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Letter to my Compatriots

Ref.: “Corruption and Nepotism in Liberia”: The Mumbo Jumbo, Historical Context and Fact Check

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 parlours and night clubs, on buses and in taxis, the talk often turn to corruption. Sadly, the public seems unable to challenge the purveyors of the corruption and nepotism gossips, not just to explain these terms, but to real show proof. In fact, gossips take on a life of their own with each new gossiper embellishing the story a little to suit his purpose and self-importance.

This is the tragedy of a society that is unwilling to read and to challenge the veracity of information.  It 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.

As regards the claim of nepotism, do we really understand the meaning of the word or know practices that connote acts of nepotism?

My Fellow Compatriots, in this letter, I propose to share my perspective on these two words and place them in historical contexts.

Corruption, Webster Dictionary tells us, is “ ”. This is the dictionary meaning. But corruption is far more multifaceted than Webster would have us believe. Corruption is in the marketing. Corruption is in the schools. Corruption is in the Church. Corruption is in the Susu Club. Corruption is everywhere – and in many nations.

Corruption in Liberia is not knew. Corruption in Liberia is not more rampant. But corruption is now more topical than in the past because the President of Liberia, as a candidate more than seven years ago, made if a central pillar of her party plank. And in her historic inaugural address, declared that “corruption would be a major public enemy”.

My Fellow Compatriots: I know our President. I was her first Minister of State and Chief of Staff in the heady days of the transition. So, I can still when she made those pronouncements, she meant business – and continues to mean business seven years later. The facts support my claim:

  • 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. 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 Minister 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; unused travel allowance is returned.

When President Sirleaf first asked me to return the unused funds, I was a bit taken aback. President of Liberia returning unused funds to the public treasury? 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.

  • 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, we were required to declare our assets. The asset declarations were made public and engendered  interesting comments 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 privacy rights and all the rest. 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 did not acquire them by dipping both hands in the public coffers? What is the ulitity of asset declaration if the information is perpetually held under lock and keys? Notwithstanding,  the mere
  • 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 institutional ize 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, that President Sirleaf has never shirked from speaking about the evil of corruption and her commitment to strengthen the LCC. Earlier in the year, he sent an amendment bill to the LACC designed to grant prosecutorial powers to the LACC. What a day that would be when the LACC, in addition to investigating and reporting, actually pursues criminals? The Bill continues to languish in the Legislature.
  • 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 report was help in the highest level of secrecy. Here again, President Sirleaf works to ensure public resources are reported and accounted for. Many of us remember a past not so distant when such information was held by a fingerful of very top government functionaries.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • President Sirleaf’s persona lifestyle: Have you had breakfast with Mrs. Sirleaf? For those who have not, think about a typical Liberian breakfast: pineapple, eddoes/cocoyam, 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 Julejuah hill. But go beyond the breakfast to the residence. Do we remember how some of our former presidents live? The lived large: personal fleet of vehicles often ranged from 25 to 50; and if one enters  their residence, one sees and feels opulence; it hits one right in the face. President Sirleaf dresses elegantly but simply. President Sirleaf’s official vehicular fleet is not more than 10, inclusive of security escort.

My Fellow Compatriots: What is the significance about 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 who is 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.

Does it mean that everyone serving  in the Liberian government is President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, incorruptible? No. When 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; then it is too late.” 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 accusations by so-called talking heads, no Liberian would be available to serve in the government. 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 corruption issue. 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. Let me therefore cite Chapter II of the 1986 Constitution of Liberia titled, “General  Principles of National Policy”.  The general principles provision of the Liberian Constitution are national aspirations; they are not immutable 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 here prior to exposing the hidden agendas of those who purvey seek to achieve cheap popularity by constantly speaking about corruption, as follows:

  • 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”. 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 that Mr. Robert Sirleaf who is a senior policy advisor to President Sirleaf.
  • President William R. Tolbert, Jr.: Son, Adolphus Benedict Tolbert, a generous man, was Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee of the House of Representatives, far more popular and power than most members of the House of Representatives. 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.
  • Samuel Kanyon Doe: His children were all minor. But President Doe had two cousins who established S  & G, a public relations consultancy. It became a power and profitable consultancy.
  • 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.
  • 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 hold public office or doing business in Liberia? Does a person wishing  to aspire for the presidency now compelled to hold a family council to inform 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? 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 banker with substantial Wall Street experience. I know Robert. 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 intelligence.

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