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Liberia leads in ‘Conflict of Interest’ Saga in Africa: the case of the health minister

MONROVIA, Liberia – Around the world and especially in advanced democracies and developed nations, governments established and abide by criminal conflict of interest statutes.

For example, the U.S. federal government has a criminal conflict of interest statute (18 U.S.C. § 208) that prohibits government employees from participating personally and substantially in official matters where they have a financial interest.

Public officials, as stewards of the public trust as in the case of Liberia’s current Minister of Health Dr. Wilhelmina Jallah who also serves as founder and chief executive officer of the Hope for Women Medical Center in Monrovia while also serving as Minister of Health of the country, are required to put the public’s interest before theirs.

Impropriety occurs when an officeholder, faced with conflicting interests, puts his or her personal or financial interest ahead of the public interest. In the simplest terms, the official reaps monetary or other rewards from a decision made in his or her public capacity and uses official time and material for personal and private gains.

Since President George Manneh Weah appointed Dr. Jallah, who is the chief executive officer of the Hope for Women International and Hope for Women Medical Center in Monrovia, to head the Ministry of Health, she continues to lead and fully operate her private clinic, using government properties including the vehicle she drives.

Besides, as Minister of Health and the government official directly charge with interfaces with international donors in matters of healthcare, Dr. Jallah should not be in the business of operating a side-kick healthcare facility because potential conflicts of interest can arise from several sources: Assets and investments.

As Minister of Health, Dr. Jallah, instead of focusing on Liberia’s public health policies and crisis, appears to be busy in her day-to-day work at her private clinic, where she appears to be providing medical services for profit.

Supporters of Dr. Jallah say she is doing a great job helping sick patients but those opposed to her activities especially since she is the country’s minister of health say if she really wants to provide such medical services, she can still do so at the John F. Kennedy Memorial Center, the largest government hospital in the country which is short on medical practitioners.

The Health Minister is not the only individual in the Liberian government engaged in ‘conflict of interest.’  In fact, the issue of conflict of interest in Liberia is common amongst members of the Liberian legislature where most influential lawmakers run private entities, including law firms that represent foreign interests, businesses and other entities that are engaged with the Liberian governments in the areas of contracts and more.

For example, the alleged Sable Mining’s bribery case which was dropped by the Liberian judiciary for failure of credible evidence against the accused had involved lawmakers such as former House Speaker Alex Tyler (Unity Party – Bomi) and others who used their private offices to represent the interest of the miner while they were also in the strategic position of passing resolutions in the legislature on mining concession.

In the United States, a nation whose framework the Liberian political system is modeled, there is a strong focus on ethics rules for legislators and those in the other Judicial and Executive Branches of government.

According to the National Conference of State Legislature (NCSL), “Ethics rules governing legislators may prohibit or require the disclosure of matters that may create a conflict of interest or present the appearance of a conflict, such as if a lawmaker represents others before the state or hires a family member.  The range of circumstances that could create conflict is too numerous to provide a list for each possible scenario. General definitions help fill in the cracks left between more specific rules of conduct. Each state and territory provides a definition of a conflict of interest that aims to be broad enough to capture a range of possible apparent breaches of the public trust while being specific enough to provide guidance.”

All developed countries and in particular states within the U.S. federation address potential conflicts of interests for public officials and legislators by the constitution, statute, or rule.  This is not the case in Liberia and most African countries.

Unlike several other African nations, especially those in West Africa, the degree of conflict of interest violations in Liberia far exceeds any other the continent has ever witnessed such that even political appointments, government-backed loans, and other government benefits are glaringly given to family members, loved ones and friends.

For example, during the Unity Party-led administration, a bogus loan program at the Ministry of Finance was reaped with names of friends, family members, and loved ones who have since not repay the loan back to the Liberian government.

The concern here is, if Dr. Jallah cannot divest herself from her private medical business, then she should resign as Liberia’s minister of health to avoid flagrant conflict of interest. This too applies to all those in the Liberian government who are operating businesses including members of the Liberian judiciary who appear to have relationships with some private law firms in the country.

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Dave Okonjie

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