OP-ED: The Culture of Corruption in Liberia – Government as a Career Move and Easy Way Out

In her last State of the Nation address the other day, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf admitted serious shortfalls in her battle against “public enemy number one,” corruption, and that she had failed to achieve total reconciliation.

Though Sirleaf’s administration has enacted various anti-corruption measures, including a National Code of Conduct that is largely ignored and even blatantly violated by her own political appointees, the culture of corruption in Liberia is alive and well. Recent headlines illustrate government as both a career move and an easy way out.

Let’s start with the recently released The Deceivers report by London’s Global Witness. This report alleges that UK-based Sable Mining and its Liberian lawyer, Varney Sherman (who was also chairman of Sirleaf’s Unity Party), issued more than US$950,000 bribes and other “suspicious payments” to top Liberian officials.

The report named names and claims to have proof of these payments. Among those alleged to have received the so-called “consulting fees” are the former speaker of the Liberian House of Representatives, Alex Tyler; former minister of state and current senator, Morris Saytumah; former National Investment Commission chairman, Richard Tolbert; former chairman of Public Procurement and Concessions Commission, Willie Belleh; and at least two senators.

Two unnamed recipients, Big Boy 1 and Big Boy 2, were later determined to be the former minister of lands, mines and energy, Eugene Shannon, and his deputy Ernest C.B. Jones, both of whom are believed to have received US$250,000 each. Sable Mining also allegedly paid for President Sirleaf’s son, the director of Liberia’s National Security Agency, to go on a US$7,598 hunting trip.

Liberia’s Minister of Information, Eugene Nagbe, reportedly said the government wants to investigate and will prosecute those found culpable. Nagbe, by the way, is one of Sirleaf’s political appointees who remains active in politics in violation of the Sirleaf administration’s National Code of Conduct.

Indictments and arrests have already been made. Big Boy 1 was arrested but released after his wife, the current deputy minister of state for presidential affairs, supposedly vouched for him and negotiated his release to enable him time to produce a bond. Saytumah is said to have initially fled before surrendering and submitting a US$125,000 criminal appearance bond.

How this will play out in the coming months remains to be seen. We’ll probably see our fair share of denials, counter-accusations, and a few resignations. Will we see anyone behind bars? Doubtful.

Meanwhile, here’s another example worth examining: Embattled Libtelco managing director, Sebastian Muah, reportedly resigned after a scandal involving questionable funding and possible corruption surrounding a casino investment he had made in the Central African Republic.

Let’s put aside allegations of corruption here. Whether true or false, Muah employed a common tactic used by the corrupt to simply move on. He denied it, made a lot of noise – going so far as to accuse a publication of trying to extort him in order to kill the story – and then resigned.

In her State of the Nation address, Sirleaf explained why she’s been unable to deliver on her anti-corruption promise made in 2006:

“It is not because of the lack of political will to do so, but because of the intractability of dependency and dishonesty cultivated from years of deprivation and poor governance. We could not reap – you cannot reap – in government what has not been instilled in families, schools, churches, mosques and society in general.”

Ah, but these are high-ranking government officials. Her own son, even. If the Global Witness allegations prove to be true, how can we ever hope to solve the problem of corruption if the corrupt remain in charge? Their examples further instill corruption, which is already deeply rooted in the culture, as a lucrative career path.

Meanwhile, if you get caught in a corruption scandal, there’s at least one easy way out: deny, accuse, resign. With limited accountability and slap-on-the-wrist penalties, you’ll save face and soon be ready for your next career move, maybe even a political appointment.

So, what do we do to change this? President Sirleaf remains confident that she’s laid the groundwork with a plethora of integrity institutions, laws, and policies that will help successive administrations meet established anti-corruption targets – the same targets her administration has missed after eleven years.

We can wait for the slow wheels of government to turn, leaking funds and turning a blind eye along the way, or we could create a thriving private sector that makes the government less lucrative by taking the money out of it.

We could provide incentives to proven job creators and entrepreneurs – which would make the private sector more profitable for business while putting more people to work in well-paying jobs. More jobs mean less poverty and all the ills and expenses that accompany it.

With a thriving private sector, new graduates would have a viable alternative to government work or seeking employment outside of Liberia.

Speaking of which, how about incentives to bring highly skilled professionals back home from the diaspora? Liberia’s perpetual doctor shortage could be solved in a short time!

Corruption is a huge problem in Liberia, one that funnels resources away from the people and lines the pockets of the corrupt. The solution isn’t in another proclamation or formation of another institution, it’s in the private sector.

Featured photo by Futureatlas.com

Francis Cordor

Francis Cordor is a US-based software engineer who has worked on projects for the U.S. Department of Commerce, United States Customs and Border Protection, National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration and IBM. At IBM, Francis worked on various network diagnostic and configuration projects on the Datapower SOA appliance (a network appliance) with companies like France Telecom and Vodafone. Francis is also the founder of FrancordSoft —a software development company.

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