By D Kaihenneh Sengbeh/Freelance Journalist
“We have resolved that the 26th celebration this year shall be in Greenville and Barclayville. And we will travel there by road,” President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf stated categorically and collected a huge applause from the audience. When the Liberian leader spoke these 22 words in her 2015 State of the Nation Address, she spoke with uncompromising confidence. Though the pronouncement brought jubilation to the people of Sinoe and Grand Kru counties in particular, it was signaling a demanding challenge and a test for one of the country’s youngest ever Public Works Ministers, William Gyude Moore. Wherever he sat when the President made the declaration, I am convinced that Gyude Moore felt the weight of an additional burden descending on his youthful shoulders.
Rotational 26th Celebrations
Since climbing the rudder of state power in 2006, the Sirleaf-led government has commendably decentralized the official observance of the country’s independence, giving each county or group of counties the chance to host it. During preparations for these celebrations, series of infrastructure development projects are undertaken—roads and bridges, town halls and administrative buildings, and in some counties impermanent power and water supplies being among the prominent achievements. This clears all doubts about the mammoth role the Minister of Public Works and his engineers have to play in making such events successful, especially those in counties hundreds of miles off Monrovia. Counties that have hosted the celebration so far are Grand Bassa, Margibi, Bong, Lofa, Bomi, Grand Cape Mount, Gbarpolu, Montserrado and Nimba counties.
The Celebration That Never Was
Unsurprisingly, Monday, January 26, 2015 was not the first time President Sirleaf announced that the Southeastern region would host the event. The first was a failure. Late April 2012, President Sirleaf told a town hall-full of angry citizens in Greenville, capital of Sinoe, that the 2014 July 26th would be celebrated in the county. The President’s statement, then, was more or less an appeasement with the citizens who were irritated over the occupation of their land by oil-palm giant Golden Veroleum Liberia.
The company became Liberia’s biggest palm oil investor in 2010 after announcing plans to spend US$1.6 billion developing plantations over 220,000 hectares. Citizens were enraged that a huge swathe of their forest and land including sacred shrines and graves have been sold out to the foreign company that was now uprooting them (citizens) from their heritage with little or no benefits or alternatives, and arresting and imprisoning their people for standing up to speak for their rights. The situation was chaotic; the people lacked the actual details of the investment. They had been deceived by their leaders—their representatives and senators, their government. They stalled the company’s multi-million investment.
The President acknowledged that the concession agreement was marred by problems from the start but committed her administration to fixing the problem. “We made mistake, because before we signed that agreement we should have come and sat down with you,” she asserted. “So now, we let the thing go out of hand because we didn’t sit down with you–and you too you get vex–so you started to do all the things, the “kata-kata” things to spoil it,” the Liberian leaders told aggrieved citizens. It was when, as a means of what observers termed “appeasing” the people of Sinoe and Grand Kru (where the investment covers), the President promised that the official program of the Independence Day celebration of 2014 would be held there. That was 2012 in Greenville, and I was right there, then, covering the presidency.
The Official Announcement
During her state of the Nation Address 2014, President Sirleaf officially announced that all roads would lead to Greenville and Barclayville cities for the official 26th celebration, and ordered the necessary preparations. Unfortunately, the joy ignited among the people of the region for the celebration would be short-lived, when roads leading to the counties remained in deplorable states with just a month left for the event.
Following a weeklong assessment of projects in the county in late May 2014, Internal Affairs Minister Morris Dukuly reported that “the two counties are now putting finishing touches to their various development projects scheduled for dedication by President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.” In Grand Kru, projects lined up for dedication included a US$50,000 Administration building, a $30,000 Town Hall in Pinicess, a Chief Compound and a Circuit Court building in Barclayville City. An Air Strip and Terminal was near completion in Sass Town. In Sinoe County, a Superintendent resident, a 15-room Executive Guest House and a multi-purpose youth center were near completion for dedication during the celebrations.
The completions of all of these projects were meaningless with respect to the celebrations in the absence of roads on which the President and her guests or other celebrants could travel to the counties. Therefore, the President cancelled the event in the region. In a June 2014 communication to the House Plenary, President Sirleaf asserted that the decision came in the wake of “the bad roads condition” due to the continuous down pour of rain. “I wish to inform you that as a result of the roads, which cannot be addressed because of excessive rains, the 2014 Independence Day Celebration will be transferred from Sinoe and Grand Kru Counties to Monrovia…” President Sirleaf would tell the National Legislature in June 2014. “With additional time now allowed, we should be able to reconstruct the roads during the upcoming dry season and complete the facilities for a more successful celebration in 2015,” she added.
What Happened To The Road Projects?
There might have been some challenges — and this has been a common reality with all previous celebrations in other parts of the country — but a regime change at Public Works (the government’s infrastructure arm) was the real setback. Former Public Works Minister Samuel Kofi Woods had laid the ground work for the successful completion of all road and bridge constructions/rehabilitations leading the Greenville and Barclayville cities before he resigned. Liberian-own contractors including Solid Rock had been hired to revamp the road leading to the counties, and the projects were moving on smoothly until his resignation.
One would expect that his predecessor would continue from where he stopped, but quite unfortunately, that would be the end to all these road projects. And when June 2014 arrived, President Sirleaf was constrained to disappoint the people of Sinoe and Grand Kru. Woods’ successor, Dr. Antoinette G. Weeks, disparaged everything his predecessor had done and refused to cooperate with contractors in fostering the government’s development agenda. She condemned all roads contractual agreements at the ministry, degraded contractors, fought officials and engineers at Public Works and embarked on a fruitless process of reforming an entity that didn’t need any more reform but empowerment to function properly. With such imperious posture and gross lack of team work, Public Works crumbled, and the roads leading to Sinoe and Grand Kru could never be completed to pave the way for the eagerly awaited official 26th celebration in those faraway counties.
Gyude Moore Must Lead The Road
Young Gyude Moore is upbeat about the prospect of leading the roads to Greenville and Barclayville. Of course, he needs to be, because the successful completion of road projects which his fellow American trained predecessor failed to do would be a strong test for his credential. Like Samuel Kofi Woods (did on the Belleh Yellah Road), Moore has just five months left for him to prove to the Liberian people that President Sirleaf err in appointing him, that he does not need to have a degree Master’s Degree in engineering like Dr. Weeks or Mr. Lusine Donzo (who both failed on the job) to became a better Public Works Minister.
When Woods took over Public Works in May 2009, his major challenge was to, and in only six months, bulldoze the opaque jungles of Gbarpolu County with a virgin road on which President Sirleaf would travel to get to the once most notorious prison village in West Africa—Belleh Yellah. President Sirleaf had promised residents of the town and the county that she would spend Christmas with them, and that she would get there by roads.
Like the Liberian leader said of Sinoe, she had vowed to enter Belleh Yellah by road in her presidential convoy (not via helicopter as had always been) to spend Christmas with her people. Woods and his engineers had to spend weeks in the woods to construct a road to the town for the first time. President Sirleaf, along with Ambassadors of the United States and People’s Republic of China rode into the town late Christmas eve, opening a new era in the lives of the stigmatized people of Belleh Yellah. That achievement signaled that Woods was bound for a great service to his country as a non-engineer Public Works Minister.
Meanwhile, all eyes are now fixed on Moore who had already begun showing signs that he’s up to the task, albeit too soon to praise the white rooster. “We will ensure that the 26th celebration will be held in Greenville,” an enthusiastic Moore confidently told journalists after the President’s State of the Nation Address. “We are already working on the roads….Trust me against the words I am saying here today; it will not be easy but we will make it. We are working with the Ministry of Finance to get the support we need to get the roads ready,” he continued.
Evocatively, the President has decreed and, demandingly, Moore is now obliged to lead the Liberian leader, the Ministers, the Legislature, as well as local and international guests to Sinoe and Grand Kru Counties for official programs marking Liberia’s 168th Independence Day celebrations. Can Gyude Moore Make The Challenge?
About The Author: Danicius Kaihenneh Sengbeh is a respected Liberian journalist, poet and writer with media experience since 2001. He has significantly covered infrastructure development. He’s Secretary General of the Press Union of Liberia and currently freelancing and consulting. He’s a UN Media Fellow and UN Medal Award-winning journalist who holds a Bachelor’s of Arts Degree in Mass Communication and Sociology from the University of Liberia and a Diploma in Journalism from the International School of Journalism. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; +231886 586531/+231777586531