Corruption, The Sirleaf Administration, And Us

By Alphonso W. Nyenuh

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
January 23, 2007


The biggest challenge facing Liberia today is the institutionalization of a system of accountability- a system that holds people responsible for their actions; one that vigorously confronts and uproots the endemic culture of corruption, theft and graft; a system in which public officials understand or are made to understand that they are employees (not masters) of the people, are obligated to conduct their duties transparently and act in accordance with certain high standards of decency.

For too long government jobs or any form of public service for that matter have meant an automatic ticket to wealth- government officials stole and looted openly and with impunity, while the people starved and were denied healthcare, children deprived of education and the government rendered incapable of providing basic social services as a consequence thereof. The corruption pandemic has greatly blunted Liberia’s chances of development by diverting resources from services such as healthcare, electricity, road construction, education, etc, into the pockets of a few. The widespread practice of corruption has also deprived the country of the opportunity to attract any serious international investment or to benefit there from. Even today the legacy of corruption continues to undermine our ability to attract much needed international assistance, especially as we struggle with the challenges of reconstruction and rehabilitation following more than a decade and half of war and destruction.
Corruption, be it the wholesale gutting of state treasury, the demanding of bribes or kick-backs to perform a public duty, the abuse of government/public property, the sale of justice to the highest bidders, the peddling of official influence/power or the use thereof to attract or compel a service or reward, has been so entrenched and pervasive in Liberian society that it has come not only to be expected but also accepted by the public as a normal course of public/government business. The public has even come to honor and reward corruption and corrupt officials rather than shun and seek their punishment.

This culture of corruption has been created and nurtured by the deeply rooted system of impunity.
Corruption is not a Liberian or African phenomenon. No nationality or race is by nature more corrupt than the other. God did not make Liberians more corrupt say, than the Americans or the British. In stead the stark differences in the level of corruption in Liberia as opposed to corruption in America or Europe is largely a function of impunity or the lack of a system of accountability.

While other societies, the American, British or Dutch, for example, have seen the imperative to fight corruption and continue to put into place mechanisms to strengthen their accountability regime, our society lacks those systems and the will to construct them where they are lacking or effectuate them where they exist but are ineffective. Our accounting systems and institutions still remain weak, the activities of public functionaries remain shrouded in official secrecy (government budgets, for example, should be printed and circulated and government agencies should publish their expenditures so the public can be able to judge adherence to budgetary appropriations) and our system of checks and balances has been rendered ineffective. As a society we appear to be doing everything to endorse and nurture the culture of impunity with arguments such as ‘let bygones be bygones’, ‘for the sake of peace’, etc. We are consumed in the erroneous notion that punishing corruption and crime will undermine peace and security when in fact the opposite is true: accountability corrects and deters wrongdoing while impunity encourages and fuels injustice, creates public discontent and can only lead a society down the path of implosion and self-destruction.

That is why the Johnson-Sirleaf administration must be hailed for its recent actions towards prosecuting those suspected of various acts of corruption in the Gyude Bryant Government. That is an inspiring good beginning that must be supported by all Liberians and friends of Liberia. It can not be emphasized enough that the biggest problem we have had in Liberia and that is largely responsible for our underdevelopment is impunity. Impunity has greatly contributed to bad governance as many who went into government did so not to contribute to the national advancement but to loot the country and enrich themselves and their kinsmen. Even those who entered government with the intention of making a difference were soon baptized in the sea of corruption. Impunity has gravely impacted national development in that the graft that took place drained the national resources and stifled development. Aggressive bribe seeking by public officials from would-be investors drove away good foreign investment, and the culture of thievery and dishonesty discouraged foreign aid givers who rightly feared that their gifts would be stolen and not benefit the intended beneficiaries-the public. That is why a bold move like the arrest and prosecution of government officials on corruption charges is highly commendable because such action(s) has the potential of breaking the cycle of corruption, regaining the confidence of the international community and reinstating the people’s trust in their government and its ability to provide much needed social services. BRAVO MADAM PRESIDENT…

The government’s recent actions against corrupt officials, while highly commendable, appear to have been driven by international pressure (and not by the political conviction to pursue accountability) just as the decision regarding the apprehension of Charles Taylor. It took the government close to a year, three audit reports, public outcry and an unfavorable UN report and threat to begin the process of prosecution of corrupt Bryant-era functionaries; and that prosecution process has taken on a snail pace, bogged down in seeming un-preparedness and apparent lack of political will to press forward. It took the government almost a year and a critical UN report to appoint an Auditor General (the revitalization of the Bureau of General Auditing has yet to begin in earnest) thus preventing the periodic auditing of its own activities. After more than a year the government has been unable to freeze the assets of any of the corrupt Taylor-era officials, as was mandated by the United Nations. Then the appointment of individuals accused of corruption, including Wesley Johnson who was appointed as Ambassador to the UK, in spite of audit reports accusing him of stealing over $34,000.00 of government money to attend his daughter’s graduation in the US; all these shortfalls in establishing an accountability regime based on aggressive prosecution, transparency and the building or strengthening of institutions that support accountability, by the government bring into question the government’s commitment to fighting corruption by prosecuting and punishing corrupt officials. While I do not personally question the government’s desire to fight corruption no one or institution is judged by its desire but by its actions to further that desire.

Breaking the scourge of corruption requires CONVICTION and DECISIVENESS. It is only with conviction that political leaders will make the tough decisions, take the tough actions and put into place the system to detect and punish corruption and, it is only with decisiveness that the message can be made clear and powerful- CORRUPTION WILL NOT BE TOLERATED! CORRUPTION WILL BE PUNISHED! The will to prosecute and exact punishment against corrupt public officials, unscrupulous business people, etc., no matter their relationships and status in society is critical to ridding the country of corruption and changing the public’s attitude towards corruption and corrupt officials. It is also critical to sending the much needed strong message about a government’s seriousness to fight corruption; and that will is driven by the conviction that corruption is bad and corruption must be fought tooth and nail, even at the risk of political unpopularity. Any reluctance or delay will bring into question the government’s seriousness and undermine public confidence.

CHANGING MINDSETS is a critical aspect in the fight against corruption. The public’s attitude of adoration towards corruption and corrupt officials is unhealthy and is a function of the culture of corruption and impunity that has existed for decades in our country. This culture can only be uprooted by the boldness of the government’s actions against corruption, the institutions of accountability that it establishes as well as its own adherence to a high standard of accountability and transparency. This can also be accelerated by the caliber of people who are appointed to public offices.
The Johnson-Sirleaf administration can demonstrate its commitment to fighting corruption by doing a number of things, the following included.

Corruption hurts everybody and the fight against corruption is a fight that must be waged by everyone- citizen and friend alike. When a revenue collector takes a bribe and waves a businessman’s tax burden he has deprived the government of money that could have gone to provide a pregnant woman or group of pregnant women with necessary pre-natal care and thus has endangered the health and life of the expectant mother and her unborn child. When a District Education Officer submits a payroll containing names of ghost teachers he is depriving unknown number of children of real teachers and the opportunity of an education. When a customs officer receives a bribe and neglects to assess the necessary tariffs on imported goods he is depriving the government of revenue that could go to provide social services. Corruption hurts everybody that is why it must be fought by everyone.

Civil society organizations such as human rights and pro-democracy NGO’s, the media workers and professional unions, interest groups, citizens’ movements, etc have an especially important and unique role to play in the fight against corruption. Civil society institutions such as human rights and pro-democracy NGO’s can design programs that educate the people about the harm that corruption causes and of their role in fostering democracy and accountability. They can design programs that empower the people to demand accountability from their elected representatives and appointed officials; programs that prepare people to look for and report suspected corrupt activities: these are the linchpin of democracy and the fight against corruption.

The media can play a critical role in spotting and exposing corruption. The media, as the fourth estate, the independent, unbiased representative of the people can be more aggressive in demanding transparency and accountability from public officials. Reporters can go out and ask government functionaries to open up their books to the public and to report on their daily activities. Reporters and media institutions can set up a quarterly accounting mechanism whereby legislators are called upon to give an accounting of their accomplishments to their constituencies or give the constituencies an opportunity to ask their representative about their accomplishments. Government officials realizing that these demands will be made of them will likely be forced to do the right thing.

Corruption is not only carried out by government or government officials. We as citizens are equally guilty of corrupt acts and attitudes that undermine national development and progress. If we connive with or bribe an employee of a public utility such as the Liberia Electricity Corporation (LEC) or the Water and Sewer Corporation (LWSC), for example, to provide us services without paying the required bills we are committing a corrupt act that deprives the government of money to improve upon or extend those services to other citizens or to put the money into other services where it is needed. Government is not an abstract entity nor is it made up of people from Mars or Pluto but us, citizens. If we are corrupt our government will be corrupt. A government is a reflection of the values of the citizens of which it is made of and a mirror image of the society of which it is born. Until we all do our part in the fight against corruption our country is doomed: poverty, ignorance and disease will take deeper roots and flourish; the injustice, deprivation and inequalities that corruption engenders will generate discontent and our peace will only be but temporary.

The writer is a journalist and human rights activist. He worked formerly with the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission in Liberia and with Forefront, a global network of leading grassroots human rights and social justice activists from around the world, located within the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights (now Human Rights First) in New York. He can be contacted at

© 2007 by The Perspective

To Submit article for publication, go to the following URL: