By J. Nhinson Williams
Bank Governor Mills Jones & President Sirleaf
Former Liberia’s finance minister and ex-governor of the National Bank of Liberia (now Central Bank of Liberia - CBL) under President Samuel K. Doe, Sr.’s administration, Mr. John G. Bestman, Sr. is not only dead wrong about Liberia’s CBL questionable loan program championed by one of the country’s self-professed 2017 presidential aspirants and Central Bank’s executive governor Dr. Mills Jones. It is sad that after seeing the hardships that Liberia and Liberians have faced, Mr. Bestman and Dr. Jones, despite their combined experience, are adding to the sour regression of the country by their support for, and participation in, bad practices.
Let me begin by stating two important fundamental facts about central banks:
1. Central banks are responsible for overseeing the monetary system for a nation (or group of nations), along with a wide range of other responsibilities, from overseeing monetary policy to implementing specific goals such as currency stability, low inflation and full employment. The CBL’s current controversial loan scheme is not creating jobs or wealth. Liberia’s overall unemployment rate is so high that it is not measured anymore. Inflation has ballooned and our people’s poverty is first to none in our region. Instead of giving US$150 to my sister to sell pepper and Maggi cube in Duala Market, or to my mother to sell fish in Fish Town, River Gee County, the Central Bank should support innovation, small scale industrialization, workforce training and development with a focus on job and wealth creation for our people. This does not require political speeches or an entourage with security escort and flag waving.
2. A central bank has been described as "the lender of last resort", which means that it is responsible for providing its economy with funds when commercial banks cannot cover a supply shortage. In other words, the central bank prevents the country's banking system from failing. This is not the case in Liberia. The case in Liberia is that widespread corruption has impoverished our nation and people. Instead of diverting funds away from the development of the economy as a whole, the Central Bank of Liberia and Dr. Mills Jones need to understand that government intervention, whether direct or indirect through fiscal policy, can stunt central bank development.
Given the level of poverty and corruption in Liberia, the program has potential to be an economic stimulant and success for many Liberians. To some extent, Dr. Mills Jones, the executive governor of the bank, must be commended, at least, for sharing a small, albeit insignificant, portion of the country’s wealth with a few market women instead of allowing all of it to be stolen or unaccounted for as we have observed over the past decade. The concern of many good-intentioned Liberians who oppose the process of the scheme, including some in the Legislature, is that Dr. Jones, by his own admission, is a presidential aspirant, and he manifestly appears to be using the loan program as a political conduit to advance his bid for the presidency of Liberia, clear and simple.
Here are some facts that show a blatant conflict of interest and unethical practices: Nowhere else in the world has a central bank governor openly aspired for political office while still in office. Nowhere else in the world has a central bank governor traveled campaign-style to make political speeches in his official capacity. Nowhere else in the world has a central bank governor paid surrogates, street gangs and collaborators to hold semi-rallies while he carried out national duties. Only in Liberia. Only Dr. Mills Jones, the head of Liberia’s Central Bank can do this and still remain in office. Only in Liberia do these types of activities inspire praise rather than suspicion and investigations for unethical practices.
Assuming Dr. Mills Jones’s intention is clear or void of political maneuverings, he should not be a frontline soldier in the CBL loan process. As a decent man, Dr. Jones must recognize that he is wrong, not in terms of the loan program, but in terms of the process used to position himself as leading point-man in the future. The CBL loan program has many divisions, managers and a competent staff. If these people were in the forefront of the loan program void of Dr. Jones’ political stunt speeches, the loan program may hold promise.
Dr. Mills Jones has a constitutional right to run for President of Liberia and no amount of selective or exclusionary policy or law should ban him from doing so. However, decency and explicit public policy requires that people in such positions should tender their resignation to avoid a conflict of interest as we see today. This is what happens in civilized countries in Europe, the United States and other advanced nations. It is not rocket science. This is just common sense.
Mr. Bestman, as the former chairman of the Bank’s board of directors, a former governor and former minister of finance, should understand this political posturing, but has apparently turned a blind eye, perhaps because he could be a direct beneficiary of these bad practices. These types of political maneuvers have been at the core of what has damaged Liberia and Mr. Bestman has been a part of a system that saw wars that led to many other problems – from refugee flow, destruction of lives and properties and institutions to the ongoing massive theft of public funds, not to mention widespread corruption climaxed by the persistence of the deadly Ebola.
However, his remarks at his turning over ceremony have sent a collective chill down the spines of Liberians, both at home and abroad. In remarks made during his farewell dinner, Mr. Bestman warned, “Those who intent to spoil the motivation of the central bank should be mindful that the central bank knows about every single transaction in this country. Nothing can save you from us!” This threat came on the heels of a request for an audit of the Central Bank to investigate the whereabouts of money being spent by the bank, and the CBL program in particular, to run a political campaign in favor of the bank’s governor Dr. Mills Jones. In response to that request, Mr. Bestman said that an “Internal audit will disclose their own skeletons quite sufficient.” From the perspective of Liberian citizens, Mr. Bestman is basically saying to hell with the future of Liberia and its unborn children and is opting for unethical business practices, as usual.
Mr. Bestman, with all due respect, I am particularly hurt by your remarks because many young Liberians made serious sacrifices to reclaim and restore decency to Liberia when people like you ran away as Taylor would say “like rats and cockroaches” during the country’s 14-year period of instability. Moreover, I am really hurt because, while you fled, many good people like the five American Catholic nuns who were helping poor children during the heat of chaos in Liberia lost their lives as a result of the conflict between a regime that you were part of and Charles Taylor’s forces. I am profoundly hurt because as a young man I wanted to become a life-long Catholic priest in West Point and for that I spent half a decade studying in Catholic seminaries, only to leave my vocation to the priesthood because I felt Liberia was self-destroying and that there was a need to ensure that no more innocent woman, like the five Catholic nuns, faced preventable death and abuse.
I am also very hurt because despite President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf’s good intentions and efforts, she does not have an administration that is guided by a moral compass. People tend to blame her for the country’s problems when people like you, Mr. Bestman, are supporting dead wrong practices. For President Sirleaf to succeed, she needs to have administrators who provide the moral compass and backbone that is needed to move Liberia forward.
Finally Mr. Bestman, when a Central Bank in any country is impacted by personal or collective political considerations, there is a serious problem. The political maneuverings associated with the CBL’s loan program falls in this category. Please, Mr. Bestman, rather than making revolting threats, I implore you to conduct yourself as an honest elderly statesmen and try to see how you can best support the changes that Liberia needs today and in the future.
Williams is a Catholic educated philosopher and a U.S. trained public policy and strategic management professional. He is president and CEO of the New Liberia Foundation, and head of the U.S.- based Jewish Family Services International Refugee Program.