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Reflecting on anti-corruption efforts in Liberia, West Africa

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Corruption is one of the biggest themes on the lips of Liberians today. This issue has become prominent in the national debate because President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, during her inaugural address on 16 January 2006, said ‘corruption will be public enemy number one’. Today, the President’s critics are judging her by this statement claiming that ‘not much is being done to prosecute corrupt government officials’.

Besides newspapers’ reports and talk show callers, one of the groups of Liberians holding the President accountable to this promise is the Liberia Institute for Public Integrity (LIPI), which alleges that President Sirleaf spend over two million US Dollars without accountability. While advocacy against corruption is laudable and that the people must hold the President accountable, it seems that some critics tend to ignore or forget the enormous efforts put in the fight against corruption in Liberia, efforts for which perhaps corruption has become topical today compared to the days of previous autocratic regimes that endorsed corruption as a modus operandi. For instance, Former President Taylor once assertedthat ‘the civil servants are not being paid, yet they are not complaining because they go to work every day, pay themselves, and remain shinning’. Yet under Taylor’sregime, and the ones prior to, corruption in the public sector did not become a ubiquitous thematic debate as is today in the post-conflict country.

Why corruption remains intrinsic in Liberia, there are currently more avenues through which this societal vice can be brutally dealt with in the interest of the people of Liberia and the state at large. Most of these integrity institutional frameworks can be credited to the Sirleaf lead government, and for this, she needs to be commended. First, Liberia has an independent General Auditing Commission (GAC) that reports to the National Legislature. Though the GAC was founded during the leadership of Chairman Charles G. Bryant, Madam Sirleaf was its key proponent when she headed the Good Governance Commission as Chair. The commissioners and staff members of the GAC are being paid handsome salaries from the resources of Liberia. The GAC has submitted several reports to the National Legislature. The World Bank is funding the Legislature’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC) Secretariat, which supports the legislative Public Accounts Committee in scrutinizing audit reports sent to the Legislature to allow the first branch of government recommend remedial actions to the Executive for prosecution of those who may be implicated for misuse, abuse and plunder of public resources.

To what extent has the Legislature done its part of the job in fighting corruption by speedily passing on these audit recommendations to the Executive for prosecution? Can the media, civil society and the people begin to pressure the National Legislature (the direct representatives of the people) to do its part of the job as opposed to solely blaming the Executive for not clamping down on corruption? In the same vein, can the National Legislature allow its financial system and processes to be audited by the GAC? How can the Legislature come with clean hands to recommend prosecution against would be corrupt officials when the entity itself does not want to be audited? The failure of the Legislature to allow audit in its backyard for the past nine years brings the so called first branch of government’s integrity under dark cloud. Can the Legislature allow an audit of its records?

Second, there exists the Liberia Anti-Corruption Commission which should serve as a watch dog and hold corrupt officials accountable. The LACC was ‘was established in August 2008 to directly investigate, recommend for prosecution all acts of corruption in all sectors of government including the private sector and to institute measures aimed at eradicating the practice and its impact’. This body, according to some critics, is yet to show its actual powers. The commissioners and staff members are also being paid handsome salaries from the resources of Liberia. Can the LACC therefore become a robust entity rather than sitting in offices waiting for corrupt cases? What mechanisms are there at the LACC to aggressively pursue corrupt officials and corrupt public servants? Can this Commission become an efficient and effective integrity institution? Some critics are not convinced that the LACC stands out in using the powers given it under its statutory mandate. In public policy, statutory entities are to enhance national agenda setting and implementation. In this case, the LACC has to play a lead and robust role in setting and implementing the agenda for curbing, if not eliminating, corruption in Liberia. Arguably, the LACC is yet to step up to its mandate. Can the public, media and civil society begin to push the LACC to do its work rather than solely blame the President for corruption in Liberia?

Third, there is the Freedom of Information Act under which the public, civil society and interested parties can demand information and documentations from any government entity in the event such information is needed. The commissioner and staff members are equally being paid handsome salaries from the resources of Liberia. Under this law, all Liberians have the right to demand documents and reports from their public institutions if they feel there is an abuse and misuse of government resources. Can the media, the civil society and ordinary citizens take advantage of this law to bring corrupt practices to the public glare for possible prosecution such that this menace is curbed or eliminated?

Last, there is the Public Procurement and Concession Commission (PPCC). This Commission was set up to amongst other things streamline public procurement process.An ACT ‘establishes the Public Procurement and Concessions Commission (PPCC) with oversight responsibility to regulate and monitor all forms of public procurement and concessions practices in Liberia. The PPCC has the elaborate mandate of monitoring procurement entities to comply with the Act of 2005 for all public procurement and awarding concessions, in order to ensure economy, efficiency, transparency and to promote competition so that Government gets “value for money”  in using public funds’. The commissioners and staff of this commission are, like other commissions, receiving handsome salaries from the taxes of Liberia. This Commission was instituted to serve as a hedge against corrupt practices in the procurement sector of our public sector. Can the public therefore focus on ensuring that the PPCC processes are religiously followed rather than solely blaming the President for failure to fight corruption?

Arguably, all these institutions serve as a quantum and laudable public policy hedgeagainst corruption. They could take Liberia forward in winning the battle against corruption, but this can only happen if the people (public) hold them accountable to their mandates. The fight against a century old systemic corruption in Africa’s first Republic would not end within a decade. It requires concerted efforts by the people of Liberia, the government and civil society to ensure that this fight is advanced in the best interest of the state now and in the future. Blaming the President alone does not solve the deep seated problem of corruption. The public, Legislature, Executive and Judiciary must each do their part, and collaborate, to ensure that the fight against corruption is taken to a logical conclusion.

Corruption is not unique to Liberia, but this does not mean that Liberia should remain one of the countries rated with high corruption levels. Corruption is widespread in western and developed countries. For example, reporting on a corrupt syndicate at the Sydney Airport, the Australia’s Integrity Commissioner, Philip Moss (2003)concluded that ‘an enduring lesson is that corruption risk will follow opportunity for illicit profit. Policy designers, and those responsible for governance of high-risk operating environments, must expect this situation to be the case, and plan accordingly’. Can Liberians use the existing integrity institutions to push policy designers and those working in high-risk operating environments to become accountable and transparent?

Least you get me wrong, the President, as Head of State, is under obligation to fight corruption under her regime, but without the support of the existing integrity institutional frameworks (GAC, LACC, PPCC, FOIA, et al.), Liberia may linger in corruption at the hands of public servants, and the country may remain underdeveloped due to the lack of accountability and transparency, and abuse and misuse of public resources. The time is now for all to unite against corruption rather than blame a single individual (the President) who alone cannot address systemic corruption in the Republic of Liberia. The debate about corruption has become prominent today because the democratic space exists now than before. Let Liberians therefore take advantage of such space and the integrity institutional frameworks to fight corruption in all its forms and manners, no matter who is involved in Liberia, a fragile state still recovering from 14 years fratricidal civil conflict. This is the challenge.

Liberia First!

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