How President Joseph Boakai wants to rid Liberia of its problems

By | March 28, 2024

He won power by promising to end corruption, but tell that to the people who want him to just hand out jobs.

“Many people join government because they think they are there to enrich themselves,” said Liberian President Joseph Boakai.

“They don’t understand what public service means.”

In the three months since he defeated President George Wea and took over the reins, Mr Boakai says he has been “very selective” about who he brings with him, blaming corruption “for all the crises we have had”.

The 79-year-old is a former prime minister, but does not come from a political dynasty.

“I never really had a childhood,” he tells BBC Africa Daily in an extensive interview. “My ambition was just to live a normal life.”

One of five sons of a disabled, poor mother and an absent father, he started working as a school janitor and rubber tapper.

It was grueling work – it hurt him because he didn’t realize he was meant to wear rubber on his shoulders rather than on his head – but it gave him the courage a politician needs, he tells the BBC.

Those early jobs paid for two pairs of nice trousers, two shirts and a one-way ticket to the capital Monrovia.

After gaining a place at the city’s College of West Africa, he was only able to see his mother for one week a year as he had to work within the university to pay his tuition and maintenance.

Now approaching his 80s, Boakai acknowledges that he is the age of most of the electorate’s grandparents, but sees his role as rooting out deep-rooted problems and handing over a well-governed Liberia to the next generation.

“I’m just here to guide a process to get this country where it should be and then they can take over.”

How successful has he been so far?

“Liberians have heard this all before – where a head of state comes in and makes these big, sweeping proclamations about the fact that they’re going to make corruption public enemy number one,” says author and activist Robtel Neajai Pailey.

However, she adds that President Boakai declared his own assets as soon as he came in and had his appointees do the same. Mr. Boakai has also called for an audit of the presidential office and strengthened integrity institutions such as the General Auditing Commission and the Liberia Anti-Corruption Commission.

“This is a way of signaling to the Liberian people that it will not be business as usual,” says Dr. Neajai Pailey, “and now members of the judiciary and legislature are following suit.”

There is still a long way to go.

Liberians have lost patience in recent years and started protesting en masse, accusing the previous government of mismanagement of funds and corruption, while the cost of living for normal people has skyrocketed.

More than a fifth of the population lives on less than $2.15 a day.

Last year, when Weah was still at the helm, Liberia ranked 145th out of 180 countries on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index.

During his time in office, the ex-footballer has had a number of scandals, with three government officials sanctioned by the US Treasury Department and subsequently resigning. They have still not been prosecuted.

President Bookai also has his critics.

A judge recently accused Mr. Boakai of cronyism, claiming he favored people from his home area of ​​Lofa County for top jobs. The presidency tells the BBC this is not true.

“The president does not appoint on the basis of tribe – he puts competence above all else,” said presidential press secretary Kula Fofana. Pressed to confirm how many officials had been appointed from Lofa, the president’s hometown, he declined to say, “because we don’t appoint by province.”

‘We can feed the world’

With his past on Liberia’s rubber plantations and a stint as Minister of Agriculture in the 1980s, President Boakai sees enormous growth potential in the county’s soil.

“We will not produce new planes or new cars in Africa, but we can feed the world,” he tells BBC Africa Daily.

“We have the water, we have the land, we have the land. We don’t need to import the amount of rice we import. We can feed ourselves if we reduce corruption and use our resources properly – we can supply food ourselves and even export.”

He also campaigned on a promise to improve Liberia’s poor road network.

“Based on my own experience, year after year, cars are stuck in the mud and people can’t move,” he says. ‘You know the impact this has on healthcare, education, people’s freedom of movement and the prices of goods.

“So what I said is that for at least the first 100 days, we need to be able to keep all vehicles on our roads… That’s what I said and that’s what I’m working on.”

He knows he has work ahead of him, but he still finds a few moments to relax.

“I never have time for too much fun, but I like all kinds of music: jazz, African music, and I’m a fan of sports.

“I’m an Arsenal fan. I’ve been to the Emirates twice and I buy all their souvenirs!”

Additional reporting by Moses Kollie Garzeawu

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