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The fleecing of RIA

Taxpayers are being fleeced out of millions of dollars and no one seems
to care

By Bennie Yodel Kimba

Roberts International Airport (RIA) Liberia

Roberts International Airport is Liberia’s largest and busiest. It is the hub for some 5,000 flights and nearly 1 million guests annually. This airport is an incredibly friendly place, but according to insiders, massive problems continue to linger. Inside sources at the airport say that there is a total lack of vision and direction for modernization, transformation, revitalization and renewal. Liberia’s only international airport needs a total rebirth in terms of infrastructure, systems, training and upgrade, which Liberians are clamoring for.

Most Liberian air travelers view RIA as being severely mismanaged, disorganized, dysfunctional and corrupt. They see its architecture as completely not functional for an international airport. The National Security of the country is compromised each time an aircraft lands there. Personnel are disgustingly underpaid. Custom, immigration and joint security
officers assigned along with surrogates of top management and their cronies convert the airport into an embarrassment and disgrace. Visitors and passengers see bribing employees as an inherent right of passage.

Entry visas are easily obtained with waivers and special treatment on toll assessments and custom duties granted through back channels. Unscrupulous non-Liberian merchants are usually escorted through the terminals and restricted areas of the airport with such ease that it becomes disgustingly sickening to watch.

This dreadful unprofessional behavior and lack of standardized international aviation training of staff put RIA up for sale each time these activities are carried out. Greed, selfishness and arrogance trap the airport into an environment of severe unprofessional conduct, incompetence, and ineffectiveness. This allows corruption to become so widespread and out of control where private gains easily replace the national interest. This unabashed abuse and blatant disregard for uniform rule and order leaves RIA vulnerable to terrorists attack from extremists.

The true villains of Liberia’s aviation are the current top managers of RIA, the Airport Authority and the National Civil Aviation Authority. All seem to severely lack the requisite vision to move RIA into the 21st century.  Micromanaging RIA with Marxist- Leninist authoritative style is not a dynamic way to manage the airport in an age of egalitarianism.
Delegation of responsibility is what is needed. One person cannot be the referee, coach, linesman, goalkeeper and captain of the team.

In spite of these shortcomings, President Sirleaf should shoulder a larger portion of this blame. The President has turned a blind eye to the negligence, unprofessional conduct, corruption, money laundering and repatriation of stolen assets moving through the airport. Her willingness to be a co-conspirator in the RIA corruption, mismanagement and lack of vision is pertinent to any redevelopment strategy her government is putting forward. The President’s dependence on a couple of individuals on vital aviation issues of importance is not in the best interest of Liberia’s civil aviation. Her  administration has operated hand-in-glove with those who have been administering our national aviation sector for the past decade, forging ever deeper personal ties with them in spite of the decaying, ramshackle and dilapidated state of RIA’s physical infrastructure, unprofessionalism and lack of physical upgrade to international standards.

Liberia is rife with massive poverty, despite being endowed with enormous reserves of rubber, oil, iron ore, gold, diamonds and vital minerals. One wonders what exactly RIA does with the massive revenues it obtains from government and user fee that it receives from airline companies, vendors and advertisers.

Residents of the many local communities surrounding RIA live in absolutely appalling conditions. It is with intense frustration that human rights and anti-corruption activists watch the dealings between the aviation sector, RIA workers and residents of local communities.

Given the country’s resources capacity and potential, it is conceivable that the living standards of people in the region should be high. Instead, living standards of residents surrounding RIA are amongst the very lowest in the country.

All of the communities surrounding RIA experience some of the worst nightmares of dishonesty, fraud and sleaziness; thereby, leaving the majority of their population poor, living in abject poverty without tangible employment skills, basic social services and benefits. For instance, there aren’t sufficient health centers with trained health practitioners operating in local communities to cater to the needs of the population. Schools are so sub standard that it is pathetic to watch children going there. The airport contributes absolutely no social responsibility benefit to area schools. Textbooks are luxuries only the schools in Firestone can boast of. Hence, it is common for students to walk to school across the busy RIA highway where passengers are always in a rush to make their flights and commercial vehicles hurrying to drop-off passengers to make a fast buck and earn extra cash.

RIA is a source of corrupt spoils for the majority of its employees whose general living conditions are appalling. What makes the issue of corruption at RIA far more complicated from a global aviation security perspective is that foreigners, businessmen, egotistical and arrogant interests are increasingly colliding with safety and professionalism. As Liberia strives to recruit global corporations in the international aviation sector, the country does not have the demonstrated political will to prosecute individuals for bribing officials, or useful laws to prosecute officials for accepting inducement or kickbacks.

As a state-owned enterprise, government will soon be investing on a massive scale to bolster the airport’s infrastructure and aesthetics. Should or are there plans for RIA to be privatized? The details of the administration’s revitalization plans for RIA remain a top state secret to a few well connected and well-placed individuals, many of whom have no direct connection to the country’s aviation sector. For instance, the RIA Workers Union is not seated at the table to make any
constructive contribution to the airport’s redevelopment process.  In fact, the union has no say and is not in any position to offer recommendations on behalf of its members.

It is time for stakeholders including RIA workers and the local communities to know and have an input in exactly what the RIA redevelopment plan is. It is the public’s right to know how much money the government intends on dishing out to modernize and redevelop RIA.

Ninety percent of the citizens living in and around RIA depend on the airport as their principal or secondary source of income. Yet, of the millions of dollars generated by and through the airport annually, more than 80 percent go to administrative costs according to inside sources. Absolutely nothing goes to social services, community development, indigenous arts and culture or environmental stewardship of the region’s ecosystem. The river surrounding RIA is so polluted by Firestone’s processing of rubber, the management of RIA, LAA and LCAA sit idle and inactive with absolutely nothing being done about it.

Firestone generates so much surplus power and the company isn’t asked to share its hydropower technology with RIA as corporate social responsibility. What a shame to those who negotiated or renewed the 99 year investment incentive contract with Firestone. In case Liberian policymakers forgot, Firestone is a fortune 500 multinational corporation with over 10 Billion United States Dollars in gross annual sales.

RIA deserves to literally be condemned. No passenger would admit wanting to spend an extra hour there that he/she doesn’t have to. It is an awful place that consists of shanty dwellings that swelter in the hot Margibi weather. It is a purgatorial warehouse of stalled lives, with a hole in the wall for terminalsm, passenger lounge and baggage claim. The landscape is atrocious, with contracted workers cutting grass with machete, and women collecting trash with metal and wooden conduit. Additionally, RIA ground transportation system is appalling. It does not have a registered airport revenue-generating taxi cab service for the likes of an international airport. This is inexcusable. The taxi cab service at RIA is unmarked private cars owned by RIA operatives and friends. The only way passengers can pass the time at RIA is to visit one of the many watering holes or drinking spots called concession stands before checking in and taking a seat. The custom house at the airport has turned into a retail commercial center with workers selling beer and food in the open to make extra cash. RIA desperately and urgently needs help. If the government cannot provide the vision to totally reorganize, reform, redevelop and revitalization RIA than the airport needs to be shut down.

To make RIA work, the Government’s revitalization plans must create a favorable and professional environment coupled with a realistic living wage for workers – Immigration, Customs and Joint Security, Cleaners, Sweepers, Baggage Handlers and Security Personnel. Those masquerading as special security, Ministry of Finance regulator and others who make it their business to project an image of being well connected to Liberia infamous elite power structure, need to be condemned and brought to a complete end. RIA’s management must be forced to have an interest in promoting transparency. And if they do not, they need to be replaced and competent facility managers brought in to professionally administer the affairs of the airport at international standards. If properly implemented, transparency would help RIA reduce reputational risks in addressing the concerns of passengers and stakeholders, and help manage risks of long-term investments.

Transparency can become an effective and positive contributing factor to development as it will increases the likelihood that revenues will be used to modernize RIA, compensate staff sufficiently, reduce poverty, and uplift the livelihood of local community residents.What RIA need now is a strong facility manager along with a passionate team of professionals who would bring order, vision and direction to modernize and transform RIA for the better with a sense for safety, security and increased revenue generation. RIA also needs people-centric managers…..not pilot. RIA needs managers who are egalitarian; those who will delegate responsibilities and be held accountable and not those who will compromise professionalism or the integrity of Liberia’s national interest. Some of these technical, administrative, professional and facility managers – none of whom have been contacted by this author- currently living in Liberia or the sub-region are:
Mary T. Broh, Jeremiah Mends-Cole; Abraham Simons; Kedrick White, Jamelia Dennis, Jehu Richardson, Robert Morris; and William Seton.

I am sure there are many others who can make Liberia proud. But the President will have to get outside of her comfort zone and bring in people who have Liberia at heart and not necessarily the party. Such people need not be insiders or member of the ruling political party.  It’s about time we forget about being politically correct and put the people who can do the job to the test.  Rather than hire someone based on what you see on paper, talk to them, see what their vision is and what they bring to the table, and finally support their visions with the proper funding.  Madam President, your legacy will be established not by what you did in the first six years, but the last six.

Time is running out.  Let’s put Liberia First as you use to say back-in-the-day!!
Something must be done at RIA, and it needs to be done now.
Long Live Liberia!

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