Liberia’s Existential National Security Problems: Energy, Food, and Unemployment

By Jones N. Williams
Article Swearing in Liberia's new President Joseph Nyuma Boakai on January 22, 2024, in Monrovia
Swearing in Liberia's new President Joseph Nyuma Boakai on January 22, 2024, in Monrovia

After the November 2023 Presidential run-off election followed by the inauguration of President Joseph Nyuma Boakai and the 55th national legislature headed by Speaker J. Fonati Koffa and the President Pro Tempore of the Liberian Senate Nyonblee Kanga Lawrence, all signs show that a new Liberia is taking shape. Competence, experience, integrity, and clarity of vision are not only being restored but are visible in every corner of Liberia’s landscape. There is business confidence, investors are flowing in, sanitation is in foresight and empowered by ordinary citizens in the streets and public squares, and the judiciary is readjusting judicial interdependence and the rule of law. This is the good news. The sad news is the new Liberia faces existential national security problems – Energy Insecurity, Food Insecurity, and Unemployment - that must be addressed and dealt with fast, efficiently, and adequately.

The United Nations International Energy Agency describes energy security as “the uninterrupted availability of energy sources at an affordable price”. Therefore, energy insecurity is when a country or community has an interrupted supply of energy or cannot afford to provide energy. Present-day Liberia is vulnerable to interrupted availability of energy, unaffordable energy prices, and incapable of providing the required energy capacity the country needs.

Liberia cannot and will not pivot to a modern industrial and knowledge-based economy with its current level of energy deficiency for the fact that energy is an underpinning bridge of every modern industrial and knowledge-based economy. Energy is also an important constituent of all human activities: it provides services for most things like cooking and space/water heating, lighting, health, food production and storage, education, mineral extraction, industrial production, transportation, and enterprise location. This is why energy insecurity as a national security problem can have social, economic, and environmental impacts, including economic decline, job losses, poverty, environmental degradation, and social segregation. Energy insecurity therefore decreases industrial and knowledge-based output. Several countries in West Africa are suffering from shortfalls in electricity production and have frequent power cuts, and Liberia is at the peak of countries in that line. Liberia can and should ensure energy security by diversifying its energy sources, ensuring domestic production, and securing distribution and access, and this must be a top priority led by the private sector and facilitated by the government.

The second but profoundly serious national security problem facing Liberia is food insecurity. The price of rice, the country’s staple food, is not only scarce but can be increased at will by non-Liberians who also have exclusive control over the importation of rice, sugar, flour, and other major agricultural commodities. Most people in Liberia do not appear to have enough to eat and they do not know where their next meal will come from. This is a big problem in the country, where over half a million people, including several thousands of children, experience food insecurity annually. According to the United Nations 2022 Global Hunger Index, “Liberia ranks 113th out of 121 countries and, with a score of 32.4. Liberia has a level of hunger that is serious,” the report noted. Liberia scores 32.4 out of 100 points according to the ranking matrix, [means] “hunger level is still high, even though progress has been made in some areas.”

If one is accepting of medical and healthcare research theories, Liberian children facing hunger, food insecurity, and undernutrition today may have a higher risk of obesity, overweight, and chronic diseases like diabetes later in life. These coexisting factors can be the consequences of food insecurity. More importantly, food scarcity and food insecurity aggravate social tensions and result in inequality, and poverty, and may function as a threat multiplier. Liberia can and should ensure food security by investing heavily in agricultural food production, diversifying its food production sources, ensuring sustainable domestic production, dismantling its food and agricultural commodities importation cartel, and securing distribution and access at a free-market enterprise level, and this must be a top priority.

The third and most consequential national security problem facing Liberia is high unemployment, especially private-sector unemployment. High unemployment is a cancer in Liberia and the devil that has hunted all Liberian administrations for the past two decades. Unfortunately, the country has not only been grappling with the two broadest categories of unemployment - voluntary and involuntary, it also faces all the most common types of unemployment – structural unemployment, frictional unemployment, cyclical unemployment, and seasonal unemployment. In practice, these cannot directly be measured, and they can frequently intersect, but they provide a useful way of thinking about unemployment.

Some may proffer that numerous factors contribute to this unfortunate situation. One major cause is the lack of a genuine, coequal, and trusted public-private partnership between the government and the private sector which in turn strangulates investment and innovation, workforce development and training including apprenticeship, and technological advancement. In the new Liberia, the government must embrace the private sector as an equal partner – because the government does not create jobs; the private sector does. The role of government in job and wealth creation is to provide the enabling environment and conditions necessary through policies and programs and the relevant agencies, including, the Ministry of Labor. This is why whoever a country makes a labor minister is important and one good reason Liberia must get away from viewing its labor ministry as a judiciary where it plants lawyers as administrators with no idea, experience, or background in labor market analysis, job creation, industry innovation, and workforce development.

It is historically manifested and proven that high unemployment in all forms can lead to a serious national crisis. The Arab Spring confirmed how unemployment led to both violent and non-violent demonstrations in Egypt and across the Middle East. The vulnerabilities are higher when such unemployment is concentrated among the youth population. Liberian youth form the bulk of the country’s unemployed and are a burden to its national security. Over the years, successive Liberian administrations failed to grasp the reality of the disparity between job opportunities in the country, and the growing number of young people entering the country’s labor market each year. In addition, limited or no access to knowledge-based workforce development and training and, a lack of quality education and skill development programs further exacerbate the problem. Unemployment is also causing forced migration of young Liberians who trek through dangerous terrains to enter Europe, Asia, and North America. This is why youth unemployment in Liberia should be seen and considered as a national and international security concern.

Finally, the new Liberia all Liberians seek to build is at a critical junction. Success is imminent and the new Liberian administration can and will deliver. The audacity is there, and the hopes of Liberians are high. The desire and commitment to have a better and prosperous country are evident but details must be manifested through the concrete steps and programs we put in place and prioritized. For now, the most demanding steps, programs, and priorities we have and must deal with are energy security, food security, and unemployment. These priorities are non-negotiable for Liberia’s prosperity because they hinge on Liberia’s national security. International donor commitments to Liberia must prioritize these factors, too.

About the Author:
Jones N. Williams, a PMI-certified program and project manager, is a Liberian public policy and institutional development professional, a former State Administrator of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics programs and labor market information manager in the State of Maryland, and a former project manager of the Statewide Food and Nutrition Service technology project in the State of Virginia.