By: John S. Morlu, II
“Since I took over the Ministry of Finance, the national budget has been sufficiently debated and opened for public scrutiny like never before. Additionally, I have pressured my colleagues to ensure that the necessary investments are made in popularizing the Open Budget Initiative (OBI) so that budget execution is within the public domain which has landed me in trouble and expose me to all kinds of hatred.” “I can understand why some of my colleagues are angry…we are changing the way we spend money by eliminating what we spend on ourselves to investing it in public sector investment programs that will benefit all Liberians.” Minister of Finance, Amara Konneh,
“They hate me,” Minister Konneh is crying out. But I wondered what Former Ministers of Finance Augustine K. Ngafuan and Dr. Antoinette M. Sayeh will say when they had a more forceful Auditor General who was constantly on their backs each year during the debate of the budget, beginning with two months of media packed budget debate at the Unity Conference Center in June 2007. The Minister has also indicted his colleagues arguing that they are wasteful, greedy, selfish and do not like transparency. Further, the Minister says his colleagues are angry because he is spending money on programs that benefit Liberians. How wicked or as Daily Observer wrote, “heartless” can these ministers be to get mad at Minister Konneh for spending taxpayers’ money on taxpayers. The Minister is just letting us know that before he became Minister of Finance, ministers in Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s government were spending the budget on themselves. But he says he has “pressured” them to change such bad behaviors and conform to his “mode of operations.” No one could have said this better than Minister Konneh.
I worked in Liberia for 4 years overseeing the work of the entire government, providing me a unique insight into the Government of Liberia and its functionaries. I was at the receiving end of so many attacks and convoluted arguments on very simple matters. I heard and read a lot of funny excuses. Three years later, I am still reading funny excuses and explanations from Government officials.
A superintendent from Grand Kru told me there are no laws against conflict of interest in Liberia, not knowing conflict of interest is prohibited in the Public Procurement Act, 2005 and when I pointed it out to her she simply said, “oh well.” A comptroller walked into my office and asked me why I called him professor in the audit report. I showed him the vouchers and all the financial documents he signed with “Professor” before his name and he said, “Really?” and he just left.
A businessman came to me to convince me while he should not be named in the audit report. His only argument was that “your father and I were best friends in Bong County.” When I said that was not a good reason, he looked at me and said, “oh, you want to disgrace me.” I said no. Instead just sign the document confirming your statement that you divided the money for the “road construction in Bong County.” After he signed his confession, he said don’t tell anyone I signed the statement. I told him I will not tell a soul but it will be included as part of the evidence in the audit report and people will see his signature and his name. He walked out of my office, reminding me of all the “good time” he and my father had together. By 2PM, my “father’s friend” was on radio castigating me, saying “the little boy want to disgrace people” in this country.
I suggested to a woman for internal control purposes, she should open a checking account instead of encashing and putting $200,000 and putting some in the savings account and the balance in her hand bag. She said, “No, I will not open a checking account. The Human Rights Commission is not a government entity. I do not report to the President, because my boyfriend appointed me.” I informed the President. She shook her head in disbelief and fired her immediately.
All of these are low level officials. But when funny explanations and excuses come from the Minister of Finance, the Chief Financial Officer of the country is a serious matter. The Minister of Finance is a key advisor to the President on economic and financial governance matters. As you can see from reading below, the current minister of finance’s statement wills show you the inner circle thinking of the Presidency, and why the President can sometimes be dismissive and uncommitted on corruption issues, such as her recent response to the Cockrum reading that it has no impact on her government, “noisy minority,” “go and examine your heads, ”etc.
In 2007, I made a simple request to the Minister of Finance for the financial statements at the start of the audit. I received a letter from the Minister of Finance lecturing me about the difference between Government financial management and private sector. Yes, in Liberia, everyone knew auditing and financial management more than me. For them, John Morlu II was just an ‘idiot’ imposed on them by the European Union. The Minister of Finance wrote me and said, “GOVERNMENTS DO NOT PRODUCE FINANCIAL STATEMENTS.” I wrote her back and said simply, “by your letter you have shown your ignorance of financial management in Government. Please find attached the Financial Statements of the Government of Ghana and a link to the Financial Statements of the Government of Maryland and the U.S. Department of Justice. I shall frame your letter for posterity.”
The second Minister of Finance in the Ellen Sirleaf Government condemned me, the GAC and said I have crucified him. He condemned my professionalism and trashed the HIPC audit reports, because he said he was not in the “movie” so how he is held accountable for actions in the movie. He was politely reminded that it is true he was not in all sections of the movie but he was in the part that had to deal with expending of the “general claims” money, which at the time constituted 20% of the national budget. But here was the funny part. While he was condemning me and the audits, he packaged all the audits, wrote a cover letter, signed the cover letter and put them all in a big envelope and sent it off to the World Bank and IMF asking them to accept and approve for $4.9 billion debt waiver.
But in all their shortcomings, the first and second minister of finance in the Johnson-Sirleaf’s government will not do the unthinkable: Be as dismissive on the impact of corruption on Liberians as the current Minister of Finance has done.
The current minister of finance is developing a habit of making statements that are not even supported by economic or financial management practices, such as his recent argument that the Liberian dollar is pegged to the U.S. dollars, when in contrast the Liberian dollar is “floating,” driving solely by market forces, demand-supply considerations. These small nuisances can cast doubt on “perception” of competency. But President Sirleaf, at a cabinet retreat in Kakata, informed the Cabinet that the “learning period was over.”
On December 3, 2013, FrontpageAfrica published an interview it had with the current Minister of Finance. While the Minister of Finance was trying to put the best face on a deplorable economic situation in Liberia, the one page paragraphs were quite disjointed and did not say much but repackaged same overly communicated political rhetoric. I picked up the two key issues that I believe are important: His answers on corruption and the “infamous” $16 billion investment with no jobs. In this article, I will just focus on his answer on the corruption induced hardship.
FPA: “Some critics say that corruption is responsible for the current economic hardship in Liberia.”
KONNEH: “Far from the truth. While I agree that there is corruption not just in government, economic Hardships are not due to perception of corruption. Many Liberians hold the view that economic constraints or hardships exist because of corruption. This is not true. The MCC constraints analysis, which has been released, shows that on the World Governance Indicators’ (WGI’s) perception of the control of corruption, Liberia does better than Sierra Leone, Guinea, The Gambia and Cote d’Ivoire. Only Ghana is ahead of Liberia among these four comparator countries. This finding is consistent with the passage of a battery of anti-corruption measures and the existence of anti-graft institutions such as the General Auditing Commission and the Liberia Anti-Corruption Commission since the end of conflict.
“Yes, some individuals who are perceived to have made away with government money were acquitted in trial, pointing to corruption in the jury system. Yes, capacity and administrative constraints in our judicial system makes difficult the process of fast tracking corruption cases. Proposals for the establishment of a special corruption court are being advanced. And yes, our government has sometimes acted slowly in prosecuting individuals accused of corruption. Despite these challenges and shortcomings, we are doing significantly better in controlling corruption than previous regimes, and this is part of what the WGI data is picking up. For example, Liberia did pass the MCC control of corruption indicator, making the country eligible to apply for U.S. Millennium Challenge Corporation’s Compact Grant. All of these would not have been possible without strong progress on controlling corruption. But I would be the first to point out we need to be stronger in our anti-corruption efforts.”
MORLU: The Minister of Finance concluded that corruption is not causing economic hardship in Liberia. The only support he provided is that “the MCC constraints analysis, which has been released, shows that on the World Governance Indicators’ (WGI’s) perception of the control of corruption, Liberia does better than Sierra Leone, Guinea, The Gambia and Cote d’Ivoire. Only Ghana is ahead of Liberia among these four comparator countries.” How does Liberia doing better than Sierra Leone, Guinea, the Gambia and Cote d’Ivoire disproves that corruption is not causing hardship in Liberia?
Strangely, the same Minister of Finance who is arguing that corruption is not causing hardship in Liberia spent a considerable time talking about (1) government rating on corruption on the WGI, and MCC’s indicator; (2) how government has established the GAC and the Anti-corruption Commission to fight corruption; (3) how the government is trying to solve the corruption in the judiciary by establishing a special corruption court; and (4) how “government has sometimes acted slowly in prosecuting individuals accused of corruption.” Why is the Government doing all of this since corruption is not causing hardship in Liberia?
I am not going to put my neck on the chopping board to say President Sirleaf disagrees with the Minister of Finance. But from the public records, the Minister of Finance’s statement is at variance with the President’s declared position. In 2005, President Sirleaf key platform was on fighting corruption. In 2006 during her inaugural speech she declared that corruption was the “major public enemy: “Fellow Liberians, we know that if we are to achieve our economic and income distribution goals, we must take on forcibly and effectively the debilitating cancer of corruption. Corruption erodes faith in government because of the mismanagement and misapplication of public resources. It weakens accountability, transparency and justice. Corruption shortchanges and undermines key decision and policymaking processes. It stifles private investments which create jobs, and assures support from our partners. Corruption is a national cancer that creates hostility, distrust, and anger.”
The President continued, “Throughout the campaign, I assured our people that, if elected, we would wage war against corruption regardless of where it exists, or by whom it is practiced. Today, I renew this pledge. Corruption, under my Administration, will be the major public enemy. We will confront it. We will fight it. Any member of my Administration who sees this affirmation as mere posturing, or yet another attempt by yet another Liberian leader to play to the gallery on this grave issue should think twice.”
Can the Minister of Finance dispute the statements from the President, such as corruption stifles private investments which create job, and “corruption is a national cancer that creates hostility, distrust, and anger.”
Additionally, since 2006, President Sirleaf has reported on corruption in each State of the Nation Address. Since 1999, U.S. State Department has made corruption a human right issue, prominently discussing it in the U.S. State Department Human Rights Report. The European Union, World Bank, and the United States Government have spent millions to build institutions and processes in Liberia to fight corruption. The issue of corruption in Liberia has been prominent in the U.N. Secretary General’s Report to Security Council on Liberia. The United Nations and the African Union have separate Conventions to combat corruption and Liberia is a signatory to these Conventions.
The German based corruption watchdog – Transparency International in its 2009 Anti-Corruption Catalyst report indicated, through the statistical analysis of data from 42 countries, that where more bribes are paid, there is a lower literacy rate and that a rise in bribery leads to higher maternal deaths. The report also explains that access to safe drinking water falls as bribery increases.TI reported, ”The effects of bribery and kickbacks in the education, water and healthcare sectors represent the implicit costs of corruption. These incidents transform corruption into a “regressive tax” on services that the poor cannot afford, making basic services unattainable.”
Also in 2009, Jonathan Lucas, then the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) Southern Africa Representative described corruption as “a crime against development, democracy, education, prosperity, public health and justice.”
Thus knowing full well the corrosive effect of corruption on the economy and security, the first major document produced by the Governance Commission was the Anti-Corruption Strategy Paper. The Poverty Reduction Strategy (PRS) paper signed by the Minister of Finance highlights the issue of fighting corruption to reduce poverty. From the days of President Tubman to Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, international community have spent millions intervening in Liberia to strengthen governance processes, aimed at fighting corruption, with the most visible two latest interventions being the 17 experts sent in the 1980s and the GEMAP. In 2010, a leaked US diplomatic cable showed the Americans spent US$80 million to build governance institutions in Liberia.
It is because of corruption that ECOWAS sent in forensic investigators to conduct investigation of the Gyude Bryant’s government. President George Bush visited Africa (including Liberia) and said, “(Americans) do not give money to countries that steal from their people.” He gave money to Ghana and Tanzania and gave 1 million books and chairs to Liberia, probably aware that even the books and the chairs would be stolen just as the USAID’s provided mosquito nets that disappeared in thin air, putting a lot of children at the risk of getting malaria and dying young.
Why Samuel Doe and his military junta did brutally murdered President Tolbert and 13 of our own Liberians, accusing them of “rampant” corruption. Prince Johnson demanded from Samuel Doe the whereabouts of the Liberian people money while he gruesomely butchered the late President.
Can the Minister of Finance explain to the Liberian people why the President called corruption the “major public enemy” and why all these international efforts to end corruption in Liberia since he thinks corruption is not causing hardship. And can he further explain why we earned the distinction, “growth without development?” I cannot imagine any Minister of Finance in this world that will say corruption is not creating hardship in his/her country. If a Chief Financial Officer at a private corporation said corruption in the company is not causing hardship on investors, he would be fired immediately with no question ask.
FPA: “Some critics say that corruption is responsible for the current economic hardship in Liberia.”
KONNEH: “What is a fact and must be pointed out is that the advocacy, awareness and discussions of issues of corruption in the Liberian society are far more pronounced today than at any other time in our history. We did not have a statutorily independent auditor general in the 1970s, who published audit reports on websites. Corruption was accepted with passive resignation in the 80s and 90s. Maybe this was due to the lack of freedom in those eras, which made people afraid to criticize openly the way they do today. Today, the story is radically different. Liberia wakes up in the morning to every Tom, Dick and Harry spoiling for a corruption fight on all public radio stations and on the Internet. The appearance of many persons complaining about corruption does not make corruption more prevalent or bigger relative to previous years. It makes people who hear this complaint think that corruption is more when in fact, and as the WGI data shows, Liberia has made credible progress on controlling corruption.”
MORLU: This has been a standard defense by this Government and its officials. They tell international partners the same argument. I listened to it for four years. But again, the current Minister of Finance just came on the stage in 2009 with the blessing of a post at the Ministry of Planning and Economic Affairs. Prior to being appointed by President Sirleaf, he has no public record of advocacy against corruption or any of the bad governance practices in Liberia. For some of us, we must credit those who stood up against corruption and injustice in the 1980s, although they did not have the benefit of the Internet as we did during Charles Taylor and Gyude Bryant.
My own involvement with corruption issue started in the mid-1990s when the internet was finally commercialized and websites like The Perspective and New Democrat were created. I wrote more than 60 articles against corruption in Taylor’s government and more than 107 against Chairman Bryant’s government. We had the Internet and we were untouchable, just as it is the case today.
The outcry against corruption continued against Charles Taylor, and it was intensified and internationalized with Chairman Bryant and his interim government. It was the massive public outcry that led to ECOWAS to send forensic experts into Liberia to investigate corruption. It was the massive public outcry against corruption that encouraged the European Union to send a team of auditors to audit the Central Bank and key state owned enterprises, laying the foundation for the GEMAP.
By 2004, Daily Observer Online, under Editor-in-Chief Rodney Sieh joined the massive international and domestic war against corruption, exposing corrupt appointments in Government. For us in the Diaspora, we had the Perspective, New Democrat Online and Daily Observer Online, with FrontpageAfrica joining in 2005. In Monrovia the radio and newspapers pounded on corruption. In 2005, Chairman Bryant was publicly booed by Liberians in Monrovia as he drove down Waterside and called a “rogue.” The debate on corruption was so heated in 2005, forcing Chairman Bryant to begin arresting his officials for corruption with Maritime boss J.D. Slander being the first example. The Speaker of the Interim Transitional Assembly was removed and replaced for alleged corruption, all due to public outcry. It was because of the massive public debate in (1997-2005) on corruption that gave President Sirleaf the edge over CDC George Weah. As Presidential candidate, she made fighting corruption a singular issue.
Corruption is pervasive in Liberia with damaging consequences on the social and economic wellbeing of its people. Even a 3 year old child living in Liberia can testify to its existence, devastating social and economic impact, and dire implications for their pursuit of happiness.
Here is a scenario for the Minister to consider: Minister Konneh has $500, of which $250 is to pay tuition for his kids in America and the balance $250 to purchase food for the week. He lives with his entire family, including brothers and sisters. One of his brothers digs into his wallet and steals $300 of the $500. Minister Konneh is left with only $200 for food and tuition. His kids will not go to school because the $200 is not enough for the tuition and also his kids will go to bed hungry on some days because the food money is short $50. His brother’s corruption has created family hardship on him, his wife and children. As former President Bill Clinton says, “it is simple arithmetic.”
Each dollar stolen is one less dollar spent on programs for the Liberian people, such as on healthcare, public works, education, and agriculture.
Let the Minister of Finance do the math and he will learn that corruption is not a victimless crime.