Liberia’s justice minister Frank Musa Dean steps aside in oil inquiry

Liberia’s Justice Minister Frank Musa Dean

ONTARIO, Canada—Liberia’s attorney general/justice minister on Wednesday announced he would step aside from a probe into a contested oil deal, as he used to be head of the country’s national oil company.

President George Manneh had recently appointed Justice Minister Frank Musa Dean to head the probe just six days.  George Weah, who has vowed to crack down on corruption, is seen as a transformative less talk president but critics say his coziness with several individuals deemed as noncredible creates doubts on his promises.

Dean, in a statement, said he had decided to step aside from the probe — initiated by an undercover investigation by the NGO Global Witness — in the interests of transparency.

“The decision to recuse myself is based on the fact that I served as President and Chief Executive Officer of NOCAL [the National Oil Company of Liberia] between 2004 and January 2006,” he said.

The current controversy stems from a deal in 2013 when the US oil major Exxon Mobil paid $68.5 million (55.73 million euros) for a license to exploit a Liberian oilfield called Block 13.

It bought Block 13 from a company called Broadway Consolidated/Peppercoast (BCP), which had initially been awarded the license from NOCAL in 2005.

In a report released on March 29, Global Witness said it had evidence that in 2005 BCP was part-owned at the time by Liberia’s minister for mining and a deputy minister — a breach of Liberian law.

Corporate documents, it said, show “Exxon knew that Block 13 was originally awarded through bribery and that its purchase of the oil block could enrich former officials who might have been behind BCP.”

Global Witness’ report also said “bonuses” of $35,000 were made to senior Liberian officials after Exxon acquired Block 13.

President Weah had immediately ordered an investigation into the scandal and named Attorney General Dean as the lead investigator.

But Global Witness, commentating on Monday, said his appointment was “a clear conflict of interest.”

“President Weah has promised Liberians that he will tackle Liberia’s endemic corruption. This is his first major test in office to see if he will make good on that promise,” said campaigner Jonathan Gant.

“Calling for this investigation is a good start. Now the president should ensure it is independent and fair — and it cannot be as long as it is led by Justice Minister Dean.”

Many political observers say the Weah government should not waste time on a non-case and non-issue because there is no such thing as ‘bribery’ in the Exxon Block #13 oil deal in Liberia since all indicators suggest that the money in question was a  payment known and recommended by his predecessor Madam Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in her capacity as president of Liberia.

President Sirleaf has not denied recommending such as an action that members of the negotiation committee receive payments she allegedly referred to as “bonus”.  Those who the former president instructed to be paid said “bonus” included her legal adviser Seward M. Cooper and others, several expatriates and some members of her government.

Critics of President Weah say establishing a probe into the matter would be a waste of government’s resources since all the president can do to get the truth of the matter is to ask his predecessor if she knows about and is the one that ordered such payments.

According to sources, President Weah, during the presidential campaign, said his first and most important priority, as president, was to “protect” Madam Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.  Local and international observers of Liberian politics say this issue will test the promise made by the Liberian leader of his predecessor.

Meanwhile, several people including NOCAL former CEO Chris Neyor, have been identified as people who have provided information by way of an interview to Global Witness and several media institutions regarding this matter.  All preliminary efforts to reach Mr. Neyor up to the publication of this article have not been successful.

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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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