On September 9, 2009, I was fired by President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf from my position as managing director of the Liberia Petroleum Refining Company (LPRC). Contrary to popular myth, it was not because of what I did so much as what I did NOT do.
At the time, I was embarked upon a long drawn out procurement process for rehabilitation of LPRC’s ancient, leaky tank farm on Bushrod Island, Monrovia. It had taken us 2 years, with participation by many stakeholders and bids conducted in public, under media scrutiny. The whole process had been shepherded by a world-class Canadian petroleum consulting firm whose principals I had met during the transitional government period when they were hired by the World Bank to do some work at LPRC.
The head of my negotiating team told me of a conversation he had had with President Sirleaf that disturbed him. He said to me, “Ellen has just told me in effect that if you do not engage in corruption, she is going to fire you.”
“What do you mean,” I asked.
“I told her that she will be very proud of you, that you are conducting this procurement by the book, that it is completely free of any corruption or kickbacks. But her reaction surprised me,” he said. “She told me that that was all well and good. But you know what’s up. If you don’t act more “political”, you will have to fall on your sword,” he continued.
At the time, some government officials were pressuring me to give them money and I was reluctant to do so. So, he was telling me that unless I did the sort of thing that got my dear friend Clem Urey in trouble, I would be fired. “So be it! Then she will fire me. But I have no intention of caving in to demands from people on Capitol Hill,” I replied.
After the rehabilitation contract had been signed with Zakhem International, a British engineering and construction firm, in a very public ceremony at Krystal Oceanview Hotel, I was asked by the House of Representatives to cancel the contract, for no tangible reason. I refused.
President Sirleaf was persuaded by her then-Minister of State for Legal Affairs, Mr. Morris Saytumah (now Senator for Bomi county), that the contract was flawed and should be cancelled. So, she set up an “independent” commission of inquiry, which turned out to be not so independent after all, so populated was it with Mr. Saytumah’s henchmen, none of whom, except for the chairman, had the qualifications to sit on such a commission.
One of the members of the commission, Mr. Aloysius Jappah, a deputy minister to Mr. Saytumah, had visited me at my home and demanded a US$300,000 bribe from me. I told him that if he wanted that kind of money he would have to ask Zakhem directly but I had no money to give. He, like many others, were under the mistaken notion that I had received US$3 million from Zakhem as a kickback. Where they got that figure from, God in heavens knows. But, you know, Liberians are not very good when it comes to figures.
I pointed out to Mr. Jappah that, if I, who was only signing pieces of paper, had received US$3 million, then the contractor, who was taking all of the commercial risks and doing the work, would have to be earning at least US$9 million. With profit of US$12 million (9+3) on a contract price of US$25 million, Zakhem would have to be making a profit margin of 50% for that to be true. He should show me which company in the world makes that kind of margin on construction contracts and I would gladly resign my job and go to work for them.
Unbeknownst to Mr. Jappah, I had recorded his attempted shake down, went to a magistrate and obtained an affidavit chronicling my experience, reported him the very next day after the shake-down attempt to the learned counselor heading the commission, and reported this whole sordid matter to the media (the recording was on the Front Page Africa website for a year). It was this act of whistle-blowing that got me fired. I was excoriated for going to the media. “Why did I do that?” was the question. “Why didn’t I just keep my mouth shut?”
Next week we will examine what happened with the tank farm rehabilitation after my departure from LPRC.
The writer is a certified public accountant and a businessman. He can be reached at ([email protected])