Democracy and economic struggles in Liberia, the role of the country’s compromised judiciary and legislature

By Dan Cooper, Esq.

FREETOWN, Sierra Leone––It is no secret that the political environment in Liberia has become toxic lately.  But through it all, few trends consistently bring Liberian politicians in government together.  And these are corruption, greed, selfishness and the lack of vision.  Liberia’s convoluted rebuilding democratic transition is headed between what one would consider a dysfunctional democracy and unconsolidated authoritarianism where all three branches of government in the country’s presidential system are compromised.   Because of these reasons, Liberia faces many issues and problems, as my research in-country found, and based on factual analysis and reports from several reputable international institutions amongst which include many United Nations’ agencies and programs, the World Bank, the International Monetary Funds, the European Union, etc. 

Although Liberia made history recently with the smooth transition of presidential political authority from one retiring president Madam Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to a newly elected president, former career footballer George Manneh Weah, the most striking of that history was a governing political party turning over state power to an elected opposition party. When this happened, Liberians and the world developed increased confidence but false hope for real change in the country, believing that hardship, unemployment, and poverty would have gradually been addressed and that the issues surrounding justice and accountability as well as transparency would have guarded the way forward.  Today, more and more financial and emotional pressures and stress have been mounting on Liberians in the country and even those abroad who have to labor very hard to transfer funds to unemployed and struggling family members and friends.

International legal experts disapproved of Liberia’s Chief Justice Francis Korkpor’s action of perceived collaboration

Two events during the past week have served to highlight — once again — one of the most severe flaws in and fear about Liberia’s governance and transformation path.  Last Tuesday, Roots FM which is owned and operated by renowned Liberian political commentator Henry Costa was attacked and looted for the second time by alleged surrogates of the Liberian government.  These attacks, according to interviews conducted with multiple Liberians in the streets of Monrovia and by cell phone contacts with Liberians abroad suggest that they are attempts to contain, restrict and shut down the truth-telling and though-provoking host of the “Costa Show.”

Then this past Thursday, the Liberian legislature and the country’s Supreme Court tagged team to approve the impeachment of a sitting associate justice of the Supreme Court for, among other reasons, “abuse of power.”  What is bizarre in this after-thought saga was the struggling efforts by the lawyers of the justice facing impeachment to have the chief judge of the Supreme Court of the country to recuse himself from the entire impeachment process and hearing because of allegation of ‘collaboration’ with the leadership of the ruling party.

Several random street sources also said that the chief justice is eying the possibility of being a vice presidential candidate for the ruling Coalition for Democratic Change in the 2023 presidential election. 

According to several sources, all of whom preferred anonymity for fear of possible attacks from supporters of the governing CDC administration, the Chief Justice was approached by and had been in discussions with the leadership of the CDC on this matter.

The view is that the current vice president of Liberia, Madam Jewel Howard Taylor, who is said to have estranged ties with the Liberian leader, George Weah, would be dropped from the ticket in 2023, or even removed from office before 2023 so that Chief Justice Francis Korkpor, Sr. can be appointed as vice president.  Multiple sources also revealed that current Associate Justice Joseph N. Nagbe, a former senator of Sinoe County and ally of President Weah and Associate Justice Sie-A-Nyene Gyapay Yuoh had been separately and secretly promised the position of chief justice if the current chief justice is elevated politically.  These, the sources continued, are the motivating factors for why these members of the Supreme Court are disregarding the role and independence of the judiciary by collaborating in Liberia’s slide into dictatorship.

Vice President Jewel Howard Taylor, a lawyer and banker, former First Lady and ex-wife of Charles Taylor after receiving a powerful traditional title in Bong County.  

Societies slide into dictatorship more often than they lurch, one barrier falling at a time. A dictatorship is a form of government where one person or political entity ruled a country, and exercised schemes through various mechanisms to ensure the entity’s power remains strong. A dictatorship is also a type of authoritarianism, in which politicians regulate nearly every aspect of the public and private behavior of citizens.

One former Liberian senior official in the administration of former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf said, Liberia had had few dictators, which may include William V.S. Tubman, William Richard Tolbert, Samuel Kanyon Doe, and  Charles MacArthur Taylor.  However, the country’s current evolving dictatorship under the CDC-led administration is becoming more and more an authoritarian form of government, characterized by a single leader George Manneh Weah, or a small group of unprepared and unserious leaders with either no real policy-driven platform, or has a weak governing party, little mass mobilization, and limited political pluralism.

One other significant source is an official in the CDC-led administration who also opted to speak on condition of anonymity for fear of dismissal, threats and attacks which surrogates of the administration seem to be categorized by.  The source revealed that if President Weah ultimately fails miserably, it would not be all because of his making.  He said Liberia’s precipitous failings under President Weah should also be construed from the contributions of some uncompromising and self-seeking loyalists in the public domain such as Finance and Development Planning Samuel Tweah, Presidential Affairs Minister Nathanial McGill, Monrovia City Mayor Jefferson Koijee among other.  And those behind the hidden curtains such as Archibald Bernard, Emmanuel Shaw, and Charles R.G. Bright, a former top aide to warlord Charles Taylor.

But what is more baffling to some in the international community, especially those following political, social and economic developments in Liberia from the United States, Britain and Europe at large, is the compromised posture of Chief Justice Francis Korkpor Sr. He has been the Chief Justice of Liberia since 2013. 

According to sources and research findings, Korkpor, a devoted Catholic once supported and mentored by the late influential Archbishop Michael K. Francis of the Catholic Church of Liberia,  was born in the town of Zao, Lao Clan, Nimba County, Liberia.  Before being appointed chief justice of the Supreme Court of Liberia, Korkpor, a graduate of the Louis Arthur Grimes School of Law at the University of Liberia, served in the following capacities in successive Liberian government:

  • Associate Justice, Supreme Court of Liberia January 4, 2004, to April 17, 2013
  • Associate Professor, Louis Arthur Grimes School of Law, University of Liberia 2009-2010
  • Assistant Minister, Legal Affairs, Ministry of Justice 1988-1990
  • Assistant Minister, Economic Affairs, Ministry of Justice 1985-1988
  • Assistant Minister, Litigation, Ministry of Justice 1976-1985

In private practice, various accounts revealed that Korkpor provided legal services to many people and institutions in Liberia especially human rights organizations and journalists who were targets of the erstwhile government of former dictator, President Charles G. Taylor. He also represented the legal interests of several other organizations like the Catholic Church of Liberia.

During that period of his private practice, he built partnerships and maintained collegiality within the Liberian National Bar Association (LNBA).  Also, being from Nimba County and bordering Grand Gedeh County, two areas that experienced the most devasting impact of a prolonged Liberian civil conflict that evolved from dictatorship, political observers are stunned that Korkpor would feed the evolution of another brand of dictatorship just because he craves for higher authority.

Some supporters of the impeachment of Justice Kabineh Ja’neh argued that if the allegations against the associate justice are factual then he needs to be removed from office.  Some of those allegations include that Justice Ja’neh abused the power of his office by forcibly taking land belonging to a vulnerable Liberian family, among others. While this revelation is yet to be confirmed, most members of Liberia’s opposition groups say the entire process is politically manufactured and motivated from the Liberian presidency that wants political control of the judiciary, and also, perceived some on the Supreme Court bench as obstacles. 

President George Manneh Weah and Associate Justice Kabineh Ja’Neh allegedly became foes when the Supreme Court of Liberia was at the center of the 2017 presidential and general election

Generally, most dictatorships start with good intentions. The person in power is restricted by the laws of the nations that limit the ability of the said person. This person may want to do something that he (or his advisers/financiers) deem to be of high importance. Also, to get their way, the imposition of their will becomes the fallback.  Political observers say now that the Supreme Court of Liberia is becoming fully compromised just as the Liberian legislature has been, the undemocratic foundations of democracy in Liberia are set in motion.

One prominent Liberian businessman who also prefers to remain anonymous for fear of intimidation from the CDC-led regime said Liberian legislators are not the only ones whose positions have been compromised in the country since the CDC-led government assumed state power.  Some influential religious leaders have deliberately compromised their standing because of financial gains from government sources, and accountability institutions such as the General Auditing Commission, the Liberia Anti-Corruption Commission amongst others have also gone dormant.  Assuming this is true, it means Liberia’s check and balance system is broken. It needs to be overhaul. 

A cross section of the Liberian Senate.  These people earn more than $15, 000 United States dollars each a month in salaries and benefits in a nation that relies heavily on foreign aid

The emerging dictatorship in Liberia could impact the country’s hard-earned democratic gains, particularly so when the international community cannot protect Liberia’s electoral system and economic growth from self-inflicted wounds and especially when the risks, by all standards, are from within the group that governs and the poverty–stricken masses that support them.  Liberia’s threats today are not foreign, they are domestic, and they are inflicted by those in state power.

What is worrisome though is that Liberia is one of the poorest and least developed countries in the world.  Poverty is widespread, unemployment is beyond compare and factually estimated at more than 51% if one were to remove the over-burdened and unnecessary government jobs.

The country’s health sector is wrecked and unsupported in all forms, shape, and manner.  The educational system is deplorable, and general living condition for an estimated 98 percent of the population is unsustainable.  Most civil servants go months without salaries and major businesses are shutting down while others complain about how difficult it is to do business in the country because of high tariffs, taxes, bribery and other forms of corruption.  All major government contracts are granted based on bribery and non–Liberians including individuals from countries with high volume of terrorism financiers.  In addition, Liberia is so far the only country in West Africa that prioritizes giving state-owned government contracts at the expense of its citizens.  Ghana, Nigeria, Guinea, Sierra Leone and others don’t.  The result is Liberia lacks a true middle class.  The Lebanese community is virtually ruling Liberia economically while the Liberian people become spectators in their own economy.   Sources say the real and key stumbling blocks to Liberians progress are Liberians in government.  And it is all about corruption and bribery––things that the Lebanese community does not hesitate to undertake.

A cross section of the members of the House of Representatives in Liberia.  These people earn more than $14, 000 United States dollars each a month in salaries and benefits in a nation that relies heavily on foreign aid.

The Liberian legislature–– both members of the Senate and the House of Representatives–– are accused by Liberian citizens as being toothless, corrupt and dysfunctional because most of them have their family member benefiting from some appointments or positions in the CDC-led government.  For example, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Bhofal Chambers lobbied for his sister, Gurley Gibson, a former healthcare support services aide to be appointed as the Liberian ambassador to the United States.  When the U.S. State Department rejected her, he urged President Weah to name her as the Liberian ambassador to the United Kingdom, a position she currently holds.  Other members of the legislature are only interested in the economic benefits they accrue as a result of their jobs.

According to the United Nations World Food Programme and several international institutions, 8% of Liberia’s 4.5 million population live on less than US$1.25 a day; 16% of families are food insecure, including 2 percent that is severely food insecure. For one-fourth of Liberian families, food accounts for more than 65 percent of their total expenditures and the majority of the population still live below the international poverty line.  These stats remain unchanged since the CDC–led administration took office more than a year ago, and before the SLPP administration in neighboring Sierra Leone took over government from the ruling APC government. 

Comparatively, Sierra Leone has changed remarkably under President Julius Maada Bio and more serious-minded Sierra Leonean nationals are returning home from Europe, Canada and the United States in drove while thousands of Liberians abroad are fearful of doing so because of poor conditions and news from back home.  The unfortunate part is many of the folks in key leadership positions in the CDC–led administration either don’t just care, or don’t have a clue.

One other observant condition is that the country’s healthcare system is also struggling to recover. There is a lack of health workers and health facilities.  Liberians in-country say long distances and poor infrastructure, unemployment, and extreme poverty remain obstacles to accessing excellent and reliable health care nationwide. This view supports the acknowledgement expressed in a January 5, 2017 article by accomplished Liberian businessman and media publisher Rodney Sieh and veteran Liberian journalist Jerry Wehtee Wion in FrontPage Africa, Liberia’s most successful local daily, that, “This quandary of a poor national healthcare system also speaks to why Liberia fits the label of a “failed state.”

The conclusion is that democracy in Africa has been a turbulent, convoluted and volatile experiment since the continent gained independence from colonial administration from afar. However, transforming and modernizing governance in several African nations, especially Liberia, would require overcoming personal greed, self-interest, dictatorship, sycophancy and above all, corruption.  Without doing away with these vices, the ultimate effect of the dynamics we see, and Liberians are experiencing under the CDC-led government will continue to be felt by the entire nation, directly and indirectly. Ultimately, the judiciary in Liberia is not only helping to feed authoritarianism, it also destroying the country’s democracy.

About the Author:

Dan Cooper is a Western researcher, writer, legal analyst, and publisher of contents relating to social, political and economic issues globally.

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