Dear Fellow Compatriots:
In recent weeks, the pages of newspapers and the airwaves of radio and television stations have been saturated with talk about corruption and nepotism in Liberia. In beer parlors and night clubs, on buses and in taxis, the talk often turns to a discussion of corruption. Sadly, the public seems unable to challenge the purveyors of the corruption and nepotism gossips, not just to explain these terms, but to insist on the show of real proof or evidence beyond hearsay. In fact, as is so often the case, gossips and innuendos in Liberia take on a life of their own with each new gossiper embellishing the story a little to suit his purpose and self-importance.
The Mumbo Jumbo, Historical Context and Fact Check
This is the tragedy of a society that is unwilling to read and to challenge the veracity of information and even bold-faced lies. The society accepts lies, hear-says, and gossips as truth, even if such gossips, lies, and hear-says are propagated by known criminals who once wallowed and may still be wallowing in rampant acts of corruption and nepotism themselves.
As regards the claim of nepotism, do we really understand the meaning of the word or can we discern acts that meet the legal definition of nepotism?
My Fellow Compatriots, in this letter, I propose to share my perspective on these two words and place them in some historical contexts.
Corruption, Webster Dictionary tells us, is “dishonesty, rottenness, etc.” This is the dictionary meaning. But corruption is far more multifaceted than Webster defines it or would want us to see it to be. Corruption is in the marketplace. Corruption is in schools and larger academia. Corruption is in the Church. Corruption is in the Susu Club. Corruption is everywhere – and in many nations. Perhaps, it is as old humankind itself.
Corruption in Liberia is not also new. Corruption in Liberia is not more rampant today than it was in the previous generation, in the past 30 years. But corruption is now more topical than in the past because the President of Liberia, as a candidate more than seven years ago, made it a central pillar of her party’s plank. And in her historic inaugural address, declared that “corruption would be a major public enemy”.
My Fellow Compatriots: Our President has walked the talk. I know her. I was her first Minister of State and Chief of Staff in the early months of the transition. So, I can stay when she made those pronouncements, she meant business – and continues to mean business seven years later, today. The facts support my claim:
Ø During the seven months when I served as Minister of States, each time President Sirleaf returned from a foreign trip, she would return the unused portion of her travel allowance or per diem allowance to the public treasury. I do not know how President Sirleaf managed to keep all types of small receipts, but she would spread them on her desk, arranged them, tally the total, and then call me to come and write a letter to the Ministry of Finance to return the unused funds. This is not a Liberian concept of per diem allowance. In Liberia, we often complain that the allowance is inadequate. In the United States and Western Europe, from personal experience and from what I have been able to gather from other persons, a travel allowance is a travel allowance; it is not a personal fund to be used as one chooses or pleases; unused travel allowance is meant to be returned and should be returned.
When President Sirleaf first asked me to return the unused funds, I was a bit taken aback. A President of Liberia returning unused funds to the public treasury? I had heard many stories of what other Presidents of Liberia did. It just never happened. It was a novelty. It was a precedent. How many of us, even those who now hold important public positions in all branches of the Liberian government – and in public corporations have dared to returned unused funds when we make foreign trips? This should therefore speak to the integrity of President Sirleaf – and her strong sense of probity. And I am a witness to that. But beyond me, if the President were corrupt as some may want the public to think, would West Europe and the United States of America be committed to the continued support of her administration? Would they continue to lavish honors and honors upon her? I personally do not think so.
Ø Asset Declaration. Let’s also take a look at some of the initiatives that the President has launched to combat the cancer of corruption in Liberia. The declaration of assets requirement. I was offered the job of Minister of State for Presidential Affairs on December 25, 2005 while on vacation in the United States. As one of the first Cabinet Ministers to be appointed, we were required to declare our assets. The asset declarations were made public, and they engendered interesting and robust comments and debates by Liberians both at home in the Diaspora. It was a healthy exercise – and was a tool of accountability and transparency. Regrettably, arguments were subsequently made about the privacy rights and all the rest, and the publication of asset declarations was terminated. However, in my view, in such situations, there is a gray line between the need to protect a public official’s privacy – and the greater need to protect the public’s right to know. More fundamentally, how can the public be convinced that a departing official, who built a few multi-level apartment buildings or owns a fleet of cars or has stacked away huge sums of money in foreign bank accounts did not acquire them by dipping both hands in the public coffers? What is the utility of asset declaration if the information is perpetually held under lock and keys and not subject to public scrutiny? Notwithstanding, the mere fact act of public officials being required to declare their asset serves as a deterrence against reckless propensity to rob the public coffers.
Ø The establishment of the Liberia Anti-Corruption Commission (LCC). The commission, established during President Sirleaf’s first term, stands as a bulwark in the fight against corruption and of the President’s personal commitment to institutionalize the battle against endemic corruption in Liberia. This is however not the first time that such a commission has been established in Liberia. In 1975, late President Tolbert established the National Force for the Eradication of Corruption (NFEC). The head of the Tolbert commission was Mrs. Isabel Karngar. The difference, however, is that President Sirleaf has never shirked from speaking out about the evil of corruption in Liberia and in her government – and her commitment to strengthen the LCC. Earlier in the year, the President submitted an amendment bill to the LACC Act designed to grant prosecutorial powers to the Commission. What a day that would be when the LACC, in addition to investigating and reporting, actually pursues criminals and their ill-gotten wealth in Liberia and beyond Liberia’s borders? The Bill however continues to languish in the Legislature.
Ø Liberia Extractive Industry Transparency International. This is a monitoring, compliance, and reporting organization that was established to work to ensure that concessions in the iron ore/mineral and forestry sectors meet their legitimate tax and other revenue obligations to the Liberian government. LEITI is also a transparency instrument. It reports all payments made to it by concessions in the local and international media. Liberians therefore now know how much is accruing to their country through the exploration and extraction of their resources. In the past, such reports were held in the highest level of secrecy. Here again, President Sirleaf works to ensure that public resources are reported and accounted for. Many of us remember a past not so distant when such information was held by a finger-full of very top government functionaries.
Ø Kimberly Certification Process. Precious minerals have historically been more a curse than a blessing to Liberia. Few Liberian government officials – and their foreign partners and friends along with a few local merchants benefitted from the exploration of precious minerals. Government officials also enjoyed exclusivity over mining rights. As a consequence, revenue, including taxes, that accrued to Liberia in the past paled compared to the taxes and revenue that the Liberian government now receives. Thanks to the introduction of the Kimberly Process, all precious minerals now being exported from Liberia are documented and accounted prior to exportation.
Ø Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA). Designed to ensure that Liberian forests are appropriated documented and that the country receives maximum tax and other revenues from the exportation of Liberian timber, the Administration of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, in collaboration with the European Union, has introduced a forest management regime that protects Liberian forests and timber.
Ø President Sirleaf’s personal lifestyle: Have you or your friend had breakfast with Mrs. Sirleaf? For those who have not, think about a typical Liberian breakfast: slices of pineapple or sometimes pawpaw or watermelon, eddoes/cocoyam, sweet yam, cassava, sweet potatoes, fresh orange, etc. It is not just filling. It is rich in nutrients, cheap, and subsidizes local agriculture. It is interesting to know that they all come from her farm at the foot of the Juliejuah hill or in her garden on Tubman Boulevard. But go beyond the breakfast to the residence. Do we remember how some of our former presidents live? They lived large: personal fleet of limousine vehicles often ranged from 25 to 50; and if one entered their residence, one saw and felt the aroma of opulence; it would hit one right in the face. President Sirleaf dresses elegantly but in an austere style, no gold, jewelry, if any are simple pearls. President Sirleaf’s official vehicular fleet is not more than 10, inclusive of security escort.
My Fellow Compatriots: What is the significance of all these facts? To me, they point to one and only one fact: a leader, in spite of what the public says and perceives, is not materialistic, who is not consumed by the desire to amass material wealth, and is a leader ever conscious of the need to remain connected to the people of Liberia on whose behalf she has given more than 40 years of advocacy and service. Her austere lifestyle, including dress code and food, is exemplary.
Does it mean that everyone serving in the Liberian government is President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, incorruptible? No. Whenever I felt disappointed by something that a friend did, my late Mother always reminded me, “Human beings are like the ears of the corn; you don’t ever know what is inside until you peel it open; then it is too late”. Often, we cannot open the human being, let alone be able to engage in a fair prognostication about his motivation, his mind, his desires. The shorthand of this statement is that President Sirleaf places confidence in Liberians, believing, as she says, that they will give the full measure of their service to their country. She does not ask them if they will be corrupt. But even if she did, it would not only be inappropriate and judgmental, but she would receive a three-word answer: No, Madame President.
Importantly, too, there is too much gossip in Liberia about corruption. If the President were to follow every newspaper story or accusation by so-called talking heads, no Liberian would be available to serve in the government, because every Liberia is “corrupt”. So, she has to investigate, and to the extent that I have observed, where the facts have been irrefutable, the President has not failed to act.
Now, let me talk about the issue of nepotism. One day recently, I heard someone speaking on radio and giving the impression that there is a law, in fact, the Liberian Constitution, which makes so-called nepotism a crime. I am neither a constitutional, criminal or corporate lawyer. My knowledge, understanding, and expertise in the area of law are limited; it is restricted to communications law, learned in communications schools. In spite of this, let me cite Chapter II of the 1986 Constitution of Liberia titled, “General Principles of National Policy”, which many have used as their reliance. The general principles provision of the Liberian Constitution is national aspirations; they are not laws. Subsection © of the referenced chapter states: “ …take steps, by appropriate legislation and executive orders, to eliminate sectionalism and tribalism, and such abuses of power as the misuse of government resources, nepotism, and all other corrupt practices”.
My Fellow Compatriots, permit me to please do some fact-checking in order to be able to expose the hidden agendas of those who seek to achieve cheap popularity by constantly speaking about nepotism, as follows:
Ø President William V. S. Tubman: our legendary and longest serving President, still revered by Liberians across generations. I will not speak about Tubman’s extended family. Let take his son, “Baby Shad”, known as William V. S. Tubman, a distinguished and respected religious leader. Baby Shad was Director General of the Cabinet, a position in which, by today’s standard, he would have more impact on public policy making than Mr. Robert Sirleaf who is a senior policy advisor to President Sirleaf, currently has.
Ø President William R. Tolbert, Jr.: Son, Adolphus Benedict Tolbert, a generous man whom I admired as a young journalist, was Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee of the House of Representatives, far more popular and powerful than most members of the House of Representatives, including the Deputy Speaker. Burleigh Holder, son-in-law, Minister of National Defense; Lawrence Norman, son-in-law, an engineer and senior official in the Ministry of Public Works; Christine Tolbert Norman, daughter, Deputy Minister of Education for Instruction, just to name a few. I do not single out these distinguished and esteemed elderly Liberian gentlemen and lady to cast aspersions on them. Far from it. I cite them to make them point that when the child or children of a President of Liberia are qualified, nothing should bar them from serving their country.
Ø Samuel Kanyon Doe: His children were all minor. But President Doe had two cousins who established and ran S & G, a public relations consultancy. It became a powerful and profitable consultancy.
Ø President Charles G. Taylor: I know of no instance in which President Taylor’s children held senior positions. However, his friends, some of whom are around, did not do badly. And public outcry, if any, was muted.
Ø President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. She was reported recently to have said that she would “not sack her sons”. Was anyone asking her to sack her sons? Are they not Liberians? Are the children and other family members of a President disenfranchised or barred from holding public office or doing business in Liberia? Does a person wishing to aspire for the presidency now compelled to hold a family forum to inform and forewarn his family that if he or she wins, they will not be expected to seek gainful employment for the duration of his or her presidency? What absurdity is this? What patent non-sense is this? Are the siblings and children of a President not Liberians – and therefore entitled to all the privileges and opportunities that all other Liberians have or are entitled to? The question that one should be interested in should be: is the presidential sibling qualified? Or is the child of the President qualified?
Now, let’s focus on Robert A. Sirleaf: Mr. Sirleaf is a banker with substantial Wall Street experience. I know Mr. Sirleaf. In fact, he was my first contact when I was appointed Minister of State. No one who encounters Mr. Sirleaf will leave doubting his professionalism, his organizational skills, and quick wit and intelligence. He is engaging.
But he was raised in America and imbibed considerable American attitude and American mannerism: He will tell you as he sees it, no offense or apologies. He is impatient with political deception and game-play. He seems to be in a hurry. Indeed, he is because there is much on his plate, and weighing heavily on his mind is his desire to help his Mother succeed. He has said so on many occasions. He is intolerant of political games, particularly corruption and gossips and innuendoes and lies. So, when some persons do not get their way around Mr. Sirleaf, they make him a target. Liberians do not generally like a strict talker or a strict walker. If he were willing to be a party to the schemes that they perpetrate, then would have been the toss of the town.
Liberia, let’s stop to face ourselves. How many of us, realistically and honestly, will not celebrate, rather not dance and glorify God’s Name that we had children who developed uprightly, pursued and achieved the best available education, are qualified, and are available to serve their nation? Let’s be honest with ourselves, my Fellow Compatriots. Let’s also ask ourselves if we have not asked our friends to help our children find jobs for which they are qualified or even in some cases not qualified? This happens all around us. For example, the National Legislature. Each Legislator has a personal staff ranging from ten to sixteen. Often, the personal staff comprises political operatives, friends, relatives – and even children. The Legislature was designed to function that way, and whether we cry “nepotism” from the top of Ducor Hill or not, it has worked. Fortunately, I have not heard anyone complaining on radio, yet.
What is the difference with Madame Ellen Johnson Sirleaf? As a parent, should she not celebrate that she had sons all of whom are exceptionally qualified and competent professionals? In politics, loyalty and commitment are critical ingredients for success. In the larger scheme of life, can a friend be more permanently loyal to anyone than the person’s children, spouse, and relatives?
So, what is all this mumbo jumbo about “nepotism”? Even persons with unsavory characters now speak of “nepotism”. If one checks some of these very individuals, one will see that they have committed multiple acts of “nepotism” in their own lives, past and present. And I am reminded of the Biblical injunction that implores us to “cast the first stone”, if we have not sinned before.
Just how many of us are blameless, my Fellow Compatriots? Or do we set a different standard for the Sirleaf Family so that any Johnson and Sirleaf determined to be connected to the President should not work in our common government for the duration of her presidency? Or is this just Liberian pettiness and hate mongering? We prefer to see foreigners come here and take the wealth of our country away while our countrymen, fellow Liberians – and all of us, languish in poverty? See the fabulous structures being put up on Tubmanburg. How many of us have asked about the source of the wealth of their Lebanese owners? Did they come to Liberia with their wealth? Or did they make it right here in collaboration with Liberians willing to rob their country to enrich other nationals. Believe me, if a Liberian were to dare to put up one structure resembling any of the high-rise buildings on Tubman Boulevard and in other places, Liberians would shout, “criminal” to him. Button line is that we are a people who are less patriotic. In the words of a friend, “Liberia is a country of crabs; we spend more time bringing down our fellow Liberians and country than we do keeping foreigners who come here to loot our country and then build their own countries in check. Where is our patriotism? Where is our nationalism?
My Fellow Compatriots, I have reached two simple conclusions about all the ongoing fuss about Mr. Robert Sirleaf being the son of the President and Chairman of National Oil Company’s board of directors: (1) Mr. Sirleaf is a strong and courageous manager who speaks his mind without fear or favor. He has stood in the way of those who, even before we are able to be 100 percent certain that we have oil, would have mortgaged all of the potential oil blocks for their personal enrichment; and (2) it is all about projection. Those who have lost comfort, fame, fortune, and opportunities which they enjoyed in the past blame President Sirleaf for their misfortune. Mr. Sirleaf, the President’s son who is visible because he provides critically needed social and empowerment facilities and support for young men and young women living on the margins of society, has been the easy target for the expression of angst.
No one should misconstrue my arguments here as an advocacy for the practice of nepotism. What I am calling for is for a clear-eye and historical contextualization of the claim of nepotism. Secondly, I am arguing that no Liberian should be deprived of his or her right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” because that Liberian has a relative who is a Senator or a Vice President, or a President. There is no historical precedence for this. Nor should there be one now. We should demand, as a people that regardless of the relationship of any Liberian to the power elite of the country, once charged with the responsibility of public service, that Liberian should adhere to acceptable standards of probity, integrity, and public morality. In the case of President Sirleaf’s sons, for more than seven years, they have conducted themselves far beyond the expectations that our history speak to.
The final point that I would like to make, as a non-lawyer, to the issue of nepotism, as contained in Chapter II, Article 5, Subsection © is this: What is the enforceability of this article? Do you enforce aspirations, national or personal?
My Fellow Liberians, there are many compelling challenges facing our country such as our roads and our ability to feed ourselves and encourage our people to return to the soil. Too much politics; too much political talks by so-called expert talking heads, too much divisive and hate speech is not serving and advancing our national purpose and common good, as well as the peace, security, and stability of our Motherland.
Madame President, your sons are Liberians just like me or any other Liberians, or my children. All Liberians are entitled to the right to serve our country, if they are willing and available. You have a constitutional duty to protect this right for All!
Morris M. Dukuly, Sr.
Former Speaker/Transitional Legislative Assembly (1994-1997)
There has been no consultation, collaboration, and cooperation with any friend, professional colleagues or associate about the concept and writing of this article. All views expressed, including factual and historical inaccuracies are mine and mine alone.