The Other Dimension Of The Charles Taylor Saga: Return Of Stolen Funds

 By Cecil Franweah Frank

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
April 18, 2006


The visit of President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf to the United States in March of this year was widely heralded as the start of a new era in US – Liberian relations. The Sirleaf administration’s objectives for this presidential visit coming just two months after Mrs. Sirleaf was officially inaugurated as Liberia’s 23rd president were to renew and consolidate ties with the US after decades of frozen relations and to attract significant US investments to jumpstart the sluggish Liberian economy.

Judging from the reception that Mrs. Sirleaf and her entourage received in Washington it may have signaled that the visit appears to have accomplished one of the objectives – that of taking Liberia off Washington’s blacklist of isolated countries and appealing to the sympathy of American public opinion and government goodwill to commit the United States more to the reconstruction of Liberia. But it is still far from clear whether the other objective – attracting US investments to revive the Liberian economy would pay off. If the pledges made in Washington by the World Bank and the US government couple with the US Congress cutting of development assistance to Liberia is anything to go by there is not much of an encouragement that Mrs. Sirleaf’s visit may have accomplished this objective. Nevertheless the US remains Liberia primary source of development aid.

Sirleaf administration officials had hoped that the request to Nigeria to turn over warlord-turned President Charles Taylor would have sweetened the president’s visit and removed Mr. Taylor as a factor in US - Liberia bilateral relations. But as important as attracting US investments and improving ties may be, many Liberians like myself had anticipated that another important issue – the return of stolen funds – would had been raised and accentuated by President Sirleaf in talks with her counterpart President George W. Bush and other US officials. Mrs. Sirleaf did not even speak about this issue in public while in the US and many assumed that in private she did not even raise it in her talks with US officials.

There are no reliable statistics or information on the return of stolen funds to Liberia since the collapse of the Doe regime or the Taylor regime. This issue had not been given prominence by previous caretaker governments because they felt that they did not have the authority to take on such an issue. However the Sirleaf government is an elected one and possesses the authority to press for the return of stolen funds to Liberia. This is part of the process of fighting the culture of impunity that had existed in Liberia. Besides, this should form part of the process of renewing and consolidating ties with the United States, and also take center stage in the process of getting Liberia back on track.

The Sirleaf administration diplomacy should be able to use its own argument in Washington that ties between the US and Liberia run deep along with America’s clout as the world’s preeminent superpower to secure the return of stolen wealth stashed away not only in the US, but also in banking institutions of other countries particularly Switzerland and the UK. According to some conservative estimates by organizations such as Global Witness, Charles Taylor and his cohorts reportedly stashed more than $3 billion in US, Swiss and other international banks. This figure does not take into account the billions stolen by Samuel Doe and his cohorts.

Many observers point to the fact that in the post 9 – 11 world, the US has developed new and effective tools for tracking the finances of international criminals and terrorists. These tools could also be used to locate and return the ill-gotten wealth of those who have terrorized and robbed their own people. Returning the funds of the notorious Doe and Taylor regimes stashed in US bank accounts would help Liberia get back on its feet, while deterring future corruption. Certainly there are other issues that are important in getting Liberia back on its feet such as debt cancellation, responsible investment and targeted aid, some or most of which featured on the agenda of Sirleaf’s visit, but the US government did not show much enthusiasm particularly in the area of debt cancellation compared to its leading efforts in getting other creditor nations to cancel Iraq’s debts.

Mrs. Sirleaf also has other international instruments to resort to in a bid to secure the return of stolen wealth to Liberia particularly the UN Convention Against Corruption, which was adopted by the UN General Assembly in October 2003, signed by 140 countries and ratified by 38 countries given the fact that it needed only 30 ratifications to come into force, and rests on four pillars: prevention and criminalization of corruption, international cooperation and assets recovery. Liberia acceded to this treaty on 16 September 2005. The United States only signed the treaty on 9 December 2003 but has not ratified it yet.

So, the arrest of Mr. Taylor with bags of cash and his subsequent turning over to the Criminal Tribunal in Sierra Leone, the first of its kind in Africa, while laudable and many hope would in future be emulated, might well be meaningless as long as his stolen gains and those of his cohorts are not repatriated to Liberia. Also this will greatly undermine the anti-corruption crusade of the Sirleaf government.