Liberia, Journey Towards Reconstruction: Clipping Off the Tentacles of Corruption

By: George D. Yuoh

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

April 27, 2004

A few months ago, while sympathizing with a comrade over the death of his father, an elite group of young professional Liberians residing in Minnesota turned the occasion into an impromptu symposium on the future of Liberia. Present at the occasion were doctors (MD and PhD), accountants, bankers, economists and financial analysts, social workers and political activists; a brainy group of disenfranchised Liberians, and all between the ages of 30 – 45 yrs. The topic of the day was identifying the causes of, and finding solutions to the ever-present problem of corruption in Liberia.

During the ensuing discussions, strong views were expressed, some very extreme while others were moderate. The views however simmered down to two sets of opposing arguments: one view was that corruption was a result of the rotten system in Liberia, while the other side argued that corruption in Liberia was a result of the insatiable greed of individuals, especially those who have led the country over the years. Because the discussions were impromptu and done while knocking down a few litters of brews, nothing was documented, and so the fine ideas exchanged at that forum went with the wind, just like many others before and after.

The recent situation in Liberia concerning the Transitional Government’s mismanagement of the little available financial resources is a cause for worries, and therefore necessitates some discussion on the issue of corruption in Liberia. Almost all of the key figures in the current government are there with one purpose in mind: to steal and enrich themselves overnight. All the fighting, killing and destruction have never been about differences of politics, or finding alternative solutions to administering the affairs of the state in the interest of greater social and economic development, or ascending to state power in order to influence the political orientation, landscape, and system for the good of Liberia. It has always been about self-aggrandizement and personal wealth accumulation. Period! Nothing more, nothing less!

Corruption In Liberia
To say that corruption is prevalent in Liberia is to say that Charles Taylor is a saint. Corrupt practices are so ingrained and entrenched in almost every sphere of life in Liberia, and have been for so long that most Liberians have accepted them as part of our national life, so much so that you would hear people say that “nothing can be done to reverse the situation”. I will not bore you here with any historical trend and or a listing of corrupt practices in Liberia, because we are all very much familiar with the debacle. Our focus here therefore is to point out why the farce that is corruption continues to thrive in the motherland, and how it can be dealt with.

Corruption in any form will continue to exist only and as long as it is permitted to. This therefore concludes that it is the system, or the lack of a system to curb the excesses of improprieties that creates the conditions for corruption to thrive. Arguably, man by nature is greedy, however small may be individual greed. But greed alone cannot ferment corruption, especially at such levels as seen in Liberia. For instance, in the private sector, systems and controls and operating procedures are put in place to ensure that corporate assets are protected from misuse and theft. It is because of the existence of controls and clear policies as to the repercussions of abuses and misuse that protect corporate assets from exploitation. This does not mean that private entities are free of corrupt individuals. In fact, the recent waves of mismanagement in corporate America underline the fact that man by nature is greedy. Well thought out systems are therefore the key to preventing the common crooks and thieves from having a field day.

In the case of Liberia, corruption has always been state sponsored. This is a grave indictment, but it is the fact. Let’s take a few recent cases as examples. During the disappointing reign of Professor Amos Sawyer as the Interim Head of State, he made a horrific and calamitous national policy statement, that corruption would be tolerated as a trade off for peace. And so all hell broke loose, and public assets became free for all. This culminated into Professor Sawyer’s approval for government officials to take away state properties for their personal use as they left office. This then became a precedent for successive governments in Liberia. Where in the world have you ever heard such outright thievery being sanctioned by the government itself?

But wait, it even gets better or worse depending on how you want to see it! After Charles Taylor became president, one of the first actions his then Finance Minister, Elie Saleeby took was to propose a US$0.25 tax per gallon on petroleum products imported into the country. He argued before the Legislature that the funds were to be used to renovate schools, hospitals, and to repair damaged roads. The spineless Legislature approved the bill despite outcries (as if they could do anything different). In about 8 months or less, over US$8.0 million was collected. But guess what, the funds could not be accounted for in the Government’s revenue breakdown, as discovered by the IMF/World Bank experts sent to Liberia to assess the country’s financial needs. The then Deputy Minister for Debt & Expenditure tried to cover the mess but to no avail. How the Government could create revenue by tax imposition and don’t show income for the taxation is beyond my comprehension. And then they expected no one to see it? Wow!

But that is not the main part! By then, the Managing Director of LPRC, Lewis Brown, who it was strongly rumored was doing the direct collection of the fuel tax charges and sharing the money between he and his boss (Charles Taylor), had started to build a mansion (by Liberian standard) in ELWA. The newspapers stories were persistent about the callous level of thievery going on. The answer the President gave to the Liberian people was that the young man was investing in the country and that all the talk was just jealousy. He then went further and challenged all his officials to copy the “progress” of Lewis Brown, and that he didn’t want to see any of his ministers living in a run-down place. Even the late Francois Massaquoi (may his soul rest in peace), then Minister of Youth & Sports and a simple lifestyle and down-to-earth man, had to move from his modest apartment on Broad Street Snapper Hill to a “big” house in Sinkor in adherence to his boss’ ultimatum. If that is not an act of state sanctioned corruption then I don’t know my left hand. Remember now, the salary of a minister was and is still LD$800.00 (US$16.00) per month. There are even worse hair-raising episodes of state corruption that are better left undisclosed for now. But even ordinary Liberians are guilty of supporting corruption. For instance, if John Brown became a minister of government, and during his tenure he did not build a “big” house or illegally accumulate wealth, he would be considered a “stupid man” if he were to return to a simple life style after he was no longer a minister of government. Corruption in Liberia is a scourge that must be quarantine and then eliminated.

So, what must we do to reverse this ugly trend? First, we need to understand that the state of corruption in Liberia is very chronic and as such it would require very drastic measures to contain and then cure the epidemic. Flogging a few scapegoats on the poles on Broad Street will not solve the problem; neither will simply making public pronouncement be effective. The solution has to start with a complete reassessment of government’s revenue generation areas, to a sustained public education campaign and enforcement of laws prohibiting theft and misuse of public office. As always, we have to make one key assumption, and that is, it will only be a future leader who is forthright and committed to the cause that will be successful in championing the fight against corruption. Let’s look at a few suggestions.

· Legal System/Law Enforcement – The foundation for progress in any new re-orientation in Liberia must begin with an efficient and effective legal system. A legal system that is feared and respected is a key catalyst for economic and social advancement in a new Liberia. This new legal system must make it unhealthy to choose corruption as an option. Gone must be the days when government officials were considered to be above the law. Corrupt civil servants, including officials who misuse their offices must be prosecuted, and if found guilty, must do jail time commensurate with the gravity of the crime. “If you do the crime, you must do the time.” Public servants who are found guilty of corruption must never be allowed to work in government again.

· Public Service Remunerations – While it is essential to create disincentives for corruption, it is even more important to create incentives for trustworthiness, commitment to service, and loyalty. Wages of public sector employees, including the President must be realistic and serve as inducement in the drive to uphold and protect the interest of the state. The current pay structure of the government is ridiculous to say the least, and must be reviewed and restructured to reflect today’s reality. The President must be paid well relative to his status, and a yearly taxable salary of L$6.0m is more realistic than some ambiguous L$1,000+ a month. Similarly, L$1.6m is a more logical yearly taxable income for a minister as opposed to the current laughable L$800.00 per month.

The minimum wage should be at least L$12,000.00 per annum (which is just about US$20.00 a month).

Such a pay structure adjustment would be more realistic and can be funded adequately by the government if 90% of revenue generation goes into the government’s accounts. Additionally, the government would have to cut down its size, scraping non-essential and ghost personnel, merging operations and functions, reducing the number of deputy and assistant ministers and directors, closing down and or privatizing revenue generating public corporations that have become liabilities, and controlling overall public wastage. Let the public service be attractive not only for the average, but for the best brains as well. A civil servant should have no justification to steal by blaming it on irregular and unrealistically low income. The civil service must be a career option as well, and not just where people go because they cannot fit into the private sector.

· Revenue Controls - The key to preventing theft is to secure the assets and remove all conditions of unnecessary exposure. Government income must be protected at all time. The first layer of this revenue security is control. Government should centralize revenue collection and create systems of control and accountability. By centralization I mean that all government’s revenue should be placed under one agency (an autonomous bureau of revenue). Only designated centers and employees should collect revenue. The government could set up revenue collection/payment centers. These centers should be well positioned so that they are close to revenue generation activities. For instance, a few stations could be placed in the Freeport area, one at RIA, one in each ministry that generates revenue, as well as the National Police Station. Each of these centers could then be equipped with computers and customized revenue collection/reporting software that would guarantee real time transaction processing, verification, and reporting. Any tax or fees paid is entered into the system while the customer is at the window; a payment/collection receipt is then printed out of the system for the customer after the payment amount and details are entered (no more manual and falsifiable flag receipts). Government cash should not be collected by everyone and by individual ministry or agency. No ministry should own a private bank account, managed by only the minister. CONTROL is the master word.

· Expenditure Controls - It may sound monotonous to say that the government should institute expenditure controls, but when you have seen a president (Charles Taylor) spend US$5.6m on a non-budgeted 4 days trip to Abuja and Bamako, then you have a legitimate reason to be confused. Equally so, when a broke government like the Transitional Government spends over US$0.5m on travel and over US$3.0m on luxurious cars, just few months after taking over, then you need to really start worrying about the future of Liberia, and ask yourself when will it ever end. There is nothing more to say on this subject other than to hope that someone with a very clear understanding of running an effective government will lead Liberia in the very near future. Optimistically, the major component here is for government to fully utilize the Budget Bureau and commit itself to spending based on allocation. FINANCIAL DISCIPLINE is the bedrock for an effective governmental expenditure control.

Corruption is the single-most destructive force responsible for Liberia’s current level of underdevelopment and the unstable security and political climate. As long as it is not challenged with a conviction of clipping off its tentacles, Liberia will continue to go backwards, while the rest of the world move ahead. Our legal system must be in the forefront of the war on corruption. There must be a clean sweep and overhauling of the legal system so that both citizens and foreigners alike can respect it. With a revered and venerated legal system in place, effective revenue and expenditure controls instituted and functional, and a public aware of the dangers of theft of public properties, including state funds, Liberia will surely bounce back in no time. The head of the government, however, must be the one to direct this challenge, because as you know, the fish starts to get rotten from the head. The people get their cue from their leaders. And so as we journey together on this road to recovery, it is worth overemphasizing that come October 2005, we must choose substance over pretence and falsehood. For if the whole is good, parts of the whole could even be better.