The Big Interview: Alex Cummings
After rising through the ranks to become the Executive Vice President of the Coca-Cola company as well as its Africa President, Alexander (Alex) Cummings retired last year at the age of 59. Not long after, he decided to run for the presidency of Liberia, in elections that are to take place in October 2017, as the outgoing President Johnson Sirleaf winds down her second term. In this interview with Omar Ben Yedder, Cummings talks about his intentions for the country and his determination to become its next leader.
If we had to summarise Liberia today, where is it economically, politically, socially?
Liberia is at a tipping point in all of those areas, but it has come a long way in the last ten or eleven years. It has been safe and peaceful over that period of time. Indeed, it has never been as free as it has been in the last decade. The upcoming election will be key because it will be the first peaceful transition in many years from one president to another, and my hope is that it will be to a different party and a different administration.
On the economic front, however, Liberia is still challenged. Like most emerging markets, commodity prices are down, so the price of our primary exports – iron ore, rubber, gold – are all down. The economy is very challenged as a result. Revenues are down, so the government faces difficulties in meeting its spending needs. As with a lot of countries in Africa, there is overdependence on government and government spending. The private sector is too small, so one of the opportunities is to grow the private sector and get a better balance in the economy. And because we are challenged economically, I would say we are challenged socially as well because the economy and the social fabric are tied together. As people are struggling economically and financially, the country is confronted with a very tenuous social situation.
I often say the biggest national security risk to Liberia is the number of unemployed and unemployable young people. But the reason I say we are at a tipping point is because the next leader of our country has the opportunity to positively change all of those things – to move things in the right direction, to make the right calls, to make some choices.
I think the next person who leads our country will have to, within all sectors, decide what they want to focus on. An example is education – something that is a priority for me. There are four areas in education we will focus on: vocational training – to address the issue of jobs for the unemployed – teacher training, early child education and adult education. Education is much broader than that, but we have to make some choices and we want to focus on those four areas in the short term. In health, primary and preventive healthcare are the areas we will focus on first, even though there are needs across the board. If we make the right choices, they will trigger and have leverage on the other things we need to fix.
Liberia is therefore still a fragile state?
I would say less fragile than it was ten years ago.
In your view, what are the things that the government could and should have done differently and better?
I think everybody will agree that one area the government could have done better in is tackling corruption and other ills, if you will.
Were you ever confronted with corruption when at Coke?
In mostly small ways. The difference between corruption at Coke versus corruption in Liberia, or in any country for that matter, is that at Coke we followed the rules. We had a code of conduct, we had policies and procedures. Corruption is not only a Liberia challenge. It happens everywhere. The difference at Coke is that when you violate the rules, if you break the code of conduct, we’d investigate the issue – with a presumption of innocence – but if found guilty you would bear the consequences.
The current government in Liberia has been trying in the recent past to clamp down on corruption, so I think they understand the need to address this challenge…
You mentioned the private sector is something the current president is also putting an emphasis on…but how?
I think about the private sector from multiple perspectives. I think about growing the private sector from an import perspective, attracting foreign direct investment, but also encouraging Liberians to go into business, supporting them and then protecting them so they can get scale and become successful.
From foreign investors’ perspectives, they want the following things. They want to make sure the rule of law is in force to ensure the sanctity of contracts, stability and predictability. Foreign investors want to have a market to sell to, and Liberia has access to ECOWAS. Foreign investors want to have infrastructure; they need power. They need consistent power and affordable power. They need water and they need roads. So if we use our natural resources and the proceeds from that to invest in those things, particularly infrastructure, we’ll be able to attract foreign direct investment.
We’ve seen massive amounts of FDI flowing into Liberia but it hasn’t resulted in job creation or benefitted the population. What sort of FDI are you looking for?
We want to attract investors who will have highly labour intensive industries and low-tech labour intensive industries. Liberians have often complained about the lack of added value in our rubber industry, forcing us to turn around and buy those products elsewhere.
They ask: why don’t you start a tyre factory in Liberia? Well, the practical reality is the Liberian market would be too small to justify investing in a tyre factory. That’s just a fact, whether we like it or not. But we could use the rubber to produce medical supplies, gloves, condoms, and low-tech goods for local consumption and export. There are other simple things we can encourage people to produce locally that our market will absorb and that we can also export to the region. High labour, low-tech FDI is the kind of investment we want to attract.
We have just come out from American elections where personality took precedence over policy. Do you think the elections in Liberia are going to be about personality or policy?
I think they will be about both. From my perspective, I am determined and I have committed publicly to focusing on policies and the issues. So far, my campaign has been focused on that, but inevitably, personality will come into play.
I think to some extent we are being idealistic if we think that personality will not be a factor, because at the end of the day, people are electing an individual. What I hope we do is focus on the person’s experience and background and not make it personal, not make it negative, and not bring too much vitriol into the conversations.
And in a country where 60 per cent of our people are functionally illiterate, personalities do matter – but it’s all about how we think of it and how we use it, and we certainly will take the high road when it comes to personalities. We will try to skew things towards the issues and paint a positive picture of what Liberia can be.
What would you say your key policy is that differentiates you from the other candidates?
The policies that we’re going to focus on are as follows, and they are actually in this order, and it may surprise your readers. One area we want to focus on is what we call “Hearts and Minds” – to do some work to really engage Liberians in the transformation of Liberia. We are not electing a saviour, but rather, we Liberians are the saviours we’re looking for.
I have a strong belief in Liberia and the Liberian people, and I want to call that out because I think sometimes, almost subconsciously, we are overly critical of ourselves as a people. We immediately go to the negatives, but when you set high expectations for yourself or for people that work for you, people tend to live up to that. When you set low expectations, they tend to do that as well.
“Although I’ve pursued an international business career I’ve never really left Liberia in heart, mind and spirit. I’ve been in and out, and I’ve done things back home.”
Another priority is how we grow the revenues in the country, because achieving anything we are proposing requires that we have the money to pay for it.
The next priority for us is job creation. The biggest threat to our country and to our democracy is the large number of unemployed young people we have, and so we are doing work as we speak to address the job creation challenge. And all of these things are interrelated of course, because the next priority for us is agriculture, and that’s one way to alleviate poverty. It’s another way to create jobs – putting systems and processes in place that encourage agriculture and rejuvenate that sector, because today we import almost everything. The next part is education, as I mentioned earlier, and then healthcare.
Underpinning all of that is infrastructure. It’s going to be foundationally based, so if you don’t have consistent low-cost power you can’t run the hospitals, you can’t run the schools, kids can’t study, you can’t manufacture. Anything you produce will be uncompetitive, so you’ve got to have infrastructure. You’ve got to have water; waterborne diseases are a challenge, not just in Liberia, but everywhere. If we have clean, potable water, we can address a significant part of our health challenges.
You come from a corporate background – a company with deep pockets, so to speak – and you want to lead a fragile state with limited resources. Do you feel you’ve got the skill set to do that?
I think I do. In fact, I know I do. In some ways, without realising it, I have been training for this job for a very long time – for the last 36 years. I’ve had the opportunity to run various sizes of organisation, small to very large, complex organisations over the years. I’ve lived in multiple countries doing that, dealing with all the challenges that come with that. I understand the complexity – that wherever you have people, you’ve got politics.
Now, the degree to which you have politics varies, so you have less in business than you do in government and the public sector. But you’ve got to manage egos, different personalities, different interests, so even in corporations you have interests that you’ve got to balance and manage. You have to make choices, and I think a key part of success is not trying to do everything, but making some choices, and that’s hard to do.
Holding people accountable is something I’ve had to do. And you don’t go from being born in Monrovia in Point Four, Bushrod Island, a low-income neighbourhood, to becoming one of the most senior executives in one of the biggest corporations in the world with 180 billion dollars market value [without being an achiever]. You don’t get from where I started to where I ended up without delivering consistent results and getting things done and making things happen – creating value, creating jobs, and making choices, making tough decisions, hiring the right people, building the right teams, even firing people when necessary. And so I do believe that I bring the experience needed, plus the commitment to Liberia and to our people.
Although I’ve had an international business career, I’ve never really left Liberia in heart, mind and spirit. I’ve regularly been back and forth and I’ve done things back home. I aspire to this job because I truly believe in Liberians. I believe we can change our country, and I have no interest in anything else. I don’t need the money; I’ve been blessed. I don’t need all the trappings that come with the role; I have had the opportunity of them in my life, so that’s not what appeals to me. It’s really to fundamentally work with the Liberian people to change our country, to assemble the right team. I’ll be making the case for the Liberian people to give me the opportunity to serve them, to lead them.
And the role of the diaspora?
A significant amount of remittances come from the Liberian diaspora, and there’s a huge amount of knowledge and resources to be tapped from it. But we have to acknowledge that some diaspora Liberians have gone home and not done the country proud.
Côte d’Ivoire recently had a referendum regarding changing the constitution around the conditions to run for presidency. I know this issue of nationality provokes a lot of discussions in Africa. How is it in Liberia?
Today, Liberia does not allow dual citizenship, meaning you cannot have two passports by Liberian law. I’m a natural-born Liberian. I’m a Liberian citizen and I have a Liberian passport, so the Liberian rules and laws today would not impact my ability to run for the presidency.
What do you think your chances of winning are?
I think I’ll win the election. If we work hard and smart, then we will. Liberians want somebody different – they want something different. I have to make the case to them that I’m that person and I will
Mr. Alexander B. Cummings has always shown genuine commitment towards how he sees Liberia’s problems and the associated solutions towards a lasting end. He sees prospects and calculate collective contribution by all Liberians despite their political, religious, economic and social affiliations. He and the Alternative National Congress-ANC believed in putting “Liberia First”.