CORRUPTION – Genesis, Myth, Stereotyped : A Collective National Challenge

By James-Thomas-Queh


The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
December 29, 2005


One of the first issues that may make or break this government could be that of “corruption.” It is therefore imperative to do an in depth examination of the question in order to safeguard our new found democracy; look at why other administrations have failed; and what are the most reasonable measures that the people can be made to expect from the government to combat a near epidemic.
My first view is that “corruption” has been two-fold in the mind of most Liberians: political and economic. In the former, we are talking about dictatorship, tyranny, abuse of power, human rights, repression, nepotism, and all ills that go with such regimes. Now we have finally gotten around to resolving this political portion by having successfully gone through the first genuine democratic elections; and have elected someone who met all our requirements for a good national leadership. On the latter – economic – however, the resolution is less clear and much more difficult to implement. And past administrations have failed, precisely, because they have handled this issued with haste and passion before it was soon realized that the problem was much more complicated and complex then imagined from the onset. And that a resolution would require a collective national effort in time, awareness and understanding. In other words, we need to first know what I would refer to as the genesis, myth and stereotyped of corruption in our society.

With this in mind, let me begin this exposé with the following questions to take home in our hearts and minds for some sober reflection, and for others who would like to partake in this debate.

1. Here is a brief summary of what all of us already known: 14 years of civil war, total destruction with IDPs and exiles all over the place; over 80% unemployment; the 20% working earns less than US$20.00 per month and gets pay once a year; government Ministers earn less than US50.00 per month and get pay once a year – and yet, like some stupid utopians – we expect our national leaders to be not only corruption-free, but also our best. How long do you think it should take a normal government to correct this situation?

2. While it is normal for most of us not to abandon our $100,000.00 pay jobs and comfort in the United States, Europe and elsewhere, and return home – is it logical to expect our other compatriots who virtually survive on begging (I mean no pay for months) and at the mercy of God – to be corruption-free?

3. The President-elect, Madam Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, has vowed to have a zero tolerance on corruption and inefficiency. Her senior civil servants would have to sign and abide by a (civil service) code of conduct ; they would also have to declare their assets ; and be blessed with some confirmation hearings by the National Legislature (which, well, would also need its own trusted code of conduct and efficiency, in order not to confirm only the highest bidders). Do you sincerely believe those measures would curb or help in anyway to diminish corruption?

4. Do you see any relationship between corruption and efficiency or are corruption and efficiency inter-related – and why?

5. In a country with mass poverty and many extended-families obligations -can anyone in his right mind expect a government Minister –even as patriotic and nationalist as he or she may be (and this goes for the entire civil service) – to survive, feel his or her family, pay the rent, etc., on an equivalent of a $50.00 salary, and that which comes once a month in a year ? If the answer is “no” – do you think that could justify much of the rampant corruption within our society; and what would you suggest?

6. Should government officials be entitled to some respect and emoluments? If the answer is “yes”, what kind of respect and what sort of emoluments, and why?

7. What are the parameters on which to judge our government and officials as corrupt and inefficient?

8. A government official embroiled in serious controversies, corruption or otherwise – should have the dignity and honor to tender his or her resignation, but not to be fired or dismissed outright or hastily. In this way, the integrity of both the government and the official are protected and reinforced until an inquiry or justice proves otherwise. What do you think?

9. Having established a democratic principle of “declaring assets” then we should now have a mindset that among the government officials there would be some wealthy and some poor. Question: How do we now determine the demarcations between the « start and end » of spending personal funds, and the « beginning and end » of spending state funds by a wealthy public figure? Because since November 23rd, the President-elect has traveled extensively and semi-officially in the sub-region and the United States, and no one has asked a question or made scandalous corruption headlines, as to how many persons in her entourage, hotel, their per diem, etc (and in theory the travel should have been at the expense of the government of Liberia). However, tomorrow wealthy Ministers may be tempted to go globe-trotting (and I hope not) around the world, and when the public should get concern, they would reply : « We used our own money ». And such a reply, you will agree with me -would be tantamount to sheer arrogance ; and arrogance is another ramification of corruption. But still worst, it would create a perception of a cleavage between the “haves” and “haves-not” straight through the administration – and it would be a recipe for friction and mistrust.

10. Are governments in developed societies also corrupt, if “yes”- what is the difference between the corrupt governments in African and elsewhere in the under developed societies?

Genesis of Corruption
Reading through my first question, one already has some clues to the genesis of corruption in our current state; and I have no doubt a resolution, durable and long lasting, would definitely require an enormous collective national effort. That having been noted, let us now do a brief retrospect into the past; and we can start from President Tubman, the master craft-man and grand Zo of all. There is a point of similarity at our current situation and at the time of Tubman’s ascendancy to power. That is, the country was still recovering from the economic and political chaos of the 1930s –massive unemployment and very low wages and salaries for those who had little something to do. But the good thing, however, was that most of the country was still profoundly rural dwellers- living off their hands- farming, hunting, fishing, etc.; while those sent on slave labor to Fernando Po and Firestone were left to rot as long as the government and officials survived. Luck, and all that would change after 1946-end of the Second World War- and the economic prosperity that came along with it.

Unfortunately, though, it was how President Tubman utilized this sudden new found prosperity that would create the myth of corruption surrounding government officials, a public office in general and government property. First, we all know the traits of Tubman - a natural charismatic and very generous figure, who knew perfectly the in and out of the Liberian society: its complexity – the extended-family system and all other intricate family connections, relationships, etc. And it would be fair to say that because of Tubman’s limited education, instead of industrializing Liberians, he contented himself by providing a massive proletariat to major foreign concessionaires in the rubber and iron ore industries. He never had the slightest idea that such industries had a life span; so, from the rent the man generously distributed our national treasure in his own way and manner – « eat and let’s eat » - that even deep down in the rural villages everyone felt having a share. The famous PROs (Public Relation Officers) – this vast network of spies, but also a personal welfare system, were every where. And anyone knowing the effect of a welfare system - and what is more, when organized on a personal political motive: it makes a certain category of people docile, inactive, non innovative, waiting for the savior to come, etc., etc.

Additionally, and more important, Tubman’s long tenure created a stable civil service career ; and the government then being the largest employer, it was also an important political tool. Thus most of Tubman’s senior and even junior civil servants spent with him his 27 years in power, as long as there was no eye on power. In the process, they had ample time to build their lives, families, accumulate some wealth, established solid business connections, etc. This was the identical pattern within the National Legislature, Judiciary and major state institutions. In essence, though there was no real substantive development, but there was a general perception that things were alright. As a result, no one hardly accused the Tubman regime of corruption, but instead nostalgia. But, in reality he planted the seeds of both economic and political corruption. Because we never knew how individuals get wealth accept through government.

With the Tolbert era, Liberia had already become a rapidly grown and restive urbanized society. Despite this fact, the president ruptured abruptly this apparent social, economic and political stability or calm created by his predecessor. Many of the old guards lost their positions ; and new young breeds were brought in, but were also soon to be dismissed on dubious charges of malfeasance, misfeasance, and the rest. In other words, a civil service career was no more guaranteed. To add insult to injury, the PROs were abolished, leaving many families and their extended-families without any means of subsistence. As a result, most of those who volunteered to go in, went in there to grab as quickly as possible in order to prepare their subsistence in exit. And what do you expect – when you are young, just fresh from studies, inexperienced – and you are made a government Minister, Deputy of Director or senior civil servant (without not going through the civil service echelon), but only to be fired some few months later. It is also important to note something very particular about this new Tolbert generation : it was exactly the antipode of the old-guards (who took life the old time way) ; but here now were these famous Ph.D’s , MA’s, and you name it – who lived and educated in the United States, Europe and elsewhere in the developed world. It was no more a matter of Liberians imitating the Western culture ; we were now the complete Westernized generation, and with all its go-go and entrapments : money - decent job, home, flashy car, dish washer, washing machine, health insurance, life insurance, cook, house-boy, baby-sitter, gardener, watchman, vacation, telephone, super-market, etc. etc. Well, please do not add the extended-family obligations yet.

President Tolbert tried desperately to counter-balance all this with salary increments, fringe benefits, mass mobilization with political and development slogans, encourage entrepreneurship, and the rest – but history was moving too fast against him ; he would not realize his dream to see Liberia to « Higher Heights » - a vibrant, entrepreneur and innovative society. Because he had ill-prepared the society from the start ; too many decisions and errors were hastily made ; and too many people were left along the way to struggle for themselves. Thus as hard-time increased, so the people perceived only a very successful few (mostly in the immediate entourage of the president). And rightly so, because while the President’s policies were intended to push the people to self-sufficiency and entrepreneurship – the government did not put the adequate means at their disposal; thus only those who already had the financial means and contacts and political influence did cease the opportunities. As a result, the perception of the population first went to nepotism; and soon the word « corruption » appeared, more vulgar than « embezzlement »- Tubman’s lexicon, more refined and civilized that a common man could not understand.

Then Doe took the stage, and brought the famous them : »Rampant corruption ». To correct the same imbalances as his predecessor; and he and his military junta took radical, hasty and stupid decisions : public executions, confiscation of properties, mass salary increments, mass employment of inexperienced and illiterate individuals to senior civil service positions, etc. And of course, the rest, sad as it may - is now in history.

What is very important to emphasize, though, are the methods applied by these two leaders to resolve the same problem, and the result left behind. Tolbert had intended to build, in an orderly manner, a new social class or order, but that task was incomplete. And Doe came on the same mission, but went about it in pure vulgar manner- and that never took roots either.
As a result, we were left with a curious blend of an emerging, young middle class, which I call the « floating or lost urbanized generation » -no solid home-training, no money, no pa, no ma, and no nothing. And worst still, this is the generation that had found itself in a fractured society, filled with hatred and revenge. Thus confronted with all the uncertainties, frustration and all the mounting obligations – all that counts is money – and very fast, too.

And this is the agony and hungry troop that has gotten on the bandwagon of all the Saviors – Taylor, Bryant, and all the others – I mean those that have gone down in the Guinness Book of record as among the most corrupt and inefficient regimes on the planet.

Myth of Corruption
Like the genesis, the myths surrounding corruption in our society are current and past. In the current, we have what may be referred to as the anti-corruption myths. For example, during the presidential campaign, it was a widely held believe that a wealthy candidate necessarily makes a corruption-free leader. But let me share with you a small end-paragraph in a recent article which might have gone unnoticed to many readers. It might help us, so that we may begin soon to disabuse ourselves of this preconceived idea. The story, some hotel establishment in France has accused Ambassador Weah of failure “to pay hotel and caterer’s bills after throwing a lavish end-of-career party this year for a host of his top footballing buddies” (see UN Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN) – in – Dec. 16, 2005). And the article continues: “Event organizers complained to reporters France that Weah’s cheques bounced and companies he was associated with have disappeared without a trace.” It was the most optimistic hope that Weah would have won so that the bills could have been sent directly to the Executive Mansion. Bad luck! And they were left holding the baby.
Well, if this allegation is proven to be true (and I hope not) – then it would be highly advisable that Ambassador Weah (not his party) does not form part of the new government until this issue is cleared. I must emphasize that the issuing of a worthless cheque is a criminal offense in France and therefore could pose an immediate and serious embarrassment to the new government.

That said, what this reminds us, is that in democracy (since we never knew it) - elective state positions require not only popularity and charisma, but equally substantial financial resources. And depending on the office, one may be exposed to diverse interest groups, good will – all competing for an end-benefit. And shame on you if you are a novice in the political arena. Thus it is a wishful thinking that a candidate who gets to power -spending thousands or millions of dollars either from his or her own coffers or supporters – would not have some debts to pay both political and financial, of course. In essence, a candidate is both a financial and political investment that, naturally, must be recuperated at the end of the day. In most cases, losers (without a strong political party) may turn out completely bankrupt and ruined.

If this assertion should hold, then the question or demand that we should be marking on our national leaders should not be the usual blanket-corruption charges, but instead, how are we to establish a balance on which to expect our leaders to recover their elective investments, but at the same time, not at the detriment of our national interest. The developed nations have come around to finding a solution – knowing for long that it was a democratic hypocrisy to ignore– they have instituted state funding to leading political parties; and regulated also the limits on electoral spending to avoid that only the richest parties do not win elections. Of course, this is no guarantee against corruption, but at least it provides some degree of balance; and also a more concrete and reasonable basis on which to prosecute a presumed corrupt government official. This is a direction that I would continue to recommend in accordance with our financial resources.

The other useless anti-corruption myth is the obligation on candidates to “declare assets.” This is something purely American, and absent from almost of the European democracies. For one thing, because it is hypocritical, bias, unjust and encroaches on an individual privacy. Looking at it very keenly, what it insinuates is that he or she who becomes a president or minister –poor and destitute - should leave as poor and destitute; and he or she who gets in already wealthy, should come out of there with his or her wealth still intact. And this where the blatant injustice that we are all so much against would come in – because while both have sacrificed to serve their country, one comes out and sits comfortably on his or her wealth which has been fructified; and while the other goes back to his or her zinc shack – thinking what to eat and how to send the children to school. Then we would be the same ones to bad-mouth the poor, honest and decent man: “Look at him; when he was in that job there, he gave nobody nothing; it’s good for him; he will walk until that one pair of shoes turn to slippers on his foot.” In other words, the man was lacking ambition, you may say – because rightly, we already have in our subconscious that a man or woman must inspire to progress and betterment. Or else, why will our poor parents sacrifice so much to sent us to school to learn a profession; get degrees and diplomas only to end up in poverty. Or let me put it more provocative: How a people who expect progress and prosperity, but yet those who lead them should not be an integral part of the same? Striking an objective balance – that is, we must learn equally to appreciate those positive things that government may be achieving in development and betterment of the people and nation.

Now back to the Tubman era as our point of reference. We saw government officials as very powerful, untouchable, wealthy, and so influential that they could do and obtain anything they wanted. They had seemed to have had everything free, including even utility bills not being paid. So, at first we created an image of immortal human-beings, destined eternally in their state functions; and since we were not told anything, and nor could we challenge anything – we grew the myth with all its ramifications: financial, political and social exploitations, etc. And from then on, we have associated government with both wealth, power and influence. I still have this famous phrase stored in memory: “We make law, we break law.” This was the real power at its best (and not the vulgar, buffoons and tyrants we have come to see).

The unfortunate thing, however, is that if our society had not been strangled into a “personality cult” and total political blackout, we would have known a bit more about these “immortal” individuals that were perceived has wealthy; we would have known that they had had more than forty or so years in their stable civil service careers. So, if they had ever accumulated this wealth – it was done over a considerable long period of time. And why a man or woman who had worked consistently for forty or so years ( in whatever area of opportunities) shouldn’t have some amount of wealth at the end of his or her career?

Be that as it may, the corruption myth came to its apogee after the 1980 military coup d’Etat ; and of course, with the famous theme : “ Rampant corruption.” And here we missed an opportunity to have dissipated the myth from the reality, if were those accused had been given a fair and just trial, instead of a summary execution. We would have had our legal experts to define and differentiate a “real” corruption, from the myth and power – or a man who had worked over forty years or so to acquire his wealth. And we would have been terribly surprise also to learn that most of those individuals, who we thought had so much wealth – in fact, had nothing substantial; but were living from day to day simply on their influence – a beg of rice, case of smoked herring, few bottles of whisky/gin and a small envelope every now and then from a Lebanese friend; and big and unproductive farms in name and nothing more. And this was the old way; and which at that rate left basic commodities at the reach of ordinary citizens. Peddling influence, you may call it; but not stealing direct state funds per se. And looking at it keenly, one could say this was a generation that knew absolutely nothing about national development, but only the utilization of real state power.

That opportunity having been dashed away, it was soon realized that this “rampant corruption” so denounced vehemently was inseparable from power. In the confusion, it was better to keep both and perpetuate the myth in the most buffoonery and vulgar manner. Thus it is no more a case of smoked herring, few bottles of gin or small envelope – it is 20%, 30%, 40% or even 50%, up front from the same Lebanese man – for a government contract to import rice, do construction, and what have you. And mind you, it is the same poor man begging down the road that would pay this 50%, plus also the high price of rice for the Lebanese merchant to meet his profit margin. But all this is still confined within the corruption myth because it is hard to find the evidence – only the life style perpetuates the myth; a bag of rice at more than $35.00, and civil servants get pay once or twice per year, etc. Thus is the daunting task of our legal experts to define the scope of what is “corruption” and establish the basis for the prosecution.

Stereo-typed Corruption
You will admit that I am in no way in denial of corruption within our society; but equally so we must acknowledge when the Western powers have taken the situation to their advantage and tend to stigmatize and stereo-typed the entire developing World as corrupt - first, for their own public consumption to justify their failed policies around the world , and continue unabated to pursue the same policies in their national interest. And second, as always, make the victim the henchman – and then you manipulate and exploit him more easily. The typical example is the Bryant administration, installed by the international community, and very cognizant of its limited powers – has permitted it to sign major international contracts; and almost all are from countries of the International Contact Group on Liberia. And to seal the full control of our economic resources in disguise, Liberia ends up with the GEMAP; and all Liberians are rejoicing and clapping their hands under this long premeditated new form of foreign economic domination.

And on this note, I have an advice for the Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf government: Do not touch those major contract agreements signed by the Bryant government because they are mere deadly booby-traps. Because if only some are reviewed and others are left out or if they are all reviewed and nothing is done – the government would be perceived as conniving and thus corrupt. This is the reality of the unscrupulous multinational business world that we have to live with. On the other hand, what Liberians need to know is how much are the annual revenues from these contracts, their expenditures; and ascertain also some better working conditions and decent minimum wage across the board on the national level that these multinational would be obliged to respect.

That said, the other more important effect of this stereo-typed corruption is that it puts a brain-drain on the developing World, whose citizens, instead of returning to their countries after studies to fight their regimes on democratic terms (as was the pattern in the 1970’s and 1980s) they preferred to stay in the West – in this relative comfort and criticized – doing any odd-job to make a living – but still stigmatized and stereo-typed as undesirable immigrants.

To break this stereo-typed barrier, we Liberians now have an opportunity to return home in mass to organize an industrious society and take full possession of our economy. It is better to employ people and be corrupt, than to serve the people and be corrupt; and this must be our new development philosophy.

Our perception of “corruption” has been two-fold: political and economic. And both have been indistinguishable because for over half a century we have had autocratic, dictatorial and tyrant regimes. Now with determination and perseverance we have our first genuinely elected democratic government. To achieve the next task, which is economic liberation, it is incumbent upon us to stand firm and resolute to protect and defend our emerging democracy with constructive engagements; and in time – and only in time – all other things will fall in place. This is our collective national challenge.