By J. Yanqui Zaza
Corruption, as a vice President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf calls Liberia’s number one enemy, is back in the news. It was rampant before her presidency, but now, Liberia has become one of the most corrupt countries in the world. This notorious status came after we killed three Presidents (E. J. Roy on 2/11/1872; W.R. Tolbert on 4/12/1980 and S.K. Doe on 9/09/1990), sent the fourth (Charles Taylor) to the Hague, and prosecuted the fifth (Gudye Bryant), all in the name of fighting corruption. In addition to killing our presidents, the anti-corruption-war killed over three hundred thousands during the fourteen year old civil war.
After the civil war, Liberia and its international partners instituted anti-corruption measures. From the onset, our international partners coerced our leaders and technically transferred Liberia’s sovereignty to the World Bank when Liberia signed the Economic Management Assistance Programme on May 1, 2005. As stipulated within the agreement, Liberia did not only hire expatriates to co-manage all monetary affairs, it was compelled to pay excessive allowances to a few presidential advisers and the expatriates at a time it was seeking debt relief. The logic was that receiving about US $10,000.00 per month, Sirleaf’s economic advisers would reject bribes, thereby helping to negotiate fair concessionary agreements.
Rightly so, none of these measures could be implemented without free and fair elections and the creation of a few anti-corruption agencies. Liberians responded, and elected President Sirleaf, someone with the requisite academic degree and experience. After the elections, President Sirleaf and the Liberian Legislature did not only create several Anti-corruption commissions, but enrolled Liberia as a member of the Extractive Transparency Industries, an institution that keeps records on remittances to the government from concessionary companies.
Sadly, there is little evidence to indicate that the anti-corruption measures are effective. For example, according to the Extractive Transparency Industries reports, 68 concessionary companies such as Firestone, Mittal Steel or Oil companies have remitted minuscule amounts to the Liberian government: $29m in 2007/2008; $35m in 2008/2009; $71m in 2010, and $117m in 2011. Global Witness, commenting on its investigation conducted on the management of Liberia's resources, stated that the "...continued governmental pursuit of quick wins and acquiescence to the business lobby will entrench patterns of corruption and cronyism." Another critic, Counselor Tiawon Gongolee, an advocate, testifying before the Liberian Legislature during the oil concessionary debate, concluded that the agreement didn’t benefit Liberia.
Well, just as the billions of dollars in bonuses paid to chief executives on Wall Street doesn’t discourage them from accepting bribes, bribery in Liberia became business as usual. So, whom should we blame for the rise in bribes giving? Did concessionary negotiators accept bribes, or did they get the wrong directives from President Sirleaf? Surely, if she did not give them any directives, her actions did not help. For example, President Sirleaf persuaded lawmakers to receive gifts/bribes (white pickups-vehicle) from Mittal Steel, a concessionary company, thereby signaling to the Liberian people that offering and receiving bribes was acceptable.
I assume President Sirleaf and her economic advisers have problem with bribery when a blue-collar worker accepts bribes, but it is okay when a chief executive lobbies or offers bribes to elected officials to award sweet heart deals, enact weak labor laws or write ineffective housing codes.
Further, besides making public utterances, President Sirleaf made little effort to discourage not only bribes receivers, but also bribes offerers, who are constantly in search for sweet heart deals. Consequently, almost every concessionary agreement signed was concluded with minimal benefit to the country. Currently, rumors from the President's inner circle, say that investors with interest in the Wologizi Mountain have begun to offer thousands of dollars to concerned parties.
Okay, maybe President Sirleaf and her advisers believe that bribe giving does grease the wheels of business. But what did the World Bank’s experts, specifically those experts hired to deter and reduce bribery in Liberia, do to fight bribery? Or were they not aware that corruption will rise if they allow lobbyists or bribes givers to grease the wheels of business? Well yes, undoubtedly, corruption will rise as long as bribe giving is part of doing business. And as long as profiteers own or manage lucrative resources, bribe giving will continue to grow.
Why so? Common sense suggests that anyone who wants to accomplish a mission such as to make a profit or violate a law might be willing to give a token or offer a bribe in exchange for a favor. That is part of the reason why, an economist said that bribing/lobbying lawmakers is legal since lawyers try to influence legislative outcome that impact their interest or their clients’ interest. Also, he added that protecting ones interest was the logic behind the US Supreme Court ruling, which indicated that big business is protected by the constitution if it decides to bribe/lobby politicians. He stated that, “…when the federal government can influence what happens in your business or your backyard or your bedroom,” make use of the $4 billion Lobbying Industry “…to help you influence your lawmakers...That’s not corruption; that’s self-government,” he continued.
Profiteers, bribes offerers or lobbyists do not only offer more bribes, illegal or not. But they also finance their choice of candidate or intimidate, blackmail or finance the replacement of a leader that refuses bribes. Additionally, they denounce anti-bribery advocates. For instance, in Liberia, journalists are under the threat of lawsuit to forgo bribery story. Currently, FrontPage Africa, a Liberian news media, has been found guilty and is liable for $1.5 million. Even after America’s 2008 financial crisis, where bribery resulted into the loss of billions of dollars, US big banks don’t want to forgo bribe giving policy, according to Adam Davidson of the NY Magazine, August 11, 2013 Edition. In short, the practice of lobbying/bribing giving will continue to allow individual’s interest to supersede community’s stability.
I deduce that this new attitude toward bribery/lobbying, and, understanding what Thomas Hobbes described in his book called “Leviathan” as “Social Contract,” Mr. David Brooks, an Op-ed writer of the NY Times, stated that, "... a society that focuses on the idea of making quick money or primarily on the freedom of an individual, but not the stability of the community, might encourage its citizenry to adopt bad behavior. He added that it behooves a society to maintain the balance between the liberties of individual, restricting freedom for the sake of an ordered existence.
But without adequate funds, a political community, as described by Hobbes, cannot be maintained. Equally true, political communities cannot get adequate funds because individuals, having profit motive, will usually bribe to accumulate higher profits. The Liberian fourteen year old civil war, the uprisings in the Middle East, the bankruptcy of Detroit, Michigan, the fourth largest cities in the United States, the 2008 financial debacle, which was primarily due to bribes giving or the $16 trillion dollar debt of the United States, indicates that corruption will rise as long as individuals have the motives to bribe/lobby.
Certainly, individuals will continue to have the motives (i.e., manage or own profit-making ventures) to offer bribe as long as big business through the World Bank finance the election of candidates such as President Sirleaf.
J. Yanqui Zaza