MONROVIA, Montserrado â€“ In the wake of mounting pressure from the local media and public over the apparent disappearance of containers and bags of monies, Eugene Nagbe, Liberiaâ€™s information minister, says the government cannot confirm that there is money missing.
Rather, he says the government is investigating the huge sums of Liberian dollars that were printed and brought into the country through the Roberts International Airport and Freeport of Monrovia.
On September 13, a local daily, theÂ Hot Pepper newspaper,Â reported that agents of the National Security Agency and Liberia National Police raided the offices of the Central Bank of Liberia in search of information that could lead to the L$9 billion (US$58 million) that went missing from the Freeport of Monrovia on March 31, 2018 after arriving in a container.
The report indicated that the request to enter the port and take delivery of the container of bank notes was reportedly signed by Maria E. Grisby-Toe, Musulyn R.B. Jackson, Oldada Deshield, and five others from the Central Bank of Liberia.
The container was, however, not taken to the Central Bank, according to the Hot Pepper. The paper listed the brokers as Lawrence Sirleaf and Elise G. N. Jolo of J.V.S. Enterprise, Inc.
On September 17, Justice Minister Musa Dean issued a press statement confirming that on August 8, 2018, a presidential investigating team comprising the Liberia National Police, National Security Agency, and the Financial Intelligence Unit had been constituted and mandated to investigate information surrounding the arrival of containers and bags of monies into the country through the Roberts International Airport in Margibi and Freeport of Monrovia.
Dean said initial findings indicate that the containers and bags of money allegedly arrived in the country between November 2017 and August 2018.
â€œEvidence available to the investigation team has established that the current administration was not informed about the arrival of the containers and bags of monies into the country,â€ the justice minister said.
Dean further said the investigation is ongoing and active and that information would be released to the public in keepingÂ with the need to preserve the sanctity of the investigation to ensure that professional standards are not compromised.
Nagbe, who appeared on ELBC Radio on Tuesday, September 18, said President George Weah had commissioned an investigation following a tip that new banknotes had been printed and brought into the country without the presidentâ€™s knowledge.
Nagbe said the objective of the investigation is to find out the total value of banknotes printed, and whether such money is in the custody of the Central Bank.
Nagbe said the investigation was prompted by the fact that the president and his senior government officials were not informed about the arrival of the huge sums of money.
â€œSince Weahâ€™s ascendency to the presidency on January 22, there have been about 50 economic management team meetings, and the president was never informed about the new banknotes,â€ the information minister said.
So far, Nagbe said the investigation had determined that the banknotes were printed in China, Sweden, and Lebanon. He noted that it was â€œunusual for the countryâ€™s banknotes to be printed in several different countries.â€
Nagbeâ€™s interview on Tuesday revised the amount from L$9 billion to L$16 billion (US$104 million) that officials were trying to track that had been brought in the country from November 2017 to August 2018.
He said the investigation is trying to establish how much of that money was released to the public and how much is missing, noting that the release of new banknotes without taking older ones off the market could have an impact on the exchange rate between the Liberian and U.S. dollars.
Nagbe announced that the investigation team had called for questioning the former Central Bank governor Milton Weeks, current Finance Minister Samuel Tweah, the current Central Bank governor Nathaniel Patray, and other staff.
â€œIf anyone is determined to be culpable of violating the laws of the country, the government will not hesitate to apprehend to prosecute such individual,â€ he said. â€œThe government will not hide anything at the end of the investigation.â€
The investigation team has not set any timeline for the investigation; Nagbe stressed that the inquiry needs to be comprehensive.
â€œWe see this as a major distraction, and as usual, the president will not allow himself to be distracted because he took an oath to protect the interest of the country,â€ Nagbe emphasized.
Weahâ€™s government has not shown itself to be particularly supportive in the fight against corruption and money laundering.
Alex Cuffy,Â the director general of the Financial Intelligence Unit, had noted that the fight to tackle illicit financial flows in Liberia was hampered by the refusal of agencies to provide information and data, especially on cases that involve politically exposed persons. He also complained that the allotment for the FIU in the national budget wasÂ reduced from US$925,000 in 2017 to US$577,000 in 2018.
The executive chair of the Liberia Anti-Corruption Commission, James Verdier, also expressed a similar sentiment. He said despite public pronouncements, there was no real action to fight corruption. A sign of the governmentâ€™s attitude was a cut in the budget allotment to his commission, reduced by US$300,000 fromÂ US$2,312,672 last fiscal yearÂ toÂ US$2,008,362Â in the current fiscal year. Verdier also pointed out that in the current budget, the commission has no allotment for litigation.
Featured photo by Zeze Ballah