By: Atty Wonderr Koryenen Freeman
The United States Government (USG) Human Rights (HR) Report (2013) recently summed up a grim indictment of Liberia’s fight against corruption. According to the USG HR Report (2013), the Liberian Anti Corruption Commission (LACC), the Liberian Government lead agency in the war on graft, during the year (2013), “received 25 cases, investigated 23 cases, and recommended four for prosecution, resulting in no convictions”. Perhaps for the Americans this is news, but for us in Liberia this in no news. In fact since the creation of the LACC in 2008, there has been only one conviction, which is still the subject of appeal at the Supreme Court. With only one conviction in five (5) years, it’s high time we stop and take another look at the legal instrument we are working with – the LACC Act of 2008 and ask ourselves why is it yielding zero convictions?
Many Liberians put the mediocrity of the LACC down to one and only one cause: the lack of political will. In this treatise, i beg to differ. Not that the “lack of political will” as the cause of corruption in Liberia is “per se” erroneous. There are many examples of political will creating strong institutions and prosperous nations. In this league you find the likes of Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore or Sir Seretse Khama of Botswana, who were able to use political will to create strong anti-graft institutions as well as institutionalized integrity in public service. But I also do know also that strong laws and institutions commandeer political will, where it may be lacking as you find in the case South Africa with Jacob Zuma or in the USA with Barack Obama. Accordingly, the latter scenario is the “ultimate weapon” in the war on graft in Liberia. There is simply no other option!
Five Ways in which we got it wrong with the LACC Act of 2008
1. Criminalization of “Unexplained Wealth”– if Liberian leaders are serious of fighting corruption, the criminalizing of “unexplained wealth” ought priority no 1. In Liberia, it is open secret that the difference between a pauper and a millionaire is a plush government job. Recent LACC investigations into GOL officials assets declarations are just a tip of the iceberg. Instances of “unexplained wealth” among government officials in Liberia have reached epidemic proportions. There are just too many GOL officials that have amassed assets that could not be explained by their past or present incomes. The revised LACC Act must presume corruption or laundering if “wealth cannot be explained”, expropriate such “riches” and prosecute the offenders. This is nothing new, as such is the case with the Botswana Corruption and Economic Crimes (CEC) law (sect 34) and the Singaporean Prevention of Corruption Act (PCA) (sect 24).
2. SEARCH WITHOUT WARRANT – the LACC Act does not provide the leverage for investigators to search without warrant in specific cases. If corruption is such a serious matter, there must be provision in the law, that under certain circumstances, the LACC, upon valid staff identification only, may search and seize evidence and fruits of crime even without warrant. Again, this is nothing unusual for any state determined to stamp out corruption. You will find this in the Botswana CEC law (sect 14) and the Singapore PCA (sect 15.1). No surprises also that Singaporean conviction rate for corrupt offenses is 99% (Quah, 2007:32). The Country is unanimously cited by many indexes at the least-corrupt “developing” country.
3. STIPULATION of ACTS of CORRUPTION – I find it shocking that the LACC Act does not enumerate acts of corruption and the provisions of our Penal Law (Title 26 sub-section F), is inadequate and out-of-sync with contemporary notions of corruption. Hence there is a need to revise the LACC Act to provide for a comprehensive enumeration of corrupt offenses. My preferred approach would be to extract subsection (F) from Title 26, completely rewrite it and incorporate the new and comprehensive version under the LACC Act.
4. INVESTIGATION – The LACC Act does not give it the unequivocal power to charged and prosecute persons for withholding information or stonewalling investigations. I know for a fact that LACC investigators go through tremendous difficulty getting evidence. The obvious reason is that there is no penalty for withholding information from the LACC, which action in my view should be criminalized and treated as a first degree felony. The provision under our Penal Law, Title 26 [sub-section C] simply does not suffice for anti-corruption investigations and hence this must be corrected by a revising the LACC Act. Again, I refer to the Botswana CEC Law (under sect 18.2), where such conduct could land a person behind bars for five (5) years. No surprises then that Botswana is persistently ranked as the least-corrupt country in Africa and reports a corruption conviction rate of 75% (www.gov.bw)
5. GOVERNANCE and FINANCING of the LACC – one of the often cited reasons for the LACC ineffectiveness is the lack of funding. Good! But that is only half the story. The other half never uttered is inefficient use of whatever little funding that’s available. As poor as Liberia is, we have five (5) full-time commissioners; while the countries mentioned in this comparative study (much wealthier than Liberia), have only two full-time Directors (a Principal and a Deputy). If the LACC must have 3 additional commissioners, then these three MUST serve simply as Board members (receiving board fees only). Moreover, it would help greatly if the additional three are seconded by civil society for appointment by the President. This restructuring of the Institution will free up much needed resources for operations. Additionally, it shall pay substantial dividends if the GOL provides the necessary funding to decentralize the activities of the LACC– so as to enable the Institution to place a permanent team of investigators in each region of the country. If Liberia’s leaders are serious about stamping out corruption across the nation, then this is the thing to do.
There are many other ways to fight corruption – like “rightsizing” the GOL and improving salaries. But investigation and prosecution of persons accused of corruption is the strategy No. 1. And that is why the LACC Act must be revised and strengthened so that we don’t have the Americans telling us what we already know – that our much-talked-about corruption fight have netted zero convictions.
About the Author:
Atty. Wonderr K. Freeman is a Liberian lawyer, Accountant and a socio-economic commentator. His is a graduate of the, UL College of Business & Public Administration, the Louis Arthur Grimes School of Law (UL) and the Cuttington University Graduate School. He currently resides in Pretoria South Africa, where he is pursuing a Masters of Law (LLM) in International Trade and Investment Law at the University of Pretoria, Faculty of Law. His recent articles include: The Plain Truth About the Liberian Economy – An Outsider Perspective & NIGERIA and LIBERIA’s Central Banks Thread Separate Paths on Micro-Small Medium Enterprise (MSME) Financing.