By S. Karweaye
Liberia: The year 2022 budget is already off to a dramatic start with allegations of massive misappropriation to the tune of about US$24,866,637.54 being leveled against the Minister of Finance for his failure to remit to the National Road Fund.
According to the audit conducted on the Road Fund by the General Auditing Commission (GAC) for two fiscal years July 1, 2018, to June 30, 2020, and released to the National Legislature last week, the Liberia Revenue Authority (LRA) collected US$53,018,871.54 and deposited some of the money in the Consolidated Fund Account instead of the National Road Fund (NRF) account.
According to the Act, “all funds of the NRF shall be held in the Fund Account from which disbursement shall be made solely to finance the approved annual road maintenance expenditure program and directly related costs as hereby required in this Act.” The act, among other things, states the primary objective of the Road Fund is to ensure that the country’s road assets are sustained and maintained periodically from funds collected from the taxes — which cannot be diverted for any purpose — except to fix roads. The Consolidated Fund Account is the Government general revenue account that is controlled by the Ministry of Finance and Development Planning (MFDP). Of the US$53,018,871.54 collected, according to the audit report, the MFDP remitted US$28,152,231 to the National Road Fund thereby leaving a difference of US$24,866,637.54 which was not remitted.
Appearing before the Senate’s Public Account Committee, Samuel Tweah, the Minister of Finance and Development Planning, said that a handful of legislators whom he had conversations with gave him the go-ahead to divert US$24.8 million intended for the National Road Fund to the payment of civil servants’ salaries. He also said he was authorized by the international partners to divert the money from the National Road Fund. Minister Tweah’s action violates Chapter 2.2 of the Act that created the National Road Fund, whose source of revenue is taxes collected from motorists solely for the construction/maintenance of roads and bridges across the country.
Question: Should a government that claims to have the interest of its citizens at heart so brazenly loot or misappropriate public funds? Does the average person know the intricacies of how the budget is appropriated? These are questions that must command the interest of Liberians as yet another cycle of wasteful spending unfolds.
In seeking answers to the above questions, we will begin an analysis of the 2022 budget with an assessment of the Presidency’s allocations. It includes the Office of the President, Financial Management, Domestic and Special Services, the National Security Council Secretariat, Presidential Advisory Board, Technical Services, Ministry of State without Portfolio, Public Affairs, Public Affairs, Communication and Technology, Finance, Economic and Legal Affairs and Administration, and Management. Indeed, the Liberia Anti-Corruption Commissions, General Auditing Agency, Public Procurement, and Concession Commission, National Disaster Management Agency, Ministries, Departments & Agencies (MDAs)– and all executive bodies can be considered part of the Presidency, though under separate budget sub-heads, however for this article, we look at the Presidency – ‘The Executive Mansion’, while the Ministries, Departments, and Agencies (MDAs) will be examined in the ensuing weeks. The Executive Mansion is an important budget subhead that overlooks MDAs, some of which are central to Liberia’s anti-corruption, transparency, and disaster preparedness.
In the 2022 approved budget, the presidency was authorized to spend US$20 million of the national budget as compared to the 10.8 million it got in 2021. $14.5 million of the $ 20 million budget of the presidency is apportioned to personnel costs or staff salaries /goods and services while 5.2 million is for non-financial assets and US$475,000 for a grant. Total allocations across the presidency revealed the following: Office of the President ($5,4 million), Financial Management ($343,000), Domestic and Special Services ($830,500), Technical Services(631,944), Public Affairs, Communication and Technology ($180,000), Finance, Economic and Legal Affairs ($42,000), National Security Council Secretariat ($237,000) and Presidential Advisory Board ($179,000). Similarly, the Administration and Management of the Presidency have US$ 11 million, and the Ministry of State without Portfolio $870,800. As is evident from the above, the highest allocation of $20 million goes to the Ministry of States and Presidential Affairs (The Presidency) alone whose only responsibility is catering to the President and his largely ‘missing-in-action’ deputy.
Analyzing the presidency budget further, it becomes clear that this government is insincere in its fight against corruption and transparency. How can it justify the allocation of $2.2 million to the Liberia Anti-Corruption Commission (LACC), but $20 million to the Presidency and $5 million to the General Auditing Commission (GAC)? It is even more pathetic when one considers that the National Disaster Management Agency (NDMA) gets a miserable $846,386 in the 2022 fiscal year. The budgetary provisions can be seen in clearer perspective if you consider that the Presidency intends to amongst others, spend its allocations on renovating the Executive Mansion, presidential humanitarian outreach, foreign travels, allowances, scratch cards, residential property rental, and lease, fuel and lubricants, gas for generators, special presidential projects, celebrations, commemorations, and state visit, etc. while the LACC, GAC, and NDMA–all agencies which render essential anti-corruption and disaster management services get fractions of its allocation.
A closer look at the Public Procurement and Concessions Commission (PPCC) will illustrate the sorry state of affairs in Liberia. Procurement is the single greatest corruption risk in the public sector. Millions of dollars are lost every year through corrupt contracting and untransparent procurement processes for public contracts, especially related to public infrastructure in Liberia. Beyond a shortage of funds, the PPCC faces the challenges of securing staff with significant experience in the procurement or concession process or matters relating to the administration of procurement or concession contracts.
This reality should ordinarily lead to increased funding for the PPCC, but President Weah simply cannot be bothered. In 2022, the PPCC got $952,495 to reduce corruption and improve transparency and accountability in public procurement. While this is an increase over the 2020/2021 special budget allocation of $254,494, it is a classic example of perverse prioritization when you consider that the Presidency is spending $1.8 million on domestic travel-daily subsistence allowances and $1 million on celebrations, commemorations, and state visit, US$700 on special presidential projects while the PPCC, which is the transparency watchdog of the procurement or concession contracts in Liberia is less funded.
As concerned Liberians, we should ask important questions: if the fight against corruption is sincere, why do the Presidency’s domestic travel-daily subsistence allowances or commemorations and state visits allocations are higher than PPCC? Why does the Presidency also think that the welfare package ($3.7 million) for a few Executive Mansion employees is more important than the transparency and anti-corruption drive?
To use the National Disaster Management Agency (NDMA) as another example, with Liberia’s insecurity issues, threats of global warming, sea erosion, flooding, and other unforeseen disasters, why is the agency not getting higher allocation for research and development? Nowhere in its paltry provision line item for the disaster fund? The consequences could be unpreparedness for disasters which would only lead to an increase in the number of internally displaced Liberia as evidenced by the sea erosion in West Point, New Kru Town, etc. This would hamper the operations of NDMA and impact the timeliness of its response to disasters, Sadly, NDMA gets only $846,386 in the budget while the presidency gets US$ 700,000 for Humanitarian Outreach.
Unarguably, almost every item in the approved 2022 Presidency budget redefines the term ‘wasteful’. For instance, there is a provision of $400,000 for the Wroto Town Housing Project under the presidency and an additional $700,000 for Special Presidential Projects, but the approved budget cleverly leaves out details of the special presidential Projects. Most ridiculous is spending $231,000 on generator fuel. The Presidency should simply get connected to the national grid and experience the much-touted ‘improvement’ in the power supply if it believes in its fairy tales.
Misappropriation of public funds should not be treated with such levity if there is going to be a more even distribution of national income and if there is any hope of closing the wide gap between the rich and poor in Liberia. The populace must not fall for the deliberate distraction tactics of this government whenever their failures manifest. Public accountability must be paramount in the minds of those that have the privilege to work in public service or vying for political office as well as the electorates. The $24.8 million diverted from the National Road Fund must be accounted for. We must demand accountability and insist on it. The government – beginning with the Presidency – needs to urgently reduce wasteful spending by trimming unnecessary costs and eliminating wasteful provisions to free up funds for investments in human and physical infrastructure. The Presidency should set standards for probity and sensible spending. Unfortunately, the Presidency’s current approved budget shows no indication of any real progress or positive change, only the jamboree mentality that has become a hallmark of Weah’s government.