NEW YORK––Immediately after Liberia’s political transition from one outgoing president, Madam Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, to newly elected president George Manneh Weah, news of containers full of newly minted currency worth more than $16 million Liberian dollars went missing in Liberia, setting off finger pointing, and travel bans as officials puzzled over the mystery in one of the poorest countries in the world.
The cash is said to have been shipped from Sweden and Lebanon in 2017, in the midst of Liberia’s elections to choose a successor to President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, according to local Liberian dailies. Voters, with the support of outgoing President Sirleaf, elected George Weah, an international and celebrated soccer star.
According to Liberian officials including Information Minister Lenn Eugene Nagbe, the government’s spokesman and Cllr. Frank Musah Dean, attorney general, the notes, which are the equivalent of 5% of Liberia’s gross domestic product, were ordered by the Sirleaf’s administration in 2016.
Attorney General Dean told reporters the containers had arrived in November 2017 prior to the presidential election, while the Sirleaf administration was still in office. But leaked shipping documents from the port showed that the containers were cleared in February and March of 2018, after the new administration had taken over.
The government launched an inquiry. During the investigation, fifteen officials, including Charles Sirleaf, deputy governor at the central bank and son of the former president were barred from leaving the country. Milton Weeks, the former governor, was placed under house arrest.
As Liberians reeled from the scandal, the Liberian dollar fell 20% against the US dollar, especially after President Weah took office, and inflation has spiked, making life difficult for ordinary Liberians. Added to the Ld$16 million scandal, the Weah administration claimed it infused $25 million United States dollars into the Liberian economy.
Economists and bankers as well as political commentators say the process used was not transparent and accountable and that the normal protocols were never followed. Besides, Finance Minister Samuel D. Tweah has not provided accounting of how the money was infused and has since refused to provide the names of those who benefited in the exchange process.
All these and more have shaken the confidence of international investors, as a result of one scandal after another. For example when it was revealed that finance minister, Samuel Tweah, paid $16,000 to upgrade his business class seat to first for a flight to the to the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation in Beijing. that same period, the country failed to meet its Extractives Investment Transparency Initiative deadline that month, resulting in the country’s suspension from the group. Then Tweah revealed a $2.5 billion deal with China for access to “some” of Liberia’s resources leading opponents to question whether the government had the technical knowledge to value the resources in question.
Also, in July 2018, officials from the World Bank, EU, US and European countries took the unprecedented step of sending a joint letter urging Weah not to complete a deal with Turkish power company Karpower that they said would risk crippling the power grid that the stakeholders had invested hundreds of millions in rebuilding.
Prior, in June 2018, the Liberian legislature approved two loan deals totaling $957 million—one from a Burkina Faso-based EBOMAF SA Company, a second from a private Singapore-based firm Eton Finance—more than doubling the country’s debt. World Bank and IMF officials warned the government they were risking relationships with international financial institutions.
Amid these concerns, the United States Embassy in Monrovia reached out to independent, internationally recognized firms with specialization in forensic investigations to ascertain the facts surrounding the alleged missing currency matter and determine to what extent a broader mission would be needed. The Liberian government also commissioned its own internal investigation which findings seem to be indicting former President Sirleaf and her administration.
However, financial experts and fraud investigators in Europe and United States say the entire financial scandal appears to implicate former and current Liberian officials at senior levels of government.
Investigators in the United States are more concerned about the US$25 million dollars the Liberian government claimed it infused in the economy. Those fears, one analyst say, are well-founded because of terrorist financing. Without giving the names of people and establishments that received and distributed the infused funds, it would be difficult to believe that the US currency which is used globally didn’t fall in the hands of terrorist financiers.
One financial security expert in New York said without proper accounting for the US$25 million dollars, some officials in the Liberian government could one day face inquiry from the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) for fraud and money laundering, one way or the other.