An old friend and I were having a telephone conversation last evening. As we chatted in our usual way from topic to topic, I mentioned the latest news from Liberia: Lockheed Martin was taking over the management of Roberts International Airport. I expressed some skepticism about the deal. My friend, whom I shall call XYZ, was apparently flustered. I was taken aback because usually, he is one of the most level-headed fellows I know. He is a gentle man known for hardly ever losing his cool. But today was an exception, or at least so it seemed for a while. The following conversation ensued between us.
Me: This seems a rather sudden deal. How did it all go down without us hearing anything about it in the press before the deal was finalized? I mean who approved this deal and what does it entail? How was Lockheed Martin chosen to be awarded this contract? I’m really concerned about the transparency of this so-called deal.
XYZ: Don’t tell me you are opposed to Lockheed Martin taking over RIA, or are you? Come on, my man! Jesus Christ! Imagine the benefits! The first thing they are going to do is to build a brand new modern airport. And we are going to have direct flights from the United States and Europe to Liberia. Are you opposed to having a modern airport to replace that eye-sore we have now? Imagine the benefit to generations yet unborn.
Me: My friend, you can’t just count the benefits of any deal and overlook the costs. I’m certainly in favor of new, modern airport facilities. As a matter of fact, I’ll be happy to get about ten new airports built in the country. What I’m concerned about is the cost. What is it going to cost us and how was the deal consummated? Did you ever hear about this deal being in the works?
XYZ: So, are you trying to blame the president for this again? Can this president ever do anything right in your eyes? Must she be criticized for everything, even for things whose benefits are obvious and transparent?
Me: Hey, take it easy, dude. (Taken aback by the sharp attack… after all, I consider myself a rational and logical person. I don’t go around blaming the president on frivolous issues). I have not apportioned any blames yet, if you follow me. After all, we do live in a pluralistic society. The president was elected in a democratic way and she does have certain responsibilities as well as limits. She is not a queen or a dictator; she is only a president. Theoretically in a democracy, such as ours, the president is only a caretaker acting on behalf and with consent of the people. If it happens that she personally made a deal with a foreign company to take over such a strategic resource, does that not concern you in the least?
XYZ: Well, if you put it that way, you’re right. I didn’t mean to imply that the president had the right to act unilaterally. But if she did, why blame her? Where is the legislature? Why aren’t they challenging her on this? Doesn’t that imply that they have no problem with the deal? Why blame the president and not the legislators?
Me: My friend, two wrongs don’t make one right. Just because the legislature might not have acted properly or legally does not let the president off the hook. After all, remember the famous saying by US President Teddy Roosevelt, “The buck stops here”? Our president has expressed that same mantra. And it must be true in deed as it is in word.
XYZ: Look my man; I think the Lockheed Martin deal is an all-around good deal for Liberia. It will definitely benefit the Liberian nation. I don’t see what the fussing is about. And after all, you guys can’t run the government of Liberia from behind computer screens in America.
He left me to continue wondering about the deal by myself. What are its full implications? What does the deal really mean to the Liberian nation despite its obvious benefits? The flip side of “benefits” is “cost”. Both sides must be adequately scrutinized and assessed in order to understand the value of any deal. And how do you begin to do this? The process requires transparency. No deal done in the dark, no matter with the best intentions, can be hailed as beneficial until we understand its full cost, not only in the short run, but in the long run as well. I mean, shouldn’t that be obvious?
When in doubt, examine empirical evidence: In 1926 Liberia granted the Firestone Plantations Company the right to do business in Liberia. Sure at the time, the immediate benefits seemed obvious, especially to a number of government officials who personally benefitted from the deal. But after three quarters of a century of Firestone’s operations, can it not be argued that Firestone was only a pimp that found a whore in the Liberian government? If one takes the argument a bit further, it can easily be argued that Firestone was a slave master that turned Liberians into slaves. (There is an international lawsuit against Firestone for violations against international labor standards; child labor, to be exact).
About seventy-five years after Firestone, Mittal Steel (Acerlor Mittal) signed another mysterious deal. Up to this day, there is no place I know where a Liberian citizen can look to examine the details of the deal. The issue here is transparency. Was there any monies appropriated into an escrow account as would be the custom for a deal of this magnitude? It seems unlikely. Mittal Steel has basically shut down its operation in Liberia because it claims the price of steel (or iron ore) has taken a dive on the world market. But maybe Mittal Steel shut down its Liberian operations in Liberia because it has other commitment elsewhere, and Liberia is not a priority. After all, who’s supposed to put pressure on Mittal Steel when it apparently bought officials off? (Mittal Steel actually gave each Liberian senator a vehicle for his/her personal use). And who looks out for the benefit of the general population when elected officials are siphoning and mortgaging the country right under our eyes?
Firestone and Mittal are only two examples from a list too numerous to detail here. But even these two, as important as they are to the national economy, may not even compare strategically to the deal offered to Lockheed Martin. No one would argue that surrendering a national airport or seaport to a foreign concession should invoke national security implications. The least the government should do is to be transparent in conveying the deal to the general public and encouraging a public debate. Yes, the deal may end up benefitting Liberians in the long run. And strategically, the government may be working shrewdly to maintain control over certain aspects of the deal, so as not to undermine national sovereignty. But until the deal is opened to the general public for scrutiny, we’ll never know. We may end up buying the proverbial pig in the bag again.
Again, it is difficult, if not impossible to gauge the full ramifications of such a deal in abstract theory. It is instructive to examine a real-life example. In 2006, the American government announced under the presidency of George Bush that a company from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) would take over the management of some major US ports. The company, “Dubai Ports World”, was granted the concession after an interagency task force on foreign investment approved the transaction. But a huge controversy arose as the US Congress got word of the deal and their constituents expressed outrage. The deal was practically dead upon arrival. The company withdrew its fight for the deal when it became apparent it was fighting a lost battle.
Why did the deal backfire? It was thought that that the deal could compromise US security in the wake of 9/11. Interesting to note here, the citizens of America were not overly concerned about the financial deal or its immediate benefits. After all, the Dubai Company had an outstanding reputation in port management and plenty of money on its balance sheet. But the issue was security. The so-called interagency task force on foreign investments was not given a carte blanche to cut deals on behalf of the American public without full disclosure, that’s why the deal backfired.
This brings me to the conversation between my friend, XYZ, and myself. I asked him why the president thought it was within her discretionary powers to act solely on such a matter that could be of grave importance to the country.
XYZ: But the president didn’t act solely on the matter.
Me: How do you know that? As for me, this is the first time I’ve even heard of such a deal. Why was it kept a secret?
XYZ: The issue was put before a committee to study. It was their recommendation that led to this development. After all, don’t you think people like Richard Tolbert, Chairman of the National Investment Committee, had to know about this deal? He did. And just because you didn’t know about it does not mean it was done improperly. (He argued vehemently).
I had to concede that maybe the deal was done properly. Maybe the president did appoint a special task force or committee to study the matter before hand and maybe the Liberian legislature is fully aware of this deal. If that is the case, I must gracefully concede? But is that the case? Is the contract open to all who may want to examine it in full detail? Is it transparent? Did it go through the normal process of having more than one company bid for the deal? After all, Lockheed Martin must not be the only company in the world to be able to provide management to the Roberts International Airport. If all these questions are answered satisfactorily and the deal was transparent, I rest my case.
This article is originally published at www.theodorehodge.com
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