President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf Government: image problems and the need for corruption cleanup


By Amos Ziah Koukou

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
July 17, 2007


The ongoing debate between the Auditor General of Liberia, John Morlu II, on one hand, and the Liberian Government on the other, has helped to highlight the need for continued debate on the issue of corruption in Liberia.

During one of her last days in her campaign, Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf said: “throughout the campaign, I assured our people that we would wage war against corruption regardless of whether or not it exists, or by whom it is practiced”. She then also pledged “zero-tolerance policy on corruptions” should she become victorious in this election. As Liberians know now, the picture seems bleak and according to a United Nations Panel report, “the public is becoming increasingly aware how civil servants have been penalized and there does not appear to be a strong, coherent policy beyond the President inaugural address to implement such penalties”. One could also add that however former interim President Bryant and few others have been indicted on allegations of corruption. But it has become interestingly too common to read news accounts of corruption in the Government under President Ellen Johnson- Sirleaf that had declared corruption public enemy #1 from its inception.

As if news of corruption is not enough embarrassment for the government to slow down international and national goodwill toward Liberia, the state own Refining Company (LPRC) headed by one of Liberia’s educated sons, Harry Greaves, continues to remain in the eyes of many as the most controversial and allegedly corrupt state functionary in the country.

For example, the UN panel reported that LPRC recent financial report shows that it owes over US$ 8 Millions in unpaid taxes with massive use of fuel allowances by its officials. On the other hand, the National Port Authority lost $70,000 under Mrs. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf administration and as worst and corrupt the Bryant government was in the eyes of many, it gained $2.041 growth profit. The Auditor general recently accused Presidential Affairs ministry of having two budgets for two apparent offices in the Ministry of State. There are also allegations of contracts being awarded without proper biddings, monopoly given to unknown business in the area of rice supply, huge waivers of taxes to companies and many other political and bureaucratic corrupt practices including news of police brutality all reported in local news. The passport bureau at the Foreign Ministry few weeks ago (before a new head was announced) was one of the most corrupt of the government functionaries. Accountability we are told is a serious problem at the Internal Affairs Ministry, and the list goes on. These are pretty serious charges that must be investigated and corrective actions taken if the Government wants to distinguish itself from previous corrupt governments including the much talked about Bryant’s Government. This is what I call political corruptions.

What is political corruption?

According to and other political commentators, there are, “three major areas of political corruption that are worth noting. First, bribery and everything associated with it. Second, some people claim that certain government practices such as patronage, while legal, might be suspect. This definition sets a very high standard for political propriety. A third aspect of political corruption is conflict-of-interest -use of public office for personal gain, usually money. There also is an ethical issue dealing with the premise that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Corruption, therefore, is a catchall expression for illegal as well as ethically questionable behaviors.”

History of Political Corruption

Corruption is as old as many states existence. From the beginnings of European settlement to the American Revolution, colonies in America witnessed some outrageous instances of corruption. Royal governors and corporate placed men used their official positions to enrich themselves in every possible way. Many of them considered this a privilege of their offices. The growing discontent with British rule in the eighteenth century contributed to the later American definition of conflict of interest, while the idea of natural rights contributed to the notion of a public interest and welfare.

In Liberian, what started as a budget debate between the budget Bureau and the Auditing bureau , both agencies headed by some of the finest young Liberian intellectuals, have now blown out into putting corruption debates on national and domestic agenda. But like Kimenyia and his colleague argued in the past, "recent interest in the political dimension of economic growth has had a significant impact on the study of the behavior of bureaucrats and how their activities affect macroeconomic performance. Most of the research has been devoted to the study of bureaucratic compensation (Kimenyi 1987; Mbaku 1991; Couch, Atkinson, and Shughart 1992) and bureaucratic corruption. Little attention, however, has been given to the problem of corruption cleanups.”

While many may be quick to shout out loud that the Auditor general be crucified for embarrassing Government and that he resign or shut off his mouth, the reality is that the angry reactions must be matched with disproving those serious flaws Auditor Morlu pointed out that he maintains he will stand by. Liberia, interestingly, has somewhat changed so much so that political disagreement is civil instead of resembling something in the past where people were imprisoned for their views or sometimes killed. Democracy is at work here and in spite of the merits and demerits of the position of the AG, this kind of disagreement must be encouraged, and that government continues to protect Morlu and other free speech rights. I do not believe that well minded Liberians should be discouraged to express their views on issues even if it is different than that of the government of the day.

The trial of former corrupt officials has often been called into question largely because of many stories of corrupt activities in the current government without any visible punitive actions yet by the Sirleaf government. The whole world is watching to see how successfully the current government will trail Bryant and some of his former officials since in fact the Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf Government itself is now faced with image problems due to the current debate about budget flaws and news of corruptions. Those engaged in “angry rhetoric” in the words of my friend Dr. Emmanuel Dolo, must do so objectively and be well quipped with the facts and not based on loyalty and emotional sentimentalism.

The UN Factor

After the elections, there were those who felt that the United Nations and much of the international community were doing every thing to help then candidate Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf to win because she was their friend. According to the logic of those people, they were convinced that UN will never see anything wrong with the presidency of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf since she was their darling. Accordingly, latest UN panel report says that “financial management of the Government of Liberia continues to improve steadily, leading to robust growth of 37 per cent in Government revenue in 2006 and based largely on improved tax administration and a high rate of gross domestic Product growth (7.8 per cent was good news for the government). The credibility of the present Government was further enhanced with the indictment on corruption charges of the Chairman of the National Transitional Government of Liberia, the former Managing Director of the Liberia Petroleum Refining Company (LPRC), and other ministers and deputy ministers. The culture of impunity, entrenched in Liberian society for long, appears to be making room for rule of law.

It was a different reaction of Government the same report said, “Though there has been tremendous growth in revenue, a few petroleum importers, rubber plantation companies and other commercial firms are evading taxes. LPRC trebled its profit to $4.76 million in 2006, while the National Port Authority incurred a loss of $70,565 in 2006, as compared to a profit of $2.041 million in 2005. More than one third of revenue collected ($46 million) in the current financial year remains unspent in the Central Bank of Liberia as at 30 April 2007, despite the desperate need for spending on capital projects (e.g., infrastructure) and on education, health and a host of other priorities. Weak internal control systems and a virtually non-existent external oversight system continue to be of concern. No effort has been made to prepare the annual accounts for the last three budgetary periods, nor has an audit of the annual accounts of the country been conducted. There is an urgent need for an independent external oversight mechanism until the Auditor General’s office can function effectively”.

With this report, Harry Greaves who is at the center of most of the corruption news in local dallies in Liberia is quoted as saying that the UN report is misleading and all lies, and that he and some committee, I understand was set up by Government, will be reacting to the report point by point. The question is why is Greaves included on the list of the committee when in fact he is accused in that very report? Is there no other member that can adequately present Government side without Greaves inclusion?

So far it seems that Government lacks effective corruption cleanup policies which may soon lead into what journalist Rodney Sieh of FrontPage called “donor fatigue”. Unless it is understood that bureaucratic corruption is opportunistic (rent-seeking) behavior and is related to the scope and extent of government regulation of economic activities, cleanup programs are unlikely to succeed. In Africa and even in the United States, bureaucrats attempt to increase their level of compensation by lobbying lawmakers and politicians and by engaging in other activities to influence the political system and maximize benefits accruing to them. Many civil servants also illegally increase their compensation by providing services to interest groups and individual that seeks favors from the government. Some of this kind of activities is reported daily by newspapers and individual in high places that prefer to remain unanimous.

When bureaucrats discover they can earn more income from providing services to groups and individual seeking state favors than from their regular (public) jobs, they may pay more attention to the demands of such interest groups and individual than to the proper enforcement of state laws and regulations and the effective implementation of national development plans. In societies where civil service compensation levels are relatively low, a significant part of the public employee's total compensation may be derived from engagement in outside activities, resulting in a significant increase in bureaucratic corruption (Mbaku 1991a). While the draft budget under review proposed meager increment to civil servants, there will be more news of corrupt practices in government if government does not clamp down hard of corrupt practices in the current government. While no one expects the Government of Mrs. Ellen Johnson- Sirleaf to appoint all Saints in cabinet positions in her government, appointing those that she can hold accountable when expectation is so high on corruption cannot be too much demand on her. The current news of corruptions in high places including certain public corporations and ministries does not give much cause for hope.

The Concept of Corruption

Corruption in developing countries is often believed to arise from the clash or conflict between traditional values and the imported norms that accompany modernization and socio-political development. Bureaucratic corruption is seen by some researchers, then as an unavoidable outcome of modernization and development (Alam 1989, Bayley 1966). David Bayley (1966: 720) argues that "corruption, while being tied particularly to the act of bribery, is a general term covering the misuse of authority as a result of considerations of personal gain, which need not be monetary." Herbert Werlin (1973: 73) defines political corruption as the "diversion of public resources to nonpublic purposes." In Africa many people see corruption as a practical problem involving the "outright theft, embezzlement of funds or other appropriation of state property, nepotism and the granting of favors to personal acquaintances, and the abuse of public authority and position to exact payments and privileges" (Harsch 1993: 33). Joseph Nye (1967: 419) argues that corruption involves "behavior which deviates from the normal duties of a public role because of private-regarding (family, close clique), pecuniary or status gain; or violates rules against the exercise of certain types of private-regarding influence. But most of those people involved in such practice are those who would normally argue that they are making sacrifices because they either left private sector at home or abroad to contribute their quota to their country.

Jacob van Klaveren believes that a corrupt bureaucrat regards his office as a business from which he is able to extract extra-legal income. As a result, the civil servant's total compensation "does not depend on an ethical evaluation of his usefulness for the common good but precisely upon the market situation and his talents for finding the point of maximal gain on the public's demand curve” (Klaveren 1990: 26). This is why it is not surprising that some officials of the current government of Mrs. Ellen Johnson- Sirleaf are allegedly using their offices to serve as consultants for other foreign and local business interests. As part of his definition of corruption, Nathaniel Leff (1964: 8) includes "bribery to obtain foreign exchange, import, export, investment or production licenses, or to avoid paying taxes." According to Carl Friedrich (1990: 15), individuals are said to be engaging in corruption when they are granted power by society to perform certain public duties but, as a result of the expectation of a personal reward or gain (be it monetary or otherwise), undertake actions that reduce the welfare of society or damage the public interest.

Bureaucratic corruption provides civil servants with the opportunity to raise their compensation above what the law prescribes. Through the practice of corruption, private entrepreneurs are able to capture and maintain monopoly positions in the economy. Politicians, who serve as wealth brokers, obtain the resources they need to purchase security and continue to monopolize the supply of legislation. The biggest loser from corruption is society as a whole. Corruption allows inefficient producers to remain in business, encourages governments to pursue perverse economic policies, and provides opportunities to bureaucrats and politicians to enrich themselves through extorting bribes from those seeking government favors. Thus, corruption distorts economic incentives, discourages entrepreneurship, and slows economic growth (Mbaku 1992, Gould 1980).

As student of politics, given President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf long history of advocacy and the struggle for social justice, I am disappointed that news of political corruption will fill the news locally and internationally at this time when the sticks are very high given her high profile elections that have raised her status to the level of an international celebrity in the world.

How do we approach this issue?

In examining bureaucratic corruption in Africa, it is important to discuss the supply side. Unless entrepreneurs and groups seeking government favors supply the bribes, then most bureaucratic corruption would be limited to nepotism, illegal levies, and the illegal appropriation of public resources. In African countries, payments from entrepreneurs seeking state favors represent an important source of extra-legal income for civil servants. A society's laws and institutions have a significant impact on the level of bureaucratic corruption. State regulatory programs can place a significant burden on business enterprises and entrepreneurship and encourage investors to seek ways to minimize these state-imposed costs. Most intervention schemes, of course, create rents that are usually competed for through a political process. Paying bribes to civil servants has emerged as an important method to compete for those rents. For profit-maximizing enterprises faced with ruinous government regulations, bureaucratic corruption can be viewed as a survival mechanism (Mbaku 1992, Harsch 1993). This is one area the government should be able to devise a strategy in curtailing this kind of corruptions that is aged old.

David Osterfeld (1992: 204-18) has argued that in a heavily regulated economy, one can find two distinct types of corruption: "expansive corruption," which involves activities that improve the competitiveness and flexibility of the market; and "restrictive corruption," which limits opportunities for productive and socially beneficial exchange. This latter type of corruption, Osterfeld (ibid. 209-10) argues, is characterized by redistribution of income and wealth in favor of individuals or groups. Most public-sector corruption falls in the restrictive category and involves illegal appropriation of public resources for private use (e. g. outright embezzlement by a civil servant) or the illegal use of an individual's public position for his own personal enrichment. Public-sector corruption hinders the proper functioning of the market system, retards economic growth, and thus is restrictive corruption. As examples of expansive corruption, Osterfeld (ibid. 212-17) mentions the bribing of judges, politicians and bureaucrats by members of the private sector. The payment of bribes to the right officials, he argues, can help mitigate the harmful effects of excessive government regulation and improve economic participation. This is when civic society and political parties and student groups must play important roles in exposing and demanding change no matter how angry Government is.

What Causes Bureaucratic Corruption in Africa?

Much research has been done to determine the causes of bureaucratic corruption in Africa. According to David Apter (1963), African civil servants may be obliged to share the proceeds of their public offices with their kinfolk. The African extended family places significant pressure on the civil servant, forcing him to engage in corrupt and nepotism practices. Bureaucrats are believed to exploit their public positions to generate benefits for themselves, their families, and their ethnic or social cleavage. Thus, in studying corruption in Africa, researchers have tended to place emphasis on the structural and individual conditions that contribute to corrupt behavior.

Many researchers have argued that there appears to be an absence of a commitment to public service among citizens of many developing countries and that excessive levels of bureaucratic corruption in these economies are related to the lack of devotion to serving the public interest. In many African countries, civil service employees view public service as an opportunity for self enrichment. Pita Agbese (1992: 229-30) has observed that in post-independence Nigeria, all political coalitions and groups have been engaged in determined efforts to capture the apparatus of state in order to use the state's redistributive powers to amass wealth for themselves. This is one reason why a lot of people who are not presidential materials vied in the last elections because they may be lucky to get cabinet positions to be able to engage in corrupt activities. Soon after capturing the government, the incumbent regime usually erects significant barriers to entry and monopolizes the supply of legislation, thus making certain that other groups do not participate in the allocation of resources. For locked-out groups, participation in the economic systems must be obtained through payment of bribes to incumbent bureaucrats, all of whom are members of the politically dominant group. This is why the whole idea of good governance commission was a good one in the first place, but I am not sure how good some members of the commission are?

Nigeria is not the only country in Africa in which the apparatus of government has become an instrument for the enrichment of members of the politically dominant group. South Africa, long regarded by many scholars in the West as a bastion for free enterprise in Africa, has for many years promoted laws that allowed the white minority to use the redistributive powers of the state to enrich itself while sentencing the black majority to perpetual poverty and deprivation (Hazlett 1988; Mbaku 1991b, 1993; Williams 1989; Doxey 1961; Hutt 1964). Throughout Africa, from Algeria to Zaire, bureaucrats and politicians promote perverse economic policies, which while impoverishing most of society, provide concentrated and significant benefits to the national elites and interest groups. For us in Liberia, we are aware of the discrimination and the political domination before the 1980 Coup Led by the late President Samuel K. Doe. This is why we must use all means at our deposal to resist this kind of behavior in any forms because the common people have for so long suffered because of this kind of behaviors that have increased the level of backwardness in our country. After almost two decade of blood shed, the current government will have to move fast to give the struggling people hope before it is too late.

Incompetence and inefficiency among civil servants have been given as other institutional issues associated with bureaucratic corruption in Africa. Sustainable economic and social development requires an efficient and professional civil service. To effectively carry out national development plans and promote entrepreneurship and innovation in the economy, the government bureaucracy must be responsive to the needs of the entrepreneurial class. Additionally, public goods and services should be delivered efficiently. The implication is that the nation's civil service must be competent and possess a significant level of professionalism. Hiring decisions should be based on merit and qualification, and senior positions should be awarded only to candidates who have distinguished themselves and possess the ability and expertise to efficiently perform the duties assigned them. Civil service positions should not be used as rewards for political support or swapped for bribes, or used to meet obligations to one's ethnic cleavage. Incompetent, unqualified, and unprofessional civil servants contribute significantly to failures in development and force the country to remain essentially underdeveloped. This is why since the elections are over now, the current government must not be afraid to reshuffle those brought into the government purely on political accommodation basis.

Control of an enormous amount of public resources by bureaucrats has allowed them to manipulate public policies to amass wealth for themselves at the expense of the rest of society. In several instances, bureaucrats have created artificial shortages in order to extort bribes from prospective demanders. The enforcement of state regulations and statutes in most African countries is poor, arbitrary, capricious, and ineffective. As a consequence, individuals and groups affected by the regulations are forced to engage in opportunism, including the payment of bribes to civil servants. Several scholars have cited the transformation of the post-independence African state apparatus into an instrument for the enrichment of members of the politically dominant group as a significant contributor to corruption (Agbese 1992, Ihonvbere and Ekekwe 1988).

It is believed that bureaucratic behavior can be constrained effectively by the law; special commissions of inquiry or special prosecutors can be chosen to investigate individuals and groups accused of corruption; and, where the evidence gathered points to corruption, the judiciary system can judge and punish the guilty according to national laws (Padhy 1986, Ali 1985). Market-related strategies for the cleanup of corruption are based on the belief that there is a relation between the structure of the market and the incidence of corruption. The prescribed remedy is less government regulation and greater reliance on markets for the allocation of resources. Such an approach, however, appears to emphasize the manipulation of outcomes within existing rules instead of proper reform of the rules. The fault is not with the market, but with the rules that regulate the market. Since rules define market outcomes, greater reliance on markets for the allocation of resources without reforming existing rules will have little effect on outcomes, including bureaucratic corruption. Unless there is effective reform of the socio-political rules within which the market functions, incentives for opportunism will remain and corruption will continue unabated (Bayley 1966, Macrae 1982, Rose-Ackermn 1978, Tilman 1968).

Political strategies for corruption cleanup emphasize the decentralization of the public sector. This is why Government should begin pragmatic approach to decentralization like Yarsuo Weh-Dorliae argued in his book, “proposition 12 for Decentralized Governance in Liberia”. It is argued that corruption arises from the concentration of power in the hands of a few politicians and bureaucrats, and that a process which provides citizens with greater access to public institutions will significantly minimize opportunities for corruption within the country. Under this approach, an effective cleanup program is expected to emphasize political deregulation and the subsequent expansion of opportunities for citizens to participate in governance. Social scientists and policymakers who favor administrative reform as a way to minimize the incidence of corruption support increasing the legal compensation of bureaucrats in order to reduce the chances that civil servants will seek extra-legal income (Gillespie and Okruhlik 1991; Dobel 1978; Nas, Price, and Weber 1986; Wade 1985).

In several African countries, politicians regularly use cleanup campaigns to help them stay in power. Cleanup programs can be used to discredit members of a previous regime, to destroy the reputations of leaders of the opposition, and to improve support among the population for the incumbent regime. Even if a government seriously and honestly wishes to cleanup corruption, existing approaches suffer from at least one obstacle: their success depends on the effectiveness of the counteracting agencies. In Africa cleanup programs depend primarily on the police, the national judiciary, and the press, and assume that those agencies are appropriately constrained by the law and are free of corruption. In addition to the fact that few African countries have a press that is independent and free of government manipulation, the police and national judiciary systems of most African countries are pervaded by very high levels of corruption. As a result, a cleanup program backed by those agencies is unlikely to be effective. Present cleanup programs are based on the manipulation of behaviors within what are inefficient rules and as a result, are unlikely to be effective. The first step in an effective cleanup program is to select appropriate new rules, making sure that the new social contract is capable of generating the outcomes desired by society

Rules and Corruption Cleanup in Africa

Most African countries today operate under constitutional rules that were adopted at independence. Despite many attempts at post-independence rules reform, most African countries have not succeeded in designing appropriate laws and institutions, especially those that would guarantee the types of outcomes desired by members of society. Instead, what passes as constitutions in many African countries are basically adaptations of European constitutional models that have allowed politically dominant groups to continue to maintain a monopoly on power and as a result, get away with corruption. If we as a people are to be taken seriously, instead of blaming most of our woes on others, we have to begin to hold public officials accoutable.Government should be able to adopt a pragmatic policy toward fighting corruptions including firing our friends, supporters and those brought into government based on political accommodation. This is not asking too much of the current government.

About the author: Amos ziah Koukou is a Doctoral Candidate at Widener University, Chester, Pa and Lives in West Lansdowne, Pa with his
© 2007 by The Perspective

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