Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Emmanuel’s House

We leave the Ministry for the last time on this trip. It is early afternoon and a light rain is falling. Instead of following our usual route, we turn left and head across a very long bridge over the Montserrado River. We are now heading north through the suburbs of Monrovia. The road is very busy, and lined with shops and stores of all descriptions. We pass the huge complex of the state-owned oil company, the Liberia Petroleum Refining Company. Next, we pass the free port of Monrovia. It is a beehive of activity, with cranes, trucks and shipping containers all over the place. If we were to continue on this road, we would end up in Sierra Leone. We don’t, however, and soon make a sharp right and head east.

This road is also extremely busy. Gridlock, in fact. At several points, we come to a complete stop and wait. Emmanuel explains that this road is always busy, jammed going west in the morning and jammed going east in the afternoon and evening. There are simply too many cars, trucks and motorbikes for this two-lane strip of tarmac to handle. That is why Emmanuel gets up so early in the morning. He typically starts the drive into downtown Monrovia at 5:30 a.m. to “beat the traffic”. Those who don’t drive have to take public transit. I can’t even imagine how long that would take. After a while, we head off the road and start driving on the dirt “shoulder” beside the road, dodging pedestrians and other obstacles as we go. I can quickly see that, even though the alleged shoulder is a moonscape of craters and potholes, we are making much better progress than those who stick to the road itself. I wonder how long I can stand all the bouncing around before I throw up. Emmanuel says people do this all the time in the mornings to save time. Unfortunately, the police are on to this trick and are out regularly to catch the cheaters and give them a ticket. Clearly, a larger road is urgently needed.

We continue for a long time. We go through suburb after suburb, all bustling with activity, human and vehicular. There are markets and stores everywhere where vendors sell produce and wares of all kinds. Eventually, we reach a dirt cross-road. Emmanuel says his house is just down that road, but it is in such bad condition, it is virtually impassible by car. So, we have to do a great circle route to come at his neighbourhood from another direction. Finally, we head down an asphalt road which he says was built in the Samuel Doe era (early to mid-1980s). It looks it. It is in horrendous shape, with potholes large enough to swallow a VW Beetle. Finally, we turn off and freelance our way through fields and dirt goat-paths. We wend our way along this route, literally driving through peoples’ back and front yards, for what seems an eternity. Finally, we come to a halt. We have arrived.

Emmanuel lives in a typical Liberian home. It is a concrete structure with a veranda and a zinc roof. It appears to be in very good shape and nicely looked after. Many other houses are nearby but not too close. There is long grass, shrubs and trees everywhere. It is like living in the country. We approach the home, where I meet his wife. Then his four daughters appear, as cute (and shy) as can be. I am clearly a novelty. They stare at me as if I had just landed from Neptune. After some preliminaries, we walk about three houses away, where Emmanuel’s parents live. They are lovely and absolutely charming. We talk for a while. This is not their original house. It was burned to the ground during the civil war. Surprisingly, it was burned not by the rebels, who did march through here on their way to capture Monrovia from Charles Taylor, but by the Liberian army. I learn that the army just went on a rampage and destroyed anything and everything they came across, for no apparent or useful reason. It is clear his parents don’t want to talk much about those days. His father simply says that once you live through something like that, you can never forget it. He then turns away. I take their picture and we head back to Emmanuel’s house.

We sit on the veranda and chat. The conversation is a bit difficult because they are very shy with me. So, I just start chattering away about whatever I can think of and eventually, the ice breaks a bit. In addition to their own four children, Emmanuel and his wife also look after his sister’s two kids. (I learn later in the car on the way to the airport, that she died suddenly and mysteriously last year at 32 while attending a medical clinic in the neighbourhood for a routine test. She was apparently in very good health. I will leave that story for another day. Emmanuel is really too upset to talk about it, so I change the topic.) After a while, it is time to leave. I take a picture of the whole family and show it to them. We say our goodbyes and head off. Unfortunately, I wasn’t invited inside the house, but it seems quite big, certainly large enough to house its eight inhabitants.

It is a great side trip for me. I have never been in this part of the city before and have never really been in a true Liberian neighbourhood. On the way out, Emmanuel points out his church (he is very religious, as are a large number of Liberians) and the Catholic school that his kids attend. He shows me where the community well is, and how close the local market is. On the way back to the main road, we stop briefly at a local bar/restaurant where Emmanuel introduces me to his former business partner. Before he started working for the Ministry of Commerce, they ran the bar together as well as another store. Emmanuel wants to get back to business eventually. To that end, he is currently building an addition to his house which will serve as a new store he wants to open. He hasn’t decided exactly what products he will sell but he is leaning toward either clothing or cosmetics. I ask if he can make enough money doing that to support his family and he assures me he can. However, that is a way off yet because he still has to get his kids through school (in a previous blog I noted that education in Liberia is not free—even at the elementary/secondary levels, the parents must pay).

We are now on the way to Roberts Airfield. We make a sharp right turn and he proudly points out that this is a brand new road, just finished two weeks ago. It is quite something. It’s a very wide four lane road, complete with curbs, drainage, shoulders and proper ditching. It was built by the Chinese. That’s how they work in Africa. They agree to build infrastructure (roads, hospitals, schools) in exchange for concessions of some kind—for example, a mining license or the right to export oil or other raw materials back to China. It is a smart tactic on their part.

Finally, it is time to part. I give him my e-mail and home address, and we agree to stay in touch. I assure him I will be back very soon. We have definitely developed a bond. He is a neat guy. I am going to miss him, until next time.

Friday, September 6, 2013

The Workshops

As mentioned in previous blogs, the principal purpose of this trip was to hold workshops on two statutes I have drafted—a Competition Law and a Foreign Trade Law. The workshops were held on consecutive Wednesdays, one for each statute. Both went extremely well, by any measure. Attendance was excellent. There were representatives of the Ministries of Commerce, Justice, Finance and Foreign Affairs, of the Liberian Chamber of Commerce, the Liberian Business Association, the Liberian Bar Association, the Law Reform Commission and the National Investment Commission, among others, as well as private businessmen and citizens. More importantly, though, the participation level was superb. One never knows what to expect at these types of events. After I finished my half hour introduction, I could well have been met with stony silence. Fortunately, that was not the case.

Liberia folks are not at all shy about expressing their views. That is what happened: I had no sooner finished talking than half a dozen arms were up in the air waiting to be recognized. Virtually all participants had read the laws ahead of time and therefore their questions were informed and thoughtful. As a result, the next few hours just flew by. It was a bit tiring being on the “hot seat” for that length of time, but it was extremely worthwhile. There were many laughs along the way as well.

When people speak of the Liberian Government, the common lament is the lack of “human capital”. That is true. There are many smart people in government today but generally only enough to fill the top positions. Below the top, there is a significant drop-off in talent. Some of that is due to the war where tens of thousands of young men and women were killed or displaced. Also, there is the matter of the Liberian diaspora. Many of those in the upper echelons of government are U.S.- or U.K.-educated. Usually they return to Liberia when they graduate, but many get frustrated with the pace of progress here and head back to America or Europe for better, and frankly better-paying, jobs. There is therefore a wealth of Liberian talent living and working outside the country.

The President needs to address this situation. She is trying to do so through an emphasis on education, but that process will be slow to bear fruit and is financially challenged. The Minister of Commerce told me last year that fully 76% of her employees and staff at the Ministry do not even have a high school education—and this is the Ministry that is supposed to be leading Liberian business back to profitability and developing domestic and international trade policies to facilitate that. The Assistant Minister for Trade, with whom I have worked most closely on this trip, has been constantly frustrated by the lack of talent around him. The result is that he has to do most tasks himself, many of which could easily be, and should be, delegated to a more junior person. Such is the reality in government generally here. The same was true at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs when I worked there in 2010.

Nonetheless, as the workshops over these past two weeks demonstrated quite clearly, there are many bright, thoughtful men and women in this country, dedicated to the cause of restoring it to what it once was. There are just not enough of them at this stage.

As a result of the views expressed at the workshops, I have made substantial changes to the Draft Laws. Once those changes are finalized, the Laws will go to the Law Reform Commission for a detailed review. The Commission reviews all laws in Liberia before they are tabled in the Legislature. We are therefore making some progress, one small step at a time.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Have Things Changed?

Since my arrival and during the course of navigating around Monrovia and its environs, I have been asking myself if anything has really changed since the last time I was here a year ago. Certainly, there is more asphalt on the roads, there are new traffic lights powered by solar panels, there are more gas stations and certainly more cars, and there is more building going on. But what about the stock of ordinary Liberians? Has their lot in life improved at all in the last twelve months? Sadly, the evidence would suggest not.

By any measure, the unemployment rate remains at an appalling level, around 70-80% (nobody really knows the exact number). However, it is somewhat misleading to talk about unemployment in this country. That is because most of the employable portion of the population is doing something. That “something” typically involves activity in the so-called “informal sector” of the economy. That means men and women working for themselves with family members commonly assisting them—selling cell phone cards, water, candies and other treats, common household items, agricultural produce, fish, and so on. This, however, is a hand-to-mouth existence that doesn’t generate much in the way of disposable income or tax revenue for the government. The problem is that everyone is doing or selling substantially the same thing, with the result that the sellers vastly outnumber the buyers. Nonetheless, people do what they can to get by. There is no governmental assistance to help them. The average Liberian subsists on about $1.25 a day. Bottom line: life here is very difficult for the average person.

It wasn’t always that way though. For example, in 1960 the average per capita income was about $600 a year. In the scheme of things, not bad in a West African country at that time. That increased to around $800 per year in the mid to late 1970s. In addition, in the 1960s the Liberian economy had double digit growth rates. It was, in fact, the second fastest-growing economy in the world after Japan. Its growth stemmed from increased exports of rubber, iron ore, palm oil and timber. The trouble was none of that growth filtered down to the average Liberian, whose did not improve much as a result.

Where did the wealth go? Mainly to the ruling class, the so-called Americo-Liberians: the descendants of the American slaves who were repatriated to their “homeland” by well-meaning American slave owners in the early 1800s. The Americo-Liberians ruled Liberia with an iron fist once it became an independent republic in 1847, with the indigenous tribes being reduced to second-class citizens. This was a governance model that was doomed to failure. And fail it did, big time. In April, 1980, in one of the most improbable and unlikely coups in recent history, an illiterate Sergeant in the Liberian Army, named Samuel K. Doe, from an area of the country that had theretofore had no influence whatsoever in the running of the government, invaded the Executive Mansion and brutally murdered then President William Tolbert and his wife in their beds. Doe then ruled Liberia for the next decade (despite his obvious deficiencies) until he, in turn, was brutally and savagely murdered (which was famously captured on tape—viewer discretion is strongly advised) by a rebel named Prince Johnson. Prince was in competition at that time with Charles Taylor, who had invaded Liberia with his own force of rebels, from Cote d’Ivoire, for the right to govern Liberia. The 14-year civil year war was on.

During the war, the average per capita income of Liberians dropped to the astonishing level of $50 a year in 1996. It has gradually risen in the years since peace was declared in 2003 to around $300 at the present time. Certainly not enough to live on by any definition. President Johnson-Sirleaf has been doing her best to get the economy back on its feet since she took office in 2006 after democratic elections. It is, however, an enormously difficult task. The infrastructure of Liberia was completely destroyed during the civil war—roads, bridges, power lines and generation facilities, water and sewage treatment, and telecommunications. All of that has had to be rebuilt from the ground up at a tremendous cost. Foreign direct investment has been very difficult to attract given these realities. The people who suffer most are the average citizens.

Take the example of my driver, Emmanuel. He has been driving for the Ministry of Commerce for about four years now. Prior to that he ran a business with a partner. I don’t know what he makes but he told me the other day that the pay from the government is low. He works extremely long hours. He is up just after 4:00 a.m. and usually doesn’t get home until 9:00 or 9:30 at night. He has four girls at various stages in high school. That should not usually represent an onerous financial burden except that in Liberia even primary and secondary school is not state supported. In other words, Emmanuel has to pay the equivalent of “tuition” to get his girls through public high school. Furthermore, he tells me that the tuition fee is just the beginning. The schools keep coming back to him throughout the year with various and sundry charges for a wide variety of things that we in North American take for granted. I imagine that a huge amount of his paycheque (as small as it is) goes to keeping his girls in school. Like most Liberians I talk to, he sees education as the only way out for his kids. So he is prepared to sacrifice everything to ensure that they get a good education and hopefully, at the end of it, a decent and fulfilling job. That is the reality of being a caring parent in Liberia. I wish I could do more for him and others in the same situation. Emmanuel wants to go back into business for himself, but he knows he can’t do that until his kids are through school. He has already built his own store, but it will remain unoccupied for the foreseeable future.

The bottom line is that this country, and others like it (e.g., Sierra Leone) who are transitioning out of a long period of a devastating civil war, have a very long way to go to realize their potential and to share the benefit of that potential with their citizens.

Why I am Here

I spent a month in Monrovia last May and June to provide support and assistance for Liberia’s efforts to join the World Trade Organization, which is, to a large extent, a legal exercise. That is because an acceding country must ensure that its laws are in compliance with WTO rules and principles, which can be found in the WTO Agreement of 1994, including the GATT, and the various Annexes and Agreements appended thereto. It is a large task. As a result, most of my time last year was spent trying to identify those laws that need amendment and those laws that need enactment because Liberia has no legislation in place in areas where legislation is required by the WTO. Two of those areas are competition law and a foreign trade regime. During discussions with WTO members, and at the first key meeting with the WTO in Geneva last July, both the US and the EU, among others, strongly insisted that Liberia have these two laws in force (and in a form acceptable to the WTO) before it could be allowed to become a full member.

Before I left Monrovia last year, it was agreed that I would work on preparing first drafts of each these statutes. There is, of course, no template for either statute—the form each takes depends on the nature of a country’s economy, including, in particular, the level of competition in that economy and the extent of its trade with other nations. With the help of Omar Wakil, I prepared a draft of a Competition Law. It borrowed heavily from provisions in the competition or anti-trust statutes of Canada, the US and the EU, as well as competition laws adopted by less developed countries in recent years. The object was to tailor it to Liberia’s needs and the reality of its nascent economy. I subsequently did the same in the foreign trade area with the helpful assistance of John Terry. Again, the goal was not to create a Cadillac version of such a statute, but rather one that meets the needs of Liberia with regard to its trading patterns.

I was to return late last year or earlier this year to try to finalize these laws from the Ministry of Commerce’s perspective. However, political reality intervened. Liberia is a democratic republic modeled on the US form of government. Elections were held last year and President Johnson-Sirleaf was re-elected for a second term of five years. Soon thereafter, she announced that she was reviewing her Cabinet with a view to making changes. The result was a major Cabinet shuffle in which my Minister lost her job and was replaced. It took some time for the new Minister to get his feet on the ground and get up to speed on all the issues facing the Ministry of Commerce & Industry. Hence the delay in my returning.

The purpose of this trip, then, is to hold workshops on each statute at which stakeholders are invited to attend and make representations or submissions on the draft laws. The point is that these statutes must be Liberian statutes that reflect what various stakeholders feel they should address, not statutes drafted solely by a foreign legal consultant. That is the purpose of the workshops. We hope for good attendance and thoughtful input from the participants. Once the workshops are completed, I will re-draft the laws to the extent required, based on the comments, suggestions and criticisms received. The laws will then go to the Law Reform Commission for review. The Commission reviews all draft laws before they are submitted to the Legislature for enactment. In this case, though, the next step after review by the LRC is to submit the draft laws to the WTO members in Geneva for their review. As mentioned above, they have insisted on the right to review and comment on these laws before they are enacted into force. This will clearly be a long and I suspect highly interactive process.

The first workshop will focus on the Competition Law and the second will focus on the Foreign Trade Law. Stay tuned to see how they turn out.