Liberians' Hypocritical Response to Corruption

By Johannes Zogbay Zlahn

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
August 23, 2012

On a daily basis, the Liberian print and electronic media are saturated with news about public corruption, how the Liberian Government has failed to eradicate or at least minimize this scourge, and in many cases lay the blame squarely on President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. None of the news articles I have read about corruption has ever implicated the President in any acts of corruption. Instead, the President’s declaration of corruption as “public enemy number one” in her 2006 inaugural address, coupled with her real or perceived failure to adequately tackle the prevalence of corruption in the public arena is often cited as the basis for blaming the President for the acts and/or omissions of corrupt public officials. Before proceeding forward, I would like to state here that I am not an official of government; that I have never served in any position of power in the Liberian or any other government; that I am not a member of any political party, including the President’s Unity Party; and that I do have some reservations as to how the issue of corruption in public places have been handled by the Johnson-Sirleaf Administration and its predecessor administrations. However, I believe that it is hypocritical for Liberians, whether they call themselves journalists or whatever, to criticize the President for her alleged failure to tackle the problem of corruption without asking the real hard question as to why the Liberian society generally, and public officials more specifically, are so corrupt. The answer to this question will, in my opinion, determine the response of any President of Liberia and for that matter any official of the Liberian Government, to this scourge that is slowly but surely destroying the fabric of our society and which has prevented the Liberian nation from achieving its full potentials in terms of social, political, economic and infrastructural development.

To begin with, it is necessary to note that the President and all Liberian public officials are only a component part of the sum total of the Liberian society and therefore revolve around the Liberian society without necessarily acting as a determining factor in our society. This then means that as we argue that public officials are corrupt, we must necessarily agree that the Liberian society which produced those public officials is corrupt; for a society can only reproduce itself, such that the ascendency of individual members of the society to a higher position is not a determining factor in the behavior of such members. Although my profession (the legal profession) imposes upon me certain ethical and professional responsibilities, how I apply those ethical and professional responsibilities is shaped and influenced largely by the norms, mores and way of life of the society in which I find myself. Having practiced law in both the United States and Liberia, I know for a fact that the practice of law and related activities are different in Liberia than are in the United States. This means that I must adjust to how law is practiced in Liberia if I am to practice law in Liberia, regardless of my likes or disdain for how things are done in Liberia and vice versa. Applying this example to our situation as a nation, one sees that corruption is glorified by the average Liberian; while honesty, patriotism and nationalism are despised and ridiculed by the average Liberian citizen. For instance, when a public official who worked diligently for the Republic of Liberia, avoided corruption and only survived on his/her income which is barely enough to build him a decent residence, he/she is ridiculed as a loser who “worked for the government for long time without doing anything for himself.” On the other hand, a man or woman who had nothing before assuming public office, but who within a short period of time pilfers the country’s funds and builds him/herself a mansion is revered by the public as a great Liberian and attracts large followings. Many examples exist in our society today.

When the late Interim President of Liberia, Mr. David Kpormokpor, died in the United States and his family requested the Liberian Government for assistance to bring his remains to Liberia, I came across many Liberians who had no sympathy for the man or his family, but instead ridiculed him as having served in the position of Interim President without doing anything for himself. Without thinking for a moment that the man did not do what they expected him to do because he was busy serving the country and making sure that the country as a whole benefitted from his service to the nation, these people, who represent a cross-section of the Liberian population, believe that a public office is one’s ticket to wealth and fame as opposed to service to the country and its people. Because of this kind of belief, the public has no incentive to pressure the government to punish public officials who have engaged in corruption at the highest levels or to elect honest people who lack the financial wherewithal to seek public office. Instead, mansions are built with public monies for the benefits of public officials and their families to the detriment of the nation as a whole, and the builders of those mansions are glorified as heroes and great Liberians. With this kind of mindset, which believes that pubic office is not for service to the country, but for self enrichment, is it any wonder that public officials are so corrupt and unaccountable to no one but themselves? If the public is willing to condone corruption and believes that public office should be used to gain wealth and fame, why is it that instead of the media focusing on the root cause of the problem, which is our collective acceptance of corruption, the media are instead lambasting the President on a daily basis for her alleged failure to make “corruption public enemy number one?” I believe that the President’s declaration should serve as a starting or rallying point for all Liberians to begin to examine our collective actions and our reactions to corrupt practices in our society instead of serving as ground for attacking the President’s alleged inaction as relates to corruption.

Before anyone thinks for a moment that I am condoning corruption or that I am defending the President, I want to state unequivocally that I am doing neither of the two. My point and the message that I want this article to send to all Liberians is that we are collectively responsible for the rampant corruption that has permeated every segment of our society. In Liberia, when one talks of corruption, they only speak in terms of public officials, but fail to realize that any deviation from a set of rules, customs or practice is corruption. People who regularly accuse public officials of corruption fail to know or realize that when they engage in extra-marital affairs, that corruption; or when, instead of waiting for their turn to be served by a bank teller, but instead cut in front of the line by having a family member of theirs who works at the bank serve them before serving others who had waited for several hours before their arrival at the bank, is corruption. They also fail to realize that when, instead of providing adequate food and shelter for their families, they spend much of their income on “God children,” that’s also corruption. I could go on and on but we all get the message. Do not point one finger if four fingers are pointing at you.

If we truly want to solve the problem of corruption in the Liberian society, our mission should begin with ourselves. We need to examine ourselves to determine whether or not we are practicing what we preach. We also need to educate our society about the inherent dangers of glorifying those who steal from the nation’s coffer for self enrichment. We must also learn to revere public officials who serve our nation honestly and reward them with decent retirement packages. Without these measures, no President, including President Johnson-Sirleaf, can eradicate or even minimize corruption in this nation.

Johannes Zogbay Zlahn is a Counselor-At-Law

© 2012 by The Perspective
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