By: James Thomas-Queh
No doubt, we all seem to have an idea of the problem – it is corruption, corruption and corruption. Unfortunately for this government and Liberia, this is the generalized perception that has been firmly installed since the alert was first given, long ago, by one of the government’s most famous watchdog agencies then, the General Auditing Commission, GAC. And eight years on, Cllr. Harry Varney Gboto-Nambi Sherman, Chairman of the ruling Unity Party, in his excellent July 26, 2013 oration or rather a manifesto to salvage the party and probably our democracy, served this vexing reminder to the attention of the Standard Bearer: “…But, again, I submit to you that our country cannot be transformed when public service is evaluated by the Liberian people at large as the place where corruption exists, persists and is practiced as a matter of course and with impunity” (see Google: Cllr. Harry Varney Gboto-Nambi Sherman, “166th Independence Day National Oration”, July 26, 2013).
After a near panic reaction and the fracas in the immediate aftermath of the oration, we reluctantly acknowledged its content, but not the right venue for the presentation. What is more, Transparency International was already at his rescue by indicting our country as being among the most corrupt nations of the world. Next, Human Rights Watch gave its verdict on the National Police Force, classifying it as a “predator” on the citizens rather than a “protector.”
In a desperate attempt to encounter these charges and vindicate the government, I suppose, the main state actors were geared into action – if not a diversion. First, journalist Rodney Sieh, famous for his persistence in exposing alleged corrupt government officials, suddenly found himself in prison and his newspaper (FrontpageAfrica) closed down for failure to pay 1.5 million dollars (if not a ransom) to Dr. Chris Toe, a former Minister of Agriculture, for publishing corruption charges levied against the then Minister by the General Auditing Commission (GAC) three years earlier. Then in the midst of a general indignation from both the national and international communities on the unjustified imprisonment of Rodney Sieh, the National Police Force finally saw reasons to get tough on lawless state officials and motorists. And soon a legislator was pulled over in traffic for the illegal use of a siren. Of course, disgracing a lawmaker publicly created an unnecessary tension between the National Legislature and the National Police Force.
Then a principal sequence would follow. Mr. Robert Sirleaf – the son of the President and the most controversial symbol of nepotism – finally tended in his resignation from both of his high profile portfolios: President of the board of the National Oil Company (NOCAL) and Senior advisor to the President of Liberia. And judging from Mr. Sirleaf’s interviews since then, these positions were not only imposed upon him, but he was also serving free of charge. Ah, only his personal expenses (well, perhaps, determined by himself) were reimbursed. That reminds me almost of another era. As a young junior civil servant in the Tolbert administration and usually driving an old taxi (a pony) on weekends to make ends meet, I used to cross some of the scenes where the late A. B. Tolbert would be distributing money to the disabled and passers-by on the sidewalks of Monrovia. And that, too, was his personal fund.
But to further demonstrate that “This is no joke, 2013 will be the end of corruption”, the Liberian Anti-Corruption Commission (LACC) has just published a detailed spreadsheet of those government officials who have acquired unexplained wealth, and those who refused categorically to declare their assets (see www.frontpageafrica.com - Oct. 6, 2013). Among those refusing to comply are the Minister of Justice and a deputy. If that is true, then one is left to wonder how credible would be the Ministry of Justice to effectively investigate and prosecute those who are being accused of acquiring the unexplained wealth? Anyway, since the list came out there has been a shouting match of accusations and counter-accusations between the LACC and the accused. We are monitoring for the ultimate outcome.
But before going any further, let me assure the readers that I have been an ardent supporter of this administration from its very inception. And I had the professional intuition then to have predicted that “One of the first issues that may make or break this government could be that of corruption” (see www.theperspective.org - Dec. 29, 2005 and www.liberianobserve.com - Jan. 4, 2006). Because judging from our past experiences on the question, plus a nation coming out of a devastated 14-year civil war – I thought making corruption the ‘enemy n° 1’ as a campaign slogan was too complicated an issue on which to rebuild the hopes and aspirations of a totally destitute people. Do not accuse me yet of condoning corruption, far from it. But when you start by requesting 3.5 million jobless, hungry and homeless citizens to be honest, then you must have had the certitude that your own team - mostly too of the jobless, hungry and homeless people - will be honest, competent and experienced 200%. I knew that guarantee was impossible; we never had it yesterday, and we could not have had it today. Thus not too surprise, I have been observing as the corruption index gradually claims to red.
So, as we mobilize into a renew fight against the epidemic, here again is my contribution. As a starter to the combat this time, I think we need to first and foremost examine how the corruption has permeated our emerging democratic society since 2006 – its persistent trend, evolution and typology. As for its social, political and psychological impact on us as a people, they are already felt far and near.
We have now learned that in difference to dictatorship or autocratic regimes, “Good Governance”- meaning: transparency, accountability and efficiency - is a vital element in the social contract between a democratically elected national leader and the people – and even more imperative in an emerging democracy. To confirm this fact, Cllr Varney Sherman had this reminder again: “Especially for you, Madam President, in a country were nearly every successful political program or action must be driven by the highest political office, I submit, again, that you were elected to set the examples of good governance – examples that would be worthy of emulation by your successors. You were elected because Liberians believe that of all the contestants for the presidency of this country, you were the best and most qualified to be the trendsetter for the progress of our country and the fulfilment of their individual and collective dreams.”
What a great task! Then the renowned Cllr Sherman went on to list all the many achievements of the government and also its numerous shortfalls (and we concord), but avoided the term “bad governance” as oppose to good governance. It could not have been an oversight, but simply because most of the other essentials of democracy are being respected. For this reason, we cannot classify those shortfalls as a result of bad governance; but instead, they are due to “errors of bad governance” from the very beginning of the administration. What is more, it was in the midst of a popular euphoria and high expectations. And because of this general sentiment of optimism and renew hope, these important errors would later become a sort of a patent or trademark stuck into the life span of the administration. Worst, they became the pacesetters for the rapid propagation of corruption, incompetence, inefficiency and a decline in public confidence. While these errors may be seen as old and forgotten, for the purpose of this paper, we will analyse only a few from among the most controversial groups: Down-sizing/right-sizing, Discrepancies in salaries and recruitment of senior functionaries, Actions/decisions/pronouncements and Style of national leadership.
If under normal times the government of Liberia was the single highest employer, and now that the country had gone through a civil war (precisely a war for wealth, greed and jobs), how do we come in there and down-size or right-size the civil service without first establishing a genuine and solid base for a private sector employment? How did we expect all those traumatised ex-civil servants (including the entire military and police) and their extended-families (even with a financial compensation) to have perceived a better future and the new government? Couldn’t we have foreseen that the financial pressure on the remaining few employees was a perfect conduit for corruption and a grass-root animosity against the government?
Now, if at all anyone wants to remember sergeant Samuel K. Doe (though we do not seem to be too keen on our history) - the man who symbolized the first fatal bullet against the “rampant corruption” on April 12, 1980. This man, of the simplest mind, was quick to realize that “corruption” was synonymous to the “lack of jobs and opportunities” for the bulk of our population; so his People Redemption Council (PRC) arbitrarily flooded the civil service in anyway possible. True, there was no economic wisdom to that action, but it took the pressure of his back, and the “rampant corruption”, at least, when off the lips of the masses. And born under a lucky star, the American government still maintained his regime with massive economic aid (see: Dun and Tar – Liberia: A National Polity In Transition, 1988, p. 176).
Discrepancies in salaries and recruitment of senior functionaries
Coming on the heels of the down-sizing/right-sizing, was the recruitment of the functionaries (including the entire military and police) and the salary discrepancies that went along with it. It is no secret that a very selective few (mostly from the Diaspora or international organizations and well connected) were brought into the government with negotiated astronomical salaries, while their majority colleagues (mostly home folks and also Diaspora, but less connected) got inferior salaries. The adverse effects of this policy are profound, going far beyond mere corruption. First, it accelerated the ineffectiveness within the government in that it demoralized the less paid Ministers and their entire ministries- creating jealousy and superiority egos among the Ministers. Of course, one may argue that it’s a matter of choice to accept a $2000.00 per month while another colleague takes home up to $15 000.00. But with such huge disparity do not be naïve to expect the same patriotism, loyalty and efficiency. And secondly, the animosity created here has exacerbated the divisions between Liberians: 1) Within the government itself –between those receiving the astronomical salaries or friends or favourites of the national leader (the “untouchables» as they are now called) and the less paid officials- almost an irrelevant group and 2) Between all those from the Diaspora in the government - who are all now considered the friends and favourites of the leadership, receiving big salaries- and those who remained on the ground, down-sized or only making peanuts, if not forgotten. This conflict brings to focus the huge salary gap between the highest paid civil servants (very few) and the lowest paid (the great majority) both civil servants, wage labourers, etc; and also between the “have” (very few, who are considered to come from the Diaspora) and the “have-not” (majority population).
This entanglement has produced a backlash against the Liberian Diaspora -those who have worked so hard (and continue to do so) to feed their relatives back home, build homes and keeping Liberia alive since the civil war - are today rejected almost as persona non grata by the sterile debate on “dual citizenship.” What sort of people, ridiculous and hypocrites are we, when in fact, some of us there do have this dual-citizenship hidden in our wallets, but then do not want the others to vote or serve their country? And yet all roads still lead to the United States - the President, Vice President, Ministers, etc. – to have Town Hall meetings with the Diaspora – the non-citizens of the Republic.
There is this last significant effect from the recruitment and salary discrepancies worthy of mention. This policy has completely undermined the functions of the Civil Service Agency. As much as we have criticized President Tolbert, this agency was the pillar of his civil service policy: merits and not on “who knows you” or having a “sponsor” within then ruling True Whig Party hierarchy, uniformed civil service salary structure, fringe benefits, and you name it. But surprisingly, while in Monrovia recently I heard someone boosting as being the head to implement one of the most important articles in the statutes of the ruling Unity Party. Curious, I discretely asked a friend near me if he had any idea what was the nature of that all important article. He whispered in my ear that it had to do with the placement of the ruling party members in the government and elsewhere. “Gosh”, I said to myself, “meritocracy could be dead for the remaining mandate of this government.” And of course, the repercussions are considerable – party loyalty comes before efficiency, competence and national interest. There is no wonder; I said to myself, that the President is constantly in the spotlight to acknowledge publicly the errors made in some of the contested concession agreements. And since hardly any justification is given for the errors, Speaker J. Alex Tyler came out recently with two reasons why his Honourable Body has wrongly ratified these concession agreements. First, that 90% of the lawmakers in the 52 National Legislature, who signed the 68 concession agreements since 2009, were inexperienced and neophyte. And second, that also the entire government was young (see allAfrica.com/stories/201310180330.html – 18 Oct. 2013). Taking the Hon. Speaker by his word, our natural resources have been sold out for nothing, and our national future compromised because of gross incompetence and not because of corruption. But it is impossible to disassociate incompetence from corruption; one is complementary of the other. Interestingly, and for reasons yet unexplained, this administration has attracted mostly the young, but very few older folks, experienced and competent – personalities that could look the President in eye and saw the truth (without fear or intimidation) as to whether a policy, decision or an action would worth the trouble.
Actions/Decisions and Pronouncements
We have chosen only few examples, which, in our view, helped to focus and reinforce the public perception on corruption, incompetence and institutional inefficiencies. The first action was on the “travel allowance”. The President used to return her unexpended travel allowance back to the national treasury to much public applause; and she had also expected her officials to do the same, but then met an undeclared resistance. This was a major test to her authority that did not go unnoticed by the public. When I went to Liberian in 2007, I told friends that such an action of “returning per-diem” could not work or be sustained because there were many missing links and mechanisms not yet in place. Furthermore, an official travel allowance had long been a part of the emoluments enjoyed by the “faithful” civil servants. Thus as would be expected, as the President’s own travel agenda accelerated, so were there many embarrassing questions of transparency than answers. If you brought back a balance per-diem, then people soon wanted to know how much was taken on the trip and how was it spent. At the end of it all, the practice died away, and the first major disaster in our fight against corruption was consummated.
The second example is the decision on the “assets declaration” that hardly anyone had ever cared to respect until very recently. And rightly so, if the country was destroyed by the civil war, and the citizens lost everything they had and took off into exile or stayed at home in destitute, then what assets were they to declare before appointment. Ask the Americans about the aftermath of their civil in the 1860s; the Nigerians about theirs in 1970, and the Europeans after WWII in 1946 – they all started, not by first preaching corruption, but by genuinely mobilizing their people to roll up their sleeves and build their nations, lives and institutions. It is then that the concern for corruption came later. But worst in our case, the President herself declared her assets first, but since then some of the appointees, apparently, have yet to fully complete theirs. If so, why are those officials still in the government, especially when they and the LACC are trading accusations through the media? Of course, for the public all that is due to corruption, if not a severe blow to good governance.
Third, we could not leave out the “Commissions” cropping up like mushrooms. There are almost as many Commissions as Ministries; and there are those that come and go, and those that are permanent. But whatever may be their duration, they have some major impediments that leave them the image of yet another corrupt way of finding lucrative employments for cronies. First, the public has no idea how much of these Commissions are funded by donors or the taxpayers. Additionally, most of them are not implementing bodies and their missions do not impact directly on the larger population; they are usually charged with a specific task to come out with some solutions or recommendations for the Chief Executive to act upon. But the popular perception is that the recommendations are never fully implemented. And secondly, some of these commissions usurp –directly or indirectly – the functions of some the Ministries; thus interpreted as diverting the much needed fund from the concerned Ministries which, in effect, are the main implementing arms of the government. For example - if the Ministry of Justice was correctly funded and staffed with the right competence, we could do away with two commissions: Anti- corruption and Law reform. Or, if the diamond, gold and other precious stones were not our most concerned interest at the Ministry of Lands and Mines, we could probably do without a Land Commission.
In fact, if we were to keenly examine the Liberian Anti-Corruption Commission (LACC), we could find another major reason for its ineffectiveness. Why is it called “Anti-Corruption” and not “Anti-Fraud Agency or Bureau” as in the West? Well, I think it was one of those requirements – an effective smokescreen - from our partners to turn our public attention away from those multi-national business tycoons, who, knowing our appetite for personal gains over national interest, are plundering our national resources and impeding our national development. Clearly, if LACC lacks the authority to inspect the books of Mittal Steel, Chevron, Firestone, and the others (the major source of corruption), but only to check on the illicit enrichment of government officials, then no wonder this institution has become a mere public forum for corruption accusations and counter-accusations.
That said, within this overlapping of functions and the dispersion of fund to missions that do not impact on the larger population, most Ministries and other major state institutions have become dysfunctional, ineffective and thus predispose to corruption. To camouflage the situation, we create the personality cult whereby one or two officials are portrayed as the most efficient and competent and sent from one position to another to make things work. And when they leave, of course, that institution becomes dormant, naturally. The impression this gives too is that even though we are establishing new state institutions, but at the same time we are not too keen on their effective functioning. As a result, the majority public perception remains firmly the same –negative- and all those roving functionaries are all put into the same basket as mere “recycled Ministers or cronies” of the President.
Ah, there are the “pronouncements”. The US$16 billion investments and the deliverables speak volumes. If not corruption and incompetence, how do you convince the people that $16 billions have been invested in the country, but with eights years gone 80% of the 3.5 million population still has no jobs, no light, water and the national budget can hardly reach $600 millions? Or, if the education system is a “mess”, and 2500 students failed UL’s entrance examination, and that Minister of Education is still in place, but only a Deputy is fired later –then what image should we have of our government or the non-fulfilment of our own deliverables? Are we to content ourselves by blaming the Liberians for just being “negative” and “ungrateful?”
The style of National leadership
I can still remember supporting an “Iron Lady” in 2005, and today she is affectionately referred to only as “Ma Ellen.” And when a Liberian starts to call you “Ma, Old Ma or Pappy” then beware – he is putting finger in your eye, stealing as hell. Anyway, I wouldn’t know when the “Iron Lady” was abandoned, but surely there is a vast difference between the two adjectives. The “Iron” sounds like discipline, fire, no-nonsense; and the “Ma” may be interpreted as compassion, tolerance – a sort of good mother who spoils her many children. This transformation may have given the wrong signal - an impression of a laissez-faire, no authority and no one cares. Major controversies, with the media interposed, would be let to sort themselves out in time. This attitude from the helm of power in an already undisciplined society as Liberia, lessens the fear of corruption, fosters inefficiency and undermines the authority of the President.
And talking about the authority, there are two main symbols that characterize the weight and respect of the Liberian presidency: Power – the “chief” even in the traditional sense, and then the place from where this power is exercised in all of its grandeur: the Executive Mansion – this real Zoe Bush in the traditional settings, this mystical shrine that holds the secrets and life of the village. But since the fire incident at the Executive Mansion in 2006 – our national pride - it is still standing there, idol and sad. More than seven years later, what should we expect the public to think about us or how could we command full authority and respect? We don’t seem to have the decisive will or the enthusiasm to venture in there again. So where is that huge mansion staff and budget? And the gossips abound in Monrovia - corruption. And it has reached a point that even the Hon. Bhofal Chambers has added his voice – either the President should move back to the Executive Mansion or the National Legislature will stop the budgetary support to the Ministry of State for Presidential Affairs intended for the renovation of the Mansion (see: http://allafrica.com/stories/20130260189.html - 25 Oct. 2013)
Well, when I first heard about a “cabinet retreat”, I instantly thought about that good time rolling again – an official party in disguised. And believe me, this is precisely what most Liberians think that while they are finding it extremely difficult to make ends meet, their corrupt government officials go on lavish retreats, enjoying themselves at the expense of the people. Additionally, from morning until night the same government officials go from one workshop to another, eating and drinking free of charge, while most ordinary Liberians go hungry. Where have we gotten all this corrupt, elitist class culture in the midst of mass poverty and jobless people? Frankly, only God alone knows.
Typology of corruption since 2006
Since Liberia has been ruled for the most part by autocrats and dictators, we have always perceived corruption through the very narrow prism as mere “patronage”- a sort of our traditional way of life. Because the distribution of the state largess originated only from the imperial President or with his blessing; and in this way the regime perpetuated. But in democracy there are the constraints of good governance. For this reason practicing the corruption craft in democracy becomes a very delicate and risky art, diffused and dispersed for diversion to avoid tangible traces. It is from this observation that I have drawn up the current typology of corruption in Liberia. Apart from fraud and embezzlement, which are among the legal terminologies for economic crimes as inscribed in our penal code, most of the typology has been constructed having in mind our proper social jargons. It is divided into five main groups (far from perfect): 1) Patronage or dependency corruption; 2) Economic corruption; 3) Anti-democratic corruption; 4) Institutional corruption and the 5) Myth corruption. I have left out the “Moral corruption” – more delicate, but a danger to a nation’s morale and could become a useful tool to blackmail state officials and compromise our national interest and national security.
a) Personal/private patronage.
b) Executive patronage
c) Political patronage
2- Economic corruption
a) Institutionalised corruption
c) Petty corruption (bribery)
f) Internationalised business corruption
3- Institutional corruption
a) Confirmation corruption
b) Judiciary corruption
c) Lobby corruption
4- Anti-democratic corruption
a) State-condoned corruption
In the Second Part of this document to come later, we shall try to define our typologies of corruption. But until then, we leave it to our readers to start working out their own critics and definitions.
About the author: James Thomas-Queh is a Criminologist and Social Psychologist and has served in the Government of Liberia. Contact:JM.Export@wanadoo.fr