OP-ED: House of Representative’s Snub of Fonati Koffa is Good News for Liberia

Maryland Representative Bhofal Chambers’ election as speaker of the 54th National Legislature eliminated any hope that Jonathan Fonati Koffa, a convict and fugitive from the American justice system, would assume the speakership.

Koffa, the newly elected representative of Grand Kru’s second district, was vying to be elected as speaker of the House of Representatives. The convicted criminal has done pretty well for himself since escaping to Liberia to evade his jail sentence in the U.S. After losing an election to become a Grand Kru lawmaker in 2011, Koffa adroitly worked his way through, becoming chairman of Charles Brumskine’s Liberty Party. Most recently, it was reported by the Daily Observer that President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf had given him a staggering US$750,000, primarily to prosecute Counselor Varney Sherman and others in the Sable Mining bribery case. Such greasy political project probably bankrolled Koffa’s 2017 electoral campaigning and his eventual victory.

It is ironic that a guy with a dark cloud of criminality hanging over his head was preferred and proffered by the foremost internationalist, President Sirleaf, to prosecute people accused of engaging in corrupt, criminal activities. However, Koffa’s insatiable ambition continued to rise as he attempted to secure the speakership of the Republic of Liberia. By preventing Koffa from taking the reign of the speakership, the legislature has sent a clear message that men of questionable character will not be rewarded leadership position.

It has been widely reported that Koffa was convicted for embezzlement of funds. For those of us who are not schooled in the niceties of legal jargons, it simply means that the man is a “rogue.”  He stole money from people and used it for himself. Even in Liberia where law enforcement is notoriously feeble, stealing is absolutely a crime. A North Carolina news outlet reported that Koffa had stolen from his clients while working as a lawyer in 2004. US$200,000 was stolen from a couple looking to refinance their home. Anyone who owns a home in the US knows how difficult it is to maintain property in this country. Many homeowners usually have to go through multiple refinancing phases, just to be able to keep a roof on top of their head. Hence, it is disheartening and devilish for hardworking families to be unsuspectingly victimized by a callous, crooked lawyer.

Having engaged in such sleazy acts here in the U.S., Koffa seems to be bereft of any remorse of conscience, as he selfishly sought to become the second most powerful government official in Liberia. He seems to be entertaining the notion that the U.S. government has forgotten about the huge swath of money he swindled from its coffers. About US$200,000 of the money Koffa reportedly stole belongs to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and another US$70,000 from the Town of Rolesville, North Carolina.

Before taking to his heels to Monrovia, Koffa had admitted in court that he stole the money. If his crimes do not offend you, wait until you hear why he stole the money. According to court documents, Koffa claimed at the time that he had stolen the people’s money to build a ‘bridge’ in Liberia. I am not joking!

As outlandish, criminally mischievous as it sounds, that was Koffa’s tale of theft under oath when he took the stance, after vowing before the court to tell the truth and nothing but truth, “so help me God.” I wonder how many ‘bridges’ he has built in Grand Kru since his return. He bizarrely noted at the time that he intended building those fabulous bridges in an effort to help his friend, Charles Brumskine, be elected president of Liberia. Now, if you show me a bridge that Jonathan Koffa built in Liberia that cost US$500,000, then I will tell you my father is a Nigerian king who left me plenty of riches and if only you send me US$500; I will share my riches with you.

Koffa’s lies are taken right out of the playbook of some of those scam emails you ever received in your mailbox. As an adage says, show me your friends and I’ll tell you who you are, with friends like these, we should be thankful that Brumskine was not elected president. Thank God that Brumskine is on that bridge to nowhere.

You might be surprised, but Koffa’s defense lawyers and the prosecutors believed his lies. His lawyers had argued that Koffa might have done an evil thing, but he was truly undertaking a noble cause. Apparently, the noble thing that Koffa’s mother taught him was to steal money from America and send it back to Liberia. Said no mother ever! But the prosecutors were dumbfounded.

Koffa was supposed to go to jail for ten years, but the judge and the prosecution considered his nonsense so convincing that they sentenced him to only two and a half years in jail and ordered him to pay back the money he had stolen from the US government and the city of Rolesville. He was also disbarred from practicing law, meaning he cannot practice law in the United States. If only the Liberia National Bar Association would stop him from practicing law too, people like Koffa would not be relevant today.

If Koffa can evade the justice system of the United States, imagine what he will do to Liberia. Since 2005, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has been promising to root out corruption. Twelve years and several commissions later, corruption in Liberia is common like the air we breathe. Put Koffa in the midst of that pond and he will swim well.

To be fair, Koffa is not the only expatriated criminal to succeed in Liberia. There was Tobias Bowen, the former Redemption Hospital administrative officer who was charged with raping a child. Instead of staying in the U.S. and defending himself, he ran to Liberia, living large, only to be arrested while visiting his family in London. I can continue naming many others who did all sorts of unimaginable evils, committed heinous crimes, but since the international community, through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, has relegated the killing of Liberians to confessing and walking free, I digress.

But that is exactly one of the main problems with Liberia. It has somehow become a breeding ground for criminals who cannot thrive elsewhere in competitive environments. It’s no wonder that good guys do not easily win anymore in our common domain. If you are caught stealing, you are transferred to another department to continue stealing. This is why people like Koffa felt the legitimacy to contest for such a prestigious office. The success of criminals like this only inspires other criminals to do the same.

It is plausible that one could contend that as long as the people of Grand Kru elected Koffa as their representative, he should be free to contest the speakership. Whoever is making such argument is not considering how easy it is to manipulate the electorate. I am confident that if the people of Grand Kru were entitled to all the available information, they never would have elected Koffa as their representative.

Nevertheless, it is much harder to fool the legislature than it is to fool the electorate. Unlike the electorate, the legislature is privileged to far more information. I am not saying they will never be fooled, but in this case, they did the honorable thing. They stood up to the criminal and told him he does not have the prerequisite character to do the job.

Feature photo by Zeze Ballah

Joseph Guannu Bartuah, Jr.

Joseph G. Bartuah, Jr. earned double Bachelor’s degrees in Political Science and Criminal Justice from the University of Massachusetts Lowell (2014) and his Master’s in Government from Harvard (2019). He should not be confused with his dad, Joe Bartuah, Sr. who is a former editor of The NEWS newspaper in Monrovia. He can be reached at jbartuah@hotmail.com.

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