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Legacy: How Corruption Ruined the Legacy of the Johnson Sirleaf

No one could have predicted on January 16, 2006, the day the Ellen Johnson Administration came to power that ten years later, it would arguably be the most corrupt in my country’s history. Surveys based upon citizens’ perception regularly name the country as the most corrupt in Africa. Going beyond anecdotal evidence of corruption from the perception of citizens, the worsening economic conditions brought about by Ebola and exogenous factors such as volatility in commodities markets that have seen drastic slashes in the prices of the nation’s two (rubber and iron ore) primary exports, corruption is the most damaging cause of the sliding living standards of Liberians. It obstructs the delivery of basic services, undermines resilience in health care delivery, impedes educational attainment and ensures that the system of patronage and cronyism will delay economic empowerment to the vast majority of citizens. Under these circumstances, corruption gravely impacts the peace and stability of Liberia.

How did an administration headed by a well-respected Liberian technocrat, Harvard educated with years of experience as an international civil servant become the country’s most corrupt? What exactly are the objective criteria that would indicate that indeed the Ellen Johnson Sirleaf Administration is the most corrupt in the country’s history? Objectively, the gross magnitude of the impact of corruption reflected in the growth of the size of the public sector with fifty thousand permanent full time employees and seventeen thousand temporary workers siphoning a significant portion of total expenditure is instructive!

In the first year of the Sirleaf Administration, in fiscal 2006-2007, expenditure rose to USD $129,917,259, which was 60 percent higher than the 2005/2006 budget. If you can recall, the Sirleaf administration had made a lean and efficient public sector as one of the planks in its platform during the campaign, but soon after the government came to power, it began spending most of its revenues on recurrent expenditure by expanding the public sector, even while conducting massive layoffs of civil servants in what was ironically called “downsizing”. Cronyism and patronage are embedded in the national budget manifesting a fundamental and systemic corruption. No wonder, important services such as health, education and support to agriculture are underfunded in the budget. This is grand corruption and the magnitude of the impact is horrifying. We saw the lack of resilience during the Ebola outbreak, which resulted in the loss of nearly six thousand lives including 187 experienced health care workers with the death of Dr. Samuel Brisbane as a tragic reminder. Overall, international informed opinion including the well-respected Foreign Policy Magazine said the spread of Ebola was due to lack of accountability and transparency in Liberia and the two other Mano River Union countries.

In 2006-2007, the government spent USD $111,331,873 on recurrent expenditure, which was 85.7 percent of the budget and spent only USD $18,585,386 or 14.3 percent on capital expenditure. That expansion of the public sector continues today. While the public sector has expanded, there has not been a comparable rise in the delivery of services such as education, health, security and infrastructure development, especially light and water. The police are still mostly underpaid, underfunded for logistics and the public perception of insecurity rising especially with the drawdown of UNMIL.

Today, the national budget of 622 million dollars is mostly to accommodate the increasing number of employees in the public sector, to pay their wages, salaries, benefits and to purchase goods and services in the form of cars, gasoline, scratch cards, and foreign and domestic travel at the expense of critical national services such as health, education, agriculture and infrastructure. The Ellen Johnson Sirleaf administration spent over 3.7 billion dollars in ten years. The government received 2.2 billion dollars in revenues from 2006-2007 through mid-2012-2013 and spent 1.9 billion dollars. With projected annual expenditure of more than 500 plus million dollars over the period of 2016-2018, the government may actually spend over 4 billion US dollars in the period of twelve years of the presidency. The World Bank reports that spending as a percentage of GDP increased from 9 percent in 2005-2006 to 33 percent in 2012-2013. These costs were driven by recurrent expenditure such as personnel costs, goods and services, and transfers or subsidies to commercial and regulatory state owned entities. An examination of fiscal space by the World Bank in 2013 showed that “Liberia’s wages and salaries as measured by all ratios during 2009-2011 were higher than the average for 13 ECOWAS countries. These include the ratios of wages and salaries to GDP, total revenue, tax revenue, total expenditure, and current expenditure. Wages and salaries increased steadily as a share of GDP (from 8 percent in 2009 to 10 percent in 2011) and as a share of current expenditure. In 2011, Liberia’s wages and salaries ranked second highest (share of GDP) after Cape Verde; the fourth in terms of total revenue after Ghana, Sierra Leone, and Cape Verde; and the third in terms of tax revenue after Cape Verde and Guinea Bissau. Its share in total expenditure was the highest, while its share of current expenditure ranked only third after Benin, Ghana and Cape Verde.”

Corruption undermines development by taking away scarce resources from priority areas to fund a political system that demands absolute loyalty and fealty to the ruler. With more revenues available, the spoils system can be expanded to include a zealous cadre of sycophants, who rely upon the public sector to maintain their lifestyles, through frequent foreign trips and scholarships to top schools. To maintain patronage at this level requires using more state resources in order to keep the lid on public dissent and anger through a managed process of spinning current events in the print and electronic media, especially in blogosphere, the most popular interactive medium known to the human race, which includes Facebook and Twitter. It requires lots of coordination and deployment of resources and includes creation of friendly radio stations, newspapers, television outlets, talk shows, and a ready attack division of minions.

In addition to the misuse of the national budget to fund an ever expanding state bureaucracy to consolidate political patronage and crony capitalism or what US Senator Marco Rubio refers to as corporatism, which is the preferred form of corruption in Liberia that ensures only friends, family and minions of the ruling political elite will be economically empowered. From grand corruption in granting mineral and hydrocarbon assets to phony companies such as Elenilto, China Union and in creating opportunities for friendly companies to have choice business positions such as Buchanan Renewable Energy (BRE) in electricity or narrowing petroleum imports to a select few, the system is craftily designed to shut out political adversaries. The mantra is “keep your enemies poor and begging or they will use their wealth to unseat you from power”. No wonder then the fight for power in 2017 [was] nasty, in ways unseen in generations…

The granting of concessions has been fraught with graft during the current administration. According to the prestigious British audit firm, Moore Stephens, out of 68 concession agreements signed, only 66 conformed to Liberian laws and procedures. These were in mineral, hydrocarbon and agriculture. The fact that only two were compliant indicates that Liberia’s Nobel Laureate President, who was inaugurated with a pledge to fight corruption had badly faltered.

Liberia-natural-resources-deal-audit [–link]

Liberian President, Sirleaf

Faltering means the 17 billion dollar vaunted investment supposedly attracted to Liberia was characterized by corruption and self-interest. If one makes the calculation, comparing the quantum value of the investments to the country’s economic history, including Firestone in 1926, they would be considered the highest and therefore cumulatively, the financial impact of the corruption surrounding the granting of the 68 concessions would be largest in our history, making this government the most corrupt ever!

The President of Liberia conceded that corruption is a vampire. Agreeing that corruption has the characteristics of an animate object bears serious reflection and gathering of the political will to attack it head on and damn the consequences to friends, cronies and family members. Unfortunately, efforts to fight corruption have been mostly motivated by international reaction to transgressions in Liberia, such as the infamous Public use Permits Scandal (PUP) unearthed by the Sustainable Development Institute (SDI) and Global Witness. In their report “Spoiled: Liberia’s Private Use Permits” alarmed that “vast areas of Liberian land mass, 25,800 km2 or 23% of Liberia’s forest land is covered by PUPs, which means that almost a “third of the country’s best forests are at risk of being flattened”. The report also alleged “illegality, fraud, and poor allocation processes have been raised by various commentators”. Despite clear and convincing evidence, more than four years after the report was released, the alleged perpetrators are still free and the case in waltzing through the country’s rotten court system.

Corruption has blemished all government ministries and agencies of government, from the Ministry of State in the Executive Mansion, allegedly inflating the budget to renovate the executive mansion, with millions expended and yet the project is still incomplete nearly ten years after it was destroyed by fire to the Liberia National Red Cross where millions of Ebola dollars vanished. It was only after the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) screamed that the President sent police to arrest the national president and close the offices. Dozens of audit reports recommending prosecution are gathering dust at the Ministry of Justice, with the Liberian Anti-Corruption Commission (LACC), inundated with cases of corruption dating back to the early days of the administration.

While the old cases of corruption are being forgotten, many new cases may never see the light of day. The moral relativity attached to corruption is so mind blowing that when the government’s adversaries make charges of corruption, the knee jerk response by the minions is that corruption existed in other administrations. Other administrations did not have a Nobel Laureate or American Presidential Medal of Honor recipient as president of Liberia. Neither did the international community ever commit 17,000 men and women to support peace building in Liberia. The excuses are lame and time has run out for the Ellen Johnson Sirleaf administration to shake the belief, largely borne out of sufficient evidence that indeed the government is the most corrupt in the country’s history. Sadly this is not only a reflection on the administration, but others in the legislative branch of government, who have colluded with the present executive to divest Liberians of our wealth and must be made to answer. When the Chairman [former] of the country’s ruling party is the lawyer for private business interests negotiating with the government of Liberia on matters involving our natural assets, it is not strange that we will be shafted in the process, and we were royally. Is it any wonder then that 66 out of 68 concession agreements did not conform to Liberian laws? Or that no efforts have been made to address the anomalies or procedural errors, which by any objective analysis would indicate that the level of self-interests and cronyism involved were directly proportional to the lapses? How can more than 97 percent of concession agreements have legal or procedural errors in the 21st century of technology and especially with primers on best practices available on any desktop? The simple and clear answer, void of cynicism is that in fact these were not mistakes but contrivances due to endemic corruption in our political system.

Corruption is the cancer that erodes the moral fiber of Liberia, cutting away at development and delaying progress for millions of people. While other governments were corrupt, sadly so, but the conditions today are markedly improved for the Ellen Johnson Sirleaf administration to gather the political will, using the international support and domestic peace and stability we have to deal with the most vexing challenge to the country’s development. On this score, the government has failed and that is why it will be blamed and thus the legacy of Africa’s first freely elected female president will be forever and inextricably tied to uncontrollable corruption. Sadly so. And so it goes. source/sam Jackson/


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