Wednesday, 27 January 2021

Liberia's economy is stagnating under the impact of Covid-19. A contraction in growth and a banknote shortage have combined to undermine President George Weah's "pro-poor" agenda as he marks his third year in office.

"The government is frustrating us day-by-day," says Victoria Kamara, a customer of SIB Liberia bank on Broad Street in Monrovia, waiting for a fifth day in a row to try to withdraw money from her account. "We're tired in Liberia, people are tired, maybe they want us to go and steal," she adds.

Queues outside banks in the capital are commonplace as a banknote shortage forces commercial banks to restrict cash withdrawals.

Kamara, waiting patiently under an awning in a line snaking towards the bank's locked doors, describes how tellers refuse the withdrawal requested, suggesting a lower amount.

"We've come to get our salary," says Ambroise Jahwley, another customer. "Each time we come they say no US [dollars], no LD [Liberian dollars]. Sometimes they give you half of your money, sometimes 50 dollars, sometimes 40 dollars.

"I'm very disappointed in the government and the bank because we're not getting what we're supposed to."

Severe shortages

Weah presides over a country of 4.8 million people with a predominantly cash-based economy. Banknote shortages hit consumers' pockets.

Banks in Liberia commonly manage the supplies of cash in their vaults, especially ahead of heightened demand from customers at holiday periods.

Most banks will start to taper withdrawals and hold more deposits during summer to meet those demands, an executive from a pan-African bank told RFI in a briefing, without wanting to be named.

But this year is more severe and shortages of cash have continued. The banks are reliant on their supply from the central bank. For cash held in their vaults, they must slow loan-making activity to maintain some withdrawals for customers.

"Two seasons of the year - our independence (26 July) and Christmas - cause a big rush on banks," says Dixon Seboe, a representative for Weah's ruling Coalition for Democratic Change (CDC) party.

"But this situation shows that it has become more profound," says Seboe, who chairs the house committee on banking and currency. "It did not just happen at Christmas, it started about three or four months ago."

The US embassy in Monrovia put out an alert in December, warning travellers not to rely on getting cash from banks in Liberia, but to bring sufficient money when coming to the country.

Impacting economy

Traders at Monrovia's markets report lower sales and customers with no cash to spend, affecting demand for their products.

Isaac Doe, a clothes seller, does not directly blame Weah's administration. "We are experiencing challenges in business, but I don't want to say it could have some political or socio-economic motives," the 28-year-old says.

Few customers mingle amongst the aisles of mannequins displaying outfits at the China market building where Doe works.

Vendors sell dresses and skirts in stalls, and seamstresses sit at sewing machines whirring away on the ground floor, altering clothes.

"We have mutilated money cycling in the entire economy right now," says Doe, describing damaged and dirty banknotes, and problems trying to give customers change. "When you get to the bank, the bank is telling you, 'We don't have money.'"

Cynthia Lloyd, a trader in provisions, complains that part of the problem is that foreign aid organisations left the country, reducing overall demand.

Are the banknotes really missing?

The banknote shortage traces its roots back to the apparent scandal emerging after Weah took office, with about $100m of new Liberian banknotes allegedly going missing.

Banknotes were printed by a Swedish company with the approval of former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf's administration. After Weah assumed office, reports emerged claiming large amounts of banknotes had gone missing after being shipped to Monrovia.

The government ordered an investigation by US consultancy firm Kroll Associates who carried out a forensic audit, concluding no banknotes were missing, but highlighting a series of inadequate controls at the central bank.

President Weah set up a special taskforce to handle the matter and the Liberian prosecutor charged Charles Sirleaf, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf's son, a former central bank official, as well as four others, with money laundering.

Sirleaf was freed, but former Central Bank Governor Milton Weeks was found guilty of being unauthorised to print the banknotes. The questions centred around whether authorisation for printing money had been granted by the legislature.

Published in Bank & Finance
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