Unpacking Tradition: What are Human Rights in the Liberian Context (Part I)

By Ezekiel Pajibo*

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
November 23, 2006


Ordinarily, I would have kept my laptop closed and not respond to the two most recent articles posted on the perspective website. I can not do that. I think one needs to further explore the issues raised by Messrs Theodore Hodges and George Nubo in regards to human rights, attempt bribery, customary practices and tradition. My response will be in two parts and here is part one.

I would like to begin by trying to analyze the Harry Greaves and two Toes issue as contained in Mr. Hodges’ piece.

Mr. Hodges, in his article, suggested that “commercial contracts” should not concern human rights advocate. He maintained that this issue should not be a priority for human rights advocate. I disagree. The Liberian constitution stipulates that public functionaries are obligated to conduct the national economy in ways that improve the material circumstances of the Liberian people. The Liberia Petroleum Refining Company (LPRC) is a public corporation. Its Managing Director is appointed by the President of Liberia, who is elected by the people of Liberia. LPRC history is punctuated with gross misuse of public funds. Only recently (2004), the European Union commissioned an audit at which time it was clearly established that public monies were misused and abused at LPRC. LPRC, under the misguided leadership of Mr. Edwin Snowe, is alleged to have misapplied public resources. The Management team that ran LPRC during October 2003 - January 2006 in the persons of Edwin Snowe, Managing Director and others including Richard Devine, Mobutu Nyepan, Zoe Pennue, and Frederick Cherue, who served as Chairman of the Board, participated in the 2005 Legislative elections. They all won with comfortable margins. Their campaigns were generously endowed. Mr. Snowe spent more money on his campaign than any other candidate in the Legislative elections. Each of those individuals who worked at LPRC and were candidates in the 2005 elections spent more money than their rivals in their respective campaigns. The public needs clarity on how they got by such money to pay for their elections. Snowe was subsequently elected Speaker of the House, thanks in large measure to the generosity of his “purse strings”. Civil society organizations have pleaded with the Liberian government to conduct a forensic audit of LPRC during the period of Snowe’s management. To date, no concrete measure has been made public as to the steps the government has taken in this regard.

Corruption by entrusted authority constrains the state from being able to deliver social services. For example, the LPRC management under Snowe spent in excess of US$200,000 on a Christmas Party in 2004. That money could have been spent on constructing health clinics or schools in rural Liberia. The Catholic Archdiocese of Monrovia, according to Sister Mary Laurene Browne, built a six bed-room fully functional and fully equipped clinic in Tubmanburg, Bomi County for US$26,000.00. In a conversation with a senior staff person at the European Commission, this writer was told that out of US$20 million dollars that should have accrued as taxes from the sale of petroleum products, the Ministry of Finance could only account for US$4 million. What happened to the difference? Go figure!

“Inherent dignity” of the human person is the core principal of human rights. A most suitable interpretation of this right includes the fact that the state must create the necessary conditions in which citizens are enabled to exercise their rights in ways that manifest the inherent dignity of each person. The right to life is a human right, the right to development is a human right, and the pursuit of happiness is a human right. The exercise of these rights is compelling thus the need to invest in social services by the state in the form of education, health, sanitation and affordable access to clean drinking water and electricity. When public officials steal public monies and therefore constrain the ability of the state to provide the enabling environment for its people to be productive, then the state has failed to protect the human rights of its people. Human rights is not simply about imprisoning people illegally. We have come to that judgment in Liberia because the human rights tradition in the country at the moment was in response to the repressive nature of the state thus freeing of political prisoners, advocacy against torture, and extra-judicial murder animated the work of these groups. For someone to argue that because we do not have political prisoners so the human rights agenda should be relegated is disingenuous to say the least.

Liberians have a new opportunity to create the circumstances in which Liberians will not only know their rights but are enabled to exercise and enjoy those rights including the right to food, the right to personal security, the right to employment, the right to opportunities to acquire skills and be productive. This is why public functionaries must be willing to inform the public about the conduct of their affairs including making available to the public, information members of the public believe are germane to their interests. I believe this is what transparency means or better yet, the right to information as guarantee by our constitutional order. That is why the human rights advocates are correct in seeking an understanding of whatever contractual relations LPRC may have entered into. Rights advocates need to ensure that the conduct of public functionaries serve the common good, especially during these times when we need to guide against any and all attempts that are pregnant with the possibility of creating discord in our unfolding political dispensation.

Deconstructing Harry Greaves

This brings me to the point of Mr. Harry Greaves and his admission of having offered the two Toes “gas slips” as is the “custom” of the LPRC Management. I want to interrogate this “custom”. According to the New Democrat newspaper (November 13, 2006) Mr. Greaves (or is it LPRC Management) is reported to have discretionary power to dispose of “4,000 gallons of petroleum products every month.” The paper indicated that as a result of this largesse, “individuals, schools, orphanages, churches, and colleges” have been provided such products by the Management of LPRC. In my mind, this is gross misuse of public resources. As the fact shows, Mr. Greaves is not required to account for the disposal of this public resource as indicative of the fact that once the offer of gas slips were made to Mr. Aloysius Toe and Attorney Augustine Doe, they were not asked to signed for them. In other words Mr. Greaves can give petroleum products to anyone, at any time, and whenever he pleases. This is public policy running amok!

Thomas Friedman, the celebrated American economist, who recently died, once said that “there is no such thing as a free lunch.” One of the main problems in Liberia is the “patronage” character of the state. It is this patronage system that informs the imperial presidency that our President, Madame Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, wants to end. We can not end the imperial presidency if we can not put a check to the patronage system our public functionaries seems to relish so much. What is more, civil society organizations have been calling for former public functionaries at LPRC to be held accountable. Meanwhile, those currently running the same edifice do not believe that they are accountable to the public. The country and its people can not countenance this double standard, or dare I say crash hypocrisy.

Meanwhile, some arithmetic may be helpful here. If Mr. Greaves has the discretionary power to hand out 4,000 gallons of petroleum products per month as he pleases, that means he could hand out 48,000 gallons of such products in a year. At the current price of about US$3.00 per gallon of petroleum product, that those of us in the public have to fork out, Mr. Greaves would, within a year, spent in excess of US$ 140,000.00. This is too much public money to be spent by Mr. Greaves without accounting for it. What is more, Government could use US$140,000 to increase teachers pay, or hire more teachers, or repair a number of schools or build clinics, not to talk about fixing the road in Logan Town. Certainly, this would be a better way to spend public money. Spending public money on improving schools, hospitals or road repair will create the environment for Liberians to exercise and enjoy their human rights to education, to health, to communication and to access to a glass of clean drinking water, something more than 80% of Liberians do not enjoy at this writing.

Second, Mr. Greaves is not known to be a very truthful person. During late August and early September 2006, Mr. Greaves said that an unknown member of the Legislature solicited bribe from him. He said that if compelled to come forward and name the Legislator in question he would. He was provided the opportunity by the Senate only to inform the public that he lied and offered an apology. In fact, according to Mr. Greaves, no member of the Legislator ever solicited a bribe from him (See New Democrat Newspaper September 6, 2006). This is not the first time Mr. Greaves accused members of the national legislature of soliciting bribe from him. During the tabling of an Act to establish the Liberia Agency for Community Empowerment (LACE), a multi-million dollars World Bank facility, before the National Transitional Legislative Assembly (NTLA) in 2004/5, Mr. Greaves appeared on Veritas Radio, the Catholic radio station, and said that members of the NTLA were delaying the passage of the Act because they wanted him to bribe them. He did not say which member of the NTLA asked him for a bribe. It is safe to say that he was lying then as he has lied now.

It stands to reason therefore that human rights advocates would refuse to accept any “gas slips” first as a matter of principle and second because Mr. Greaves has amply demonstrated a penchant for deviousness and the propagation of falsehoods. He has a history of claiming that unnamed persons have asked him for bribes in the past, when that was not the case. Perhaps in the mind of the human rights advocate, this was an attempt at bribery and they could be right as well. Given the fickle nature of our media system, the human rights advocate felt the necessity to divulge this information to the public in case Mr. Greaves comes around and tell folks that the human rights advocate had solicited bribe from him. He did not deny that he offered the men envelopes that contain something. He justified that as customary. It is thus unhelpful to shoot the messenger and not deal with the message. The message is that the Refinery has entered into an agreement with a foreign firm. The public needs to know whether that Agreement is beneficial to the Liberia people or not. The best way to establish that fact is to respect the public right to information and publish the contract. The right to information is a human rights and that was what the rights advocates were attempting to establish.

Additionally, it is not fiscally prudent for the managing director to dispose of more than US$140,000 a year without being held accountable. Given the fact that the Liberian people are so impoverished, it is unwise and outright callousness for a public functionary to dispose of such huge sums when that money could be used to improve the material circumstances of our people. Don’t shoot the messenger, deal with the message! Public officials have to be accountable to the public, whether they like it or not and whether they want to or not. The sooner Mr. Greaves and his likes can accept this constitutional obligation the better it will be for us all.

*ezekiel pajibo works for the Center for Democratic Empowerment (CEDE) based in Monrovia, Liberia

© 2006 by The Perspective
E-mail: editor@theperspective.org

To Submit article for publication, go to the following URL: http://www.theperspective.org/submittingarticles.html