The 73 newly elected and certificated legislators from across the country will, on Monday, January 15, officially convene for the first time to elect a leader, who will officially become the Speaker of the 55th House of Representatives. This election would mark the final stretch of the national transitional process that would lead to power shifting from President George Weah and his outgoing Coalition for Democratic Change (CDC) to President-elect Joseph Boakai and his Unity Party (UP).
But with Boakai’s inauguration barely a week away, all attention is now fixed on the Speakership election. This election again brings into focus the political battle between the CDC and UP, with the former trying at all costs to have a meaningful stake in the new government. At the same time, the latter wants to ensure that it is a winner-takes-all affair in order to secure a robust legislative agenda — avoiding any potential entanglements in the case of an opposition Speaker.
With all these at stake, the election for the Speaker of the 55th House of Representatives has sparked intense public debate and scrutiny of the individuals aspiring to occupy the nation’s third-highest seat. However, much of the skepticism surrounds the candidacy of Jonathan Fonati Koffa.
Many citizens have expressed concerns over Koffa’s felonious history as an ex-convict in the U.S., in terms of whether he should be allowed to hold the office of the Speaker of the House of Representatives, the next in line of succession to the presidency after the Vice President.
Koffa, the current Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives, has won a second term as representative of District #2, Grand Kru County. Before becoming a lawmaker, Koffa briefly served in the Ellen Johnson Sirleaf administration as Minister of State without Portfolio.
His job as a presidential appointee at the time placed him at the helm of the task force set up to investigate the Sable Mining allegations published by Global Witness concerning alleged bribery by Cllr. Varney Sherman, one of the nation’s leading lawyers at the time. Sherman was accused in the Global Witness report of bribing legislators to change Liberia’s procurement law to allow the mining company to win a mining concession without the requirement of participating in a competitive bidding process.
The allegations against Sherman were never proven, although the Daily Observer reliably learnt that Koffa and his team of investigators received at least US$750,000 from the Sirleaf administration to investigate Sherman.
However, prior to his appointment at the Ministry of State, Koffa was to be appointed Liberia’s Justice Minister by the same President. This is when his criminal past began to haunt him.
See, Koffa was earlier convicted, sentenced to two and half year’s imprisonment, and barred from practicing law in the United States forever. Whatever his crimes were, to have been disbarred from the practice of one’s profession — especially law — in the United States of America, had to be the result of a very serious offense.
Those punishments came out of an embezzlement case brought against him when he served as Town Manager of Zebulon, a small town in North Carolina. He stole from his clients while working as a lawyer in 2004, including US$200,000 from a couple who were looking to refinance their home.
Koffa fled from the US to Liberia when he reportedly learned of the charges but was eventually persuaded to return to the US to face four federal charges related to the embezzlement of US$500,000. He was convicted, sentenced, and ordered by the Court to restitute money he had stolen from his clients. Following his release after serving his sentence, he returned to Liberia and has been reinventing himself, though not in the absence of his old tricks.
So the Justice Minister prospect did not work out because many believed that Koffa had lost all moral ground to be the nation’s Minister of Justice. That was the big question. The Daily Observer was one of those who opposed Koffa’s preferment for the position and we posed this very question to him. His response: “I just want to serve my country.”
Our return question to him was: “Is this the only position through which you can serve Liberia?”
His reply was affirmative, though unsatisfactory to us.
It wasn’t long after this interaction that George Manneh Weah became President of Liberia, he (Weah) appointed a disbarred lawyer by the name of Charles Gibson, to the post of Justice Minister. Apparently, the Daily Observer had earlier reported that Gibson had been disbarred from the practice of law in Liberia for duping his client. Given the massive public backlash at the President’s nomination, Weah eventually withdrew Gibson’s nomination and renominated him to serve at the Ministry of Labor.
We also recall President Weah’s nomination of Ndubuisi Nwabudike to be the chairman of the National Elections Commission. Nwabudike is a Nigerian national who lied about his Liberian citizenship and provided several Liberian passports in his name with multiple dates of birth. The public outcry against this move by the President was even greater. Oh, and he was also a lawyer!
It does not sit well with the Liberian People for those with criminal history or fraudulent characters to hold positions of consequence in the Liberian government — regardless of whether they are appointed or elective positions. It’s just downright insulting.
Koffa has been rather lucky to get this far in his political journey, but should be mindful that the longest rope in the bush has an end.
The latest issue coming up — and we should hear more of it this week — is that Koffa, who is believed to be a citizen of the United States of America (USA), is already in violation of the Dual Citizen Law, which prohibits any Liberian who holds the citizenship of another country from holding elective and other high-profile positions in Liberia.
Article 4, Section 1 (Limitation on elective public offices) says: “A Liberian citizen who holds the citizenship of another country shall not be eligible for any elective public office while still a citizen of another country. Should such a person desire to contest for elective public office, the person must renounce the citizenship of the other country at least one (1) year prior to applying to the National Elections Commission to contest for an elective public office and such documentary evidence of such renunciation of citizenship of the other country shall be filed with a circuit court in Liberia and with the National Elections Commission at least one (1) year before application to the National Elections Commission to contest for elective public office.”
It is incumbent upon Cllr. Koffa to prove to the Liberian people he is so desperate to serve, that he is NOT a citizen of another country (i.e. USA). If he is found to be a citizen of another country, and thus in violation of the law, then he and all the other lawmakers who supported his candidacy for Speaker of the Legislature will be in serious trouble with the Liberian people.
No amount of his largesse (ask Edwin Snowe and Alex Tyler) will be able to save him from further disgrace.
It is important for Liberia to carefully consider the character and integrity of those who hold positions of authority and influence in government. The Speaker of the House of Representatives, being third in line of succession, occupies a highly significant role in the country's governance. While individuals should be allowed to reform and demonstrate change, it is understandable that concerns arise when someone with Koffa's past seeks such a prestigious position.
Ultimately, the decision lies with members of the House of Representatives. It is crucial for them to thoroughly assess the qualifications, ethical background, and leadership ability of any candidate vying for the role of Speaker.
The election of a candidate who can restore public trust, effectively combat corruption, and prioritize the interests of the people will be instrumental in promoting the development and stability that Liberia needs.