Circle Pines — President George Manneh Weah and his predecessor, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf have one thing in common: They both pledged to rid Liberia of an age-old problem upon assuming the mantle of authority to lead.
In January 2006, Sirleaf told Liberians and the world that under her watch, she would implement a zero-tolerance policy on graft.
The former President, in her inaugural address, said in order to achieve economic and income distribution goals, it was important to take on forcibly and effectively the debilitating cancer of corruption.
Said Sirleaf: "Corruption erodes faith in government because of the mismanagement and misapplication of public resources. It weakens accountability, transparency and justice. Corruption short changes and undermines key decision and policy making processes. It stifles private investments which create jobs and assures support from our partners. Corruption is a national cancer that creates hostility, distrust, and anger."
Two Pledges to Fight Graft
Sirleaf rode on the back of the perennial issue to win votes during her hard-fought 2005 presidential campaign. A point she hit home when she was inaugurated: "Throughout the campaign, I assured our people that, if elected, we would wage war against corruption regardless of where it exists, or by whom it is practiced. Today, I renew this pledge. Corruption, under my Administration, will be the major public enemy. We will confront it. We will fight it. Any member of my Administration who sees this affirmation as mere posturing, or yet another attempt by yet another Liberian leader to play to the gallery on this grave issue should think twice."
Sirleaf did not stop there. She cautioned: "Anyone who desires to challenge us in this regard will do so at his or her personal disadvantage. In this respect, I will lead by example. I will expect and demand that everyone serving in my Administration leads by example. The first testament of how my Administration will tackle public service corruption will be that everyone appointed to high positions of public trust such as in the Cabinet and heads of public corporations will be required to declare their assets, not as part of a confirmation requirement, but as a matter of policy. I will be the first to comply by declaring my assets. My Administration will also accord high priority to the formulation and passage into law of a National Code of Conduct, to which all public servants will be subjected."
Twelve years later, when assuming the mantle of leadership, President Weah, whose party as an opposition took Sirleaf to task for failing to live up to her campaign promises, also took a stern posture on graft, telling Liberians and the world that that the most effective way to directly impact the poor, and to narrow the gap between rich and poor, is to ensure that public resources do not end up in the pockets of government officials.
Said the President: "I further believe that the overwhelming mandate I received from the Liberian people is a mandate to end corruption in public service. I promise to deliver on this mandate."
The President went on to caution those serving in his administration that his ascendancy to power meant that it was time to put the interest of Liberians above their own selfish interests. "It is time to be honest with our people. Though corruption is a habit amongst our people, we must end it. We must pay civil servants a living wage, so that corruption is not an excuse for taking what is not theirs. Those who do not refrain from enriching themselves at the expense of the people - the law will take its course. I say today that you will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law."
Salary Slashing Contradiction
In contrast, one of the first things the new President did upon winning the presidency was to slice salaries of senior and junior government officials, including his, declaring that he had inherited a broke country and warning that tough times were ahead.
The President's Cabinet later endorsed a plan that: "No longer will any official of government including heads of autonomous agencies make $10,000.00USD or $15,000.00USD, respectively.
Cabinet resolved that heads of public corporations or autonomous agencies will make not more than $7,800USD as salary. Cabinet also took a decision for a 10% salary reduction across the board for cabinet ministers - mainly those at the highest level of the executive. This resolved that this reduction across the board will only affect approximately 4,140 employees; including civil servants that make above 1,000 USD. The decision by Cabinet will take effect in the pending 2018/2019 fiscal budget.
What both Sirleaf and now Weah have come to find out is that history has shown that promises made on the campaign trails, at inaugurations often tend to come back to haunt politicians.
Sirleaf, toward the end of her reign came to acknowledge the realities of criticism from the outside versus governing.
EJS, Now Weah: Connections Hamper Fight
In her final annual message to the nation, Sirleaf came up with this excuse while pretty much admitting that she had lost the war on graft: "We must never forget, however, that in our small, interrelated society, where virtually everybody knows everyone, and papa has made too many stops before getting home, it will take the collective will to subject ourselves, our family, our friends and our colleagues to the rule of law."
The former President acknowledged: "We have not fully met the anti-corruption pledge that we made in 2006. It is not because of the lack of political will to do so, but because of the intractability of dependency and dishonesty cultivated from years of deprivation and poor governance."
In the same vein, it appears Sirleaf's successor, President Weah, less than a year in his presidency is already a similar refrain on graft. Several members of the opposition who were present in last Thursday's meeting between the President and the opposition have been expressing dissatisfaction over a statement attributed to the President in which he explains why he has not been aggressively going after members of the former administration accused of graft. "To fight corruption is difficult because everybody is connected somehow in the country," the President is quoted as saying.
The comment comes in the wake of mounting pressure on the CDC-led government to probe allegations of corruption against former officials of the Sirleaf era.
A report by the London-based watchdog group, Global Witness reported that the US petroleum giant, Exxon's purchase of oil block 13 in 2013 was accompanied by over $200,000 in unusual, large payments made by the corruption-tainted Liberian oil agency to six Liberian officials who approved the deal.
The report noted: "Officials who received payments include Liberia's then-Justice, Finance and Mining Ministers, each of whom received $35,000 - more than doubling their annual salaries. The officials receiving the unusual payments and the posts they filled at the time were: Finance Minister Amara Konneh, Justice Minister Christiana Tah, Mining Minister Patrick Sendolo, National Investment Chairman Natty Davis, NOCAL CEO Randolph McClain, NOCAL Board Chair Robert Sirleaf. Sirleaf, who is the son of then-President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, was reportedly working pro-bono at the time.
Weah Criticized Sirleaf Over Graft
Sirleaf herself endured numerous criticism over her lackluster effort to curb graft. Leymah Gbowee, with whom Sirleaf shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011, stepped down just a year after taking up the position, citing gross mismanagement and widespread corruption as key reasons for her decision.
Weah told a meeting of the U.S. chapter of the CDC in 2011that if Sirleaf was dedicated enough to fighting corruption, she would stop recycling officials found to be corrupt. "The president wants to deal with corruption but she is not accepting to deal with those people that are corrupt. So where somebody is corrupt and the president takes the person from one position to another, the problem is going to exist," Weah said.
Sirleaf's Information Minister at the time Mr. Cletus Sieh described Weah's criticism as unfortunate, stating that while corruption is endemic in Liberia, the Sirleaf government was committed to minimizing if not eradicating corruption.
But Weah dismissed the excuse, criticizing the government's claim that it had appointed an Anti-Corruption Commission, headed by former elections commission chairperson Frances Johnson-Morris, as part of the government's efforts to fighting graft. "Who is the boss of the Anti-Corruption Bureau? It's the same person that they charged for corruption. When we try to weed out corruption, we should be very honest in doing it. How can you put people that people know they're corrupt into a bureau that will address those issues?" Weah said.
Weah, who at the time called on President Sirleaf and the Liberian Legislature to implement the Truth Commission's recommendations, inherited several key former officials of the Sirleaf era when he took over in January including Information Minister Lenn Eugene Nagbe, former Pro Temp and Liberia Airport Authority Board Chair Gbezohnga Findley and a host of others.
Over the past few decades Liberia has been hampered due to the lack of formal measures to combat corruption, coupled with a weak judicial system.
During the Sirleaf era, some steps were taken to curb graft with the dismissal of ministers and other government officials, including former allies. But while some of those steps won admiration from the public, the lack of prosecution dampened whatever points Sirleaf scored on the graft front.
This was even more complicated due to the influx of aid money as well as the extractive industries like mining, oil and logging.
Integrity Institutions Quagmire
Under Sirleaf's first term, integrity mechanisms were somewhat robust and efficient with the independent Supreme Audit Institution of the General Auditing Commission, due diligence in the Ministry of Finance, the budgetary oversight of parliament and the National Procurement and Concession Commission (PPCC), the Liberia Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (LEITI) with of its transparency of revenue streams and contracts, and the Liberia Anti-Corruption Commission (LACC).
Since assuming office in January, President Weah has drawn criticisms and international condemnation over the illegal removal of Konah Karmo, Head of Secretariat of the Liberia Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (LEITI). The firing of Mr. Karmo by President George Weah, who has replaced him with Gabriel Nyenkan, was in violation of the Liberian law and severely undermines the independence of Liberia's critical anti-corruption agency.
The President resisted several calls including a major one from Simon Clydesdale, extractive industries campaign leader at Global Witness.
Clydesdale said: "President Weah must immediately withdraw his appointment of Gabriel Nyenkan, allowing Konah Karmo to resume his duties as LEITI Head of Secretariat. LEITI independence is fundamental to its mandate and for the political credibility of Liberia, it cannot be the playground of political appointments."
The appointment was in violation of section 6.3d of the LEITI Act which gives powers to the MSG 'to recruit and dismiss the Head and the Deputy Head of the LEITI Secretariat, and to approve the recruitment of all other staff and consultants'.
While Liberia has been dragging its feet in the war against graft, its next-door neighbours Sierra Leone appear to be making strides.
Ghana, S. Leone Take Anti-Graft Steps
In Ghana for example, President Nana Akufo-Addo pledged that he would fulfill his campaign promise to fight graft - and so far he has been doing that.
In January, Akufo-Addo named a former attorney-general Martin Amidu as his anti-graft prosecutor to probe specific cases of corruption including those committed by politicians.
The establishment of the anti-graft office headed by former Attorney General Martin Amidu is among a string of measures that Akufo-Addo, 74, adopted to bolster the cocoa- and gold-rich West African nation that was weighed down for years by power outages, state bureaucracy and pervasive corruption. As a result, Ghana under the Akufo-Addo has become one of Africa's star economic performers, recording 8.5 percent growth in 2017 after hovering around 4 percent in the three preceding years.
In Sierra Leone, President Julius Maada Bio in June, appointed Mr. Francis Ben Kaifala, a young lawyer, as his new anti-graft chief. Kaifala, a Fulbright Scholar has an LL.M (Master of Laws) in Comparative Constitutional Law, Administrative Law and International Human Rights at the University of Texas at Austin, in the United States of America as a Fulbright Scholar and is also Human Rights Scholar (Fall) with the Bernard and Audre Rapoport Centre for Human Rights and Justice in Austin Texas.
Bio also moved quickly to implement the recommendations of a 124-page report on the abuse of office and unbridled corruption in the former APC government of president Ernest Koroma. The report which was produced by the Governance Transition Team, concludes that: "An astonishing level of fiscal indiscipline and rampant corruption by the former APC Government of President Ernest Koroma, had led to the near-collapse of Sierra Leone's economy".
Both the World Bank and the IMF have been encouraged by steps taken by both Ghana and Sierra Leone toward curbing graft and those steps are paying dividends.
Rewards for Good Stance Against Graft
In July, the World Bank approved two International Development Association (IDA) credits of $60 million for the Ghana Energy Sector Transformation Initiative Project and the Ghana Tourism Development Project.
The Ghana Tourism Development Project received financing of $40 million to improve the performance of tourism in targeted destinations and enhance the tourism sector's offerings, diversify its impact, and help increase the contribution of the tourism sector to the Ghanaian economy.
The Ghana Energy Sector Transformation Initiative Project received $20 million to strengthen the capacity of the energy sector, implement sector reforms, and improve energy sector planning and coordination in Ghana.
Additionally, the bank in May approved a $50 million International Development Association (IDA)* credit to support the Government of Ghana in building strong foundation for high, inclusive and sustainable growth in agriculture, a key sector which supports the livelihoods of most people.
With so much riding on the still-young Weah-led administration, glaring similarities between the current and former administration, are already beginning to heighten skepticism about President Weah's campaign and inaugural pledge and the unfolding realities.
For the immediate future, it is unclear how President Weah's decision to take an excuse page from the Sirleaf era will have on his foreseeable future. But laying the blame on the doorsteps of close connections and distant family ties is a gamble the current president and his supporters could struggle to explain down the road bearing the now visible dampened legacy dogging Sirleaf for which the recurring theme of colluded complications could prove daunting for the current ruling party's political future.