By Rodney Sieh
Africa’s oldest republic turns 172 this week shrouded in a damning controversy over whether or not Liberians should be celebrating in the midst of a rapidly-shrinking economy, massive levels of poverty, a free-flying exchange rate, protests on the main campus of the University of Liberia over teachers’ salaries, serious transparency and accountability lapses, massive cuts and delays in civil servants’ pay and a familiar refrain from the past regarding corruption, greed, nepotism, sycophancy and a governance style bordering the patronage theme mirroring a blast from the past. Has anything changed in Liberia is the question many Liberians want an answer to.
The buildup to this year’s celebration was eclipsed last week when organizers of the sequel to the June 7 Save-the-State protest, originally planned to disrupt this year’s celebration, were forced to retreat after the US Embassy in Liberia raised issues about the timing. “While the US Embassy supports the rights of citizens to lawfully apply to assemble or convey their views to elected officials, the intent to do so during the week of July 22 is misplaced,” the embassy said in a statement.
A COP Divided; Protest Put Off
The organizers, insisting that the government should not be spending more than half-a-million dollars celebrating ’26 Independence while many are struggling to make ends meet, were forced to move the date to July 31, 2019, two days after the upcoming senatorial and legislative by-elections set for July 29; that is if the government can cough up the remaining US$ one million the National Elections Commission says it needs to complete the process.
Senator Sando B. Johnson(NPP, Bomi), one of the strongest supporters of the Council of Patriots, organizers of the protest, also had some issues. In a communication to the group, the Senator wrote: “While it is true that those attending today’s consultative meeting have agreed for the next protest date to be July 24, 2019, I want to state clearly that I respect their views and wouldn’t do anything to undermine their decisions, but would therefore not be in support of this second protest date because in my mind it is not timely and I will not take responsibility of anything that might happen before and thereafter.”
The concerns raised by organizers of COP have resonated despite genuine concerns about some of the controversial figures associated with the organization. The common denominator is and has always been the crippling realities and the effect corruption and bad governance have had on a nation engulfed in a recurring state of political and economic uncertainty.
Corruption Embedded Since 1847
Dr. Fred Van Der Kraaij, a renowned political economist, researcher and historian whose career spans more than 40 years – mostly in West Africa – and 20 years at the Netherlands’ Ministry of Foreign Affairs as an evaluator in the ministry’s independent evaluation unit, the Government of Liberia, the World Bank and the European Commission, told me this week that corruption has been embedded in Liberia since the country gained Independence in 1847, when following the declaration of independence on July 26, 1847, management of public funds in the 19th century was in a big mess. “This should be seen against the background of the lack of education of most of the African-American colonists,” Dr. Van Der Kraaij states.
More than a decade of civil war which ruined the infrastructure of the nation and left nearly a generation of youths without proper education continues a trend that started ages ago.
Delivering the keynote address in May this year, on the occasion of the 100-year anniversary of Save the Children International in Den Haag, the Netherlands, Attorney Samuel Kofi Woods, a human rights lawyer and former minister of Public Works and Labor in the former government of President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, noted that a short time-line of the average child in Liberia at 5 years old in 1989, when the war actually started will reveal a child at 38 years old now who have not known a stable and functional educational and health system, no proper social system and services, no law and order, the lack of accountability and lack of respect for human dignity.
A Generation Lost
“Since there were no facilities for professional training in the New Republic after independence, Dr. Van Der Kraiij says, “they were in fact unable and incompetent to manage public funds. Yet they obtained positions in the civil service where they handled money: the collection of government revenues and the spending of public money. Consequently, it was a breeding ground for irregularities, mismanagement, embezzlement and corruption. This was the situation at the lower level.”
Dr. Fred van der Kraaij, renowned political economist, researcher and historian
Said Attorney Woods: “At 15 years in 1989, that child is now around 45-years-old, which is the average decision-maker in Liberia today. This is an individual who never experienced childhood. 30-40% of Liberia’s current population is within this age group and furthermost of its leaders are within this age group: Liberia is a traumatized nation in peril and needs help!”
Woods laments that Liberia is gradually sliding back into a civil conflict because Africa’s oldest republic has become a nation comprised of angry raging and violent victims and perpetrators deprived of the right to know, the right to the truth and the right to justice. “The warlords turned politicians and their allies continue to rule and plunder using democracy as a shield to make legitimate their desire to ruin and plunder the state.”
Liberia, like other countries, he says, qualifies for all of the antecedents of violent conflict: “Lack of adherence to international standards, failure to protect our children and punish perpetrators, failure to develop programs to rehabilitate and offer a future of hope and promise to our children.”
Dating back to the early days after independence, most of the freed slaves who arrived in Liberia, according to Van Der Kraiij were illiterate people who had never held office in any government in the state where they came from (in the US). “Since there were no facilities for professional training in the New Republic after independence, Dr. Van Der Kraiij says, “they were in fact unable and incompetent to manage public funds. Yet they obtained positions in the civil service where they handled money: the collection of government revenues and the spending of public money. Consequently, it was a breeding ground for irregularities, mismanagement, embezzlement, and corruption. This was the situation at the lower level.”
In the League sanctioned Culbert Christy Report on Liberia during Charles D. King, the report highlighted massive levels of corruption and mismanagement, making the US and England push for Trusteeship of Liberia but on the appeal from Barclay, the US and UK accepted to give Liberia a second chance. Barclay promised to reform government with international technical support but paid the reform process a lip service.
Circle of Corruption Impunity
Fast forward to today, the ripple effects of the country’s history is coming home to roost. Just last week, President George Weah who himself has acknowledged his education lapses and made adjustments, cautioned parents against limiting their children from pursuing quality education to streets selling and others. “Limiting their education has the ability to create future difficulties for them.”
The President adds: “Children can be in the market and still going to school. When you put a kid in the market, it’s a form of education but there is a theoretical education that those children should follow. I am a living example of what education is. I spent 20 something years of my life as an entertainer, but I found a reason after my entertainment that the best place to go was school. Education is the essence to life. Without education, life will be difficult.”And life has been difficult for Liberia, mostly brought on by leaders, past and present who have failed to address the most basic needs of the people but have instead allowed a circle of close aides, pushing the sycophancy cart to lead Liberia down a spiral slope of political and economic entanglements.
As far back as February 1864, Dr. Van Der Kraiij, says a Liberian Legislative Committee proved that President Stephen Allen Benson (Liberia’s second President, 1856-1864), had embezzled several thousand dollars of government money, and funds supplied by the US Government for the upkeep of recaptured Africans (from intercepted slave vessels). Also, President James Spriggs Payne (1868-1870 and 1876-1878) and his Secretary of the Treasury, Benjamin J.K. Anderson, were found guilty by a committee of the Legislature to have stolen government funds, President Payne alone having stolen US$ 9,000.
In the case of President Payne, an impeachment procedure was even considered. At the county level, some Superintendents embezzled or mismanaged county funds.” That was small money then, but today the same practices are continuing.
Over the last year alone, the current government has been entangled in a series of scandals – the missing LD16 Billion and the yet-to-be explained US$25 million mop-up exercise money. Reports of overnight construction of properties by current officials of government, including the presidency and the failure to declare and publish assets are adding even more fuel to the fire of unexplained accumulation of wealth. The extent of the corruption quagmire in Liberia appears to be a never-ending circle of impunity, even for the obscure, often mind-boggling to say the least.
Theft in Broad-Day Light a Norm
A case in point is a recent FrontPageAfrica investigative report that found that the National Port Authority, an autonomous agency, regarded as the gateway to the Liberian economy was in breach of the PFM law regarding funds owed the government by the Chinese mining Company China Union.
Some US$6 million owed Liberia was paid into a makeshift account instead of being paid directly into the government’s Consolidated Account at the Central Bank of Liberia.
Under the law, autonomous agencies cannot on their own open a separate account without the acquiesce of the Minister of Finance. All prior accounts opened did but the special account opened at the United Bank of Africa Liberia(UBA) did not follow the PFM law, thereby raising several questions including, why did the NPA hire an outside negotiator to facilitate the payment when it has a legal department? And Why would NPA need to open another account when it already has operating accounts at various banks, including Ecobank.
Section 4 of PFM Law excludes state-owned enterprises from the consolidated account, Section 45 and 46 gives the Minister of Finance and the board the authority to approve major decisions such as opening bank accounts and spending money. Minister of Finance is also Board Member and Board will have to approve opening bank accounts.
Nevertheless, a man, E.C.B. Jones, currently indicted in the controversial Sable Mining saga, sets up a makeshift account as a consultant, collects the US$6 million on behalf of government, gets US$25 percent of the money at US$1.5 million for his fees and the government cannot explain how the rest of the money was disbursed. And the special account which was opened for the purpose of this transaction? It has since been closed.
A Case for Most Corrupt Ex-Leaders
This has been the case with Liberia for as long as anyone can remember.
Van Der Kraiij asserts: “It is often thought that the worst case of embezzlement and corruption occurred during the Administration of President E.J. Roye (1870-1871). In 1871, President Roye obtained a £ 100,000 loan (approximately US$ 500,000) from a British bank. Allegedly, not more than £20,000 (US$ 100,000) of this loan eventually reached Liberia (due to unfavorable loan conditions and various deductions). How much was mismanaged how much was stolen has never been made clear. One of the two commissioners who had obtained the British loan, William S. Anderson (Speaker of the House of Representatives), refused to return to Liberia after hearing that President Roye had been deposed unless the new Government would guarantee his safety. As President Roberts (who had taken over in 1872) failed to do so, Anderson stayed away, and also refused to hand over a portion of the British loan which he still kept back, thus contributing to a large number of loan funds which never reached the Liberian Treasury.”
According to Van Der Kraiij, it is clear from these examples that corruption, embezzlement, and mismanagement of government funds is not new in Liberia. “Although we do not have enough information on the particular cases given, the conclusion seems warranted that in many cases civil servants and political leaders got away with their incompetence and/or their criminal acts. It teaches us the importance of the rule of law. Where there is no rule of law, impunity reigns. Personally, I tend to think that the Top-3 of most corrupt Liberian leaders consists of William Tubman (1944-1971), Samuel Doe (1980-1990) and Charles Taylor (1997-2003).”
Dr. Van Der Kraiij makes the case for the three most corrupt presidents in Liberia’s history:
“Considered the National Treasury as his personal property. During the Administration of his predecessor, President Edwin Barclay (1930-1944) and the early years of his own Administration, the yearly amount of Domestic Revenues was US$ 1 – 2 million. Domestic revenues jumped to almost US$ 13 million in 1951 – the first year of production of Liberia’s first iron ore mining company LMC. In 1960, revenues soared to US$ 32 million and in his last full year in office (1970), Domestic Revenues amounted to US$ 66 million. Unprecedented in Liberia’s history, these amounts of government funds. Tubman spent large amounts uncontrolled as if it was his own money. It was also due to these unprecedented high levels of government revenues that Tubman was able to finance a very elaborate patronage system (in combination with his security forces) which enabled him to stay in power for 27 years. So, even though Tubman may not have been the one who started a patronage system in Liberia, he certainly had the most elaborate patronage system in Liberia’s history.”
“We all know the mismanagement, embezzlement, corruption, and outright theft in the 1980-1990 period, during the PRC years (‘People Repeating Corruption”) and the presidency of Samuel Doe. Experts estimate that embezzlement, mismanagement, and corruption led to the ‘disappearance’ of some US$ 60 million (yearly!) – whereas the yearly National Budget amounted to between US$ 200- 250 million.”
“The corruption, theft and other economic crimes by Charles Taylor and his supporters are also notorious. There is no estimate available, the amounts stolen are beyond our imagination. Yet, when he stood trial in The Hague, the Netherlands, before the Special Court for Sierra Leone, he claimed to have no money. Numerous UN reports provide ample information about his looting and stealing. When Taylor resigned in 2003, the treasury was empty, the reserves in the Central Bank of Liberia close to zero. When the NTGL took over, in 2003-2005, it operated on basis of an annual budget of US$ 80 million only.”
A Case for EJS’s Inclusion
Similar arguments could be made for the former administration of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf which was once described by former Auditor General John S. Morlu as being “Three-Times More Corrupt” than the National Transitional Government of Liberia led by the late Charles Gyude Bryant.
“This government is 3.2 times more corrupt than the Gyude Bryant government. I have evidence to prove this,” Mr. Morlu said in June 2007. “Under Bryant’s government, we had the iron ore deal which was not accounted for. Under Ellen’s government, we have the oil deal with Nigeria which no one is aware of today,” the former AG said at the time, referring to an oil supply deal signed with Nigeria, the full details of which he said had not been made public. “Are you going to tell me that there will be no money generated from the diamond and timber industries for the next six months or more?” he asked.
Morlu left a legacy of more than one hundred audit reports and findings from the Sirleaf era that were never prosecuted. In a nationwide budget debate in June 2007, Morlu identified nearly $100 million in revenue including a US$47 million in opening balance in various government accounts and millions in income from government-owned rental property. After the debate the government included those amounts, raising the budget from $from $134 million to $199 million. The massive increased seems to have confirmed Morlu’s allegation that the government was 3X corrupt and solidified his international support.
The Weah administration has promised full prosecution of those indicted in audit reports from the Sirleaf era although credibility and conflict of interest concerns have been dogging his Solicitor General-designate Cllr. Cyrennius Cephus.
For 172 years, Liberia has been toying with the realities of a failed and troubled state, a nation entrenched in greed and corruption – from the tail end of society to the very top – and a lost sense of identity, content with mediocrity setting the standard for achieving the endless possibilities it has been searching for all these years, using the same, aging and archaic formula, ending in the same shameful results – over and over and over again.
Dr. Dunn Suggests ‘Getting Down to the Root Cause
Righting the wrongs of the past could, according to Dr. D. Elwood Dunn, a historian and retired professor of political science at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, would require getting down to the root cause Liberia’s recurring dilemma.
Says Dr. Dunn: “I take the view that we have yet adequately to study the history of our past, especially to appreciate that past in context. And context is critical if not everything,” the historian avers.
He adds: “Consequently, I find it more useful focusing on the modern era, meaning since the end of World War II. We can clearly point here to the government by patronage for the examples abound especially during the Tubman administration. Tolbert was attempting to undo the culture of patronage……, but old habits die hard. What we seem to be faced with today is a culture, a way of life that would require serious commitment to uproot. The state of the economy and the state of education are critical factors here. When you have a serious wound, a band-aid is hardly a solution.”
While there may be plenty of blame to go around, history was perhaps unkind to a select group of leaders who were slain in a bloody coup d’etat and executed by firing squad.
William R. Tolbert and members of the True Whig Party Government were unfairly judge and used as scapegoats of what supposedly happens when those entrusted to lead run amok with the country’s resources; Samuel Kanyon Doe who ended decades of Americo-Liberian rule, while pledging to rid Liberia of the corruption cancer soon fell prey to the very vices he and his band of low-ranked army officers sought to rid Liberia of.
Doe labored in pain while his ears were being sliced off, as his accusers led by the self-proclaimed judge Prince Y. Johnson, leader of the breakaway Charles Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia, demanded he revealed where he kept his so-called loot, to no avail.
Ironically, a lot of the vices Tolbert and Doe were accused of doing are going on today without remorse from those who criticized and succeeded them. Interestingly, Prince Johnson, now a sitting Senator from Nimba, is watching, along with others as a new generation of leaders engaged in the very things that sent Tolbert and Doe to violent deaths.
172 Years Later, the Question Lingers
Charles Ghankay Taylor, Charles Gyude Bryant, and Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf all took turns at trying to cure the Liberian curse, former President Sirleaf once described as a vampire and cancer. On the eve of leaving office as president, Sirleaf informed Liberians that one of her biggest regrets is that she did not do enough to end corruption.
Her successor, Weah and his crew are also taking a stab at finding a cure but seemingly finding and experiencing the same results that led to their predecessors’ demise.
Herein lies the circle of impunity, shame and recurring sense of uncertainty holding and keeping Liberia from progressing and mimicking the old adage: “The more things change, the more they remain the same”.
When will we get it right?
That’s a good question many have been asking for 172 years, and many more will continue asking perhaps for generations to come. Unless we as a nation put country before self, we can only have ourselves to blame; and we can only expect more of the same. That appears to be the sad reality this generation and the ones, perhaps unborn may be forced to grapple with for years, as many linger in shame and abject poverty, mired in greed and corruption while those at the helm of power continue to gravitate toward self-gratification in an endless pursuit of the self-contentment – even as those languishing at the bottomless pit of the economic ladder are finding it hard to make the 26 celebrations a happy one.
Liberians have been known to persevere and even amid the hardship, some like Rachael Thompson, a vendor at Mechlin Street believes there is no reason to stop the celebration. “During the civil war and during the Ebola virus, we were celebrating July 26. And so now, there’s nothing like we are fighting a war or we are sick. We have to celebrate on July 26 because it is our tradition.”
Traditions aside, Liberia has come full circle but the never-ending circle of corruption and impunity may not have been what Hilary Teague, a merchant, journalist, and politician, who went on to become a member of the Senate and the first Secretary of State – after independence – had in mind when he advocated for Liberia’s independence in 1847 and drafted the Declaration of Independence.
We must all keep in mind the sacrifices of those before us, from Joseph Jenkins Roberts, Albert Porte, Tuan Wreh, Matilda Newport and scores of others who fought for rights so that we can live in a fair, just and transparent society, free of corruption, greed, suffering, and pain. They have passed on the baton; it is now left with this generation to make Liberia a better place for the next. This is the only way the curse and the circle of impunity will be broken.
This is not just a challenge, but a must…
Happy 26 to All!!!
The Editor/Rodney D. Sieh, firstname.lastname@example.org
Main Pic; Executive Mansion, home of the Liberian Presidency