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How New York Lt. Gov. Brian Benjamin’s resignation offers a lesson for Liberia’s public office holders

By S.  Karweaye 

At the beginning of April 2022, the last part of the issues that have dominated the discourse on the global stage is the resignation of Brian Benjamin as Lt. Governor of New York.  Benjamin resigned on April 13, 2022, after a federal court announced charges of one count of federal program bribery, one count of honest services wire fraud, one count of conspiracy to commit those offenses, and two counts of falsification of records on April 12, 2022. 

Benjamin surrendered to the FBI the same day. His case is being handled by the Southern District Court of New York.  “I have accepted Brian Benjamin’s resignation effective immediately,” New York Gov. Kathy Hochul said on Twitter. “While the legal process plays out, it is clear to both of us that he cannot continue to serve as Lieutenant Governor.” In the last few days, Benjamin, a Democrat, has come under serious pressure, while facing an investigation from the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Southern District of New York. The Lt. Governor has come under severe criticism from leaders of his party with many of them urging him to resign his position. 

Meanwhile, Benjamin’s resignation is a sharp contrast to the situation here in Liberia where public office holders, irrespective of the allegations against them, often find it difficult to resign from their positions. In Liberia, there is disregard and a glaring lack of concern about public opinion by public office holders, elected and appointed. Political watchers say that the situation has perhaps been fuelled by the refusal of the government to prosecute those who have been found wanting to serve as a deterrent. However, the situation exposes the political will to fight corruption and Liberia’s weak institutional structure where impunity reigns and public officers see themselves as above the law.

Evidence bound across Liberia where several government officials enmeshed in fraud and misappropriation of public funds still occupying key offices or walking freely without prosecution. Senator Prince Johnson of Nimba County, Senator Varney Sherman of Grand Cape Mount County; Ministers of Agriculture Jeannie M. Cooper; Mrs. Davidetta Browne Lansanah as Chairman of the National Elections Commission (NEC); Kanio Bai Gbala, Vice Chairman of the Liberia Anti-Corruption Commission (LACC); Moseray Momoh; Deputy Director for Administration at the Liberia Water and Sewer Corporation (LWSC), etc.

Former President of the Liberia National Bar Association and renowned human right lawyer and presidential aspirant, a man who has helped in drafting legislation for civil service reform, local government reform, forestry reform law, jury reform, anti-press laws, code of conduct for public officials, land authority act, whistle-blower and witness protection act, Tiawan Saye Gongloe in an interview recently with Al Jazeera said corruption in Liberia is the main problem for lack of human progress and development in Liberia.

Gongloe had said people who steal public money are on the streets walking free and have not been prosecuted. Gongloe has unveiled a 10-point plan for “A Better Liberia Agenda” and a 12-point strategy to fight corruption in Liberia, which is chief among his plans. He believes fighting corruption in Liberia will be his biggest challenge due to the characters that he wants to purge.

Despite promises by President George Weah during his inauguration speech to make the fight against graft the priority of his administration, across Liberia there is growing discontent that the President is not doing enough to fulfill these promises amid allegations of corruption by top officials in the administration. For example, in 2021, the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) sanctioned the Minister of State for Presidential Affairs and Chief of Staff to President George Weah, Nathaniel McGill. According to OFAC, “During his tenure in government, McGill has bribed business owners, received bribes from potential investors, and accepted kickbacks for steering contracts to companies in which he has an interest. McGill has manipulated public procurement processes in order to award multi-million-dollar contracts to companies in which he has ownership, including by abusing emergency procurement processes to rig contract bids. McGill is credibly accused of involvement in a wide range of other corrupt schemes including soliciting bribes from government office seekers and misappropriation of government assets for his personal gain. He has used government funds allocated to other Liberian government institutions to run his own projects, made off-the-books payments in cash to senior government leaders, and organized warlords to threaten political rivals. McGill has received an unjustified stipend from various Liberian government institutions and used his position to prevent his misappropriation from being discovered. McGill regularly distributes thousands of dollars in undocumented cash to other government officials for government and non-government activities.” Those sanctioned by OFAC also include Sayma Cephus, Liberia’s solicitor general and chief prosecutor, and Bill Twehway, managing director of Liberia’s National Port Authority,

Despite the public outcry and persecution, President Weah turned a blind eye and refused to act. Liberia should learn from the United States, our primary external partner, and respect public opinion and the rule of law. When we talk about politics & representation, the United States does better. It is, therefore, not wrong if we try as Liberians to learn from those who have gotten it right by following paths to that end. The resignation of the New York LT. Governor over allegations of bribery and wire fraud is just one of the numerous examples of people & climes who respect public opinion and fear anarchy.

It is disheartening to observe the momentum of power acquisition and the sit-tight governance system in Liberia even when there is popular dissatisfaction with the regime and clear evidence for their alleged offenses. Many public officers in Liberia, at several points, have been accused of one offense or the other, but continue their tenure or in some cases, even vied for another public position.  No serious President or leader will only suspend those involved in ongoing public corruption in Liberia and wait for a month for his top officials on US sanction listing to resign. The president should have fired those officials or forced them to resign effective immediately and forward their cases to the Liberia Anti-Corruption Commission (LACC) and the Ministry of Justice for prosecution through due process. Neither to say no serious country will accept two current senators sanctioned under the US Global Magnitsky Act, which authorizes the U.S. government to sanction those it sees as human rights offenders, freeze their assets, and ban them from entering the United States. If We mean business, the legislative branch should have started an impeachment inquiry and impeached them since those two brought public ridicule to the national legislature locally and internationally. . 

In conclusion, impunity is a major issue that must be tackled in Liberia and political parties must be accountable and democratic in choosing their candidates. Our case of letting accused public office holders off the hook, tells a lot about a failing legal system/institution/laws, a power shift from public opinion to the hands of few public office holders, and having representatives lacking the people’s trust, etc. We have a long way to go, and if we must begin to tackle good governance in Liberia, we must begin with accountable representatives not to the political parties they represent or a few groups of persons, but to the people they claim to serve. 

NewDawn

The New Dawn is Liberia’s Truly Independent Newspaper Published by Searchlight Communications Inc. Established on November 16, 2009, with its first hard copy publication on January 22, 2010. The office is located on UN Drive in Monrovia Liberia. The New Dawn is bilingual (both English & French).
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