The Dunn Commission and Transparency in Liberia

By Abdoulaye W. Dukulé

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
Januuary 20, 2009


When a stream of emails linking officials of the Liberian government to acts of corruption appeared in a Liberian web magazine,, (FPA) in August 2008, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf appointed Dr. Elwood Dunn to head an investigative commission to ascertain the facts.

After five months of high anxiety, the issue of the Knuckles Email has come to a first stop. The Dunn Commission (TDC) that investigated the email scandal recommended further investigations of some unresolved issues. The editor of FPA, Mr. Rodney Sieh called for further investigations on grounds that the Dunn Commission’s findings was contradicted by the Forensic Computer Consulting firm that the commission hired to provide it technical advise and counsel. While the Dunn Commission wants a Special Prosecutor appointed to work in collaboration with the Anti-Corruption Commission, Mr. Rodney Sieh of FPA is advocating for an international body to conduct the investigation, suggesting it would be more impartial.

The setting up of the Dunn Commission and particularly the publication of its findings for domestic and international consumption was a first in Liberian history. President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf demonstrated a commitment to virtues of transparency and accountability. After few of the emails appeared online, speculations were rampant about how many others existed and who in the President’s inner circle would be implicated in the scam. Using the famous Watergate era phrase, FPA Sieh asked the question: “What did the President know and when did she know it?” The answer is that she was vindicated by the Dunn Commission.

At the beginning of the scandal, the President made no secret of her sentiments. She noted that she felt betrayed by Mr. Willis Knuckles, her former confidant and Minister of State who was at the center of the controversy. From all appearances, whoever initiated the leak had a score to settle with Mr. Knuckles. Every email that appeared in the investigation was somehow linked to him. It took a good dose of courage for the President to set an independent commission to investigate what, until now, was nothing but Internet rumors.

Certainly, the findings of the commission are critical. But they mark a milestone in the life of the Liberian state. Transparency and accountability are no longer mere catchwords. The novelty of the Dunn Commission stems from the fact that unlike past cases where investigations centered around a crime already committed, this case was based on rumors to find out if a crime had taken place and who did what.

There have been many questions from the onset. Some commentators argued that the investigation should have been carried out by an international body. Others said that because Dr. Elwood Dunn and President Sirleaf as well as Counselor Estrada Bernard served in the same government, the commission could not be objective. A few raised the fact that Dr. Dunn was an historian, not an investigator. However, at the end of the day, the commission delivered a report that opened a public debate that may lead to more surprises if the investigations were to continue.

The Dunn Commission somehow accomplished what it was set to do. Although many questions remain unanswered and some of the findings may appear questionable, the authenticity or lack thereof, of the more than 100 emails in question were established. It also pointed to where some government officials may have used their positions to conduct private business and it made recommendations for the way forward.

The commission exonerated the President, the Maritime Commissioner as well as the Attorney General, by pointing out that the emails, which mentioned them as having received or expected payments from LISCR through Mr. Knuckles were fabricated. However, it did not clarify how it reached that conclusion. The report could have been improved further by providing the needed evidence. Is it conceivable that LISCR was framed through Mr. Knuckles? Would LISCR have any interest in exposing its agent and incriminate itself?

In exonerating government officials of any wrongdoing, the Dunn Commission argues that the emails mentioning them were possibly fabricated. However, the same disregarded emails are used to indict Mr. Knuckles. Could it be that the accusations against Mr. Knuckles and/or LISCR were based on preconceived notions that may have been brought into the pictures by competing agents, represented by Professor Dew Mayson and Dr. Charles Clark and others who may want a change of hands in the maritime program? Perhaps this line of inquiry needs to be pursued by Front Page Africa and other investigative journalists practicing in Liberia and the Diaspora.

The commission points to undue influence exerted by Mr. Knuckles for providing cellular phone scratch cards to members of the presidential delegation to Israel and it argues that this “gift” represented an “undue” influence. If Mr. Knuckles is indicted, shouldn’t the receivers also be brought to book? Who were the people on the delegation that accepted the phone cards? Were they at all connected to the LISCR negotiations?

Another point of contention is the fact that the commission insinuates that Mr. Rodney Sieh of FPA may have altered some of the emails. This is in total contradiction to what the experts hired by the commission stated in their report. The JMG said that there was no indication that the emails had at all been altered between the moment they reached FPA and the time they were put in the public domain. Where did the commission get their new information? Was there another expert witness besides the JMG group? Was it a deliberate act to discredit FPA and the whole bunch of emails?

Professor Dew Mayson and Dr. Charles Clark, both close to the government tried to influence the course of events in the negotiating process of the Liberian maritime program by introducing new potential competitors. Their close relations to the President and other members of the government put them in a very privileged position to make their deals go through. Their appearance in the process may have had as much a negative effect on the negotiating process as would any bribery scheme. By suggesting that they could find a better deal for the maritime program, they teased and distracted government negotiators. For all those who followed the debate on the maritime program – including this writer - and as reported by the Dunn Commission, there were never any doubt about the fact that the agent, LISCR would continue to manage the program after negotiations to readjust certain issues. Who floated the false notion of an impending change and who benefited from the uncertainty?

The case of Ms. Medina Wesseh, a senior aide to the President and Director of the Cabinet covers both influence peddling as well as misuse of official status. As a close aide of the president, she exploited this privileged position. It provided her a perch from which to do business and receive preferential treatment in the marketplace and in the various ministries where her dealings took her: Finance and Commerce among others. She said that her action was meant to help Mr. Willis Knuckles who was out of job. According to the emails, she seemed ready to use her house as collateral. A lame excuse, if there was any, because Mr. Knuckles, with his many businesses and lobbying activities, is among the most affluent and richest people in Liberia and would definitively need no help from Mrs. Wesseh to make ends meet.

The Deputy Minister of Finance, Mr. Tarnue Mawolo also falls into this category. His case may be even more serious because he holds the key to government’s purse. Just a few months ago, he was cited by the House of Representative for putting his signature on a questionable document in favor of an international business entity operating in Liberia. The investigation shed light on these dubious characters; that occupy powerful broker positions, and may be seeking to exploit them for their personal gains – GRAFT.

The proximity to the President and the custody of government letterhead are privileges that must not be used to satisfy petty personal appetites. These are acts of betrayal of the national trust and must not be tolerated. The commission suggested that the two government officials be reprimanded. To carry on her reform agenda in fighting corruption, President Sirleaf faces an uphill battle. Old habits die hard, especially when they enrich illicitly.

The involvement of government officials in the trade of strategic commodities such as cement and rice can lead to artificial shortage and price inflation because these officials have the bureaucratic power to manipulate supply and demand and influence competition in the market place with impunity. Until they are caught wit their hands in the cookie jar.

In its first and strongest recommendation, the commission suggested that government set up a special committee to review the maritime program, with the President as head of the investigation. The content of the contract between government and LISCR was never part of the mandate of the commission. One may wonder why Dr. Dunn and his colleagues decided to review the history of the program from the 1940s when their task was limited to ascertaining the authenticity of the email and finding out if any laws were broken. The state of the maritime program, its viability and the performance of LISCR management constituted no part of the mandate of the commission. In another instance, the commission also suggests that LISCR had been accused of gunrunning without bringing any detail. However, in 2001, the UN Sanctions Committee investigated this issue and concluded that LISCR only committed an act of negligence by depositing funds in accounts other than those of government agencies at the request of the Taylor administration, but was not guilty of any wrongdoing. This finding was supported by the US State Department. Why was this issue brought into the picture? It was unwarranted.

Finally, a former Liberian government official who spoke to us under the condition of anonymity said that LISCR provided every document the Liberian government asked for in the summer of 2007, including among other things the list of shareholders.

The commission seemed to have avoided the important question regarding the timing of all this process. Why was the email scam sent to FPA right when government and LISCR were in close-door meeting? Besides humiliating Mr. Knuckles, was there also an attempt to frame LISCR through innuendoes and make it lose the contract? Why did the commission deliberately go against the words of their hired specialists and accused FPA of altering the emails? How much outside influence weighed in on the commission in the conduct of its investigation and the preparation of its report? These and other questions could only be answered when and if further investigations take place; or if the Commission releases the appending documents that were absent in the report.

But all in all, as the first of an investigation launched by a Liberian government based solely on rumors, it can be concluded that the Dunn Commission did what it was expected to do, given the time and finances at its disposal. Even the contradictions in its approach, conclusions and recommendations point to a positive direction in Liberian politics. The case rests with the President who has promised to follow on recommendations from the commission.

The President has set a precedent in the pursuit of transparency and there is no-turning back. She promised a full investigation and the results were provided to all to read and comment on. Whatever actions she takes from now would depend on priorities of her governance process. So far, she has fulfilled a major campaign promise: tell Liberians the truth and run a transparent government. The road ahead may be harder because Liberians would demand more of her. In a democracy, citizens have a voracious appetite for truth – the basis upon which public confidence rests.

© 2009 by The Perspective

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