President Sirleaf: Develop a Comprehensive Approach to the Corruption Problem in Liberia

By Winsley S. Nanka, CPA


The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
February 8, 2006


“Public office is a public trust and that any effort to realize personal financial gain through public office is a violation of that trust”, Pennsylvania Public Official and Employee Ethics Act, 1978.

The mass dismissals of employees at the Ministry of Finance (MOF) by President Sirleaf are laudable in cleaning government functionaries of corrupt practices. However, for the chronic corruption in public service to be adequately addressed, President Sirleaf should adopt a more comprehensive approach to fighting corruption in Liberia. Corruption in public service in Liberia is a function of (low pay, irregular salaries and wages, the high cost of living, failure to enforce the laws of Liberia), and several other factors. In addition, corruption in public service in Liberia is perpetrated at three levels, the lower civil servant level , the higher civil servant (middle management) level , and the public official level.

Corruption by lower level civil servants i.e., secretaries, clerks, messengers, police officers, etc. is mostly due to the low pay, irregular salaries and wages and the high cost of living. President Sirleaf has to quickly address the problem of low pay and irregular payment of salaries and wages to government employees, if her anti-corruption drive is to be sustainable. I visited Liberia recently for the inauguration of President Sirleaf and I was unfortunate to come in direct contact with corruption in government by the lower level civil servants. The civil servants I spoke to informed me that ordinarily, they would not take gratuities from the public to perform their duties. However, being that government compensation is miniscule and irregular they are forced to accept gratuities from government customers to sustain themselves.

Corruption at the higher level (middle management) civil servant and public official levels are mostly due to the desire of higher level civil servants and public officials in government to “live like the Jones”. A higher level civil servant (middle management) employee in public service is “any individual employed by the national government or a political subdivision who is responsible for taking or recommending official action of a non-ministerial nature with regard to: (1) contracting; (2) administering or monitoring grants or subsidies; (3) planning or zoning; (4) inspecting, licensing, regulating, or auditing any person; or (5) any other activity where the official action has an economic impact of greater than a de minimis nature on the interests of any person”. A public official is “any person elected by the public or elected or appointed by a governmental body, or an appointed official in the Executive, Legislative, or Judicial Branch of the state or any political subdivision” Public servants in the middle management and public officials feel a sense of entitlement to live a relatively ‘good life” which includes a decent house, a car and other amenities commensurate with their “status”. Corruption at the middle management and public official levels is the cancer that kills Liberia.

Middle managers and public officials in public service have the most access to the unscrupulous fly-by-night business people in Liberia. The middle management public employees and public officials collaborate with the shady business operators to evade taxes, award no bids contract to cronies, relatives and friends, and lease property to the government of Liberia on a non-competitive basis. Quaintatively, the two groups fleece the government and the Liberian people the most.

In view of these observations, President Sirleaf’s government should develop a comprehensive campaign against corruption by taking into consideration the following measures:

1. The government should quickly make salaries and wages current and work toward improvement in the compensation scale. It may serve as a disincentive for public service employees to receive gratuities.

2. Require higher level civil servants (middle management government employees) and public officials to submit financial interest statement forms yearly. The form should disclose the employee real estate interest, creditors, direct or indirect sources of income, interest in any legal business entity, and property transfer to family members, among others. The purpose of this disclosure is to avoid corruption by higher level civil servants and public officials. The measure is also intended to avoid conflict of interest by the public service employees covered.

3. The government should move quickly with the help of Liberia’s international partners to constitute the anti-corruption commission ( bureau ) as stipulated by the GEMAP. The anti-corruption commission should include ethics and public integrity functions to strengthen the Liberian people’s faith and confidence in public service. All public employees covered by the act (anti-corruption act) should file financial interest statement forms with the commission on an annual basis.

4. The commission should have subpoena power, and any false statement made to the commission by anyone covered by the act should be grounds for prosecution. All individuals within the territorial borders of Liberia should have the right to file ethics compliant against any public employee covered by the act suspected of violating the ethics act. For example, if Joseph James has worked as a disbursement officer at the Ministry of Finance for ten years, and he owns five houses which cost at least $USD50,000 each, a nightclub and a hotel, bearing that he has no inheritance or has not won a fortune, it should trigger an ethics complaint to the commission.

5. The findings of the commission should be a matter of public record. The findings should be posted on the Internet, and be available to the public for inspection and copying.

6. The commission should have a hearing at least once a year to solicit input from the public into the work of the commission.

7. The commission should establish a satellite office in each political subdivision to allow citizens in other parts of the country to have easy access to the commission.

8. Instruct the board of directors of public corporations responsible for revenue generation including the National Port Authority (NPA), Liberia Petroleum Refinery Corporation (LPRC), Liberia Telecommunications Corporation (LTC), Roberts International Airport (RIA), and others to screen their entire workforce for suspected corrupt employees. Recent audit reports published by local media outlets have indicated widespread corruptions at these state corporations.

9. All government and public corporations employees suspected of corruption should be referred to the Ministry of Justice for prosecution. It may serve as a deterrent for corruption in the future. Relieving individuals suspected of financial impropriety of their portfolios without legal accountability sets bad precedent.

10. Assign an employee of the Anti-Corruption Commission to each ministry or public corporation to monitor and receive report of ethical misconduct by government officials, senior civil servants and employees.

11. Develop a professional workforce ethics and public integrity training program for all ministries and public corporations employees to help them build a sound moral and ethical foundation.

12. The Ministry of Education should make ethics a part of the curriculum for all secondary schools, and higher education of learning should also incorporate ethics in their curriculum.

13. A Large and inefficient bureaucracy is a recipe for corruption. Therefore, reorganize the government and the public corporations as quickly as possible by eliminating overlapping functions and the over employment. This will help to make the government bureaucracy leaner, efficient, and less corrupt.

The implementation of these public integrity measures may prove critical in fighting public corruption in the Liberian society. However, for the measures indicated above to succeed, the government should establish goals and priorities relevant to fighting public corruption. Also, every Liberian has to also understand his/ her responsibility and or obligation to speak out and report any unethical behavior by any public official or public employee to the commission, if measures to minimize corruption in Liberia are to be successful.