Society’s Response to Corruption in Liberia: A Lip Service?

By: Baba Sillah
Contributing Writer

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
September 2, 2017


Corruption is a serious threat to the Liberian society. Like a vicious disease it tears away at the systems and institutions that should work to address national development challenges like illiteracy, health-delivery care, unemployment, among several. Society is being robbed of scarce and valuable resources that can be used to undertake substantive development transformation by some individuals in positions of public trust. Howbeit, the threat of corruption is not delimited to individuals in positions of public trust, it slithers through society with almost every known established institutional structure including the family, being suspicious and needing some form of query. 

More often than not, corruption is understood by many to mean an act of graft or swindling of public money by public officials, correct! However, this understanding of corruption could be too narrow to accommodate the many forms that this menace can mutate to. Therefore, there has to be a look beyond public office into the communities to identify the causal factors that underpin corruption. This is significant since people come from communities and only communities can present the platform for the formation and the partaking of culture. So, a look into our communities will give us an insight into what people know about corruption and what they think about it. 

Anecdotal case:
Mr. John Brown got a new job as the Managing Director at one of the government’s parastatals. His family was excited. Friends and some external relations including well-wishers who were also excited, perhaps feeling that this was their time to eat from government through john, had come to his house to see him and congratulate him. In all they were about fifteen at his house that evening. When Mr. Brown joined them they began to rain praises on him calling him “pap-pay” and painting him superman images though he was only a natural man with his own challenges. When they had rained their praises on him as their way of congratulating him for his new job, some began to ask him for transport money, liquor, gas slips, among others, being purely careless of the fact that he had a wife to tend to and two kids to nourish and educate. He had to remind them that he hadn’t even started his job, least to say taken salary. But this was just their way of introducing him to what would turn out to be a long trend of suppression that would eventually stimulate Mr. Brown whose salary could not meet their ceaseless and unrealistic demands into corrupt practices. 

He initially refused to play to the gallery and tried to live within the range of his fairly earned salary doing only what he could reasonably do in respect to his earnings. Nonetheless, his family members and friends scorned him saying, “john you will die poor because of your stupidity (i. e. his refusal to engage into corrupt practices) this government is not for your 'pa' (father) so you better eat your own.” They even went on to say that he was mean to himself and his wife and children because he wore cheap clothes and shoes while his children still attended a cheap school and his wife still maintained the small business she did before he got his job. 

As time went by, he tried to endure scorn and abandonment by his friends and even some family members pretending not to be hearing their gossips about how he was thrifty and stupid. But like many, he could not long withstand living in abandonment of his friends and being scorned and called names thus, he decided to begin to do the things that they had accused him of not doing. He began flooding the tables with bottles of beer, wearing very expensive clothes, giving money to gullible friends and family members, even changed his children’ school to a more expensive one though ironically, the earlier taught better than the latter. He began doing all of these things because he had grown weary of being called mean and stupid and living in abandonment of his friends and was now prepared to live by the dictates of society even to the point of becoming its slave. This change in his principled stance and life style had a directly proportional monetary value which his salary alone could not offset therefore he engaged into corrupt practices.

How Society stimulates corruptors and corruption:
Before-hand, let me acknowledge that some Liberians might have really strong desires to fight corruption and equally strong conviction that by using the institutional structures and processes existing they can contain corruption. But frankly, as it is today in Liberia, it appears that one group’s corruptor is another’s bread-winner. There seems to be no clear agreement especially at the community level presently on how to view corruption. Allegations about corruption when discussed in the media are turned into melodramatic proxy-debates between usually two or more groups. Usually one presupposing that the allegations are true and news of prosecution welcoming and in contradistinction the other terming the allegations as bogus and news of prosecution as “witch-hunt.”  

Like Mr. John Brown in the anecdote above, every person who works for government or a private institution is a part of a community and a process of socialization, and interrelates with friends and family members as part of a neighborhood of people. Through the process of socialization, people teach and are taught beliefs that they come to agree upon. This is a rather trans-generational process.

Of keen interest than is how these beliefs gain wide acceptance despite the fact that they are not openly identified with or acknowledged? An attempt at answering this question for me begins with a list of a few questions. First, do the people have confidence in the systems and processes set up to prosecute individuals alleged to be corrupt or is their confidence shrunken? Do they think that there is always an easy way to circumvent a corruption charge? How do people in the communities respond to individuals who are allegedly corrupt? There is a laundry list of questions that could be considered but this much should suffice. 

In answering the first question, I would say that people may not have much confidence in the prosecutorial system. This is so mainly because the government has not been winning significant cases that will deal a definite and defiant blow to corruption thereby sending a clear signal to corruptors that their time has ended. In other words, impunity still reigns supreme!

There is always a complaint of the lack of overwhelming evidence on the part of the prosecutorial arm of government. I am in concurrence with the maxim that says, it is better for a thousand guilty persons to be set free than for a single innocent person to be imprisoned. While I do not question the authenticity of effort to fight corruption, I do however believe that there has to be much, much more effort exuded in trying to instill confidence in the people in the prosecutorial system. A first effective step to this I believe would be bridging the communications gap through informing the people on how the legal (rule of law) or prosecutorial course of action works. 

Second, people tend to countenance the thought that there is always an easy way to beat a corruption charge because, though they hear of allegations of corruption every time they don’t hear of prosecution or imprisonment at similar rate hence they are predisposed to think that individuals accused of corruption may be using some of the spoils to work their way out of the prosecutorial loop. Looking at the second point, it suggests that the shrinkage in confidence in the prosecutorial system has led to the believe that all the talk about fighting corruption is only a “farce" a “lip-service” and that individuals accused of corrupt practices are some of the freest and most popular in society and these individuals assume a sort of quasi “mafia don” or “criminal role model” status in society. As members of society, we are duty-bound to ask the Socratic question “is the just life happier than the unjust?” Seemly that's the case in our Liberia.

Considering the above dynamics, some people may resort to believing that if others could be accused of corruption and later go scathe free to live at standards that their salaries can’t justifiably correlate to; they too could also venture into corruption or encourage their relations to do so as there is always a chance to eventually walk free to live out of the ordinary. In Liberia, it would seem, when a person ascends to a “big job” about ninety percent of the pieces of advice that goes her or his way are not caution to stay clear of corrupt practices, rather they are clichés such as; “you have to do something for yourself and your family; this position got eating inside, you won’t remain in this position forever so you have to act soon.” Among others, these sayings coupled by never-ending requests from friends and family members for money, gas-slips, purchase of liquor, etc., and even the risk of abandonment by friends and some family members ultimately drive once non-corrupt individuals into corruption.

Do Liberians really see corruption as negative and having debilitating effects on society and therefore an ethical transgression or do they just pay lip-service to the issue of corruption in society? 
To treat this question, one first has to look at what society’s ethical standards with reference to corruption is, whether it is conditionally or circumstantially good or moral because it is widely practiced. And if it is, whether constant public decrying of the menace is meant only to create a smokescreen especially to those outside of the arena where it is committed. In Liberia, it is common to hear somebody tell another person that he is only jealous of an accused corrupt individual because he is not in that person’s position, and if he were there he would have probably been accused of the same or worse. This says volumes about the way in which people perceive corruption. For some would appear, corruption is okay and can go on for as long as the perpetrator is not caught in the fray. They do not see any ethical standards being transgressed by an official or a routine worker who bends the rules a little to seek rent especially if that official or routine worker is from the public sector, because as stated earlier they view government as “an elephant meat”.

Some people do not care much about dignity in labor and service to country or leading as servants. As a result, they try to force a correlation between “small pay” and corruption. Certainly, nobody comes up and makes a public statement or declaration espousing corruption because that would be very foolhardy. From the phone-in programs on the radio to interviews conducted with Liberians everybody makes strong-worded statements against corruption. In a nutshell, it seems like corruption is given too much lip-service and too little constructive practical rejection at the community level and may even be unofficially considered in many quarters not as an ethical transgression. By constructive rejection I imply that friends, family members, and other relations ought to stop placing strains on individuals who are called to serve whether in the public or private sector. People have to begin to treat their friends or children fairly and stop suppressing them by making unrealistic requests and stimulating them to use their offices to earn more than what they can meritoriously get, for this only leads them to engaging in corrupt practices. 

Grassroots corruption:
The following illustrations are used to map out some aspects of grassroots corruption: (1) a woman in the market selling rice, would be inclined to pound the bottom of or put candle wax in the ‘salmon cup’ in which she measures the rice to retail just to defraud the buyer of a handful of rice. By the time she has sold a hundred-pound bag of rice she would have defrauded a number of buyers of several handfuls which would amount to several cups of rice (2) a teacher unduly complicates or even distorts examination questions with the intent of making students fail so that he can solicit money from them in order to give them passing marks, (3) a mother knowing that her son is not employed and maybe does not even have the skills that would make him employable, all the same, sees him go out every late evening and when he comes back the next morning or late night he brings with him huge sums of money and valuables (gold chain, television, etc.), this son of hers may just be one of the many armed-robbers terrorizing other mothers in other communities, but she never cares to inquire of him where he gets all the money and valuables from every time. These kinds of acts are not widely discussed in the media or at the community level but nothing change them from being corrupt in nature. 

Whatsoever name it is given (embezzlement, swindling, bribery) whosoever (the government minister, teacher, or the market woman) commits it, corruption is a menace that rubs societies of pave roads, modern medical care centers, well-equipped and well-staffed institutions of learning, skilled human capital, safe drinking water and sanitation, food and nutrition, adequate security, among several. In Liberia, there is a great incongruity between the attitudinal and behavioral facets of the people. This contradiction can be likened unto a pastor who says it is sinful to lust after a woman although he is the first person looking intently whenever a half dressed woman passes by. This goes to say that, people have strong thoughts, (feelings, outlooks) that they can sequence together in an exceptionally compelling way either through written or oral means but they proportionally lack the deeds that will ensure that they navigate through these thoughts and abstract constructs using realistic actions to achieve material goals. In other words, people render too much lip-service to grand thoughts such as anti-corruption when they should be taking practical steps at every level of society.

Corruption is pervasive and it’s maybe in every segment of the Liberian society and it would require will and commitment on the part of all and sundry (as it is humans who establish and drive institutional mechanisms) to curb it. Until every Liberian view the issue of corruption through a single and non-blurry, non-self-interested looking glass and start to take pride in their functions and occupations, valuing what they fairly earn and having modest but decent desires for themselves, corruption will continue to pervade ravish the society. 

People need to stop believing that corruption is not wrong until it is exposed or suspected by the appropriate punitive or prosecutorial authorities. This is so because, we all have a shared responsibility to protect whatever resources our country has so that it is used to generate the highest possible benefits for the most possible people.

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