Corruption in Liberia: from Public Enemy No. 1 to Official Government Policy – Critiquing the Confession of a Harvard Economist

By: WK Freeman, Attorney-At-Law, Monrovia, Liberia

Attorney Wonder Koryenen Freeman

It’s January 6, 2006, the mood in Liberia is festive and upbeat.A war-ravaged nation had just upended the whole of the African continent and jumped the queue to produce the first elected-female president ever on the continent. I admit that I was certainly a part of that enthusiastic majority hoping to see a new Liberia, well-managed and properly governed. So many were taken by Mrs. Sirleaf previous political advocacies, coupled with other high profiled roles at The World Bank, the UNDP, etc.,institutions considered the paragon of good governance and poverty alleviation.

Like most other nations, Liberia could now equally boast of a President that also went to Harvard (as she was locally dubbed the Harvard economist). But gradually, we went from the “enthusiastic” majority to the“discouraged” majority to, finally – the disgruntled minority. Some even went further and became the much-talked-about noisy minority. At the end of it all, while we were contemplating on what to make of the Johnson-Sirleaf Presidency, the President decided to be honest and to summarize her legacy for us all – that, unfortunately, after nearly 12 years of her presidency, she had failed to tackle corruption. In President Sirleaf’s own word she says viz:

We have not fully met the anti-corruption pledge that we made in 2006.  It is not because of the lack of political will to do so, but because of the intractability of dependency and dishonesty cultivated from years of deprivation and poor governance. We could not reap – you cannot reap – in government what has not been instilled in families, schools, churches, mosques and society in general.

Lots of big words here, but, in simple English, our Harvard-educated President was saying… my failure to fight corruption was not because I never wanted to (“lack of political will”)…, of course I wanted to, but most of you… you have too many family members begging you for money [“intractability of dependency”]… and so I can understand when you steal government money. And for some of you, … well, your parents never trained you “good”…(“what has not been instilled in families…”), and for others – they just didn’t pay attention to their Sunday school lessons about “thou shall not steal”(“i.e., churches, mosques”). So voila, how do you expect me to eliminate corruption from public service, when the fault lies with the society we find ourselves in? Okay, Madame President, pardon my simple English, but I thought [as President] your job is to enforce the laws of the land, plain and simple.

If someone breaks the law, then such person must face the full weight of the law. So what’s all this intractability of dependency and years of deprivation rap? Why are we getting all this lecture about the merits and demerits of extended families, parental guidance and Sunday school lessons? As President, all we’ve asked of you to do is to enforce the laws of the land, without fear or favor! Instead of enforcing the law, we get this intractability of dependency (and years of deprivation) excuses – after nearly 12 years in power.

Unsurprisingly, our President prefers to cite to us the great success that she has achieved since she became President. Like, for example, how civil servants now make US$100 per month – up from US$15 per month.And how government’s overall budget has now hit US$600 million up from USD80m – before her tenure. Sure, lots of statistical stuffs to make Harvard University, the IMF and the Work Bank beam with smiles. Unfortunately, however, to admit that, as President, you have not tackled corruption is to admit that you have done little or nothing. Let’s apply some basic logic to the proposition. Let’s start with the known fact that corruption is corrosive. So wherever it exists, ceteris paribus, the benefits to the people will be reduced and diminished in direct proportion to the extent to which it(corruption) exists. High levels of corruption means deep cuts in benefits to the people.

Accordingly, to admit corruption is rampant and endemic is to [equally] admit that the public [by significant margins] never did receive its just and proper benefits in goods and services, from the much-citedincreased government budget.In essence, the increased income was hijacked by the political mafias, thereby denying the common man the benefits of the trickle-down effect. It is certainly counter-intuitive for the President to talk of success after admitting failing to fight corruption.

It’s no surprise that in the last days to the UP government, Liberians continue to experience a dilapidated health system (Ebola?), a messy education system, a bloated government,repeated budget shortfalls, an economy in the gutters – sinking currency, spiraling taxes, business shutdowns. As for the counties (provinces), many are still disconnected by roads, public power and pipe borne water still has not reached the Monrovia suburbs (least to talk about the counties).

In these last days of this government, Liberia, with virtually the same climate as Guinea and Cote d’Ivoire, is still dependent on neighboring countries for local food supplies. Of course, it is understandable that whenever more resources are gobbled up in graft, the less there is for development, and the less there is for social services. It’s that simple Madame President!Thus, by applying the simple laws of logic, Madame, you cannot have it both ways – endemic corruption cannot co-exist with substantial development. It’s an oxymoron!

So our President confesses to failing on corruption fight, but like she has done all these years is to find excuses and scapegoats. Whereas the truth is that [and nobody likes to hear that], political will to tackle corruption disintegrated soon after tasting power. In so many ways, the UP-led government can be shown to have adopted corruption as the official government policy.  Below, I have catalogued at least eight (8) ways in which the Sirleaf’s government adopted corruption as its official government policy.

  • Institutionalizing nepotism

Firstly, the President was never shy about appointing her immediate familyto prominent government posts. In so doing, NOCAL (the national oil company) was run into the ground; we had financial and managerial shenanigans at JFK; we had the famous NSA raid on a Korean business man “to seize” counterfeit currency – just to name a few.

Added to those, there was the official government policy of asking cabinet members to recommend deputies that they prefer to work with. On the surface, it sounds like a reasonable thing to do, ostensibly for smooth working relations. But scratch the surface, and what you find is nepotism at its highest level. Ministers, commissioners and directors began hiring their cousins, in-laws, buddies, and even moving their nominees around to other ministries and agencies when there were cabinet reshuffles. In the end, the government became one grand nepotistic network from top to bottom. As nepotism increased under the UP government, so did the number of reported corrupt deals.

The natural check and balance that occurs when people of different regions, religions, parties or ethnic backgrounds are compelled to work together was broken and replaced with the atmosphere for collusion.  At this level, it really doesn’t matter which country or which continent, any country adopting nepotism as its official policy is (also equally) sure to get corruption as the by-product. In this matter, Madame President, the correlation is straight and direct.

  • Madame President’s U-turn on her one-term pledge

Term-limits are a very important governance tool. In Liberia, there is a presidential term limit (article 50). But the President, notwithstanding her right to a second term, opted and vowed to only utilize one term. However, as we all know now, that pledge was broken a few years later.

The problem with broken promises is that it makes trust difficult. Can a promise breaker deliver on other vital promises – like rightsizing the government and tackling corruption – two areas that would make any President unpopular in the short-term?Hence, once Madame President, opted for the second term, her re-election took center stage and vital governance reforms and the corruption fight took the backstage.

So we can visualize the President’s one-term pledge U-turn as the mother of other baby U-turns, likeher declining to treat corruption as the major public enemy. Why punish people who could be useful in the campaign for the second coming?

  • U-turn on rightsizing the government

It’s an open secret that the Liberian government is bloated. The President promised to make it lean and efficient – by rightsizing. Rightsizing isn’t popular, but it’s clearly good for the country. But as noted earlier, with the President famous one-term pledge out of the window, tossing a few more pledges out of the window was no longer a big deal.  So instead of trimming the government, what we got was more commissions and more agencies (i.e., more government workers and obviously more jobs for friends of the family), even outstripping government revenues. Any wonder then that budget shortfalls were so common during the Sirleaf’s administration?

With a bloated government of family and friends and friends of the family, development took the backseat, as government income got swallowed up in recurrent expenditures (86%+ on average) in salaries, foreign travels, gas slips and rents. Instead of development, we saw the siphoning of funds like the case of Ellen Cockrum and her boyfriend Melvin Johnson (at the RIA), or the gross mismanagement of funds – as in the case of the Telecom boss, Weeks, and her Chinese landlords from Congo Town or the running down of NOCAL by Sirleaf Jr.. Infrastructure development is most certainly one of the engines of economic growth. But it’s definitely not possible where the President make a u-turn on rightsizing and opts for a bloated government where nearly 90% of government revenue is blown up in consumables.

  • Siding with and vouching for officials accused of corruption

Our President is famous for putting her neck on the “chopping board” for her officials (accused of corruption); a sentiment, which back then, but put her at odds with her Auditor General, John Morlu. But siding with the corrupt has long been the official government response to accusations against officials. For example, as late as January 25 2016, our President was still siding with [corrupt] officials. For example, in her January 25, 2016’s address(i.e., last year’s state-of-the-nation address) she says:

Notwithstanding the progress, we acknowledge that at home we continue to grapple with negative perceptions. This is something that involves all of us.Too often, we keep saying things that are not true. Too often, we accuse when there is no evidence.

“Too often we keep saying things that are not true… too often, we accuse when there is no evidence – that’s our President just one year ago. Really, Madam President, you mean no evidence on corruption (it’s all just negative perceptions)? If we grant that the President’s January 25 2016 statement is true, how come one year later (January 23, 2017) she’s now saying ladies and gentlemen“we have not fully met the anti-corruption pledge that we made in 2006”? The unvarnished truth is:not that there was a lack of evidence or just a matter of “negative perceptions at home”, but that there was a serious deficit of political will. So, we are not surprised at the confessions of our Harvard economist vis-à-vis the corruption fight. People often confess the truth in their last days.

  • Making light of audit and other investigative reports

In Liberia, there was no shortage of reports on corruption in government. The GAC has reported many instances, and continues to document numerous abuses of public finances. The Internal Audit Agency has also been busy documenting many instances of abuses of public finances. But the official government line is to always dismiss the reports and ask for more evidence.

Ostensibly, persons who mismanage government finances often end up stealing thousands of dollars, even millions. Take the case of Matilda Parker, ostensibly one of the friends of the family. She was booked in 2013 in the LACC’s report for lying on her assets disclosure filed with the government (LACC). Under normal circumstances, a lying government official should be sacked. But instead Parker was allowed to continue in her role as Managing Director of the National Port Authority.

Today she’s in court battling allegations of embezzlement to the tune of USD800 000. Do we know how much she took before she was eventually booked? All this could have been avoided by a simple dismissal letter, once the LACC report found her lying on her assets disclosure. Unfortunately, however, the official policy of the Sirleaf government was always to side with the corrupt against the people, thereby enabling and encouraging more officials to steal public funds.

  • Lip-service on the code of conduct law

One of the important areas in governance is havinga mechanism to investigate and punish official misconduct and conflict of interests. This, the Liberian government sought to do via legislating the Code of Conduct law (2014).

However, the umpire for the law, the Office of the Ombudsman, which is responsible to implement the law, is yet to be set up. Does it make sense to pass a law, but fail to establish the agency responsible for implementation of the law? Of course, if make sense, only wherein the political class has absolutely no interest in good governance.It makes sense only in a country where corruption is the official government policy! In fact, in the Code of Conduct law, as regards the declaration of assets by public officials, it does appear that same was written precisely to ensure dysfunction and non-implementation.

Prior to the passage of the Code of Conduct law, the assets disclosure regime was established via an executive order (#38) and renewed in executive order (#55), and was solely the domain of the LACC. But after two embarrassing reports on public officials falling afoul of the executive order – including some embarrassing sections on friends of the family, the assets disclosure section was re-written to ensure that it is un-implementable.

For example, whereas only the LACC had custody and investigative powers under the executive order, under the new law, there are multiple repositories and multiple responsibilities for investigations. Who then is ultimately responsible and who then takes the lead?  What if two agencies come to different conclusions on any [given] investigation? And why is there a need for a court order in order for the public to have access to such important document bordering on transparency and accountability? Why is the repository institution different from the investigative institution? Who’s hiding what? No surprise then that since the passage of the Code of Conduct law, not a single government official has been sanctioned for breach.

If there is no accountability for official misconduct, where is the political will then? Are we really serious about fighting corruption in Liberia?Isn’t this a visible wink to public officials to go ahead with corrupt deals, as there will be no consequences?

  • Failure to punish corrupt officials or to act on reports of corruption

In Liberia, we are still searching for cases of conviction for corruption-related offenses, despite mountain of evidence produced routinely by GAC, IAA, LACC etc. Why is there only one known case of conviction for corruption in almost twelve (12)years?So far, we have only the Bropleh case (at the LTA). By contrast, Nigeria, like us, has a corruption problem.

But between 2013-2016 (about the same years as Madam President’s  2nd term), Nigeria had 471 convictions for corruption, money laundering and other fraud-related offenses. Okay, yes, blah, blah, blah,Nigeria has a large population, so obviously it must have more thieves. Granted! But, ceteris paribus, assuming the most minimal level of political will, Liberia should have had, at least15 to 20 convictions over the same period.

But we have just one conviction. Of course, we will have only one conviction for corruption, because corruption in Liberia has gone from major public enemy to official government policy.  Is it any wonder then that we see the recycling of failed and corrupt politicians, as if the act of filling up government posts is some game of musical chairs in which the corrupt take turns filling up important government posts?Even worse, we seeclear government policy of favoring and appointing ruling party politicians who have been rejected at the polls. What results does one expect when failed and corrupt politicians are recycled?

  • Failure to take a strong action on legislative corruption

If there were awards for corruption amongst the branches of the Liberian government, surely the legislative branch of government would take the award hands down. There is a long list of financial malfeasance at the National Legislature. There was the Moore’s Steven’s report that only 3% of concessions agreement entered into by the Liberian government was in compliance with Liberian laws.

There was the NOCAL lobbying fees scandal to the National Legislature that saw many bigwigs get off by some legal calisthenics (i.e., prosecution failure to proceed). There was the NOCAL US$1.2 million oil consultation scandal. There was the lawyer Michael Allison double pay scandal and subsequent mysterious murder.

There was the Honorable Forh you-eat i-eat scandal over county development funds. There were numerous allegations of honorables forming companies to implement county development which funds ended up developing only the honorables and their crony capitalists. There was lately, of course, the global witness report in which only the President’s political foes got indicted.

There was…, there was…, there were corruption cases all over at the National Legislature – just too many to mentioned herein. Could the President have taken a stand in all of this?The Liberian presidency is admittedly one of tremendous powers. Why weren’t such immense powers wielded so as to bring to book all thosehonorables accused of corruption? The simple truth is that: it wasn’t, because corruption had long since been adopted as the official government policy.

Concluding remarks

The President was frank to admit her government’s failure (i.e., to tackle corruption), but as for the causes, I beg to differ. She has stated that she failed to tackle corruption (true) but it was not because of the lack of political will (really?). The causes for the failure – according to the President – (1) intractability of dependency and (2) dishonesty cultivated from years of deprivation and poor governance, (3) lack of parental training and (4) lack of religious training.  Unfortunately, none of the purported causes for the admitted endemic corruption has anything to do with the actual reasons for the failure of the UP-led government to fight corruption. This essay has adequately catalogued eight (8) ways in which the government adopted corruption as its official policy.

Our President is under oath to enforce the laws of the land – without fear or favor.But when you run a government of family, friends and friends of the family, investigating and prosecuting corruption become such a difficult thing to do. When you opt for a comprehensively nepotistic government, you begin to put your neck on “chopping boards”for accused officials and to accept their version of events.  And you go as far as taking full responsibility for the bankruptcy of state-run companies (NOCAL?) and allow others to run their own show (LTA?).

You ask for evidence and more evidence when you could just as well dismiss and cut the losses to the State.

Eventually you end up with a single conviction in 12 years, unlike say in Nigeria that had nearly 500 convictions in only four years (i.e., 2013-2016).  Clearly, we now see that the confession of our Harvard economist President on her failure to tackle corruption in Liberia was precisely due to the lack of political will, as well as her government’s open embraced of policies that fostered and nurtured corruption.The President can say all she wants to say about running a successful government, but her failure to tackle corruption is sure to be her defining legacy.

 

February 26, 2007

By:    Wonderr K. Freeman

Attorney-at-Law

Monrovia, Liberia

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About Cholo Brooks 4098 Articles
Joel Cholo Brooks is a Liberian journalist who previously worked for several international news outlets including the BBC African Service. He is the CEO of the Global News Network which publishes two local weeklies, The Star and The GNN-Liberia Newspapers. He is a member of the Press Union Of Liberia (PUL), including several other international organizations of journalists.