Liberia Must Boost Farming to Revive Economy, VP Boakai SaysBy
Joseph Boakai is running for president in Oct. 10 elections
After 12 years, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf due to step down
Liberia should expand its agriculture sector to reverse economic stagnation brought on by the Ebola epidemic and a global commodities slump, according to Vice President Joseph Boakai.
As the ruling Unity Party’s presidential candidate in Oct. 10 elections, Boakai hopes to succeed Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who is due to step down after 12 years in office. Among the 20 contenders, former soccer star and Coalition for Democratic Change leader George Weah is considered the most likely candidate to face Boakai should a run-off happen in November.
If elected, Boakai said he will earmark 10 percent of the West African nation’s annual budget for agriculture to focus on expanding the sector and improving technology. Liberia produces rubber, palm oil and small amounts of cocoa and coffee.
“Our greatest strength lies in our agriculture potential,” Boakai said in an interview in the capital, Monrovia. “The agriculture sector is what we have to depend on to support our economy.”
Eight years ago, Liberia awarded large pieces of land to oil-palm growers including Malaysia’s Sime Darby Bhd., but planting has been slow, in part because local communities have protested the industrial-scale developments.
Boakai, 72, served as agriculture minister from 1983 to 1985 under then-President Samuel Doe, who was murdered in 1990 by insurgents after a torture session that was famously videotaped. Boakai has a degree from Kansas State University.
Liberia has been slow to recover from West Africa’s first-ever Ebola epidemic that peaked in 2014 and killed more than 11,000 people in the region. The outbreak came at a time when output of iron ore, Liberia’s main source of foreign currency, dropped sharply following a global price slump. Production plunged to 1.5 million metric tons last year, from 4.5 million tons in 2015, according to government data. The economy recorded zero growth between 2014 and 2016.
Johnson Sirleaf, 78, took office as the first elected female president in Africa, and won a shared Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 for her advocacy for women’s rights. She restored basic services in a country ruined by a protracted civil war that ended in 2003 and brought in scores of Chinese companies to repair government buildings, construct roads and run hotels.
But Liberians complain of government corruption, and several suburbs in the capital still lack electricity and drinking water. Remittances account for 31 percent of gross domestic product, the highest rate in Africa and one of the highest worldwide, according to World Bank data.
Boakai said the government deserves credit for improving the electricity supply in many parts of the country and paving at least 750 kilometers (466 miles) of roads.
Above all, Liberians praise Johnson Sirleaf for turning the page on more than a decade of war, he said. “Everywhere you go, the first and foremost thing the Liberian people appreciate is the peace that they are enjoying,” he said.
The United Nations peacekeeping mission in Liberia will leave in March, after arriving in 2003 and deploying thousands of personnel.
At least $2 billion is still needed to expand the road network, money that could be obtained as loans from international financial institutions, Boakai said. “It’s a very crucial need,” he said. “My strong conviction is that there is no way this economy will expand, the health, education system will improve, without good roads.”