Did Retired Liberian President Sirleaf Influence Global Witness’ Exxon Report on Liberia?

Former Liberian President Madam Ellen Johnson Sirleaf


As a global watchdog, research and journalism group, Global Witness has and stands for a good cause in exposing the lack of transparency, accountability, and abuse around the world but having and standing for a good cause is not the same as doing the right thing in pursuing that cause, especially when it comes to journalistic and research reporting.

The sustainability of journalism, especially investigative journalism, rests upon a reputation for integrity, ethical conduct, and credibility.  This is why Global Witness, in its latest report on Liberia, appears to clearly betray the trust of Liberians and perhaps its global audience by reporting and sensationalizing a politically charged mechanized event as ‘findings’ in its Exxon Mobil alleged bribery case in Liberia while the oil giant was securing oil block 13 through the country’s National Oil Company of Liberia (NOCAL).

In Global Witness’s March 2018 report titled “Exxon Liberia” with the subsection, “Monrovia 2013: Awash in Cash,” the largely Africa’s focused international watchdog group made another faulty conclusion and attempt to ruin the reputation of some credible Liberian professionals through the assertion of baseless and blanket accusations that lack any iota of truth.

The truth of the matter is, Liberia is a very corruption nation and the past Liberian administration led by retired Liberian president Madam Ellen Johnson Sirleaf,  has been the most corrupt administration since the founding and independence of the country.  It is also true that NOCAL was drained and made broke by and through high-level corruption by its management under the chairmanship of Robert A. Sirleaf, son of former president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.  It is also believed that more than $300 million United States dollars went missing at NOCAL.   Therefore, investigating and reporting these events would be noteworthy on the part of Global Witness.  However, what is unworthy, though, is when Global Witness selects to pay a blind eye on the real  corruption in Liberia and the individuals responsible,  and instead attempt to taint the character of credible Liberian individuals on what appears to be a calculated ploy to confuse Liberians and its international readership on the pending work and investigations of the recently  appointed ‘Concession Review Committee’ set up by President George Manneh Weah.

There is credible information that former President Sirleaf may have allegedly influenced the Global Witness’s March 2018 Exxon report for several reasons including to ensure that Liberians don’t have a true picture about the stewardship of her son Robert A. Sirleaf at NOCAL when millions of dollars went missing.  By suggesting the names of other respected Liberians, like former Liberian Attorney General/Justice Minister Christiana Tah, who are not only credible and trusted but do enjoy the confidence of Liberians, it would appear that a coverup would have been provided for the real management and leadership of NOCAL to jointly say the allegation by Global Witness is untrue since the characters and pronouncements of others who are wrongly accused would then support that view.  And this is exactly what has happened.

Another suspicion this latest report proffers is the timing.  There are multiple and serious lawsuits relating to Liberia’s past that have been filed.  These include the active lawsuit in Boston, Massachusetts, USA against retired Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and others as well as other potential lawsuits such as the one contemplated by the family of the late Burkina Faso’s leader Captain Thomas Sankara against dethroned Burkina Faso’s president Blaise Campoare and Madam Ellen Johnson Sirleaf regarding the alleged murder of Captain Sankara.

Sankara, then head of state of Burkina Faso was killed by mercenaries in order turn his country into a training ground, paving the way for subversive activities in Liberia and neighboring Sierra Leone.  The ACDL, which allegedly hired the leader of the NPFL and indirectly the leader of the RUF, is accused of financing the training and related operations of these groups.

So, the bottom line is, no one disputes Global Witness’s assertion that Liberia is corrupt and that there had been corruption at NOCAL, the Liberian government oil drilling regulatory entity.  What can clearly be disputed are the mischaracterization of the corruption problem in Liberia and the dubious attempt to name some credible Liberians in the Exxon report, notably Counselor Tah.  Besides, Global Witness has not done any due diligence because, in its letter to Counselor Tah, the organization sought clarification on the “bonus” payment which Counselor Tah received from NOCAL for publicly known services.  Yet, the organization still elected to mention or include her name in its report thereby skewing the real story about the millions of dollars that have been mismanaged at NOCAL.  Counselor Tah and perhaps a few other Liberians mentioned in the report never received any bribe because a bonus authorized by the Liberian president is not a bribe.

The World Bank in its report titled “Helping Countries Combat Corruption: The Role of the World Bank”, the Bank in dealing with this section, “Corruption and Economic Development” says, “Corruption is a complex phenomenon. Its roots lie deep in bureaucratic and political institutions, and its effect on development varies with country conditions. But while costs may vary and systemic corruption may coexist with strong economic performance, experience suggests that corruption is bad for development. It leads governments to intervene where they need not, and it undermines their ability to enact and implement policies in areas in which government intervention is clearly needed—whether environmental regulation, health and safety regulation, social safety nets, macroeconomic stabilization, or contract enforcement. This chapter looks at the complex nature of corruption, its causes, and its effects on development.”

The World Bank also maintains that “The term corruption covers a broad range of human actions. To understand its effect on an economy or a political system, it helps to unbundle the term by identifying specific types of activities or transactions that might fall within it. In considering its strategy the Bank sought a usable definition of corruption and then developed a taxonomy of the different forms corruption could take consistent with that definition. We settled on a straightforward definition—the abuse of public office for private gain.  Public office is abused for private gain when an official accepts, solicits, or extorts a bribe. It is also abused when private agents actively offer bribes to circumvent public policies and processes for competitive advantage and profit. Public office can also be abused for personal benefit even if no bribery occurs, through patronage and nepotism, the theft of state assets, or the diversion of state revenues. This definition is both simple and sufficiently broad to cover most of the corruption that the Bank encounters, and it is widely used in the literature. Bribery occurs in the private sector, but bribery in the public sector, offered or extracted, should be the Bank’s main concern since the Bank lends primarily to governments and supports government policies, programs, and projects.”

The Bank also single out bribery and provides a clearer understanding of what it means and entails. According to the World Bank, “Bribes are one of the main tools of corruption. They can be used by private parties to “buy” many things provided by central or local governments, or officials may seek bribes in supplying those things as stated below:

  • Government contracts. Bribes can influence the government’s choice of firms to supply goods, services, and works, as well as the terms of their contracts. Firms may bribe to win a contractor to ensure that contractual breaches are tolerated.
  • Government benefits. Bribes can influence the allocation of government benefits, whether monetary benefits (such as subsidies to enterprises or individuals or access to pensions or unemployment insurance) or in-kind benefits (such as access to certain schools, medical care, or stakes in enterprises being privatized).
  • Lower taxes. Bribes can be used to reduce the amount of taxes or other fees collected by the government from private parties. Such bribes may be proposed by the tax collector or the taxpayer. In many countries the tax bill is negotiable.
  • Licenses. Bribes may be demanded or offered for the issuance of a license that conveys an exclusive right, such as a land development concession or the exploitation of a natural resource. Sometimes politicians and bureaucrats deliberately put in place policies that create control rights which they profit from by selling.
  • Time. Bribes may be offered to speed up the government’s granting of permission to carry out legal activities, such as company registration or construction permits. Bribes can also be extorted by the threat of inaction or delay.
  • Legal outcomes. Bribes can change the outcome of the legal process as it applies to private parties, by inducing the government either to ignore illegal activities (such as drug dealing or pollution) or to favor one party over another in court cases or other legal proceedings.”

The World Bank also provides a clear understanding of public theft. According to the World Bank, “Theft of state assets by officials charged with their stewardship is also corruption. An extreme form is the large-scale “spontaneous” privatization of state assets by enterprise managers and other officials in some transition economies.   At the other end of the scale is petty theft of items such as office equipment and stationery, vehicles, and fuel. The perpetrators of petty theft are usually middle- and lower-level officials, compensating, in some cases, for inadequate salaries. Asset control systems are typically weak or nonexistent, as is the institutional capacity to identify and punish wrongdoers.

The World Bank is consciously aware that receiving ‘bonus’ when it is legal, authorized by the leader of a nation and is done openly then it is not corruption nor is it wrong.  Global Witness, as a Western-based watchdog organization is obligated to understand this as well.

More importantly, the organization should understand the moral, social and legal implications of asserting unfounded accusations against prominent individuals who enjoy the trust and confidence of their people.  While Global Witness got one thing right, that Liberia, especially the past administration of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, has been an engine of  systemic corruption, the watchdog group is wrong by making sweeping accusations and allegations, that are in most cases, seek to ruin the good name and reputations of prominent individuals as in the case of former Liberian Attorney General/Minister of Justice Christiana Tah.  The most prudent thing Global Witness can do now is to perhaps win the trust and confidence of Liberians by acknowledging that it has erred in including names of individuals who are people with enviable integrity.

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Blama G. Konuwah

Blama G. Konuwah resides in Vancouver, Canada. He is a public issues analyst and senior contributor to Globe Afrique.
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