War On Corruption : The President’s Approach

By Bai Gbala


The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
February 24, 2006



Recent press reports that Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf has announced the dismissal, en masse, of employees of the Ministry of Finance, Liberia’s Treasury Department and collector-depository of government revenues. This action, I believe, is a symbolic declaration of war on corruption, this entrenched national cancer, in keeping with candidate Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf’s campaign promise to “root out corruption” and related dishonesty in government.

According to UN Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN, February 2, 2006), “Liberia’s new president, …. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, has sacked every political appointee from the outgoing (NTGL) administration at the ministry of finance on the spot as part of her crackdown on corruption”.

Employees – political and civil service-classified appointees – at the ministry of finance, employees at various other agencies of government, their dependents, and the public in general became suspicious, alarmed, confused and concerned for their economic well-being by this announcement, given the massive disruption with near-total destruction of the nation’s economy and the present double-digit unemployment rate.

Later, Presidential Press Secretary Honorable Spencer Browne attempted clarification of the dismissals to calm the confusion by the statement (DAILY OBSERVER, February 3, 2006) that “civil servants occupying positions classified under the merit system are to remain (in their positions) pending a screening …. to verify civil service status .… dismissals (announced) include .… persons who received political appointments to classified civil service positions”. Moreover, President Johnson-Sirleaf said, “you (concerned employees) should have nothing to fear because you will retain your position if you pass the test .… if you fail, then you will disappear from the ministry”.

The Article

This article is my response to the President’s policy approach rightly dedicated to give effect to “her crackdown on corruption”, our historic national pandemic. I hold, however, that this approach – dismissals en masse – applied in the manner and under the conditions and circumstances in which the action was taken and announced, was woefully inappropriate and likely not to achieve the desirable goal but produce adverse or negative effects.

Corruption, A Culture of Dishonesty

Corruption is the desire, motivated by inordinate longing or craving for acquisition of more and more of the “good things of life” – goods and services – by dishonest and immoral means. It is intrinsic in human nature and is not only a Liberian but universal phenomena common to all societies and cultures, but differentially practiced. “A culture of dishonesty and fraud”, I would argue or so to speak, corruption, therefore, can not be readily eradicated during a generation but can be curbed, regulated and eventually eliminated.

In the light of these considerations, are dismissals en masse the proper, rational and lawful approach that will yield the desired results, particularly in the absence of investigation and establishment of guilt? I think not.

Firstly, despite the “clarifications” (the President’s “if you pass the test” statement did nothing to allay, but raised, public suspicions, confusion and fears), the apparently staged, media and public fanfare of the dismissal announcement made “on the spot” during the President’s unannounced, surprised “visit” to the Ministry of Finance, created the condition for suspicion, alarm, confusion and concern; because an overwhelming majority of government employees (political and civil service-classified appointees) and the Liberian public are informed that under the prevailing, Liberian Government selection/appointment/removal system, political appointees – cabinet ministers, their deputies, assistants, directors, managers and others appointed to socio-political positions – whose major selection/appointment criteria (besides professional training & experience) includes political considerations, “go out with the president” and administration. This is so because political appointees are basically the president’s team in the formulation, prescription and implementation of public policy during the president’s term of office; therefore, they go out with the president.

While, on the other hand, civil servants and other technocrats (executives of state enterprises) are selected solely on the basis of merit – civil service rules or criteria and professional training & experience by the relevant board of directors, respectively. These employees serve every administration and removed only for cause. No wonder, then, that employees of the Ministry of Finance and the public are suspicious, confused and concerned by the public, media display because it was unnecessary. Or was it?

Secondly and finally, not every employee/civil servant of a given agency or of the entire government is involved in and, therefore, guilty of corruption. Hence, this action is not only illegal and unfair to the innocent, but also creates a “corps of opposition” to the Government comprising these dismissed employees, the thousands of their dependent, extended families and friends/supporters.

To Combat Corruption

The effort to combat Liberian corruption in the public sector must be taken seriously; it should and must be based on social, economic and political considerations. Salary/wage and benefits rates should and must be not only consistent with prevailing levels in the private sector, but also consistent with the changing levels of the cost of living, as well as reflect human needs and perception of human value or worth.

However, experience shows that this condition has not been the case in our Liberian, public service. Such employment benefits as health/life insurance, retirement, job security, in-service training & education for upward advancement, periodic performance appraisal for merit promotion etc., taken for granted elsewhere, are either non-existent and/or systematically abused for personal gain. Highly-educated and experienced cabinet ministers, state enterprise executives, professional technocrats, medical doctors, state university professors and public school teachers who put in ten- to twelve-hour days do not have job security and the other related, employment benefits, including salaries and wages that are not compatible with their training/experience and the value/demands of their positions.

In our country, Liberia, the application/implementation of Civil Service rules & regulations exist only on paper. There is no such thing as Civil Service Tenure, conscientiously enforced. Incoming cabinet ministers, agency/state enterprise executives “clean out” their respective offices and agencies, upon taking office, in order to “bring in” their relatives, friends and concubines, “hired” not on the basis of merit. These executives routinely flout or totally disregard Civil Service summons based on complaints filed by dismissed civil servants.


Corruption is a function, partially, of poverty which results from socio-economic conditions. These conditions make it difficult, if not impossible, to stamp out corruption readily in a generation. However, corruption can be reduced, controlled, curbed and, eventually, eliminated by public policy prescription – research, analysis, etc. – and diligent application/implementation, NOT WHOLESALE DISMISSALS!!!