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COMMENTARY: LACC: Making a Difference?

Corruption is a serious crime and a major challenge to economic development, poverty alleviation, democratic governance, the justice framework and the rule of law. It leads to imprudent public spending and waste of public resources. The practice is a universal phenomenon that transcends culture, nationality and race.

In Liberia, the practice is extensive. This country has existed for 162 years and is Africa’s oldest independent nation. Liberia continues to be blessed with enormous resources such as iron ore, timber, rubber, gold and diamond. Its growth rate was higher than that of any other country except Japan. Between 1952 and 1957, it was about 15 percent a year.

But after these long years of existence and with so much wealth, the people continue to live in abject poverty. For too long, there have been diverse corrupt practices such as cronyism, misuse of public properties, kickbacks, bribery, embezzlement, influence peddling, insider trading, and, economic and financial crimes. Much of the huge tax revenues that accrue from the operations of concessionaries and other tax payers are often diverted to private use instead of on building critical infrastructures and delivering essential social services. Successive Liberian governments have not only failed to manifest a level of commitment to combat corruption, but also encouraged or facilitated avenues for increasing the incidence of corruption.

The True Whig Party oligarchy of late President William R. Tolbert, Jr. established the National Force for the Eradication of Corruption. But this initiative only turned out to be a parody. The military regime, which ousted the Tolbert government, cited ‘rampant’ corruption as justification for the coup. The junta twisted and became worse. The post war Liberia National Transitional Government (LNTG) chaired by Charles Gyude Bryant also set up an Anti-Corruption Task Force. This force proved to be a charade and mockery. Mr. Bryant himself was prosecuted for acts of corruption but later acquitted by a court through a jury system that is very corrupt.

Initially, corruption in Liberia was not a principal concern due to limited education of the population; political authoritarianism; culture of tolerance for corruption; non-existence of civil society organizations; and a pervasive press.

Today, widespread reports of corruption in the media and wide outcry from the public and the international community have created the need to curb the practice. This engendered the adoption of a National Anti-Corruption Strategy (NACS) and the subsequent establishment of the Liberia Anti-Corruption Commission (LACC) by the government of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Indeed, this initiative rekindled the hopes and dreams of many Liberians in the fight against corruption.

The LACC has a mandate to implement appropriate measures and undertake programs geared toward investigating, prosecuting and preventing acts of corruption in both the public and private sectors of the Liberian society, including educating the public about the ills of corruption and the benefits of its eradication.

The implementation of this mandate is a major challenge facing the Commission. Fighting corruption in a nation where it is systemic is a delicate task. The organization delegated with this responsibility must have the requisite funding as well as staff to do so. The LACC which has this responsibility is underfunded and understaffed. This is the dilemma facing the LACC.

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This Commission did propose a budget of 3.8 million US Dollar for fiscal 2009-2010 that would have allowed it recruit and train needed staff as well as carry out essential programs. Sadly, it was reduced to 1.4 million and later sliced by seven percent. This amount is very negligible to meet the challenges.

The LACC presently has only six investigators. The number is inadequate to cope with the growing demand to investigate and prosecute acts of corruption, particularly in the public sector. Official sources have indicated that the current amount is to further be reduced to 1.1 million for fiscal 2010-2011.

The Commission should also be enjoying financial autonomy in keeping with its established Act, where its budgetary allotment should be disbursed quarterly rather than monthly. This is not happening. Instead, it is disbursed on a monthly basis. This doesn’t demonstrate seriousness on the part of government to fight corruption. Despite these hurdles, Liberians and the international community are encouraged by the level of work the LACC is doing. The difference between this Commission and previous ones is quite visible.

In just one year of existence, it has made a number of significant gains. It formulated and implemented the assets declaration regime for public officials, developed a three-year work program and fulfilled the IMF benchmark of being operational in one year following its establishment. Except for one legislator, all other members of the national legislature and the entire judiciary have refused to declare their assets and continue to remain defiant.

The Commission also conducted investigation into several acts of corruption, two of which are very prominent the case involving the former Chairman of the Liberia Telecommunications Authority, Albert Bropleh and, the Central Bank of Liberia and four commercial banks.  The former LTA Chairman has been indicted by the court for economic sabotage while the Central Bank of Liberia and four commercial banks have been recommended to the Ministry of Justice for prosecution.

Like the U.S. Ambassador said recently, the Commission is now becoming a force to reckon with. It is proving skeptics wrong who thought it was only set up by government to fulfill an international requirement. The work of the Commission may even be boosted by the recent visit of its delegation to Nigeria for talks with authorities of that country’s anti-corruption body. The talks were aimed at capacity building for the Commission that would make it more robust.

The LACC has shown a sense of dedication and commitment to make a difference. It must therefore be provided the necessary funding and support to do the job.

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