Tue. Jun 11th, 2024

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

“A lot of people come into government believing they are there to enrich themselves,” says Liberia’s President Joseph Boakai.

“They don’t understand what public service is about.”

In the three months since he defeated President George Weah and took the reins, Mr Boakai says he has been “very selective” about who he brings along with him because he blames corruption ‘”for all the crises we’ve had”.

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

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

As one of five sons born to a disabled, poor mother and an absent father, he went on to work as a school janitor and rubber tapper.

It was gruelling work – causing him pain because he didn’t realise he was meant to carry rubber on his shoulders instead of his head – but it gave him the grit a politician needs.

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

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

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

“I am here only to guide a process to bring this country to where it should be and then they can take it over.”

So how successful has he been so far?

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

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

“This is a way of signalling to the Liberian people that it won’t 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 over recent years and mounted mass protests – accusing the previous government of mismanaging funds and corruption while the cost of living has spiralled for normal people.

More than a fifth of the population lives on less than $2.15 (£1.70) a day.

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

The ex-footballer’s time in office saw a number of scandals, with three government officials sanctioned by the US Treasury and subsequently resigning – they have still not been prosecuted.

President Boakai too has his critics.

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

“The president is not appointing based on tribe – he is putting competence above anything else,” says presidential press secretary Kula Fofana. Pressed to confirm how many officials were appointed from the president’s native Lofa, he declined to say, “because we are not appointing by counties”.

‘We can feed the world’
With his past on Liberia’s rubber plantations and a stint in the 1980s as agricultural minister, President Boakai sees huge growth opportunities in the county’s soil.

“In Africa, we’re not going to manufacture new aircraft or new automobiles but we can feed the world,” he tells Africa Daily.

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

He also campaigned on a pledge to improve Liberia’s sorry road network.

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

“So what I’ve said is that in at least the first 100 days we should be able to make all vehicles move on our roads… That’s what I said and that’s what I’m working on.”

He has his work cut out for him, he knows, but still finds some moments to relax.

“I never have time for too much fun but I love all kinds of music – jazz, African music, and I’m a lover of sport.

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

By Joy

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