Liberia: The Butchers Finally Succumb to Audit?

(L-r) House Speaker J. Fonati Koffa, Auditor General, P. Garswa Jackson and Deputy House Speaker Thomas P. Fallah

…. Lower House Makes Historic Move to Commission an Audit; Doing So after over 30 Years

If you have never believed, you better start doing so now. It is becoming clearer by the day that the sounds of good governance and financial probity are fast approaching, and where better can it start, than the first branch of government — the legislature? What appears to be sweeping across Liberia still seems to be a dream to many people, while others with a clear vision are ever optimistic that it is truly the dawning of a new day in Liberia’s political system. 

Reports show that the House of Representatives has never been audited since after the 1989 Civil War, but it seems this 55th Legislature is poised — even resolved — to ensure proper and efficient management of public funds.

In an effort to boost the integrity, trust, and accountability of the House of Representatives, the General Auditing Commission (GAC) was contacted and engaged as part of the House's first step of the auditing process. It is yet to be known whether the Senate is initiating the same.

However, on Thursday, 8 February 2024, Auditor General P. Garswa Jackson Sr. appeared in the House’s chamber and provided an overview of the GAC, including the targeted accountability enhancement circle and proposal to review the system of the Legislature.

“As far as I know, the Legislature has never been audited, probably because it can be audited, but in order to enhance the Legislature financial management system, the GAC is proposing is system review of the Legislature,” Auditor Jackson said.

“After the system review, GAC will perform a full-scale financial statement audit in two years,” AG Jackson added. 

House Speaker Cllr. J. Fonati Koffa said they are committed to audits to ensure the accuracy and reliability of financial statements, internal controls, and the use of public funds. 

Following the AG's presentation, a motion from Bong County District #2 Representative, James Kolleh, was unanimously voted that the proposal for the System Review of the House of Representatives be probed by the Committee on Public Accounts and Expenditure and subsequently report to the August Body in two (2) weeks.

The Legislature: The Butchers’ House

Despite the welcome call for an audit of the legislature, what level of damage has the first branch of government inflicted on the country, considering its meager resources? 

Many are of the view that no national institution has milked the Liberian state, in a legal way, more than the National Legislature and has been doing so without any form of accountability.

The legislature has the statutory responsibility to approve budgetary allotments for every public entity, and this role comes with a lot of power and influence. This somehow emboldens them to allot more resources to themselves — making them some of the highest-paid lawmakers in the world.

Liberia’s lawmakers have a reputation for rent-seeking behavior. They have been considered among the highest-paid parliamentarians in West Africa. According to the 2022 national Legislature budget, a total sum of US$64.3 million was allocated to the national legislature. US$37.4 million was for salary costs for the House of Representatives, while US$21.1 million was set aside for the salary costs of the Senate. The legislature also set aside US$3.6 million for the so-called legislative engagement and public. Accessibility. Substantial additional perks of the office come in the form of allowances to cover a range of costs, including the purchase of new official vehicles (US$4.6 million), operational expenses (US$18.7 million), gas for vehicles (US$3.1 million), and legislative committee hearings (US$729,000). The number of allowances received differs across ranks, with the Speaker (US$2 million), Deputy Speaker (US$1.5 million), and Senate Pro Tempore (US$2.1 million) receiving substantially more. 

In Liberia, the legislative budgets have tended to increase over the years. An important hike occurred in 2009 when the total legislature budget rose from US$9.4 million in 2007 to US$19 million in 2009. By 2011, this budget stood at US$26 million. By 2013, the legislature budget was at US$39 million, and by 2015, the budget was at US$54 million. In 2016 and 2017,  the budget was reduced to around US$47 million and reduced again to  US$44.6 million in 2020. In 2022,  another hike occurred to the tune of US$64.3 million, the highest in the history of Liberia. 

Liberian Lawmakers among the Highest Paid in the World

The astronomical salaries and perks of lawmakers despite the country’s struggling economy have often raised concerns among Liberians and international partners.

Lawmakers are among the highest-paid in the world, amidst the economic hardships faced by ordinary people. Despite being one of the ten poorest nations globally, Liberia's legislators earn more than government officials in countries with much larger economies.

Comparing salaries, German lawmakers, in the world's fourth-biggest economy, earn just over US$10,000 per month, whereas Liberian lawmakers are believed to make around US$15,000 per month. This stark contrast becomes even more evident when looking at the average incomes of citizens in both nations. While the average German lives on about US$4,250 monthly, the average Liberian struggles with less than US$50.

In the middle-income European country of Poland, legislators make about US$4,000 a month, while the average Polish citizen lives on US$1,500 a month.

The high salaries of top-ranking Liberian legislators, such as the Speaker, Deputy Speaker, and Senate Pro Tempore, even surpass those of their counterparts in the United States, the world's largest economy.

Dr. M. Nathaniel Barnes, former Central Bank Governor, said in a New Narratives interview in 2022, that there is a need for change.

Barnes highlights the significant disparity between the income of a typical teacher, earning about US$150 per month, and that of legislators, who make about 100 times that amount, including benefits.

Despite efforts to address poverty, nearly half of the population lives in extreme poverty, with 2.3 million people unable to meet their basic needs, according to statistics from multilateral institutions. In the 2020–2021 national budget, lawmakers allocated US$44.6 million to themselves, with each senator and representative receiving US$30,000 for salary, expenses, and office costs.

Barnes, in that interview, attributed the country’s dire conditions to deep-rooted corruption being carried out by lawmakers, with financial incentives being used to manipulate legislative agendas.

“The executive branch of government has used financial incentives—bribes—to get their agenda legislated and passed through the legislature. That is wrong. They try to bribe the legislature because much of the agenda is packed with corrupt practices,” he said.

Transparency remains an issue, as the Legislature has refused to submit to an audit, making it difficult to obtain accurate figures on lawmakers’ actual expenses and income.

The ‘Legislative Digest’ released by NAYMOTE found Liberian taxpayers spent US$164 million on the Legislature in the four years to June 2022. The report notes that it is impossible to get firm numbers on expenses given the absence of public records and the body’s refusal to submit to an audit.

NAYMOTE Executive Director Eddie D. Jarwolo noted that the US$164 million spent on legislators over four years could have been used more efficiently to provide basic social services to benefit the people, including schools, hospitals, and roads.

A Benchmark for Tackling Corruption

Recently, the former representative for Montserrado County District #8, Acarous Moses Gray, has called on President Joseph Nyumah Boakai to broaden the scope of the audit of the ruling party’s administration to include the Liberian Legislature.

Gray believes that auditing the Legislature would serve as a benchmark in the battle against corruption. He asserts that if the government refuses to audit the Legislature, it would be seen as an attempt to protect Vice President Jeremiah Koung, who has been accused of engaging in corrupt practices in the Senate.

Gray stated, “If they decide not to audit the Legislature, their interest is to protect Senator Jeremiah Koung; there’s no way if they agreed to audit both the Executive and the Legislature, [Vice President] Jeremiah Koung’s hands won’t be found in the cookie jar.”

Many Liberians are of the view that, if audited properly, some powerful and influential members of the Legislature, such as Alex Tyler, Emmanual Nuquay, Prince Moye, and Thomas Fallah, could be utterly exposed for their alleged involvement in corrupt activities. These individuals, it is believed, used illicit funds obtained through their clandestine activities as Chairmen and Co-chairmen on the Ways, Means, and Finance Committee of the House, to advance their political careers. It should be noted that both Vice President Koung and Deputy Speaker Fallah have faced previous allegations of conflict of interest and corruption for granting subsidies to their respective personal projects — a hospital and school.

Past Campaigners for Legislative Audit

The call for an audit of the Legislature is not a new proposition. In 2019, a group of lawmakers advocated for an audit of the Lower House, but their plea was not heeded by then Speaker Bhofal Chambers. The lawmakers who supported the audit at the time argued that it would enhance transparency and accountability within the institution. Those leading the charge at the time were Representatives Vicent S. T. Willie (Independent, Grand Bassa County District #4), Francis S. Dopoh (Unity Party, River Gee County District #3), Robert Flomo Womba (UP, Bong County District #4), Lawrence Morris (Independent, Montserrado District #1) and Cebee C.D. Barshell (Unity Party, Montserrado District #3).

They believed that a comprehensive audit would shed light on the budgetary performance of the Legislature and provide a clearer understanding of the allocation and expenditure of funds. However, the national legislature has been resistant to external audits and remained somewhat opaque in its operations for over three decades.

Previous attempts to audit the Legislature by the former Auditor General John S. Morlu, II, during the first term of former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, were met with resistance from lawmakers. The legislators requested an advisory service to improve their internal systems in preparation for future audits, but this initiative was also met with opposition.

Despite this resistance, lawmakers pushed for financial autonomy in 2016, led by former VP Jewel Howard Taylor, a Senator for Bong County at the time. However, they failed to openly call for an audit of the Legislature to demonstrate transparency and accountability to the public. The push for auditing the legislative branch and implementing financial autonomy remains a significant step towards combating corruption and ensuring a more accountable governance system in Liberia. Meanwhile, the misuse of public funds for personal gain and the neglect of necessary public services, such as education, healthcare, and infrastructure, continue to hinder Liberia’s progress. Redirecting resources towards citizen-focused programs and initiatives could provide relief and drive the development of a better Liberia. Maybe the 55th legislature is on the cusp of doing so. Just, maybe.