Finally, a Structural Strategy to Combat Corruption

By Abdoulaye w. Dukulé

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
December 22, 2008


No country can claim to totally eradicate corruption. However, one can put in place measures to put the phenomenon under control. In her recent policy statement, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf seems to have embarked on a way to find long-term solutions to something that has permeated the Liberian society and government from its founding days. She was elected three years ago with the fight against corruption as on the most important topics of her campaign. Since arriving to the Executive Mansion, she has complained many times about endemic corruption in all branches of government, at times sounding on the brink of desperation. Her policy statement is a clear departure from her past utterances, when she and others in the government seemed at lost.

In her landmark speech, the President has welcomed collaboration from the media, the general public and political commentators. This is a novelty as opposed to the usual defensive that sometimes gave the impression that she was protecting some people. She recognized the fact that corrupt practices are part of the very foundation of Liberian institutions and finally, she pointed to the issue of impunity. The President seems to have reconnected with her campaign promises in finding ways to fight against theft, waste and graft in the public domain.

President Sirleaf may somehow have left many sections of Liberians hungry for drastic measures by not suspending, firing or simply making recommendations for prosecution based on the recent results of audits by the General Auditing Commission. Liberian will have to outgrow their taste for fast gratification. This frustration felt by some people in a country accustomed to kangaroo courts and flashy judgments is understandable. Liberian leaders in the past used crowd-pleasing judgments to get rid of foes. In as much as prosecution, firing and other punishments might help to set examples, Liberia has to grow out of the culture of the politics of scapegoats. After the legislature has had a chance to review the audit reports and the findings are published in their entirety, then and only then can the President be accused of “playing favoritism.” This is the first time that Liberians will be given access to the full results of professional audits, they can wait a few more weeks to see what recommendations were made and what the Executive does in the end. Only then, can they also know the lasting effects of the audits on national institutions.

Corruption is the mother of all ills in Liberia. President Tolbert mentioned it whenever he could. When they stormed the Executive Mansion, killed the President (Tolbert) and later executed members of his government, the soldiers needed just one phrase to justify the brutality of their take-over: “rampant corruption.” Later, that government will turn out to be even more corrupt than the one it overthrew. The Taylor administration simply turned the government into a criminal enterprise, with international ramifications. However, what Taylor did was not so different from what past administrations did; he only took it to a different level. At some point, Liberia was off the chart amongst the list of most corrupt nations in the world. And that was just ten years ago!

Two years ago, we opposed taking the “gang of Bryant” to court hastily because we thought this new government should have started with cleaning its own house. Bryant and others went to court and up to now, nothing substantial has happened because of the weakness of the judiciary. There could have been many ways to deal with that issue, but unfortunately the government gave in to pressure from the market and others who wanted to see “blood.” The Bryant case could have provided the chance for a different approach on how to deal with mistakes of the past. Now, the same noise-makers are expecting the President to make the same hasty decisions.

Since 2005, new institutions have been created, all empowered somehow to fight one or more aspects of the weaknesses of the Liberian state. The General Auditing Commission, the Governance Commission, the Commission on Contracts and Procurement and the most recent, the Anti-Corruption Commission; all have mandate to combat waste in government, close loopholes that make theft possible and recommend ways in which public institutions can be reformed. In as much as they all seem to be taking their cues from a broader reform agenda, these commissions have somehow operated in their little pigeonholes, never or rarely coordinating their strategies.

This lack of strategic partnership between the reform agencies is about to change, according to the President and this is a major step forward. She said for example that the Governance Commission will be playing a bigger role. Some of these issues were unveiled by the auditing commission and need urgent solutions. Collaboration between the GC and GAC could lead to a sort of triangulation where GAC uncovers shortcomings and loopholes, GC makes recommendations and the Executive takes the corrective measures. The same collaboration could be instituted between all the commissions to make their work relevant and more in tune with the current governance needs.

As things stand, a major weakness and that somehow creates the perception of an imperial executive stems from the fact that all agencies in government have an umbilical link to the Executive Mansion, with little horizontal inter-agency collaboration. If the new commissions are to be effective, they have to start collaborating in earnest, sharing information and adopting strategies that would strengthen their operations and lessen wasteful duplications of activities. Ministries could do the same thing. For example, Defense, Labor, Youth & Sports, Gender all work toward the same clientele but do they have an inter-agency collaboration to date?

Candidate Sirleaf promised to fight corruption in three steps: educating Liberians about corruption and its negative effects on social development; pay living wages to all those who work for government; and prosecute anyone caught stealing public funds.

The first two steps have somehow been covered. Liberians have learned, through daily experiences how corruption affects their lives and how engrained it is in every aspect of the society. Since 2005, salaries have risen almost 300 percent and people are in some way capable of planning their lives around dependable incomes. There is still much to go in that light, but much progress has been made.

The final and last step of the strategy, the prosecution of culprits remains a serious constraint. Without a strong judiciary, something the country never had, it would be hard to reliably prosecute culprits. Once someone has been found not guilty by the court and a jury of peers, notwithstanding the prevailing evidence, that person has to be set free. Therefore, even if the government wanted to prosecute, the weakness of the court system will make any effort a vain attempt. While the structural changes are made in other domains, the judiciary as a final arbiter is in need of serious re-hauls. And nobody in Liberia wants a return of the days when the Executive could accuse and execute anyone.

On the whole, and for the first time, a Liberian government sidesteps sound bites to formulate a workable national policy. This roadmap to curb corruption would lead the country somewhere, if there is enough interagency collaboration and coordination, especially amongst the new governance commissions, if the judiciary is strengthened; and if the media and the general public continue to play their role of watchdog. Whistleblowers must be encouraged to play a crucial role in this war against corruption.

But above all, the most important condition for the success of this roadmap rests of the shoulders of the President; she must stay the course and not be deterred by distracters, both in-house and in the streets. Implementation of the findings reposes squarely and her shoulders. She recognized that those who benefit from the corrupt system are out there and will fight their own battle to keep profiteering. Finding structural solutions to corruption is much more than prosecuting a few people to set examples, it is about changing a culture, re-arranging the way Liberia governs itself and how Liberians perceive government and public service. A few months ago, Auditor John S. Morlu said that auditing is more about finding loopholes and weaknesses in systems and recommend corrective solutions than trying to catch a thief. Of, course, he added, “If we come across a thief in the process, we must catch him and remove him.” But all in all, it is about fixing the system. And that is what the President is now trying to do and she must be encouraged and helped.

© 2008 by The Perspective

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