Liberian Legislators Borrowing from the Timorese Political Playbook

By Evans Duncan

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
August 21, 2007


The debate on whether Liberia needs a "Financial Autonomy Act" gained currency among Liberians at home and abroad a few months ago. The act sought to prevent the Ministry of Finance from managing the accounts of the National Legislature, as it does the accounts of all branches of the Liberian Government. Following President Johnson-Sirleaf’s vetoing of the proposed act, I thought efforts to pass such an act were dead. Very recently, I read in the online version of a Liberian newspaper that efforts were underway in the House of Representatives to give the act a new lease on life, albeit with some modifications. What immediately grabbed my attention when I read the version of the act that was vetoed was how eerily similar some of its provisions were to those of a bill proposed by the Timorese National Parliament in January 2007 and vetoed by its former President Kay Rala Xanana Gusmão. (The former Portuguese colony East Timor, officially called the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste, is a tiny Southeast Asian country comprising the eastern half of the island of Timor, the nearby islands of Atauro and Jaco, and Oecussi-Ambeno.)

One thing that Liberia has in common with East Timor is pervasive poverty. The per capita GDP of each country ranks among the lowest in the world. There is also an interesting similarity between members of the Legislature of Liberia and the Timorese Parliamentarians: They spend a lot of time introducing legislations that promote their personal welfare at the expense of their compatriots. The bill proposed by the Timorese Parliament in January 2007 will seem all too familiar to those who read the proposed "Financial Autonomy Act" of the Liberian Legislature. The Timorese bill required tax exemption on importation of a personal car and materials to build a private house for all members of Parliament. It also called for the issuance of diplomatic passport for them and their families (wife, husband and children) and special treatment (VIP) when they travel in and out of the country. Not to be out staged by their Timorese counterparts, the Liberian legislators proposed in their act "that members of the Senate and the House [of Representatives] shall receive salaries subject to taxes required by law provided that they [their salaries] shall not be diminished.” The Legislature further proposed that "allowances and benefits paid to Senators and Representatives shall not be subject to taxation but may by law be increased but not diminished except under a national program enacted by the Legislature." Liberian legislators seem to think that income tax can be applied without diminishing one's salaries - this will obviously require a level of Enron-like "creative accounting" which in many countries would lead accountants to prison. (Enron Corporation is a defunct U.S. energy company based in Houston, Texas that became bankrupt as a consequence of several fraudulent accounting practices).

After public outcry about their bill, the Timorese Parliamentarians thought to placate the executive and former officials of government by including additional provisions:

- Each former government official would receive a government house, a government car with fuel, a private secretary, an adviser, two telephones, internet access and a security person all at the government's expense.

- Tax exemption on car imports and building material for as many as two private homes.

- All former officials would be allowed to use diplomatic passports and enjoy VIP courtesies when traveling not only on official matters, but also on private trips.

- The government would also pay for two intercontinental trips for the official and two other people.

Amid serious budgetary constraints, there are other Liberians, not just legislators, who are equally obsessed with clamoring for perks. Mr. Moses Blah, a former confidant of Mr. Charles Taylor, demanded pension for his "service to the Liberian people". Mrs. Doglea, wife of Blah’s predecessor, also demanded handouts from the government. If this Pandora's Box is opened, expect the Bryants, Does, Kpomakpors, Kromahs, Sankawulos, Quiahs, and our numerous “war-time Presidents” and their relatives to demand handouts as well.

If Liberians demanding handouts were allowed to have their way, the government would run into a direr financial situation than it is already in. Taxes will have to be increased to the detriment of the poor because the government will have to find money to support the emerging “welfare state”, where individuals would sit at home and be paid and those who work for government will insist on getting income through less than honorable means. If odious provisions of the vetoed “Financial Autonomy Act” ever make their way into any legislation in Liberia, Liberians can expect to see further deterioration in sectors such as education, health and infrastructure. Inflation which is somewhat in check can be expected to spiral out of control, all to the detriment of the poor who have borne the brunt of Liberia's wars.

© 2007 by The Perspective

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