The visit of President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf to the
United States in March of this year was widely heralded
as the start of a new era in US – Liberian relations.
The Sirleaf administration’s objectives for
this presidential visit coming just two months after
Mrs. Sirleaf was officially inaugurated as Liberia’s
23rd president were to renew and consolidate ties
with the US after decades of frozen relations and
to attract significant US investments to jumpstart
the sluggish Liberian economy.
Judging from the reception that Mrs. Sirleaf and her
entourage received in Washington it may have signaled
that the visit appears to have accomplished one of
the objectives – that of taking Liberia off
Washington’s blacklist of isolated countries
and appealing to the sympathy of American public opinion
and government goodwill to commit the United States
more to the reconstruction of Liberia. But it is still
far from clear whether the other objective –
attracting US investments to revive the Liberian economy
would pay off. If the pledges made in Washington by
the World Bank and the US government couple with the
US Congress cutting of development assistance to Liberia
is anything to go by there is not much of an encouragement
that Mrs. Sirleaf’s visit may have accomplished
this objective. Nevertheless the US remains Liberia
primary source of development aid.
Sirleaf administration officials had hoped that the
request to Nigeria to turn over warlord-turned President
Charles Taylor would have sweetened the president’s
visit and removed Mr. Taylor as a factor in US - Liberia
bilateral relations. But as important as attracting
US investments and improving ties may be, many Liberians
like myself had anticipated that another important
issue – the return of stolen funds – would
had been raised and accentuated by President Sirleaf
in talks with her counterpart President George W.
Bush and other US officials. Mrs. Sirleaf did not
even speak about this issue in public while in the
US and many assumed that in private she did not even
raise it in her talks with US officials.
There are no reliable statistics or information on
the return of stolen funds to Liberia since the collapse
of the Doe regime or the Taylor regime. This issue
had not been given prominence by previous caretaker
governments because they felt that they did not have
the authority to take on such an issue. However the
Sirleaf government is an elected one and possesses
the authority to press for the return of stolen funds
to Liberia. This is part of the process of fighting
the culture of impunity that had existed in Liberia.
Besides, this should form part of the process of renewing
and consolidating ties with the United States, and
also take center stage in the process of getting Liberia
back on track.
The Sirleaf administration diplomacy should be able
to use its own argument in Washington that ties between
the US and Liberia run deep along with America’s
clout as the world’s preeminent superpower to
secure the return of stolen wealth stashed away not
only in the US, but also in banking institutions of
other countries particularly Switzerland and the UK.
According to some conservative estimates by organizations
such as Global Witness, Charles Taylor and his cohorts
reportedly stashed more than $3 billion in US, Swiss
and other international banks. This figure does not
take into account the billions stolen by Samuel Doe
and his cohorts.
Many observers point to the fact that in the post
9 – 11 world, the US has developed new and effective
tools for tracking the finances of international criminals
and terrorists. These tools could also be used to
locate and return the ill-gotten wealth of those who
have terrorized and robbed their own people. Returning
the funds of the notorious Doe and Taylor regimes
stashed in US bank accounts would help Liberia get
back on its feet, while deterring future corruption.
Certainly there are other issues that are important
in getting Liberia back on its feet such as debt cancellation,
responsible investment and targeted aid, some or most
of which featured on the agenda of Sirleaf’s
visit, but the US government did not show much enthusiasm
particularly in the area of debt cancellation compared
to its leading efforts in getting other creditor nations
to cancel Iraq’s debts.
Mrs. Sirleaf also has other international instruments
to resort to in a bid to secure the return of stolen
wealth to Liberia particularly the UN Convention Against
Corruption, which was adopted by the UN General Assembly
in October 2003, signed by 140 countries and ratified
by 38 countries given the fact that it needed only
30 ratifications to come into force, and rests on
four pillars: prevention and criminalization of corruption,
international cooperation and assets recovery. Liberia
acceded to this treaty on 16 September 2005. The United
States only signed the treaty on 9 December 2003 but
has not ratified it yet.
So, the arrest of Mr. Taylor with bags of cash and
his subsequent turning over to the Criminal Tribunal
in Sierra Leone, the first of its kind in Africa,
while laudable and many hope would in future be emulated,
might well be meaningless as long as his stolen gains
and those of his cohorts are not repatriated to Liberia.
Also this will greatly undermine the anti-corruption
crusade of the Sirleaf government.