Fighting Corruption in Liberia*

    Why I Think the Unity Party Led Government Lacks Genuine Political Will


     J. Kerkula Foeday

    June 11, 2009

    The culture of corruption and impunity in Liberia is unarguably entrenched and commonplace. It has, as the International Crisis Group succinctly noted in 2006 and referenced in my 2007 letter to members of the Liberia National Legislature through the House Speaker, helped spark and nurture the crises in Liberia.This fact has been sadly acknowledged by nearly every national and international group helping Liberia overcome its many problems and challenges that have log-jammed its drive for growth, stability, and sustainable development. Anti-corruption advocates and institutions have meanwhile identified one key factor that is critical to a successful fight against corruption in any system and country. And that critical factor is political will.

    Political will, as Kpundeh (2000) and other scholars have rightly described, is a demonstrated intent or plan to take a certain course of action; it is not mere pronouncement of desire and commitment to do something. Reform efforts in most countries, including Liberia, have failed and will continue to fail if national leaders do not have political will firmly rooted in genuine commitment to the achievement of the common good of society.

    Admittedly, identifying political will is a challenge. It is a challenge because it is oftentimes difficult to objectively assess the true intention of political leaders. In face of this difficulty, socio-economic and political reform experts have suggested two issues or questions to consider when identifying the political will of national leaders vis-à-vis their approaches to reforms.  The first issue involves political grandstanding and image bolstering or polishing. Are the political leaders’ reform efforts nothing but political grandstanding? Are their approaches to reform purposefully shallow and geared only at bolstering or polishing their image? The second issue involves real change. Are the political leaders’ efforts and approaches to reform genuine and substantive? Are their efforts and strategies based on concrete actions aimed at creating and sustaining real change? In addition, there are other specific questions to ask when identifying national leaders’ genuine political will. Some of these questions include the following: 1) Have the national leaders considered and understood the complex context and causes of corruption? 2) Have they identified, developed, and put in action concrete strategies to uncompromisingly confront the problems, including the behaviors that continue to denigrate or promote the integrity of the government? 3) Are policy-makers considering and incorporating the interests and reactions of the public to real reform efforts? 4) Have the national leaders adopted schedules of incentives and sanctions to guide their reform efforts? 5) Have they engendered and put in place a transparent process to monitor the impact of their reform efforts? 6) Are policy-makers publicizing or willing to publicize the findings of policy evaluations, including acts of misfeasance in government? 7) Are they prosecuting corrupt officials and/or willing to confiscate the assets of corrupt officials? Raising these questions and trying to get objective answers help one identify national leaders’ true political will, which is critically epicentral to successfully fighting, transforming, and righting any bad governance systems. 

    Having closely followed and assessed the performance of the Ellen Johnson Sirleaf administration for the past three years and five months, I contend that the Unity Party led government has yet to demonstrate genuine political will in its professed war against corruption in Liberia. I understand President Sirleaf and her government, as well as her hardcore supporters and members of Unity Party, may present counter-arguments. Probably, they may point to pronouncements and other professed actions by Ellen and her government as indicators of political will of the UP-led Government to extenuate corruption in Liberia. They may specifically highlight issues raised in pronouncements such as the following, which were made by Ellen during her inauguration:

                “… We pledge to live up to [Liberians’] expectations of creating

                a government that is attentive and responsive to [Liberians’] needs,

                concerns and the development and progress of [Liberia]….”

                “We know that your vote was a vote for change [reform]; a vote for peace,

                security and stability; a vote for individual and national prosperity; a vote

                for healing and leadership. We have heard you loudly.”

                “Today, we wholeheartedly embrace this change [reform]. We recognize

                that this change [reform] is not change for change sake, but a fundamental

                break with the past, thereby requiring that we take bold and decisive steps

                to address the problems [including corruption] that for decades have stunted

                our progress, undermined national unity, and kept old and new cleavages

                in ferment.”

                “[Today], we pledge anew our commitment to transparency, open govern-

                ment, and participatory democracy for all of our citizens.”

    Hmm! Sound so impressive and encouraging, huh? Indeed, they sound impressive and encouraging. Ellen and her government as well as her supporters, drawing on these declarations, could argue that they have the political will to fight corruption and foster reforms in Liberia.  But the critical question that one needs to ask is: Is the demonstration of political will mere pronouncements? Of course political will does not involve mere declarations; it must be demonstrated by concrete, genuine actions.  Again, Ellen and her supporters may cite the establishment of the anti-corruption commission as a practical example of the UP-led government’s political will to tackle corruption in Liberia. Honestly speaking, Liberia needs a genuinely effective, nonpartisan anti-corruption commission. One cannot say for certainty the true intention of the Ellen Government for establishing the Morris Johnson led anti-corruption commission. Whether this commission was conceived for political grandstanding and image bolstering purpose or was established for real reform remains a puzzle for curious minds. But one fact remains arguably clear: this Morris Johnson led commission is ineffective as evidenced by unresolved corruption scandals in the Ellen Administration.  

    Corruption is a secret, immoral activity that usually occurs in less conspicuous ways and places. Those who engage in this act of secrecy and unethical behavior are like agents of the devil that love and operate in darkness and in seclusion. Like the devil and his following, they rarely admit to their evil-doings or corrupt behaviors. They also hate being exposed for who they are and for what they do. So, I truly understand why the UP-led Government will not want to be associated with corruption, nor seen as lacking the spine and political will to fight to extenuate corruption. Henceforth, one should not be surprised to see defense mechanisms being forged by the Ellen Government. No matter what defenses and rationalization the Ellen regime may put forth, certain facts stand out to highlight and explain its lack of genuine political will to foster real reform, including waging a successful war against corruption in Liberia.

    Fact Number One– The President’s Failure to make good her promises to the Liberian people

    In her inaugural address on January 16, 2006, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf made a wide range of promises. She promised that her government would be fundamentally different from past administrations. We promised to take bold and decisive steps to tackle the problems, which have log-jammed Liberia’s march to sustainable peace, growth and development. She declared that her administration would be committed to transparency and open government. She promised emphatically to wage war on corruption, require her government officials (including herself) to declare their assets, and prioritize the enactment and passage into law of a national code of conduct. Here’s her exact wording:

                “Corruption, under my Administration will be the major public enemy.

                We will confront it. We will fight it….”

                “… The first testament of how my Administration will tackle public

                service corruption will be that everyone appointed to high positions

                of public trust, such as the Cabinet and heads of public corporations,

                will be required to declare their assets. I will be the first to comply….”

                “My Administration will also accord high priority to the formulation

     and passage into law of a National Code of Conduct, to which all public

     servants [including me the President] will be subjected.”

    The fulfillment of these and many other promises by the President still hangs in the balance, despite the fact that we are now just two and half years away from the expiration of the President’s tenure.

     Fact Number Two - Unresolved Corruption Scandals

    Up to now, Liberians and the international community are yet to know fully the findings from various corruption scandals. For example, a few months ago, there was an email scandal that linked several key officials of the UP-led government to fraud, influence peddling and conflict of interest. Outcry against this scandal apparently led to the establishment of an inquiry commission. The commission, we are told, did probe into the case and submitted its findings to the Ellen Government. From every indication, the book for that case is classified and closed. Is this a demonstration of genuine political will? I will leave this with my readership to judge.

    The second unresolved corruption scandal involves the more than LD22 million dollars that vanished from the Ministry of Finance. What is so interesting about this case is the fact that one of the accused perpetrators of this heartless crime against the suffering Liberian people, Mr. Yonly, was reportedly dismissed by the Finance Ministry but rehired by the Ellen Government to work with the Ministry of Public Works. Genuine demonstration of political will, huh? Fire one corrupt official from Ministry A and, while the case is being investigated, rehire him for Ministry B. Wow, what a good, bold and decisive step for real reform in Liberia!

    The third yet-to-be resolved scandal is the LD19 million check-recycling network discovered sometime ago in the Central Bank of Liberia. Although some employees were reportedly suspended and a probe into the matter was promised, Liberians are yet to know what has become of that case. True demonstration of political will to confront corruption, huh?

    The latest scandals involve the money confiscated from the Nigerian businessman and the mysterious account opened at Ecobank in Monrovia. The Government of Liberia seized over half million United States Dollars from Chief Valentine Ayika, a Nigerian businessman, and, disregarding the rule of law, which President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf promised to uphold, the Liberian Government unashamedly announced that it used the money for “national security services”. Interestingly, it is important to note that the Ellen Government did not spend the entire budgetary allotments for security services for the period in which it claimed to have used Chief Ayika’s more than half million US dollars. The Government, I should note further, reported an unspent balance of half million US Dollars in allotment for security sector services. How then can the Government still claim to use the Nigerian businessman’s money in the name of national security when in fact it reported an unspent balance in allotment for security sector operations? It doesn’t appeal to me at all. Does the UP-led government think Liberians are so gullible to just believe anything?

     Again, drawing on the two facts itemized above, I will maintain that the UP-led government has not fully demonstrated genuine political will to tackle the problems, including corruptions, and foster reform in Liberia. Until the Ellen Administration can develop and put in place an effective, monitorable, and transparent process to fight corruption in Liberia, until the Ellen Administration can make good its promises, especially its promises regarding assets declaration, code of conduct, and transparency and open government, and until the Ellen Government can resolve all unresolved corruption scandals and publicize findings from these scandals, any claim by the UP-led Government of having political will to fight corruption is downright bluff and political grandstanding, and not genuine political will.


    Writer’s Note: This article was published last year 2009! This is just a re-publication.