The Debate On Corruption & Trusteeship

By Abdoulaye W. Dukulé



The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
July 1, 2005

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Adding his voice to the chorus, Mr. Matts Karlson, the World Bank Representative for Africa, spoke about the endemic corruption that has plagued Liberia from its foundation and only seems to escalate by the day.

In a recent article, our correspondent in Monrovia Josephus Moses Gray quoted Mr. Karlson as saying that “donor institutions, including the World Bank will not increase support to Liberia unless the National Transitional Government of Liberia (NTGL) institutes sound economic governance.”

Mr. Gray further writes: “given the unsatisfactory progress made on economic governance since the inception of the power sharing transitional government, Liberia’s donors are not happy. He also commented that donors would not deliver on previous commitments made toward the reconstruction of [Liberia] except economic governance is given proper attention… […]" Mr. Karlon is also quoted as saying: “We need to concentrate on the issue of corruptions and financial malpractices unswervingly so as to give confidence to the Donors.”

Now the debate has taken a new turn. The Internet is flooded with exchanges amongst Liberians – especially in the Diaspora - about a certain Economic Governance Plan that the international community and the UN want to put in place to rein in corruption. As in any debate on sensitive subjects, the discussion turns more often to personal attacks rather than a critical analysis of the issue.

When a colleague asked my opinion on the question a few weeks ago, I replied that “trusteeship” would be long in coming, at least as perceived and expected by most Liberians. In my colleague’s view, the international community would take over Liberia for a number of years, run the economy and the civil service until “Liberians get their acts together.”

Chairman Gyude Bryant
For the international community to set up such a framework not only would it need the acquiescence of the government – Liberia does have one, no matter how bad it may look – but another country, most likely the US, would have to sponsor such a process from the beginning and get it through the United Nations. In signing such an agreement, Chairman Gyude Bryant would admit that his government is corrupt beyond salvation and incapable of running the country and this will be tantamount to simply resigning. If the US were to get involved in such a scheme, it would have to provide or secure funding for it.

One can easily presume that Bryant will not sign on to such a project. On the other hand, the US would not pump billions of dollars in the reconstruction of Liberia just when President Bush is looking for a miracle to deal with deadly Iraq. The UN is not capable of running a country.

Anyone could have predicted that a “government of appeasement” such as the LNTG would be corrupt and inefficient, if for no other reason that its members were mostly members of ragtag rebel armies whose only qualification to govern and administer was their capacity to create havoc on civilians and run another group out of power. MODEL and LURD joined Taylor’s NPFL to form a government, and that is the LNTG. The three groups fit the same description, even with elements of exception.

This government had to be corrupt and ineffective because it was built on foundations left by the kleptomaniac enterprise of President Charles Taylor, who had inherited anything but a functioning state from previous transitional dysfunctional administrations going as far back as the dictatorship of Master Sergeant Samuel Doe.

Out of Accra, the major issue was about peace. To have expected the LNTG to accomplish anything more was a bit too optimistic. Holding together this makeshift government and keeping major deadlines is an achievement in itself. This is not and should not be viewed as an excuse for the massive corruption, graft and other administrative malfeasance that exist. The only miscues in the peace process came from the UN, especially in the area of disarmament.

Liberians have not suddenly discovered new ways of stealing and the government has not become any more corrupt than it was under Tolbert, Doe, Taylor, Tubman or Barclay when there was much more in the coffers to be stolen. What is new is the fact that the society is much more open and there is a level of freedom of speech that the country has never experienced. This freedom of expression has allowed the press to bring to the attention of the public things that could never have been revealed under Doe, Tolbert, Taylor or any past president.

Those who governed Liberia, from the beginning until now, never felt accountable to anyone. There was not and there is still a culture of accountability.

The country was founded on the basic principle of colonialism. That basic principle was that a group of foreigners take over a land and its people and turn them into subjects for another country. However, in the typical colonial situation as everywhere else in Africa, administrators were civil servants or soldiers of a colonial power to whom they were accountable for their behavior. It was not uncommon for colonial governors in Senegal, Congo or Kenya to be reprimanded for certain actions, to be re-called or even jailed if their actions went beyond a certain acceptable norms in the colony. And most importantly, they had to account for every dime sent to them for development purpose, whatever that was.

The “colonial masters” in Liberia never had to report to any such foreign power. From slavery, they were given total control over “the farm” and they implemented the only system they knew. They created a structure for absolute control. Samuel Doe and Charles Taylor did not – or maybe could not– see themselves as any different from their predecessors, and at their best, they pretended to emulate autocratic Tubman. Taking government money and using people as subjects were normal behaviors for those in leadership position. There was no shame in stealing public funds and the practice went on with total impunity, generation after generation. Samuel Doe could have broken the cycle but he did not understand the historical position he was in. “Knowing book” is critical when one wants to run a nation.

The debate about placing Liberia under international trusteeship started well before the peace conference in June 2003, in Accra, when the fall of the Taylor regime became imminent. It was then that monitoring structures should have been put in place to help the transitional government. Economic governance should have been on the agenda along with military issues. The problems of Liberia went far beyond military matters and a holistic approach was needed to jump-start the nation. But then again, the issue was to stop the killing and return people to their homes. And for those attending the conference, power was the only thing that mattered.

Rejecting “trusteeship” is not such “a patriotic duty” as some may want to make it sound. How much longer can Liberia continue to be at the receiving end of international charity? Living of handouts should be more humiliating to patriotic Liberians than “trusteeship.”

In the past 14 years, the welfare of Liberians has been in the hands of others. Nigeria, ECOWAS, the UN, the US brought peacekeepers, relief food and medicine while Liberian “leaders” killed hundreds of thousands of their compatriots, destroyed the country and enriched themselves. Currently, security is in the hands of the international community. Funding for the few institutions that work well comes from international organizations. Money for the electoral process, restructuring of security forces as well as support for the hundreds of NGOs that now constitute a parallel civil service comes from the international community and they offer the only good paying jobs. The same international community provides safe drinking water, medicine and repairs roads. Whatever decision the government wants to make in regards to natural resources as well as to the peace process has to be approved by the UN Security Council or ECOWAS. One can safely assert that that the country has been under “trusteeship” for a long time. Liberians cannot expect others to feed them and not have a say in how their money is spent.

Liberians have to face and resolve the shortcomings that led the country to become the poster child of failed statehood. The test of patriotism would be to create conditions that render any form of aid or “trusteeship” unnecessary. To do so, many would have to forego the life of luxury to become swamp dwellers and kill all the mosquitoes in the process to stop malaria.

Corruption and impunity are symptoms of more serious social ills. As Liberians are now about to end 25 years of revenge mass killing, they could start to look at other more complex structural problems and find solutions. A place to begin would be an understanding of the reasons for failures at integration, nation building and basic human issues that include a culture of inclusion, respect and stronger moral values.

Trusteeship is a stopgap measure that would not cure the cancer; it will only postpone the harsh decisions needed to transform society. Liberians have enough human and natural resources to create a new vibrant society. In the meantime, an economic governance plan in partnership with the international community cannot be anymore humiliating than the past 25 years of slow descent in the abyss.