Addressing Liberia's legislature on Monday, President George Weah said the country's real GDP fell by three percent in 2020, largely due to coronavirus lockdowns, a slump in international trade and travel disruptions. He has promised to "reset the foundation of monetary policy" to address cash shortages. In the meantime, RFI looks at how much progress has been made on delivering his key promises.
Free university tuition, more road-building and increased access to sports are among the policy promises bearing some fruit in Liberia for ex-footballer George Weah, as he marks three years as president.
“For us from a background where our parents are not economically strong, and looking at the challenges, the free tuition policy is really helping,” said Gabriel Dakpeh, majoring in chemistry at the University of Liberia.
Free teaching at public universities was a key policy of George Weah, and is one of the bright spots of his administration, contrasting with a stagnating economy, shortage of banknotes, defeat in recent elections and questions about his asset declaration.
“I can tell you that it’s helping a lot of students, we from the bottom of society,” said 28-year-old Dakpeh, a beneficiary of the policy, speaking during a recent break on campus. “I can tell you that it helps a lot of families.”
Students previously paid for their tuition per module studied, forcing less economically fortunate students to take out loans. The policy is a key part of helping the poorest in society, according to Weah, who himself grew up in one of Monrovia’s slums.
Fee-paying courses at private universities in Liberia remain an option for those who can afford to pay.
A cautious note is struck by some who claim that standards of education have deteriorated since the Weah-introduced policy.
“We don’t have access to a lot of things now,” said Mustafa Kemal, studying economics and mathematics.
“Before we had access to buses, we had access to drinking water, we had access to clean latrine facilities, and teachers were not taking money from people for stationery,” added Kemal, a member of the Vanguard Student Reunification Party student group.
Weah’s government has earmarked more than 40 million dollars for education, which is less than the last budget under then-president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.
The individual allocation by the government for the University of Liberia, for instance, remains stable at around US$16m, but with an additional budget line of US$1.4m for the free tuition policy.
Infrastructure development is the other policy area Weah’s government trumpets, highlighting progress they have made in road building.
The Liberian president notably promised to build a grand highway along the coast, connecting Montserrado county, the most populous part of the country, with the isolated southeast.
“A lot of work has been done, and is being done, to make sure that before the end of the president’s first tenure, substantial work on the road development will be done,” said Nathaniel McGill, minister of state for the presidency.
An analysis carried out by Liberian think-tank Naymote, which periodically tracks Weah’s promises, revealed that the government had made limited progress.
“The government has made substantial efforts in the area of infrastructure, mainly roads,” said Naymote’s report released in January. “Despite this effort, investment in roads has been focused on feeder roads in Monrovia and nearby communities.”
A financing deal worth almost US$1bn to help fund construction of some 800 kilometres of road was agreed by Liberia’s parliament, but it fell foul of the International Monetary Fund, which criticised the lack of transparency.
Liberia’s ministry of public works is responsible for the government’s road-building agenda, but was unable to confirm how many kilometres of road Weah’s government has built, despite requests by RFI.
The government admits that it had to scale back its ambitious road-building programme, pointing to the debt accumulated during Sirleaf’s time in office.
Nevertheless, Liberians will continue to see more progress over the course of the final three years of Weah’s administration, according to McGill, often considered Weah’s right-hand man.
Pushing Liberia’s national team
Sports is another portfolio within Weah’s government that some regard as a success during his first three years in office.
“Since his ascendency to the presidency, comparing the last years, sports has improved in the country,” said Ronald Mends-Cole, secretary general of Invincible Eleven football club.
Weah played for Invincible Eleven in the 1980s before his career catapulted him into the elite football leagues of France, Italy and England. The team currently languishes in the third division, although they have a plan to win promotion back to Liberia’s Premier League.
The ex-footballer’s government is pushing Liberia’s sportsmen and women to compete in more international competitions, supporting national teams with funding for travel.
“You see all of the national teams - under-17, under-20, the senior national team - all of them are now travelling, participating in regional tournaments,” said Mends-Cole, citing the importance of high-level competitions.
“More especially the female division, they’ve been encouraged,” he added, referring to Liberia’s national female soccer team.
The government’s budget for sports has increased slightly since Weah became president, reaching US$3.4m, according to the latest budget.
President doing his best
Despite efforts by the government to promote their achievements during Weah’s first three years in office, the opposition casts doubt on supposed progress.
“We cannot say that President Weah has had a successful first three years,” said Alexander Cummings, leader of the Collaborating Political Parties (CPP), an opposition coalition group.
“The fact that President Weah has built a few kilometres of road, the fact that education is free, but the quality of education has deteriorated,” he added.
McGill, minister of state for the presidency, said Weah does not have a magic wand for all of Liberia’s ills, but believes the president will do his best.
“They elected him, he’s very determined to turn the situation around, to fight for their condition, to make the situation better for them,” said McGill, referring to defeat in December’s elections.
“Is everything going to be changed? No,” says McGill. “But is the president going to make an effort? Yes.”
(Additional reporting by Darlington Porkpa)