LET’S LECTURE: The President’s Handling of NOCAL Crisis

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As the March Hare said in Alice in Wonderland, the NOCAL saga gets curioser and curioser. The President has placed the fox in the chicken coop. She wants those who ran the company into the ground to be the ones to rescue it. A more sensible approach I thought would have been to keep these jokers as far away from reconstruction as possible. They should be kept around just to answer questions.

If she wants, the President has an array of Liberian professional talent here and in the Diaspora—lawyers, financial analysts, accountants, geophysicists, geologists—that she can call upon to come up with a rescue plan to guide her. She will probably get much better advice than from them than from these jokers. First off the bat, I can tell her that she does not need 50 people milling around two floors of the Episcopal Church building to man NOCAL and shepherd it into the future. She needs no more than 20-25 people right now. She can add people as an when the circumstances warrant it.

Then there is the question of severance. Firing everybody and then re-hiring 50 from amongst the same group does not make much sense. I undertook a restructuring at LPRC in April 2006, 3 months after I took over the reins of the company, in which 400 dear souls volunteered to leave the company in exchange for healthy severance benefits. And there was not a murmur in town. The US$1.5 million we spent we recovered within 12 months from cost savings.

At the time, there were 600 people on the company payroll. We did not fire all 600 and then re-hire 200. We got rid of the numbers that we felt were surplus to requirements and retained what we felt we needed to operate the company.

This business of firing everyone and then re-hiring some is a coward’s way out. It is the mark of an age old Liberian disease: refusal to take tough decisions (so as not to hurt some people’s feelings) and instead seeking refuge in smoke and mirrors. It is also probably in violation of our labor laws. You cannot fire someone and then immediately re-hire that person.

But before we even get to the issue of severance, President Sirleaf needs to address the issue of accountability for what went wrong. The board of directors and the senior management cannot be allowed to just take a walk without a full accounting of what caused the company to reach the place it did.

I am told by reliable sources that at the end of March, NOCAL’s balance sheet showed cash reserves of US$80 million. By the end of June, three months later, that figure had dwindled to less than US$500,000. What happened in that short space of time to make almost US$80 million go poof! just like a Houdini magic trick?

What needs to happen now is for President Sirleaf to commission an audit, not by those folks at GAC, many of whom are challenged just operating a calculator properly, but by one of the Big 4 international accounting firms. The terms of reference should go beyond the normal statutory audit to include a search for fraud. Then an only then will the Liberian people get to know what really happened.

The next step should include a dose of retribution. Those who are found criminally liable should face prosecution and stiff jail terms if found guilty. By stiff jail terms I am not talking about people lounging around in South Beach Prison eating free government pussawa. I mean hard labour in Grand Gedeh, Nimba or Gbarpolu cutting rice and planting cassava.

I am not convinced, and President Sirleaf will be hard pressed to find concurrence amongst the mass of the Liberian people, that senior executives and board directors who have robbed this nation of its inheritance—people who were spending US$25 million a year on self-indulgence and such foolishness as US$7 million on salaries and benefits, more than US$3 million on travel and US$1.5 million on board gallivanting and other undisclosed extravagance—-should get any kind of severance.

But we will wait and see. What the President does in this crisis will be a true measure of her character.

The writer is a certified public accountant and a businessman. He can be reached at .

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