LIBERIAN CORRUPTION: Typology and Definition

A Socio-criminological Analysis

By: James Thomas-Queh

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
November 30, 2013



In the first part of this paper already published in these same columns , we tried to establish how the errors of bad governance have encouraged the spread of corruption, incompetence and inefficiency. It is from this perspective that I have also been able to draw up the typology of corruption under our current democratic government.

Definition: Types of Corruption

In the definitions that follow, we shall see that not all the corrupt tendencies or acts enumerated are necessarily susceptible to prosecution. For some of them, the cure may depend only on exercising our  own moral judgments and having a minimum of patriotism, dignity and pride. On the other hand,  those other corrupt acts  which, undoubtedly, merit a legal pursuit, would require not only  a  government with an unflinching political will to tackle the endemic, but also a justice system that works and an arsenal of trained, organized and sophisticated   anti-fraud or LACC agents to collect the facts and data. And all this action must be within the framework of a vigorous coordination among the various actors. Further, our legal practitioners must start (if they have not yet done so) to define  the illegal contours of some of these new corruption acts developing in our society and put a severe deterrence penalty upon them commensurable to the gravity.

1. Patronage or dependency corruption
This is a practice where the foreign partners, political leaders, private persons, etc would  give economic or financial aid, international laureates, etc with the intent-directly or indirectly – to buy favour or keep the recipient in a state of dependency, easily exploitable, no self-initiative or push, no shame or self-pride, but must always be out there begging for help. This practice produces a double corrupting role – first,  on those who give continuously -the patrons (especial the partners) – they steal too because most of what is given goes right back through their multinationals and NGOs. As for the government officials, they steal directly from  the state coffers or cutting illicit deals here and there, in order to maintain the practice and their other vices. And second, it is on the recipient who stays docile and lazy forever and thus predisposed to corruption.

a)  Personal or private patronage – We are all responsible and guilty on this one. For example, we in the Diaspora work like crazy to maintain relatives back home, and yet we are too shame or lack the will to tell the truth on how difficult it is to earn our living. Worst, we fail to show the example or  encourage on how to be productive and self-dependent from the help that is given. As a result, our country has now turned into a  begging dent -the sign of a people in mass poverty. From the time one arrives at the RIA, and until you get back on that plane to return, you will be giving somebody something from morning until night- the driver, cook, watchman, etc, - either to pay their way to go home and to return the next morning; and if a relative came to visit, you are obliged to pay his fare to return home and also find “small” thing or school fees for the children. Time has caught up with us; because we have lived for too long waiting on the receiving end, we are conditioned to always be the receiver.

b)  Executive patronage – This is the age old culture where the President goes around and makes promises or give donations. And because these promises or donations are not clearly distinguishable either as state gestures or personal ones, they are hardly ever effective - especially in democracy; and even as symbolic as they may be. The latest example to date is the1,000 reflector jackets donated to the motorcyclists by the President, and then she admonished them to be “patient and law-abiding in operating on the streets of Monrovia and elsewhere” ( see: The next day, these same motorcyclists were engaged in a violent riot, injuring several police officers and burning a taxi bus that apparently hit and killed a motorcyclist ( see:  Whereas, if this very important symbolic gesture was within the framework of the government’s general safety policy, and these reflector jackets were distributed by the National Police Force (or even the Ministry of Justice) to the motorcyclists and the poor taxi drivers – that, at one stroke, could have reinforced the authority and image of the National Police Force, the Ministry of Justice, the Government and, of course, the President. And tomorrow, when the President leaves office (because in democracy Presidents come and go, but the government stays), and these motorcyclists and taxi drivers are requested by the next government to pay their taxes in order to improve our public safety, train and equip  our Police Force, build our roads, etc – they could quicker understand the utility, implications and the necessity to comply. But today I can imagine what most of those motorcyclists would say: “That reflector jackets we will eat; we are catching hard time and they enjoying themselves with our money.”  At the end, those reflector jackets would end up being sold on the sidewalk.

c)  Political patronage – In the old glorious days of our nation, our charismatic and autocratic political leaders – Tubman, Tolbert, Henries,Grisby, Greene and the others- permanently maintained entire villages with huge rubber farms and modern homes. And when they spoke, there was no doubt that they had entire counties and huge constituencies behind their words. But today is the absolute opposite. The government is 99% indigenous Liberians, but they are incapable of maintaining  farms and constituencies, instead, they have signed out their own tribal villages and land to multinational foreign concessions for little of nothing-corruption. Worst,  most of them are too stingy, hiding behind their wealth and shadows and too afraid to mingle with their own people. And believe me, no settler Liberian would have ever affix his signature to a concession agreement that stipulates the displacement or merger of Bentol, Crozerville or Lexington as our mediocre,  indigenous officials have performed. As a result, isolated from their own people, these officials wait only for a political season to apply the “political patronage”- sending discredited and corrupt emissaries into their own villages with small plastic bags of Liberian dollars to buy votes. But the failure of most legislators to win their seats during the last general elections of 2011,  is a proof that this practice does not work in democracy, though many still have not taken in the message.

d) International patronage  - We had our real example of the international patronage in the 1990s, with the coming of the ECOMOG to save us from ourselves. It was our own African brothers who sacrificed for us and asked nothing of us in return. It was the Federal Republic of Nigeria that shouldered the bulk of the bill, but the war, unfortunately, never really ended for them to have taken that due credit.

Then in 2003, the United Nations came in with full force – the UNMIL. But in difference to ECOMOG, the UN came in also with a troupe of economic experts – the GEMAP (Governance Economic Management Program)  – to put our economy and finances in order and stop corruption. That was the pretext. Because we already knew that those big nations affording the bill of the UN presence in our country are far from being  humanitarians or our brothers; they are pure capitalists, and their interest is primordial. Their biggest preoccupation is to  “get their money back” either by hook or by crook. This is the truth that we are still failing to tell to our people; instead we closed our eyes and ears on any detail; and our concern is only  “what is in the pipeline” for our personal aggrandizement and not the general well-being of the nation.

The result now speaks for itself.  We woke up10 years  later, and  GEMAP had disappeared long ago, but  all our national resources have been divided (almost in kind) to the various companies of those powers that mandated the UN to maintain our peace and security. In reward, we are enjoying a “relative” peace and cruising in the latest SUVs, fat bank accounts while our army and police are still struggling to cop with the daunting tasks put before them.

In short, the international patronage is a sort of blackmail, especially   when a nation is put on its kneels. For over 14 years we were left to slaughter ourselves like wild beasts, and no one thought about our vast natural resources. Suddenly what was supposedly a UN rescue mission, has turned into a kind of gold rush, where all sort of shady, cunning deals are signed under the aegis of a  “democratic” government.  This vicious  policy, disguised through corruption, is the rat trap  to which most of our officials easily fall prey and left to carry the blame for our chronic  under-development. What is even worst in our current case is that everything is opaque; we are unable to distinguish the real aid from the debt being accrued. But take my word, in 2017, the bill for the past 12 years will definitely meet the next President, and his/her feet and hands would be tied even tighter. 

2.  Economic corruption
This is the practice that certainly requires a criminal pursuit, and not because it is equivalent to  outright stealing, but also because some of the acts could be proven as pure economic sabotage.

a)  Institutionalised corruption – This is the corruption that comes in “kickbacks” or the 10% up front  before a government Minister signs a contract. Or a state official that is in partnership with an enterprise which wins government contracts at his influence. One may also refer to it as “influence peddling or conflict of interest.”

b) Unpatriotic corruption –A typical example is where one is having difficulties to settle his taxes arrears or public utility bills, and the official in charge would request from the delinquent a good bribe, so that the total arrears can be scribed and forgotten, and nothing goes into the state coffers.

c)  Petty corruption (bribery) – This is the daily trouble of ordinary Liberians, whether retrieving a document, filling in a form, applying for job, etc – someone in charge must receive the “cold-water”. More prevalent also is the fact that there is hardly any fixed price anywhere; so the local merchants, wheelbarrow boys, Pehn-Pehn, etc, look at the clients and determine a price to be negotiated.

d)  Fraud – Taxes should be paid on one’s earnings or profits.  That is why taxes are deducted  from the government’s pay checks. But what about all those banks, foreign merchants, enterprises, fat banks accounts that grow overnight, big real estate owners? If they are not paying taxes on their earnings (not to be confused with the real estate tax which every house owner should pay), then our country  is a victim to a massive fraud.

e)  Embezzlement- This is when public fund, entrusted for a definite purpose,  is squandered in its totality by the government official put in charge. This is the case of all the corruption scandals surrounding some of the county development fund.

f)  Internationalised business corruption – This is the multinationals business syndicate – the implementing arm of the international patrons or “partners.” This is the corruption that has no remorse or conscience – the pillage of innocent nations and people.   Firestone, LMC, LAMCO, Bong Mines, NIOC,  etc, are examples; and dispute their experience, we have  again conceded all our natural resources for a small rent and the rest in corruption. Worst, since the Honourable Speaker acknowledged the errors in the concession agreements, nobody has yet been charged  for economic sabotage against our nation. Sadly, it bothers nobody either.

3- Institutional corruption
We already know certain kinds of corruption that are proper to specific state institutions (ex. ghost checks or payroll padding), but there are new ones making our daily newspaper headlines. What is more, some are serious national embarrassments.

a)  Confirmation corruption – Not only the fact that our legislatures are among the highest paid, but it has almost become the norm that no executive appointee can pass a confirmation hearing without not bribing some of the Legislators. Or for some County Superintendents to be confirmed, it is the County Development Fund that serves the guarantee.

b)  Judiciary corruption – We definitely do not have any proof of cases being settled out of the chambers, but there is no secret of corrupt jurors, or some unscrupulous lawyers who represent both parties in a case. Or the “bond fees” collected by the Magistrates and put into their pockets, instead of the national treasury.

c) Lobby corruption – Mittal Steel delivered a fleet of pick-ups in grand style to the National Legislature ; or NOCAL paying US$118,000.00 “lobby fees” to the  Legislature to ratify  oil contract (see: www.newdemocratnews - 25 May 2011).

d) Educational corruption – We were proud of our education system before, but today buying grades, diplomas or paying a professor to do your thesis, has become a common practice. Or else, how could 25,000 students failed UL’s entrance examination.

4.  Anti-democratic corruption
This is the sort of corruption practice that undermines the growth of a vibrant  democratic culture. It  encourages false grandeur and manipulates the fragile, emerging state and political institutions.

a)  State-condoned corruption – This is where the government is maintained in a  false high standard of living – luxurious, expensive SUVs with tinted glasses to avoid seeing the daily struggle of the people, free phones, gas coupons and you name it. Ah, the convoys of both the President and VP are bigger than those of Obama and Biden;  and all this opulence is in the midst of mass poverty and jobless citizens. This is an official way of predisposing  the government officials  to corruption. The down side, of course,  is that it makes the people to perceive the entire government – and even the most austere and honest Minister – as all corrupt officials.

b) Political corruption – This is where the opposition parties, politicians or all those with critical views are bought and silenced by the ruling party. In other words, they are not brought into the government as genuine partners or coalition or even for reconciliation to help move the country forward in a more positive way, but only for them to be exposed as mere empty political shells – useless and corrupt. This strategy of discrediting opposition politicians, unconsciously discredits and undermines the growth democracy.

c)  Nepotism – We already know this one, when a national leadership surrounds itself with relatives in high profile government positions, and who go around bulling everybody. This last trait –bulling -is an heritage from the Tolbert regime, where the unique obsession of Finance Minister Stephen Tolbert was to get everyone else out of business in order to establish his own family business empire.

d)  Cronyism – A national leadership that places close friends in influential state positions with astronomical salaries.

e)  Partisanship – Where the ruling party members are placed at random in government without any reference to the civil service Agency or its regulations.

f)  Tribalism – If the current government is 99% indigenous Liberians (and I stand to be corrected), then we should all be clapping our hands that tribalism has been eliminated in  our country. But apart from the few big family names starring in the government, where are the rest of the settler Liberians -that very powerful minority tribe - which ruled Liberia from birth in 1847 to 1980 – have not they the right too to be in the government? Isn’t it anti-democratic, considering our turbulent history,   for one group of people to monopolize today the political power throughout the entire country? Due to the absence and shrewd discretion of this tribal grouping, can’t we see why our country has been turned into just a big money making business for others? Can’t we see why all those concession agreements have been signed upside down? Can’t we see why hardly anything is going straight? And can’t we see why our national reconciliation may still be miles away? But let me reassure you that the settler elites are in Liberia, well and kicking, and some are even smoking cigars again; the Grand Masonic Temple operates in full, rents from government are flowing, real estate is booming, lawyers’ retainer fees are at their highest, lucrative jobs with multinationals or UN mission, and the list goes on. I have already put this situation into a theoretical perspective back in the1980s (see J. T-Queh: The Liberian Nation in Revolt..”, Liberian Studies Journal, Vol. XII, n°2 –1987), and which I now term as the South Africanization of today. That is, let the Blacks (indigenous Liberians) have the political power and screw up their own people, while the Whites (young generation of settler elites)  firmly control all the economic conduits – the real power that manipulates from  the background. This assertion need not be construed as tribalism, but only a social psychological phenomena.  Thus if we want to foster genuine social harmony, peace, stability and national reconciliation,  we must strive so that both the political and economic powers will be equally share among our various tribal groupings.

5 – The Myth corruption

This is the deliberate myth that has gradually been established  around the theme of “corruption”, and much so that even the United Nations has declared a “Corruption Day” – an event only celebrated in Africa and other poor countries, but not in the West, the origins of the disease. And while all this mockery  and deception is going on, our continent is sinking deeper and deeper into poverty and self-destruction.

a) Stereo-typed or brainwashed corruption – We have been brainwashed –through our own local media and powerful, organized international campaign to disguise the mass exploitation of our natural resources in collaboration with our national leaders whose greed has no limits, to accept the stereo-typed that all our perpetual poverty, underdevelopment, civil wars, etc are due wholly to the inherent corruption of all our national leaders. To reinforce this perception, for example, the UN has been in Liberia for the last 10 years, spending billions of dollars to keep our peace and security (and it came in with its World Bank/IMF economic gurus-GEMAP); and in addition, we are celebrating the “Corruption Day” in fanfares and flourishing speeches – yet corruption is forever present and acknowledged by all sides. But then it’s  simply our problem, and only our problem; no questions, the UN is only there to help us and will continue to do so. Thanks be to God!

The purpose of this paper has been threefold. First, to accept, whether we like it  or not, that we made some fundamental errors from our starting-block in democracy to fight corruption –if at all then our main problem was only corruption. Second, it is an attempt, once more, to demonstrate that “corruption” is still a very complicated issue for a nation as ours; its ramifications and tentacles are long and large and far beyond our borders. But some, at the end of day, with a strong political will, national dignity and pride – could be minimized, if not totally eliminated. And the rest, whatever little we may obtain from the confiscation of natural resources - could be used wisely for the general welfare of our nation and people. Lastly, our experience has now shown that high salaries do not necessarily produce efficiency, patriotism and reduce corruption, but instead encourage a false high standard of living predispose mainly to corruption, inefficiency and unpatriotic tendencies.

Therefore, while time is still on our side, it would be in our national interest to reduce and standardize those astronomical salaries to correspond to the economic and social realities of our country. It is better to have a less paid troupe of government officials, but who are austere, honest and devoted to serving their nation and people.

And here are my closing words. In the late 1990, when some of us were called upon to serve our nation in the midst of  the civil war, we saw it as a national duty. So we abandoned  our families, young children, comfortable homes and self-employed jobs and went home. We lodged at the rat infested Ducor, no light and water, no pay nor honours and could hardly feed ourselves for almost two years. And when a monthly pay check finally  came (at a Minister rank) it was a total of $1,160.16, and the net pay after taxes: $848.21. I think that was a real sacrifice; and because we were sincere in our engagement, we survived the “Octopus”, the April 6, 1996 onslaught and others, and still surviving today with Liberia always to our hearts.

About the author: James Thomas-Queh is a Criminologist and Social Psychologist and has served in the Government of Liberia/
© 2013 by The Perspective
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