An evening with Liberia's Vice President Joseph Boakai

Written by Natasha Dyer

On Saturday 15th September 2012, Grassroot Diplomat was invited by the Royal African Society and Fasken Martineau LLP to a talk by the Vice President of Liberia - Mr Joseph Boakai. During his talk, the Vice-President made it clear that agriculture is the key driver of GDP growth in Liberia, accounting for over 40% of GDP since 2008.  Rice and cassava are the staple food crops, while rubber, oil, palm and cocoa are the dominant export tree crops. Liberia also hosts some of the biggest rainforests in the West African region.

The Vice President linked agriculture production to the stability of the country, stipulating that economic growth is the best catalyst to achieving a stable and peaceful post-conflict society, after decades of civil war that left the economy tattered. 

Mr Boakai talked of plans the government had put together to stimulate the growth of economy and said they had “achieved what they had set out to do” at the start of their term, with Liberia now being the fastest growing post-conflict economy in Africa. Now the minister is in London to attract investors to the country’s burgeoning agricultural sector. 

His Excellency did admit, however, that true development in Africa was easier said than done, and stated that they had a long way to go, emphasising the need for a multi-faceted economy with a diverse range of coordinated activities. 

Outlining Liberia’s 2030 vision for the agricultural sector, Vice President Boakai did not hesitate to mention the role of women. With 80% of Africa, and 50% of the world’s food produced by women, African economies are increasingly relying on women’s skills, hard work and efficiency levels. However, women in Africa own less than 5% of the land they farm, which the government has assured will work on laws to reverse the system and put an end to discriminatory practices included also in tribal laws. 

With no resolution in sight, the conversation quickly turned to the importance of protecting natural resources and eco-systems in Liberia, to avoid the bio-diversity crises seen in much of Africa. These crises not only affect the economy and landscape of Africa, the Vice President stated, but hit the rural poor the hardest, and he emphasised their need to protect the most vulnerable people in the country and continent from the widespread challenges of rising food prices, water scarcity and lack of resources. This, he said, is where the investors come in. But why is Liberia seeking investment from the west instead of from African investors when logging companies have granted more than 60% of the country's rainforests since Nobel Prize winner Ellen Johnson Sirleaf became president in the six years?

The Vice President stated that the majority of the country’s investors were African with Liberia owning 45% share of forests and 43% of the land in the region. The government had earmarked protective areas and was not selling land to investors, only opportunities to invest in bio-diversity, meaning better livelihoods for the Liberian people. 

Questions arose over the lack of diverse representation in the Liberian Parliament, with Matthew Plaut claiming that only 11 of the 447 MPs were not from the ruling party, plus claims of lack of transparency in oil contracts and extraction methods. The debate also mentioned diamonds and the ongoing appeal of convicted former Liberian President Charles Taylor on his crimes in Sierra Leone from 1996 to 2002. Mr Plaut suggested there had been a limited commitment from Liberia to comply with the Kimberley process with regards to the extraction of diamonds, but the Vice-President was adamant about the government’s commitment to the process after the damage caused by the diamond conflict to the Liberian people. 

The discussion was concluded with final questions over the future of Cote d’Ivoire, downscaling of UN presence in Africa, IMF and World Bank reforms, the clearing of national debt, the importance of education and job creation for young Africans.  The Vice-President’s overall message was that there needed to be “a clear break from the past” with better approaches to business partnerships and governance and emphasised the need for greater international collaboration. 

The discussion was lively and robust, and Grassroot Diplomat thanks the organisers for this insight into Liberia’s governance.   

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