Liberia: Is Every Public Servant A Potential Criminal?

By: Jeff Cooper



The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
August 23, 2006


Sometimes ago when I told my history professor that I wanted to write a piece about corruption in Liberia, she was quick to say “corruption is everywhere; even in the United States”. I respectfully agreed with the professor but countered that my concern was not its universality but its root, who are involved and how rampant it is in my country. Liberia is perhaps the only country where presidents, vice presidents, ministers, deputy ministers and cadets compete in stealing with impunity as evidenced by recent audit report of the Economic Community West African States (ECOWAS).

The history of Liberia is one of political, social and economic struggle for survival shrouded in a long financial mismanagement. From the beginning, the stated goal of the settlers was to find a home in Africa for the freed slaves from the United States southern plantations and the Congo basin. But it could also be argued that this struggle for a black state was essentially born out of the desire for personal wealth and freedom at the expense of the indigenes. Years after its arrival on the West Coast of Africa, agents of the imperialist American Colonization Society, later to be known as Americo-Liberians, engineered the birth of the sovereign state of Liberia in 1847. “Americo-Liberians also sought to keep control over national politics and keep out the local peoples. The settlers also concentrated on politics as the main road to success and wealth, and neglected business and commerce”, note historians J.B.Webster, Adu Albert Boahan and Michael Tidy in their book, The Growth of African Civilization: The Revolutionary years- West Africa since 1800 (1967). The above charge explains why every Tom and Dick wants to either be a President or Speaker or Senator in Liberia. Subsequently abuse of public trust in Liberia over the years has become a way of life and very much encouraged from the top to the bottom. “The tendencies of intolerance of each other’s opinion rooted in parochial and selfish considerations- and greed – have driven us into our descent into recent tragedies and paralysis as a nation and as a people”, President also noted in her inaugural address.

It is fair to say that Liberia financial system had been a thoroughly corrupt one since the nation was birthed. I think this is an important point for us understand, especially for those who are not familiar with the history of Liberia - Africa’s first black independent republic. Corruption as we know it today in government has its genesis with the coming of the settlers in the 18th century. Representing about 5% of the population, the settlers instituted an oligarchy from 1847 until 1980. “The Monrovia government was a settler government enforcing settler policies (p.131)”. From these historical facts, it is safe to conclude that every political and social crisis including the just ended civil wars that killed over 300,000 - including three presidents, E.J. Roye, and William Richard Tolbert Jr., and Samuel Kanyon Doe was the climax of misrules. For 133 years, a very small group of people institutionalized theft and gross violation of human rights with impunity.

These are hard facts we must understand as Liberians. They are not laurels that a nation can boast about but they cannot be ignored or down play if we are to build a lesser corrupt society. This knowledge and understanding of how the past governments have abused public trust thereby visiting tragedies upon tragedies upon the people must not be brought to an end but it must guard the present generation in charting a better path to a lesser corrupt society. As the saying goes, it is good to threat a disease but it is best to know and destroy the pathogens that cause the disease.

As already mentioned, this national disease started shortly before and after independence. It began with the creation by few noted settlers of what was then known as the ‘commercial group’ of Monrovia and the ‘agriculture group’ in the other settlements along coastal areas like Grand Bassa - that had opposed a total break with the ACS at independence. Thus began the small but very wealthy class of settlers in Liberia. After independence in 1847 these groups merged to become republicans. Headed by Joseph Jenkins Roberts they assumed control of Liberia and dominated national politics until 1877 - when the True Whig Party came to power and effectively instituted a one-party political system. Like their cousins, participation in the True Whig Party government was based on lineage (by natural birth or adoption) to the settlers.

While history shows Joseph Jenkins Roberts as an able statesman and administrator in every respect the same history records that Liberia’s first President was essentially a racist and created unnecessary government civil services that favored his kin. In their book Prof. Adu Albert Boahan et al note that “Roberts, a light-skinned mulatto, fostered a caste system based on skin color. The light-complexioned mulatto governing class kept socially apart (p.128).” This is another historical reference to the root of corruption, and human rights violation by top government officials in Liberia.

The question then is how can Liberia as nation get rid of corruption given its historical nature? First make corruption a capital offense. Second, prosecute those economic saboteurs without regards to class or social standing. I believe that the election of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf last year presents Liberia the lifetime opportunity to break the spinal cord of corruption.

This brings me to the subject of recent Financial Report of ECOWAS Team of Investigators into the economic crime in Liberia. According to the report, the Ecowas team of investigators found that the former Chairman of the National Transitional Government of Liberia (NTGL), Mr. Gyude Bryant, presided over a financial administration system and national fiscal policy that left “little or no trail in Government transactions”, and recklessly sacrificed financial probity on the altar of appeasement to defunct warring factions and ex-combatants. The report described the NTGL financial management as “severely flawed and provides an enabling environment for corruption to flourish (page 17)”.

To substantiate these assertions, the investigators found that Mr. Gyude Bryant is personally liable to pay Liberia the sum of $667,000.00 (USD). Then Mr. Bryant and former Deputy Minister of Finance Mr. Tugbeh Doe are jointly liable to pay Liberia back $375,000.00 (USD). Apart from jointly coughing out $375,000.00 with Chairman Bryant, Mr. Tugbeh Doe must piss additional $ 110,000.00 for the state. Next in line to restitute the people money is the former Commerce Minister Samuel Wlue who the Ecowas team found he single handedly defrauded the government in the amount of $432,502.67 (USD) and must be held liable for said amount. Also making it to this list of fraudsters is the former Finance Minister, Mr. Lusinee Kamara, who the team found owes and must be held jointly liable for 200,000.00 with his Deputy, Doe. Additionally, the former Finance boss is also personally liable for the amount of $36,700.00 (USD), the investigators wrote. Then former vice chairman and now ambassador designate to the United Nations, Mr. Wesley Johnson pocketed $34,050.00 from state funds is liable to pay same back into government account. An aide to Deputy Minister Doe, named Albert Quaye stole $16,000.00 (USD) and L$50,000.00 which ECOWAS team of investigators said he is liable.

Reading this report I find it hard that these potential criminal are still walking the streets of Monrovia. This is an opportunity for the authorities to begin instituting measures to rid the public of economic criminal activities. The time has come for Liberians to learn that corruption is a criminal act and that those who participate in it must not be protected by law. It is time for President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to prove the declared principle of the Unity Party administration that “corruption is public enemy number one”. I dare say that how she handles the findings by the team of financial investigators will convene many that she is not just merely been rhetorical. Bringing these fraudsters to justice is an opportunity Liberia cannot afford to slip by. The stakes are too high. Reminiscence of the 1980s will help.

The first time this opportunity came by was 26 years ago when the hegemonic regime of the ‘Congo people’ was toppled by an unknown proxy, then 26 years old AFL Master Sergeant Samuel Doe. When that military regime executed the 13 former officials including the head of State, without the due process of law that could have help to determine the whereabouts of the nation’s stolen monies, the country suffered its second loss and drastically diminished its chances for meaningful economic and political change. As corrupt as the accused 13 advisors to Tolbert might have been, they were also amongst the very best educated, enlightened our nation Liberia had produced.

Today, no one will deny that had the due process of law taken the scale of our tragedies for the last 25 years would have been far less. The unlawful execution of the president and his ministers had not done our nation any good not minimize corruption. If anything had been learned, is that murder begets murders. The result of the military take over was the institution of a system that lacks the political clout, expertise and experience in dealing with both the complexities of governance and the intricacies of evolving modern society. So, the very evil that the military regime of Master Sergeant Doe publicly said it came to remove was encouraged at all levels of society. This apparently led to the departure from the military government of few technocrats like Dr. H. Boima Fahbulleh Jr., Dr. Tokpa Nah-Tipoteh, Dr. Amos Sawyer, Mr. Gabriel Baccus Matthews, among others.

Consequently the exit of these respected ‘progressive elements’ from the military regime still in its infancy naturally gave birth to a confrontational continuum. The military soon began using excessive force against its perceived ‘enemies of the state and their collaborators’.The University of Liberia were Dr. Amos Sawyer, Dr. H. Boima Fahnbulleh Jr., and Prof. Togba Nah-Tipoteh served as professors became the focus point, because Sergeant Doe and his military regime believed that ‘saboteurs’ were hatched and trained by these classroom teachers on the university campus. Again these ‘progressives’ are back in the government.

The military regime and the elected government of Doe Samuel did not work out nor spend its minimal expertise worrying about how to rally human resources to deliver social and economic change. Thus, instead of rooting out the much heralded corrupt practices, the Doe regime nurtured corruption on a large scale. Today, President Ellen Sirleaf is on record for publicly declaring corruption “public enemy number one”. To this end the government and the donors have put some mechanisms in place to protect the economic interest of the Liberian people. The challenge now is to apply the law in correcting our wrongs.

Since we seem to agree that the eruption of civil war in 1989 was the climax of economic, social, and political abuse that had characterized the nation for nearly century and a half the time has come to put an end to corruption and other abuses in Liberia. Like many socially conscious Liberians I have followed Madame Ellen Johnson Sirleaf with interest ever since, not the least since she assumed responsibility for the country on January 16, 2006. With her background and expertise, I think that Liberia will rise from the ashes of hopelessness and miseries due to years of misrule and constant financial mismanagement.

In both her inaugural address in January and the historic address to the US congress, corruption was declared ‘public enemy number one’ to which, understandably, the 67 years old Howard trained economist received due applauses. But can these words be transformed into action? Would former Chairman Mr. Gyude Bryant, former Commerce Minister Samuel Wlue, former Finance Minister Lusinee Kamara and former Deputy Finance minister Tugbeh Doe as well as others implicated in economic crime in Liberia be sent behind bars?.

As I completed this article, Madam President had disclosed that evidence for the possible prosecution of those named in the ECOWAS audit report has been forwarded to the Justice Ministry. To that, I say let the music begin at the Temple of Justice!

Jeff Cooper is a journalist/student at the University of Minnesota. Contact:
© 2006 by The Perspective

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