Fighting Corruption In Liberia –Four-Prong Approach Needed

By: James W. Harris

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
November 14, 2007


Liberians everywhere must become pro-active in combating endemic corruption in homeland’s (FPA) editor-in-chief, Rodney Sieh’s, dual investigative pieces which he recently published on his website on 11/04/07 about what could best be described as emerging scandals in several government ministries, including, Finance, Labor, Justice and Defense, respectively in Monrovia should alarm Liberians if not awaken them.

While the apparent scandal at Labor is different in nature from the rest because it mainly involves alleged bribery as compared to problems with numbers, they however could together still have a grave negative impact on the Johnson Sirleaf administration, especially in its continuing drive to resurrect the collapsed nation’s once rotten image abroad.

In one of the reports captioned, “Liberia’s Budget Shocker: US$10M Overspent – Where Did the Money Go?” Sieh wrote: “In the 2006/2007 budget, a $US1.8 Million was appropriated for Liberia’s Ministry of Defense, but by the end of the budget year, the Ministry had spent a total of US$3.8 million. The Ministry of Justice had $8,199, 603 allocated for the budget year, but ended up spending about $492,351 more – that’s according to the recently released Ministry of Finance (MOF) Fiscal Outturn Report.”

He then asked: “So why did they overspend [and more importantly] where did the extra money come from?” I’m sure that every Liberian too would want to know if they are serious about moving their country forward and leaving the ugly past behind....

At a critical time like this when the country needs every penny it can get its hands on to hopefully better the lives of the people and bring physical development to the seemingly long abandoned land, it certainly can’t be anything but scandals when “numbers” in reports produced by government agencies, like Finance, don’t match up or someone at the Labor ministry is alleged to have been attempting to solicit bride for the delivery of a specific service.

In agreement with Minister Woods
And while I do agree in some way with Labor Minister, Kofi Woods, who was reported to have said he needs “evidence” or at least an official letter of complaint before he could do anything about bribery .allegation involving anyone in his ministry, I believe that even with evidence or said letter, bribery as an integral part of our “system”, will continue for a long time to come unless Liberians really decide to do something drastic but lawful about it..

Also according to Sieh’s report, the budget scandal stemming from the recent release of the MOF Fiscal Outturn Report, is generating calls “[for the audit] of the various ministries and agencies in the administration of President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf” since “there has [been no] audit undertaken in the last two years [prior to] the post-war government [taking] over.”

Well, such calls are long overdue as far as I’m concerned. Isn’t that exactly why the General Auditing Commission (GAC) was established? If only the GAC was doing its mandated job I’m sure that Minister Woods won’t be asking for evidence because there certainly would be enough to go around... Perhaps the GAC too may have to be audited one of these good ole days due to its very own vouchers scandal – who knows!

A typical example
Besides, in a relatively small place like Liberia, you see, it really shouldn’t be that difficult to catch some people engaged in corrupt practices. Let’s say for example that Mr. X works at the Ministry of Finance Given his position, we should know one way or the other exactly what his income is. Let’s say that Mr. X makes around $200 dollars a month, without any other known income sources.

A few months after being on the job, Mr. X all of a sudden begins to build a huge mansion somewhere in Sinkor near Monrovia (and I mean with high fences too). Mr. X meanwhile also begins to drive a top class BMW, Mercedes Benz, SUV or whatever (even on pot-hole filled roads).

Does one have to be a rocket scientist or genius to know that something indeed is wrong here? Absolutely not! So, in a situation like this, what more evidence does one really need? Just think about it soberly. And as popular Liberian musical icon, Sundaygar Dearbor, says in one of his popular hit songs: “Just shine [open] your eyes Liberians…there are many ‘GBLORS’ [in reference to over-sized elephants that don’t get tired eating until their stomachs start running] still around”

Although the president herself partly shares the blame for the mess that our country presently is in, she however must equally be given some credit for trying to solve some of the battered nation’s many chronic problems, particularly, those involving the broke nation’s finances

Since she became the chief of state just a little over two years ago, the Liberian leader has been traveling all over the world like a kind of roving ambassador supposedly to find help for her severely destroyed nation.

President’s success may go to waste
Significantly also, she has been successful in no small way in improving Liberia’s once badly damaged image abroad from that of a pariah state during the dictatorial regime of jailed Liberian “strong-man”, Charles Taylor, to its current favorable status as an emerging “stable” nation – thanks mainly to UN forces on the ground.

But if this government – the Unity Party’s – doesn’t quickly find a way to bring wide-spread corruption and other financial improprieties under control (if not to a complete halt) then I’m afraid that all the president’s efforts and strength would have gone to complete waste.

I mean, let us be very frank or candid here. Doesn’t it seem senseless for the President to continue trotting the globe looking for much needed aid or whatever, but yet this much-hyped administration continues to have serious problems keeping its books in order, particularly so, at the nation’s Finance Ministry of all places?

Further, do Liberians truly believe that the international community will forever pour millions and millions of dollars into their wrecked country only for such monies to be squandered, unaccounted for or continually disappearing into thin air without a trace?

Also, wasn’t this administration supposed to be all about “accountability” as President Johnson Sirleaf earlier had pledged on numerous occasions when she was running for the highly prized Executive Mansion? Well then! The President need not pay lip service to fighting corruption in the country. She must act boldly by taking the bull by the horn if it even means getting rid of people close to her.

Involvement of all Liberian required
But honestly, she doesn’t even have to do this all by herself. Curbing corruption in Liberia or at least bringing it under reasonable control would entail the active involvement of all Liberians – whether at home or in the Diaspora.

Here’s what I’d like to personally propose in this light – a four prong approach. First of all, that Liberians must insist (and I mean in every sense of the word) that the Auditor General (whoever that person may be) carries out his “auditing” duties and make his reports public and accessible to everyone. I sincerely believe that “auditing” is in fact a far better tool than most to fight entrenched corruption as it has always existed in Liberia up to this very day. Why? Because everything would be supported by documentary evidence.

Secondly, that the press (most especially the local press) become more aggressive in terms of reporting on bribery, budgetary or any other scandals which may be occurring in government thereby hindering the wounded nation’s ability to recover from years of senseless carnage.

As one Samuel H. Perkins ( ) from Yonkers, NY, wrote in a recent letter to “There is a very powerful tool that the media have at their disposal, that tool is called [INVESTIGATIVE] REPORTING. All the media have to do is set up phony companies and put in bids and let the chips fall where they may.” I couldn’t agree with him more, because I sincerely believe that this tactic could actually work in bursting some people and bringing them into the light of day for their criminal habits.

Thankfully also, Mr. Perkins did not only question whether or not the [Liberian] media was in his own words “afraid of coming forward to report allege act [s] of corruption where ever [they] may [be] occur [ing]?”, but he even went further to suggest just how they should go about doing it, namely, “to … set up phony companies and put in bids and let the chips fall where they may.” It’s not that Liberian media practitioners aren’t taught how to do these things, it’s just that their priorities have always been different, or better still, grossly ill-defined. And that has got to change too!

Using ‘investigative reporting’ tool
As the matter of fact, editor Sieh was using the exact tool [investigative reporting] just as Mr. Perkins had suggested when he correctly reported on the budget numbers mis-match fiasco. That’s why it is very disappointing when people like one Ruel Francis Dempster, charges the credible FPA of supposedly carrying a “misleading” headline.

Amazingly, though, Mr. Dempster did admit that “[there was indeed an] appearance of overspending by most Agencies of [the Liberian] government.” In effect, FPA’s headline was in no way misleading; rather, it presented very accurately what the report had said.

Therefore, it was and will never be Sieh’s or anyone else’s responsibility to assume what the correct figures in the report should have been. That responsibility falls squarely on the government entity publishing it.

In times like these when the President is trying to do her best to restore long-lost trust and credibility to Liberia, that’s the last thing she would want – more of such reckless reports.

Setup a watchdog group
Thirdly, [again] that young Liberian professional public accountants, economists as well as those in the financial sector come together and form something equivalent to a kind of “watchdog” group to monitor the government’s various activities, particularly, its spending ways to determine exactly where our money is going.

I had in fact called for the establishment of this kind of group a few years ago, but for some reasons [or well known reasons] this hasn’t happened yet so far. If such a group was ever formed, it could definitely make a major contribution in combating corruption finally in Liberia.

For example, members of this group could plan visits to the country at least once a year to gather raw data to put together an independent report on the financial health of the Liberian nation. The group could even work along side the GAC, providing free consultation services where necessary.

Decisive action needed
Fourth and lastly, that the government itself {in this case, the Johnson Sirleaf administration) clamp down very hard on people found guilty of corruption [and I really do mean without discrimination]. Considering the amount and “quality” of information that were included in the UN Experts report - to give you yet another example of this government’s inaction – there’s absolutely no reason why some people should still be working in this administration. But again, the government says that it doesn’t have the required “evidence” to prosecute suspected culprits [vultures] .

Personally I think this is just a cop out. Again, if Liberians including the President are really serious about fighting corruption in their country, then they really need to wage the battle simultaneously on the four specific fronts that I’ve earlier mentioned above.

For the sake of clarity, I’d like to re-emphasize my four-prong strategy to fight corruption in Liberia. (1) We must call for the thorough audits of the various government entities (i.e. ministries, public corporations, autonomous bureaus, etc); (2) We must keep encouraging the press (especially the local media) to become more aggressive in reporting ethical and financial lapses in government; (3) We must challenge young Liberian Certified Public Accountants (CPA), economists and other financial people to form a “watchdog” group to serve as an independent monitor of government activities (financial and otherwise); and (4) We must insist [very strongly] that the Chief Executive [whoever that person may be – in this instance, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf].take swift corrective action by firing anyone caught in the act. Such action must be decisive and not just a slap on the wrists.

Learning from two examples
President Johnson Sirleaf could learn a valuable lesson from two separate incidents when it comes to taking strong and decisive action. In the first incident, popular American talk show queen, Oprah Winfrey, recently learned that a certain staff member at her all girls academy in South Africa had violated one of them. After ascertaining the facts, Oprah wasted no time in removing that person from his job just days after she had heard about the unfortunate incident.

In the second example, a few top-ranking officials of the District of Columbia (DC) tax division were recently caught stealing millions of dollars in fraudulent refunds from the district government. Again, the head of the DC tax division, Dr. Ghandi, wasted no time in kicking out said officials as well as their immediate bosses as a means of restoring public trust in the DC government. Now, why can’t the same thing happen in Liberia? Because of cronyism and other loyalties I guess.

‘Balkanizing’ procurement
As for the “balkanization” of procurement activities in Liberia, from being done at a central location like the General Services Agency (GSA) to the various ministries, I’m sure that there are many Liberians out there who could come up with a better foul-proof system utilizing existing technologies today if the administration was seen as welcoming. For example, the entire system could be computerized with built in checks and balances to ensure that accurate records are kept and most importantly preserved.

I’m sure that there’s a Liberian out there somewhere who could come up with a system that works. But the only real problem seems to be that the government doesn’t look like it is interested or prepared to make things right as they should.

I mean, if GSA director, Willard Russell, himself can admit that the “new set up [government entities doing their own procurement] is helping the government,”, then why is his agency still in business today? You figure that out

Appeal to Fahnbulleh and others.
Meanwhile, I’d like to appeal to Mr. George Fahnbulleh and other relatively young Liberian entrepreneurs who feel that they’ve been pushed aside and taken advantage of by this government to take up their complaints with the appropriate authorities. If in case they don’t get any redress, then, of course, they’d have every right to bring their grievance [s] out in the public [as George just did], or better yet, pursue redress in the court of law. That’s one way we’ll be able to take on corruption head on in Liberia and possibly win the war against it at long last.

© 2007 by The Perspective

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