Donor and aid-dependent Liberia refuses to pursue recovery of stolen assets

NEW YORK – Liberia has thwarted and rejected every national and international effort as well as commitment to recover billions of United States dollars in stolen assets.  A poorly governed country in West Africa, Liberia, which borders Sierra Leone, Guinea, and the Côte d’Ivoire remains a donor and international aid-dependent state largely.

The stolen assets are said to be accumulated by most of the country’s former government officials, political loyalists, and cronies. 

The Panama Papers links Liberia to several offshore assets and investigative work by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists verifies and corroborates that. Other sources revealed how Liberia has been shortchanged as follow:

  1. Liberia: Millions Lost – Liberia Short-Changed Over Oil Seismic Data Money
  2. Follow the Money: Payment Trail Reveals Challenges of Ridding Liberia of Corruption
  3. Exxon Purchase of Liberia’s Corruption-tainted Block 13 likely Enriched Former Liberian Officials.
  4. Where are Liberia’s missing millions?

In mid-2019, the Liberian government’s commissioned Asset Investigation, Restitution, and Recovery Team headed by Counsellor Arthur Johnson approached Grant Thornton, a major UK-based professional services firm seasoned in asset tracking and recovery, and Duane Morris LLP, a top-notch U.S. law firm in New York.  The underlining reason was for both firms to assist the country in recovering an estimated more than US$ 2 billion dollars of stolen wealth stacked in foreign banks and properties overseas and in-country.  

For no legitimate reason and due to political peddling, the Liberian government later backed out of the process despite being a financially struggling and foreign aid-dependent nation.

L to R: Justice Minister Frank Musa Dean and Solicitor General Syrenius Sayma Cephus

According to reliable sources, the leadership of the country’s ministry of justice had not been forthcoming. There are several underlining allegations. The Minister of Justice Honorable Frank Musa Dean has not been supportive of the process because of his alleged role as a one-time managing director of the Liberia Telecommunications Corporation, where millions of dollars were allegedly “smuggled” by previous administrations.   

But some people cast blame on the country’s solicitor general Cllr. Syrenius Sayma Cephus and the recently resigned chairman of the Asset Investigation, Restitution, and Recovery Team Cllr. Arthur Johnson for the lack of effective coordination with the entire ministry and other appropriate government functionaries.  Assuming this is the case, does not the honorable minister of justice see the need to put the interest of Liberia above all else by making the country recover these stolen assets?

Cllr. Arthur Johnson

While some Liberia dailies are reporting that the justice ministry is undermining President George Weah’s fight against corruption, there is also disagreement regarding who actually to blame for the unnecessary gaps and failure in the process. Some critics blame the president for not giving his full support, causing the abrupt resignation of the assets recovery team’s chairman, Cllr. Arthur Johnson.

Global affairs analysts and commentators at several think tanks say the Liberian government’s inability and lack of political will to pursue stolen assets belonging to the Liberian people is a clear demonstration that there are clear transparency and accountability gaps in the country.

Are President George Weah (right) and Finance Minister Samuel Tweah (left) really serious about fighting corruption?

Liberia, which has an estimated 4.7 million inhabitants, a quarter of which lives in the capital Monrovia, is one of the world’s least developed countries.  With about 64% of Liberians living on less than a dollar a day, Liberia remains one of the poorest countries in the world.

Although there are efforts to make progress in the country, Liberia still suffers from high rates of poverty. Based on World Bank’s estimates, 54 percent of Liberia‘s population is abysmal or living under the poverty line. In 2011, and during the administration of former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, an estimated 83.7 percent of the Liberian population was living on less than $2.00 per day.

According to Action Against Hunger, Liberia ranks 181 out of 189 countries globally in the UNDP’s Human Development Index 2018. Healthcare research states that chronic malnutrition in Liberia is at 32 percent and the country is amongst the highest in the world. Also, a decline in funding has reduced NGO resources, slowing down the country’s recovery and private sector development.

UNICEF, the UN agency for children, says, amongst most African countries, Liberia lags in its education system and has one of the world’s highest rate of out-of-school children with 15 to 20 percent of 6- to 14-year-old kids, not in school, according to the Borgen Project . Besides, only a third of preschoolers in the country have the opportunity to acquire and be placed in early education learning programs, and 54 percent do not finish primary school.

Liberia is also one of the 21 countries with the highest stunting levels in the world. One out of three children in the country who are under the age of 5 years old is stunted or too short for their age because of a lack of proper nutrition.  Moreover, malnourished children are at a higher risk of death from diarrhea, pneumonia, and malaria in the country. Chronic malnutrition remains a persistent public health problem in the country.

According to the United Nations World Health Organization (WHO), 45 percent of deaths among children under the age of 5 in Liberia are related to malnutrition.  About 90 percent of people under the age of 5 in the country die due to water crisis, mainly because of the lack of access to clean water. 

In rural Liberia, there is a severe lack of access to proper toilets, sanitation, and environmental services. Consequently, about 42 percent of the people in rural Liberia sweat out in the open. Besides, the lack of proper hygiene and ecological services results in the spread of diseases and causes students to miss days of school. 

According to UNESCO, the literacy rate amongst Liberia’s youth is 54.5 percent, with males at 64.7 percent and females at 44 percent. The 2017 WHO-UNICEF Estimates of Immunization Coverage says 13 percent of children in Liberia have not taken the measles vaccine. Thousands of Liberian children work in dangerous environments such as in the mining of gold and diamonds and the production of rubber.   About 78.4 percent of children work in agriculture, 4.2 percent in industry, and 17.4 in services.

According to several international organizations, including the United Nations, an estimated 85 percent of the youth population in Liberia is unemployed. About 35 percent of males and 42 percent of females are unable to find jobs due to the lack of skills and training, as well as the inability of the sluggish and poorly performing labor market to accommodate them.

Revenue shortfalls have become a common theme, and the country has entered and been in a recession for the past several years, with an inflation rate reaching 28% at the end of 2018.

Liberia also faces severe setbacks in terms of democratic accountability- a process realized through various means: progressive civil society, guaranteed freedom of mass media, and fair election. Presently, the country’s National Elections Commission lacks funds to conduct mid-term parliamentary elections.

With all these grave shortcomings, and amid severe food insecurity in the country, lawmakers in Liberia are living large and earning more than lawmakers in most countries in the world.

Furthermore, Liberia largely depends on donor support to fulfill its national development goals and social agenda. Yet, global observers are wondering as to why a country that faces significant development challenges and that had a gross national income (GNI) per capita of USD 620 (based on 2017 estimates) would thwart and refuse the investigation and recovery of huge stolen assets in the personal accounts of individuals.

A cross-section of Liberians in-country and abroad believes the political and institutional will power to recover the country’s stolen assets is lacking because corruption is a pervasive issue in Liberia.  Therefore, corruptive decisions and behaviors can be committed by anyone at all levels, from high officials down to service providers at the lowest level of money and corruption flow.

It is believed that one of the foremost reasons why official development assistance (ODA) efforts have been mostly ineffective in developing countries that are dishonest about transparency and accountability is the unchecked, continued donor support, and international aid. According to some conservative and progressive commentators in Europe and the United States.

Although other commentators and global affairs analysts believe development aid to a country like Liberia is crucial to helping, poor developing nations and communities grow out of poverty, still, Liberia’s refusal to recover its stolen assets categorically indicates why critics regard foreign aid or (development assistance) as wasted on corrupt recipient governments despite any good intentions from the donor countries. If Liberia cannot pursue its stolen wealth, why should taxpayers in Europe and the United States shoulder its financial, humanitarian, and development burdens?

The unwillingness of the Liberian Ministry of Justice to pursue the investigation and recovery of stolen assets is not only double jeopardy for the poor and struggling country; it would also be a critical situation that certainly causes concern for aid effectiveness among international development donors and the aid communities, especially those providing budget support to the Liberian government.

This is all the reason why Liberia must embark on and pursue the investigation and recovery of stolen assets as well as conclude investigations into the alleged white-collar crime and economic sabotage committed at the Central Bank of Liberia allegedly involving former governor Milton Weeks and others. The former is necessary to clear the good names of the accused and compensate them for damages.

Left to right, Charles Sirleaf, Milton Weeks and Dorbor, all ex-officials of the central bank accused of white-collar crime and economic sabotage
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