A Letter From Monrovia – Home, Sweet Home
By James Thomas-Queh
I must have left you off in suspense and perplexed on this most delicate subject- corruption – a great pain in the neck of this government. Well, I poked my nose once more into two of the most spectacular and symbolic examples for which this administration would be remembered. First, is the case of the arrested former officials of the defunct Bryant government, - an attempt more or less to put the fear of God in all the would-be corruptors and corrupt individuals, and to also satisfy an hypocritical demand of this international community. Arguing my point at a delicious dinner of goat soup and fufu, fried fish, gravy and rice, with some cool Club beer, - an old acquaintance (a currant government official as well) lashed at me for siding with those “corrupt people” (and though I was not); that known me for my progressive wisdom and ideas (compliments accepted) - he was terribly surprised at me; it seems as though France has changed my head ( and why not, stress and hard times). And the man went on and on. I did not insist knowing the effect of Club and the man’s own official position. If you cannot defend a government, you just as well do not stay in it. But I also remembered too, that the case was still pending before the court; so I put that issue to rest, leaving it for the future to tell.
The second and most important issue was that which made those huge newspaper headlines after one of the President’s first official travels. She had returned a large sum of her unused per-diem back to the national treasury – an honourable and very honest example, indeed, of something never ever heard of in our national history. But while the measure might have been applauded by the public, it also sent a shock-wave through the spinal cords of government officials, creating scepticism and soon becoming a moral burden. And for a reason. Because before sitting this very spectacular example, the Liberian leader had ignored or forgotten, first, to prepare her corp of officials and educate the Liberian public on the financial regulations and controls governing official travels both foreign and internal. And this oversight would quickly confirm an already mind-set that all foreign travels are necessarily corruption oriented; and thus all government officials who may fail to return a portion of their travel per-diem are also necessarily corrupt. This was the public perception that created an embarrassment and malaise among the government officials, and even the most honest among them. Of course, there are those who make returns and those who do not. In my view, the public should have first been told, among other things, that when their leader travels as the guest of another country, often that host nation shoulders the expenses, including for a restricted number of persons within the entourage. The rest of the delegation may take care of itself -eat, drink and dance as it deems fit (without any supporting documents) and within the limits and conditions of the per-diem and not a cent over. That was the tradition; and to change such, one must first inform, then reform it, and rewrite the rules and regulations – then put in place the proper bureaucratic mechanisms for an efficient control, and then publicise it all.
But that was not the case. And you know, we have a saying in my own profession that laws or measures put into effect, but not previously approved or understood by the public, have a tendency to produce negative results or “back fire.” Thus since the President travels so very often and make less and less publicised balance returns to the national treasury; and since no one hardly hears either the contribution from her official delegations – naturally, the public has shifted its focus on the trips themselves: amount spent, purpose, official or private, frequency, etc. And we are seeing the result. The President is now obliged to reveal the cost of her trips and the benefits reaped. But soon the public would also be demanding a complete breakdown: account of how every penny is spent on a trip, and details of the benefits reaped and how spent or must be spent. And all that may sound a hell of a transparency and accountability, but there is also a smell of mistrust, non-confidence and an embarrassment for the administration. A Pandora box has been wide opened, putting every single move of our national leader into an unprecedented questioning.
As for the government officials, their situation is still not any better. The anti-corruption/patronage crusade hit them even harder than the low ranking functionaries described in Part One of this letter. As there is an acute scarcity of free money flowing around (call it a positive side of the crusade), and everyone is looking over the shoulders of the other (to see who would be the first to start or be caught in the act) – these folks have become extremely cautious (and almost in a state of depression and suspicion), very discrete and stingy (have become economical the hard way). And what do you expect, these officials have found themselves to be the very privileged few within the midst of mass poverty and jobless extended-families. And frankly, that is a huge burden considering their own official life-style and the uncertainties of not knowing how long one would be in that job. And I can tell you, pray hard not to lose an employment right now in Monrovia; your mouth could drag for good.
Well, if you are a chronic depressive and need solace, then you should try pairing this state of the government officials with that of the lower ranking functionaries – and you could be at a near perfect temperature of the general social ambiance in Monrovia -and an additional obstacle to the government not having things its own way.
Another thing. All our great battles against corruption never seem to refer to the most prevalent petit bureaucratic corruption practices. As I was told, that too was very far from being eradicated, and just the same as that within the higher official echelon. But while that may be true, I took note of a changed mentality. There is now no pre-determined price or outright demands before a service. In other words, when you go to process a document through the bureaucratic system or seek a contract – no one dares to ask for that famous 10 or 15% upfront or give some figures as before. Now anything reasonable given under the table would speed up your transaction. But mind you, no one would have to tell; you would have to deduce for yourself after three or four visits, and the functionary keeps repeating that your document has not yet reached the Minister for signature. And on the big fish, giving out government contracts is not as decisive and quick like in previous times (now no party wants to make the first move without suspicion); everything seems very centralized. As a result, the state bureaucracy has become heavier, lengthier, dull and stalled. And in my view, this has little to do with the presence of GEMAP agents. So yes, the President’s crusade has succeeded in rendering corruption/patronage much more discretional and subtle, but no speed. And that in itself may be considered another great progress, indeed!
The Government, GEMAP/International NGOs and People: In Quest of influence
As a novice political observer, I had fully prepared myself to be crashing one political meeting to another; and especially knowing that those heading the major political parties are dynamic, experienced and Westernised educated. Deception. Instead, what I heard for days was an announcement from the chairman of the Unity Party for its partisans, students and the public at large, to line the streets en mass to welcome the President from another of her most successful foreign travels. I could not believe my ears; I saw the past all over me again – the Tubman era – when we spent most of our precious school time waving to him as future robots. And now that we are already in this robot age (and our kids having been out of school for the last 14 years) , do not ask me how many of those normal partisans, students and the public that abandoned their day of hustling to turn out for this great event.
My advice, though, is that politicians and political parties need to quickly get their acts together or else it might be too late. Because in the absence of a real political mobilisation and reassurance – the people, in the face of frustration and disappointment may remain entrenched in their factional believes, attitudes and actions. And something I do not hope.
Since the politics was dormant, I instead focused my attention to where the mean thrust of action was situated– the conflict of interest, influence and rivalry between the government and GEMAP/International NGOs. Then I soon realised why the President took every international forum to lash out against the much promised international financial aid not coming as fast as was expected; and her insistence also for our own highly qualified international experts to be given first preference as GEMAP agents. I thought then that her rage was a direct affront to a people who still have a deep-seated colonial mindset. A people who thought themselves anointed by God (the same Almighty we worship and adore so ardently) to be our eternal masters.
What is more, I learned that from day one of the Bryant interim government this international community had already a prepared blue-print to rule Liberia – the same exploitative Magna Carta they carry around to control all the other created failed-states under the disguise of “democratically elected governments;” and where, in effect, the GEMAPs/international NGOs constitute the real power. But apparently two factors made God to move from behind them: globalisation (terminology of their own creation) and patriotism/nationalism (their own bearings to rally their people). It was ignored that a globalised world can not be disassociated from a globalised patriotism/nationalism. And that patriotism/nationalism is not an eminent domain of any one privileged race of people, but all peoples regardless of race or colour; poor or rich and developed or underdeveloped. Or else how do you pretend imposing democracy on a people who are not patriotic/nationalist; and when in fact, the two - democracy and patriotism/nationalism - are inseparable, forming a part of a whole- that aspiration of the people to freedom, justice, peace and progress, first and foremost, through the utilization of their own human and natural resources and wealth.
Thus when this “internationally community” decided finally that the moment had come to end the Liberian carnage and replace it with this “democracy” and share its resources in reward – they had completely underestimated the profound patriotism/nationalism that formed the very basis of this nation’s founding charter. It was not too long, however, for them to find out and constrained to modify and melt down the GEMAP arrangement. Then they quickly realised that the planned electoral process may not go their way either. Thus without much time left, they reactivated their “Plan B” by putting Mr. Bryant at gun-point (or you may call it corruption, bribery, financial inducements, etc.) to sign major concession agreements and the other on-the-side deals before the arrival of a genuine elected government. And this much I have already repeated over and again elsewhere.
So, here they were, armed with a melted down GEMAP arrangement, some signed concession agreements and other major natural resources still to be shared, and with a 15 000 strong UNMIL force to reinforce their negotiating position, the “international community” sat in readiness, prepared for any eventuality.
But even though this trap was set, I was reminded that the election of a Madame Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf was still not into their equation. Notwithstanding, these follows wasted no time in adjusting their strategy in pursuit of their common interest. Do not forget, all members of the quartet have mutual interests; they are not like us, inherently divided over nothing. Thus after the euphoria, pomp and pageantry of the inauguration, they took careful note of her many promises - urgent and needing immediate financing. Second, they soon found out that most of her key officials were renounced technocrats like the President herself. And third, they also noticed in her immediate entourage very influential personalities, playing ambiguous roles, but whose vision of Liberia stopped abruptly on April 12, 1980. And I mean, those whose vision starts from 1980 backward and not forward. And of course, it is needless to mention here once again that anyone, whose vision disconnects these two crucial epochs of our national history, cannot expect to take our country forward in a more positive way.
By now you must be anxious to know where all this imagination is leading. Well, there is a common point between the technocrats and those whose vision ended on 1980. Most technocrats are genius planners and paper workers (but not usually practical or politicians). They would layout plans on how to develop and run your country for the next million years. But implementation may be the least of their worry. If the plan was put before you and you do understand it or ask too many questions or unable to carry it out – then you are called an idiot, a country heathen, lazy or complacent or some socialist/communist utopian. As a result, most technocrats do develop an attitude of extreme arrogance, superiority complex, and especially toward the majority poor social strata. And this is precisely where they have a point in common with those the clock stopped on in 1980: the old school of arrogance and class superiority and a desire to recreate that life-style of the glorious past - good time and easy go-go. The sort of behaviour the international community loves to work with; it is much easier to manipulate and put us against one another and against our people.
A recent case in point may be part of an argument put forward by the Auditor General designate to dissolve the GRC that “…We just have too many socialists in Monrovia…” (www.newdemocratnews.com - May 7, 2007). And that leaves me wondering: What is the role of the Auditor General’s office, is it to audit and ascertain that all state expenditure as budgeted is spend adequately? Or what is the rapport of wanting to dissolve an agency, and that agency’s head being perceived as a communist, socialist, Moslem or Christian? Or is this an insinuation to mean the government should forget about the welfare of the people? Or are we already regressing to the old communist and socialist ploys to justify our failures? It may yet be too early to make a judgment.
Whatever the case, such arrogance and near idiosyncrasy have distanced the government from the impatient population, and thus put the GEMAP/international NGOs at a vantage position of influence. Because all they do is keeping the government Ministers and Directors very busy whole day drafting out the million years develop plan (and its billion of dollars in cost), or spent their time on the famous work-shops for “capacity building.” As a result, most Ministers are inaccessible or absent from office most of the day on activities yet to impact on the daily lives of a restless populace. Already due to the financial strait-jacket these officials are placed into, they hardly want to receive any visitor because the request is always the same: either for financial help or looking for a job – the two most sought after commodities in the country. And worst, the President is always absent from the country. But while the government seems to be in this state of inertia, the international NGOs are seriously working because they are the same ones receiving the much promised donations from their governments that our national leader is running after; and they organise these workshops and paying to draft the next 100 years national development plan. And while they keep our Ministers and Directors very busy pushing papers, delivering eloquent speeches, making them feel very important, and of course, to finish at some exclusive luncheons at workshops or some first class restaurants, and while the President is also out -these international NGOs are carrying out also those little daily impact projects: installing hand-pumps here and there, one or two makeshift clinics or some village self-help projects, and the rest. At the same time, though, the JKF medical centre and all the major hospitals in the country need every assistance to be revitalised to serve the larger public in need of health care.
And what about that big billion dollars development plan for the next 100 years? Well, I was the rumour that it would be worked on for the next six years; and should it ever come out of printing before then, every piece of it – rebuilding the hydro, roads, hospitals, bridges, etc. – would need the advice, consent and approval of the World Bank, IMF, donors and partners. And of course, the process would take tedious and lengthy discussions and negotiations to conclude. “Why?” I said myself – “since we have those abundance natural resources and a competent and very efficient World Bank and IMF cadres within the government.” My source of the rumour, realising my profound naivety and ignorance, continued: “Well, precisely because these officials are very smart fellows who know the inner working, wheeling and dealings of these international financial institutions, and how they have no remorse or conscience in sharing the wealth of poor countries through dubious contracts and stringent conditions unknown to the population.” As I listened attentively and learned, this enlightened man concluded prudently: “I suppose these honest compatriots do not want to be accused tomorrow of corruption or being in connivance with their former bosses by selling out our national resources to them for peanuts or hidden kick-backs and shares. Poor Liberia, these guys must certainly be so embarrassed now whenever the take a glance at the ridiculous demands and terms of agreements already put before them.” That wasn’t me again. “If that is the case then why the President would not come clean with the Liberian people on such delicate financial transactions. This would the real transparency, transparency, accountability, accountability– that could make her the greatest President to mature the political minds of our youths to prepare them for the difficult task of carrying on the future of our country.” Otherwise sooner or later, the people would be asking some other very pertinent questions: Why is it that Mittel Steel is investing almost a billion dollars (as we are told), but yet we cannot guarantee finance to rebuild the hydro or that important Water Side bridge? Why is it that the Firestone hydro is functioning (after the same 14 years of civil war) and we cannot start ours as a nation? While all attention is focused on poor Mittel Steel – how much investment is the Firestone/Bridgestone, LAC and others, who are already in operation, are contributing to our national treasury….?
Abruptly, my man told me to shut up; rumours are not necessarily realiable. Then the guy when on to diagnose me of being senile, utopian, dreamer, hallucinated and all the other mental deficiencies. “Leave all that kenjah to the politicians or the students of political science, economics and their professors to research and put the facts on record” – he barked – “Or else they too could spend 27 years in exile, like you, pushing cartons or standing in the cold as a security guard before some third class supermarkets in the Paris suburbs. And only then, at age sixty, before they would come to terms with their chaotic life and the tragic destiny of their country.”
The truth can hurt, you know. So I yarned for some fresh air, changed the subject and environment. I was really dizzy; that old heart blood pressure was shooting up high. The next day, I gate-crashed one of those capacity building workshops, disguised as a foreign journalist –reporter jacket, digital camera and other impostor gadgets.
To be continued.
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