Liberia: Eye on the Public Purse

By Ezekiel Pajibo


The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

November 20, 2003

A number of government officials have now begun to publicly state that the cost of running their assigned ministries is being shouldered personally. One of such government official, Mr. Fred Bass Golokeh, Advisor on International Affairs, reportedly told a reporter that he was personally assuming the cost of supplying office equipment for his office at the Executive Mansion (The News November 10, 2003). He was responding to a news story (The News November 7, 2003) in which the government was accused of awarding contracts to foreign nationals surreptitiously. The Minister of Post and Telecommunication indicated that he was “paying from his pocket” the cost of running his ministry. (The Independent, November 15, 2003). Other ministries are asking their friends in the business community; particularly Lebanese businessmen to help refurbished their offices, many of which were looted during the recent violence that engulfed the city. There is no telling what rewards these business people would demand once they have refurbished these offices, with our officials gladly ensconced in their carpeted and air-conditioned suites. Equally amiss would be the detriment this may have on our economic recovery process or the issues of transparency in the awarding of government contracts.

In early November, the Chairman of the National Transitional Government of Liberia (NTGL), Charles Gyude Bryant, while speaking at a public function donated US$250,000.00 as initial contribution to a “Liberia Education Trust Fund”(The Inquirer November 4, 2003). Clearly the amount donated was not Mr. Bryant's personal money but that of the Liberian government. This kind of behaviour, in which Government official, and especially the Head of Government goes around distributing checks is fiscally imprudent as well as irresponsible. The Government must operate within a budget process and expenditure must be reflective of line items indicated in the Budget. It is not unlikely that the Head of Government may have a line item in the budget (“Petit Cash”) that can be used at his discretion, public spending on public amenities, such as education cannot rely on such funds or on discretionary spending. Government spending must be properly channelled in ways that ensured transparency and accountability. While Mr. Bryant's intention about promoting education may be well meaning, the distribution of public money by him is not the appropriate way to demonstrate his interest. No doubt the government commitment to education will be best reflected in what is allocated to the Ministry of Education in the National Budget. The Ministry of Education deserves to have a budget and public monies must be channelled through that budget. What is more, when civil servants have not been paid their salary arrears, it appears misplaced for the Head of Government to be passing out checks publicly.

This brings up the point about the lack of any budget for the NTGL. If there is one, then it must be made public and line ministries must have access to the monies and expend such accordingly. The tendencies on the part of government officials to make claims about assuming personal cost for doing public service is a benign precursor for pilfering national coffers in the future. That is why the government needs to act with urgency in elaborating a budget process thereby establishing a framework for public expenditure. This way, personal spending will not occur and public donation of government's monies can be discouraged and those to whom the public purse is entrusted can be held accountable. Our government officials need to be fiscally prudent and responsible and must desist from grandstanding, especially where the public purse is concern.

Just as well, our political leaders need to restrain themselves in their public utterances and pronouncements. For example, the timing for the payment of civil servants salaries should come from the Ministry of Finance and not the Speaker of the Assembly. It has been at least a week now since the Speaker said salaries would be paid to all civil servants and most civil servants have yet to receive their checks. The Speaker, who is behaving as though he is campaigning, has also spoken about holding an international soccer tournament - one would have thought that with an entire Ministry for Youth and Sports, and a Liberia Football Association - that the issue would be taken up by those entities. Let the people in the Assembly do the work they are legally require to do and refrain from usurping the function of other government agencies - this is what would makes government function properly. In addition, indeed football is a great sport and we all love it but does the government really need to spend its meager resources on an international soccer tournament at this time, when our people don't have safe drinking water and displaced persons at the SKD Stadium are reportedly dying for lack of food? Public officials need to take seriously their responsibilities and take fundamental issues that seek to restore hope to our people and give them back their dignity.

On another note, Liberia media continues to report allegation of corruption by former government officials. A major story involved the Minister Designate of Health and Social Welfare, Dr. Peter Coleman. According one allegation, a government car given to Mr. Coleman for his use as an official of Government has been sold. In response to the allegation, Dr. Coleman said that in the final days of the Moses Blah's administration, government officials were allowed to purchase cars issued to them. It is not clear how the purchase price was arrived at but the speed with which Dr. Coleman sold his car suggests profiteering on his part and at the expense of the Liberian people. The misuse and abuse of public properties is a hallmark of Liberia's political leaders and in the prevailing circumstances has become more excessive. There have been countless stories about this criminal behaviour on the part of those to whom the public purse has been entrusted It has been reported as well, that prior to Mr. Charles Taylor departure from Liberia, officials at the Central Bank were quite literally held at gun-point and made to empty the vaults. According to some accounts more than those representing themselves as officials of government stole L $49 million. I am unaware of any action underway to investigate this crime and hold the culprits accountable. It buckles the mind that such criminality is going unchecked as poverty deepens in the country. These characters are not simply venal; they are callous and grotesquely shameless.

Misuse of public funds is criminal and those who so indulge must be held accountable. The country cannot at this moment afford the pilfering of its coffers. There is quite simply too much poverty in the country and a great deal of our people are living in hellish conditions. The prudent management of our fiscal affairs will also assure our international friends that for once; the Government of Liberia can be a genuine partner in the reconstruction of the country. Surely we are capable of good and responsible governance of our country.

Ezekiel Pajibo is a freelance political commentator.