofa to restore the region’s status as “the food basket” of Liberia. He reinforced his commitment to prioritizing infrastructure improvements just days after his acceptance speech in an interview with Reuters:
“The roads for connectivity are vital. We have partners and we have revenue that we will make sure will come in to build our roads,” he said.
A new hydro-electric dam is a bright spot for the Sirleaf administration. Access to reliable, affordable power brings numerous benefits in and of itself. Energy projects also contribute to creating jobs, reducing pollution, and reducing the reliance on fuel imports.
All of the above improve Liberian’s livelihoods and contribute to Liberia’s economic growth and development. However, there’s much work to be done as far as rebuilding Liberia’s tattered infrastructure goes. Not only does Liberia need more road improvements, more power plants, and maintenance, we need to be smarter about how we implement infrastructure improvements. Earlier this year, a scathing IMF report revealed low perceptions of infrastructure quality in Liberia, the lowest public capital per capita in ECOWAS member countries, and limited fiscal space for capital spending. The IMF suggests that in order to improve the delivery of key public services and meet economic growth and development goals, Liberia needs to increase its public investment efficiencies.
Human Capital Investments
As vital as these infrastructure projects are to Liberia’s future growth, development, and prosperity, Weah must also address his plans for developing Liberia’s human resources, which are equally important to Liberia’s future growth, development, and prosperity.
Specifically, how will Weah address:
- Education — To succeed in a rapidly developing technical world, STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) education is a must. Weah has discussed ideas such as waiving WAEC fees for all students to promote better education across Liberia. However, most students graduating from high school in Liberia have a bigger problem than figuring out how to pay secondary exam fees: most can barely read! The adult literacy rate for Liberia is a scant 47.6 percent. Thus, not only should STEM education be a Weah administration priority, he should also invest in education at the primary level.
- Brain drain — What happens when you educate the masses but fail to provide meaningful work, decent working conditions, living wages, or opportunity? They go elsewhere. While Weah has called the diaspora to return home because Liberia needs their skills, ideas, talents, and expertise, what opportunities will they find upon arrival? What will compel them to return, much less stay?
Fight Against Corruption
Weah has been vocal about fighting corruption with statements such as “…what will not be tolerated is the every day taking from people.” In his acceptance speech, he said, “Persons looking to cheat the Liberian people through the menace of corruption will have no place in my administration.”
That’s a great start, but we’re hoping for more. President Sirleaf made similar promises, but corruption remains a malignancy in Liberia.
For starters, how about:
- Transparency: An annual publishing of salaries, benefits, and allowances of all government officials
- Criminal consequences: Not only should corrupt officials be fired, let’s try them in court
- Eliminating nepotism: One of Sirleaf’s great failures in her own fight against corruption was a tendency toward nepotism. She often appointed her own family members to prominent government posts, reducing her credibility as a corruption fighter
The youthful voter turned out for Weah in large numbers. While it’s tempting to attribute the youth vote to Weah’s status as one of the world’s all-time-best footballers, that would be a mistake. According to recent population estimates, more than 60 percent of Liberia’s population is under age 25 — though 43 percent are too young to vote. Nonetheless, Liberian’s youth vote is a vote for a changing of the guards. For too long, Liberians have heard lofty promises, yet their living conditions have been left largely unchanged.
At the same time, right now is perhaps the best time in history to be young in Liberia. The country is at peace; we are solving our problems within the framework of a democracy; information and technology have become more readily accessible, opening up a world of opportunity unimaginable just a few years ago; and our entire continent is positioned to join the global marketplace.
Weah has a responsibility to empower his young constituents — the vast majority of Liberia’s population. An empowered youth would be an asset to Liberia’s socio-economic growth and could lead to Liberia’s transformation. In contrast, a disenfranchised youth would be detrimental to the country.
A powerful speech upon inauguration can set the tone, but it absolutely must be followed up by action in areas such as entrepreneurship, education, employment, service and leadership opportunities, and even sports programs.
Earlier this year, the World Bank reported that Liberia’s health care system was on the path to recovery after the devastating Ebola outbreak in 2014. That outbreak put Liberia’s health care system to the test, which it failed. It also exposed those weaknesses to the rest of the world, which stepped in to help. The global response eventually contained the outbreak, brought much-needed medical supplies and equipment to the country, renovated several medical facilities, financed the development of triage and isolation facilities, and supported medical education programs.
For the long term, relying on the help of external organizations such as the World Bank, UNICEF, Partners in Health, the U.S. government, and the World Health Organization will not create a sustainable health care system. During his campaign, Weah alluded to “free healthcare” but details are scant.
Liberia imports its staple food, rice, spending an estimated $200 million on the importation of rice each year. Not only is this costly, it exposes the entire nation’s food supply to risk in the form of rising food costs, tariffs, export bans (just two countries dominate the global rice market), changing intergovernmental policies on rice trade, and shortages. Liberia has the acreage, climate, and history to produce its own rice, yet less than 10 percent of Liberia’s 600,000 hectares of irrigable land has been used.
More than 60 percent of Liberians rely on agriculture for their livelihoods; however, much of this is in the form of subsistence farming which is to feed themselves and their families. While campaigning in Gbarnga, Weah discussed what his presidency’s top priorities would be: job creation, entrepreneurship, and industrialization. Most of the jobs created, he explained, would be through agriculture, which would be transformed from subsistence to commercial agriculture.
With inauguration day fast approaching, we can assume Weah and his speechwriters are busy crafting the inauguration speech. Weah could certainly follow the examples of US presidential inauguration speeches. These tend to follow a simple formula (praise for the transition of power, a discussion of the challenges we face, the president’s commitment and ability to solving those challenges, a desire to work together for success, and a closing appeal to a higher power). This formula provides a framework in which to craft a powerful and optimistic message, but only if sufficient details are included. In Weah’s case, those details, at a minimum, must include roads and infrastructure, human capital investments, anti-corruption measures, youth empowerment, health care, and agriculture.