Even before President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf arrived at the Capitol Building and mounted the podium to deliver her mandated Annual Address to the 53rd National Legislature on Monday, January 28, 2013, there was already anxiety, protests and mixed reactions. On top of all, obviously, there were high anticipation from a growing disenchanted public and job hungry population on what the President would say about their welfare, about solidifying and improving on gains that have been made, and about what to expect during the second year of her second six-year term.
Overzealous security personnel, as usual, quarantined almost the entire Capitol Hill, the Capitol Building in particular. They briefly clashed with Liberty Party's Secretary General Gabriel Smith, Analyst's accredited Capitol Building reporter J. Edwood N. Dennis as well as New Dawn's Nathaniel Daygbor. There was lack of coordination among the security as usual.
On the outskirt of the Capitol, towards the main campus of the state-run University of Liberia, were several groups of protesters including students of the University, forestry workers, Concerned Liberian Intellectuals for Progress, and several others. They had peacefully gathered with placards to raise their respective concerns—of course it is their civil and democratic rights—and to let the public and the world in general know that all was not well. Inscriptions on placards suggested that corruption was still commonplace, that thousands of people have been thrown out of jobs without pay, that the University of Liberia was doubling tuition fees for credit hour to US$5 and that….
They waited for hours, in the sun, fearlessly, outweighing security intimidation of arrests and other threats. The President came, and the angry protesters booed her convoy as she made her way into the Capitol Building's compound to deliver her annual state of the nation address of at least 15,800 words. President, knowing who she is, was never moved by such action—booing. As far as I can remember, she had never been moved by angry reactions—even when a girl threw a banana peeling at her three years ago in Dry Rice Market (Bardnersville Road). I 2005, I witnessed a nasty and insulting anti-Ellen campaign posture in West Point when I followed to cover her campaign trial. She was not intimidated form the outside, except maybe inside (psychologically).
I must admit, she has done well to accept criticisms from the time I have actively covered her as a journalist, stretching from 2005 to late December 2011. In fact, she must! After all, she, too, criticized others for decades before she took power. She campaigned for social justice and free speech. That's why I wasn't the least surprised in April of 2009 when she said at the Roberts International Airport upon her arrival for the US: “Let them enjoy free speech because we have suffered too long for it in this country.” She had been away for her annual medical checkups as a dry-bush fire rumor spread that she was dead. When the “Ghost” returned, State Radio ELBC Executive Mansion assigned reporter Ferric Dansee asked whether she would institute legal action against those who reported the false information. Her response: “Let them enjoy free speech…” angered some of her officials who expected something otherwise.
The President entered the Joint Chamber of the National legislature and was greeted by applauses and sea of faces in a jam-parked chamber—everyone waiting for the commencement of the long awaited moment.
And she started. The Liberian leader would continue for about two hours, highlighting how far the country has come, where it stands today and where it should be in the coming years. Her address was interjected by pauses and applauses throughout, but nearly everyone who listened remembered two major occasions—the longest applause and the longest murmur.
The Longest Applause:
As President reported on the general performance of the Administration, it was clear that she would mention the civil service and civil servants' salary, one of the issues that has been heavily polarized, politicized and criticized.
“Under the Governance and Institutions Pillar,” the President stated, our ministries and agencies employ over 35,000 civil servants, who make it possible for government to deliver services to the Liberian people,” there was no applause and she went on. “As we move toward greater decentralization of government operations, civil servants assigned to the rural areas will become critical to the proper functioning of government. Therefore, efforts to improve their conditions of employment remain the focus of our public personnel policies.” This was broad, and the civil servant wanted specifics.
So, the President continued and the nation, civil servants in particular, listened. “This is why, since our first term, we have continued to improve the conditions of employment for those in the public service. We have endeavored to increase civil service salaries to improve their capacity to perform their jobs and ensure that they retire with dignity after devoting their productive years to their country.” The President was getting there, but the applause was yet to come. The big news was yet to come, and all ears were to the ground.
“The record will show that, since 2007, the lowest paid civil servants have seen their monthly income rise from a low of US$15 to a minimum of US$100 today. We have made particular efforts in adjusting the salaries of teachers, healthcare workers, security personnel and our men and women of the Armed Forces.” All of these were history. Civil servants had been complaining, calling from salary increment during the passage of the current more than half a billion budget. If they were they satisfied with the current salaries they wouldn't be making noise—calling for at least US$50 increment. So, the President was still beating around the bush before breaking the good news.
So, she went on: “Although pension benefits were increased, much more needs to be done to secure a dignified livelihood for those who have provided long-standing service to our country. The new Pension Bill which will come before you will attempt to address that problem.”
“This fiscal year is the first time, since the beginning of our first Administration, that we did not increase civil servants' pay,” she stated and a brief mutter followed before the explained why. “This is primarily because there is a need to clean up the payroll. The payroll verification exercise envisaged at the passage of the budget year is still under way, delayed by the prolonged rainy season and challenging road conditions which prevented the CSA-Ministry of Finance Team from getting to hard-to-reach places where the majority of our teachers, healthcare workers and rural-based civil servants work and reside.” This sounded feeble and somewhat meaningless to the over 35,000 hungry-for-pay-rise civil servants.
But the President would go on, applause or not. After all she had not gone there to receive applause but to perform her constitutional duties. “We would like to thank the concerned Committees of the National Legislature for their support to the payroll clean-up exercise. We also thank the Minister of Finance and the Director General of the Civil Service Agency and their teams for the leadership they have provided in cleaning up the payroll and instituting reforms.”
“Honorable Legislators:” she was getting there, “Both the Executive and the Legislature have a promise to keep! Therefore, as a result of preliminary work and the savings realized there from, each civil servant will get an increment of US$25 in their basic salaries that will be paid retroactively from July 1, 2012,” the President stated, pulling a brief thunderous applause.
However, the longest applause of the entire Annual Message came when the President announced that “I have extended this benefit to the security sector and the AFL as well. I have also instructed the Minister of Finance to make this back-payment within ten days.” Though this is not the amount of increment the civil servant had anticipated, they didn't think the President would have announced US$25 to be paid in ten days. In the face of rising prices and tough economic realities, each civil servant would be getting two spate pay checks in February! First, US$125 (From July to January) and second, their regular salaries plus US$25. Certainly, I, too, would have celebrated were I a civil servant. So, the applause went on and on, almost at least 30 seconds, until the President continued her work, moving down towards the longest mumbling of the day.
The second outstanding point of the President's address was about employment, not about civil servants who are already employed. For them, their pots would boil within 10 days. This time, the President was pushing towards and even more sticky and controversial issue, one that affects the entire nation—job creation.
During her 2011 campaign for the second term, President Sirleaf, knowing the dire need for job creation in a nation just few years from war and carrying a fragile economy, made one of the admired promises, and reechoed same during her inaugural address of January 2012, that her Administration would provide 20,000 jobs annually. Job or employment opportunities remain a tough challenge in the country as vast majority of the Liberian people thrive on vulnerable employment. The government reported last year that over 78% of the Liberian population is vulnerably employed, meaning they were surviving on hand-to-mouth businesses and employment.
With all of this, plus debate that the government had failed on its promise to the Liberian people on job creation, the public wanted to hear from the President herself. So, when she got to the controversial issue, she cleared her throat twice before breaking the news: “Reports submitted to me suggest that we have met our target commitment on job creation, but overwhelmingly in short-term positions,” the entire chamber broke into sarcastic laughter and murmuring, even longer than the US$25 salary increment.
She had to repeat it, but herself, laughing, apparently knowing it was not realistic: “Let me read that sentence again. Reports submitted to me suggest that we have met our target commitment on job creation, but overwhelmingly in short-term positions.”
“If our objectives for jobs are to be fully achieved, we must move more rapidly on the renovation and expansion of the Monrovia Vocational Training Center and other technical and vocational training centers around the country. We must also resolve those issues that delay housing construction and investment operations which are the main sources of job creation. Additionally, we must improve our job reporting system so that we can get it right,” the President noted.
Even before the President stepped down from the podium, the air was already boozing with criticisms, leaving the Ministry of Labor to carry the burden of the criticism as the entity overseeing labor and employment issues in the country.
Moments after her annual address, Congress for Democratic Change (CDC) lawmaker described the president's pronouncement is a “clear rhetoric.” He said: “I see it as a clear rhetoric when she stated that reports submitted to her suggest that the objective of employing the over 20,000 citizens has been reached; that was clear cut political trick.”
Though the President had since performed her constitutional duty and is now waiting for January 27, 2014 for another State of the Nation Address, history will live with the two remarkable events during her 2013 address just as, according to Information Minister Lewis Brown (then an opposition), when she “Desecrated” the “Seat of the National Legislature” in 2010 when she delivered similar address.