How Sirleaf fought economic sabotage, and Weah is not.

MONROVIA, Liberia – When former Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf assumed office in 2006 after taking over from then-interim President Chairman Gyude Bryant, she focused on auditing the Bryant-led interim government and ensuring that each and every member alleged to have engaged in corruption and economic sabotage were personally and collectively held liable.

Former President Sirleaf understands the gravity of economic sabotage and how it can weaken a country and frustrate governance; his successor, current President George Manneh Weah, does not seem to have that grasp, at least for now. 

Hence, unlike the Sirleaf administration which chased every stolen dime allegedly embezzled by the interim administration of Gyude Bryant and the administration of Charles Taylor, recouping millions of unreported dollars, the CDC-led administration appears to be protecting all those accused of and perceived as individuals who have ripped off Liberia with millions of dollars deposited in foreign banks and owning sprawling assets both in Liberia and abroad.

Former Interim President Gyude Bryant left and former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Sirleaf took over from Chairman Bryant.

In fact, several government assets accumulated in the 60s, 70s, and 80s by previous Liberian administrations were transferred into the personal assets of certain privileged individuals during the past decade in Liberia – leaving Liberia to lose valuable assets and revenues.  These allegedly include the former ITC Bank and all its assets (including the staff buildings in Sinkor), the Pan Africa Plaza Building, etc.

In addition, several concessions agreements were also signed, with long durations, to benefit individuals, and these concessions are still in force.  They allegedly include the partial management and operation contract at the Freeport of Monrovia.

In 2010, the Liberian government signed a $120 million concession agreement with APM Terminals, establishing a public-private partnership between the company and the National Port Authority to run the port.

According to the terms of the agreement, APM Terminals will modernize the port and its staff, bringing it in line with international standards. To date, that is not the case. In fact, it is alleged that APM Terminal actually benefits few former Liberian government officials rather than the country. The majority of revenue generated at the port goes to the APM Terminals, and the highest-paid staffer at the APM Terminals are non-Liberians.

In October 2012, Western Cluster Limited (WCL) signed a Port Lease and Operating Agreement with the management of the National Port Authority (NPA) for the rehabilitation and construction of infrastructures at the Freeport of Monrovia for WCL’s export of iron ore.

WCL’s Mineral Development Agreement signed with the government of Liberia in August 2011 for the development of iron ore mines in Bea, Bomi and Mano River Mines in western Liberia required the company to enter into a Port Lease and Operating Agreement with the NPA for the shipping of its iron ore through the Freeport of Monrovia.

The agreement allows WCL to construct loading and unloading facilities, including rehabilitation of the former Liberia Mining Company (LMC) and National Iron Ore Company (NIOC) piers.

Under the agreement, 43.29 acres of land has been earmarked for use by WCL for developing the port facilities. Apart from the infrastructure development which would have been undertaken by WCL, the National Port Authority supposed to be receiving annual lease rental for the land. Again, instruments seem to benefit a few Liberians.

Unspecified loans and cash were also provided to certain businesses that are purportedly owned and operated by foreign nationals serving as ‘Fronters for powerful Liberians.’ These ‘Fronters’ largely include Lebanese businessmen and others operating in Liberia. 

Many of these questionable business institutions allegedly include hotels.  In fact, the ownership of the Farmington Hotel at the Roberts International Airport and a hosts of other business entities, which secret relationships allegedly include past officials of the Liberian government, need to be investigated and clarified.

Dominic Seboe, a local Liberian in Monrovia, said former President Sirleaf went after Gyude Bryant administration immediately after taking office because she was not in any secret deal with the leadership of the interim government and because Bryant and his team had nothing sinister on her.

To prove Seboe’s point, the Voice of America (VOA) published the following article concerning Gyude Bryant’s corruption case, subsequent arrest, and imprisonment as narrated in the below VOA’s news article.

November 01, 2009, 02:27 AM

Former Liberian Transitional President Arrested for Corruption

Liberia’s former transitional president, Gyude Bryant, is out on bond after being arrested Tuesday morning on charges of economic sabotage. He is accused of embezzling more than $1 million during his two-year rule. His successor, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, has made fighting corruption one of the major priorities of her presidency. Naomi Schwarz reports from VOA’s regional bureau in Dakar.

Liberian Solicitor General Tiawan Gongloe confirmed Gyude Bryant had been arrested.

“He was charged with economic sabotage which under our laws is a misuse of public money, misdirection of revenue, just misappropriation of public funds, of converting it from public purpose to your own use,” he said.

The arrest is the culmination of an investigation that began last year. An audit conducted by the Economic Community of West African States had accused several top officials in the interim government of misusing public funds, but Liberian investigators took their time compiling evidence.

Gongloe says the charge is a first-class felony.

“So if he is found guilty, he [runs] the risk of being jailed for a maximum period of 10 years and restituting the amount that he is charged with converting to his own use: $1.4 million,” he said.

Mr. Bryant, a businessman, was chosen by regional and Liberian mediators to lead the interim government after Charles Taylor was forced from power in late 2003. His two-year rule ended in 2006 when Ellen Johnson Sirleaf won democratic elections.

Gongloe says the arrest of Mr. Bryant shows the current government’s commitment to fighting corruption.

“The fact that Mr. Bryant, who was chairman of the transitional government, has been arrested and brought before the court for abuse of public office by committing economic sabotage should send a clear signal that there is no one above the law,” he said.

The solicitor general says this is an important step to show Liberians and the international community that the country, resource-rich but seriously impoverished, is moving forward after more than a decade of civil war.

Local journalist Prince Collins says Liberians were eager to learn what would happen next in the case.

“Everyone in Liberia is listening to the radio,” he said. “All are following the arrest of Gyude Bryant. There are a lot of people around the residence of Gyude Bryant to watch the scene.”

He says most Liberians support Ms. Sirleaf in the fight against corruption, although some of her political opponents say it is going too far.

According to Justina Tarplah of Logan Town, Monrovia, Liberia, the CDC-led government perhaps has a reason why it is downplaying transparency and accountability such that the stewards of Liberia’s resources and economy over the past decade would not account for their stewardship.

“If you have clean hands, you want to see everybody hands clean, Tarplah said.

The Unity Party-led government prosecuted the above suspects Named By Global Witness in the Sable Mining case (clockwise): Sen. Varney Sherman, J. Alex Tyler, Dr. Eugene Shannon, Former PPCC Chairman Willie Belleh, Sen. Morris Saytumah, and Dr. Richard V. Tolbert. Even though the case was dropped – Courtesy Daily Observer

It is estimated and believed that Liberia as a nation lost over two billion United States dollars in capital flight, corruption, public theft, and related economic crimes.

President Weah and the Liberian government need to follow the precedent set by former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and the Unity Party government by making corruption “public enemy number one” in words and deeds in investigating all alleged acts of economic sabotage.  

The Unity Party-led government was bold, committed, dedicated, and serious enough about economic sabotage and the fight against corruption and public theft that it was able to prosecute a former Liberian head of state, Gyude Bryant – to the point of jailing him. 

Why can’t the Weah administration learn from the Unity Party-led administration to prosecute former and current Liberian government officials who have ripped off the country through corruption and economic sabotage?  What is stopping them?

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Dave Okonjie

Dave Okonjie is a public affairs analyst, researcher and senior issues correspondent.
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