An audit report from the General Auditing Commission (GAC) obtained by the Daily Observer has claimed that there was systemic corruption and mismanagement in the handling of the US$4.9 million EU-Liberia Dialogue/Swedish commitment originally intended to strengthen the capacity of the Independent National Commission on Human Rights (INCHR). This is in addition to a Swedish contribution of US$150,000 intended for COVID-19 response measures of INCHR.
The Project stated that “OHCHR-Liberia will provide technical support to the Independent National Commission on Human Rights (INCHR), in jointly agreed areas, which may include training, for INCHR staff, government, law enforcement and judicial officials and Civil Society members and human rights defenders organized by INCHR in consultation with OHCHR-Liberia, and other capacity building endeavors.”
Expenditures without knowledge of INCHR
The US$4.9 million and the US$150,000 were being managed by the Liberia Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), according to the audit that covered the fiscal period July 1, 2019 to June 30, 2020.
The GAC audit also claimed that the Financial Statements of the INCHR allege that payments totaling some US$781,693.15 made in favor of the INCHR were not materially supported by documentation such as payment requests, invoices, purchase orders, budget and authorization to justify the regularity of the transactions.
Further, it alleges that OHCHR engaged in several other expenditures without the knowledge and approval of its partner, the INCHR.
There were “payments of US$288,569.67 for travel of staff and representatives, but the OHCHR did not say which staff and representatives benefited from the travel,” the audit claimed. “US$12,413.78 for contract services, US$202,618.88 for equipment, vehicles and furniture, US$18,175.78 for supplies, commodities and materials, and US$272,328.82, for meeting/seminar facilitation services. They fail to provide justification and or supporting documents of the expenditures, making the total of US$781,693.15 unaccounted for by the INCHR’s OHCHR.”
The audit also claimed that the US$150,000, intended for COVID 19 response measures undertaken by OHCHR in favor of INCHR, “was not substantially supported by documentation for the period July 1, 2019 to June 30, 2020.”
The Swedish government provided US$150,000, intended for COVID-19 response measures undertaken by OHCHR in favor of INCHR, but “was not substantially supported by documentation for the period July 1, 2019 to June 30, 2020.”
The INCHR Management claimed “that at no time did it implement COVID-19 related activities sponsored by the OHCHR.”
In contrast, the INCHR claimed that it requested from the OHCHR a total amount of US$50,000.00 for its intervention but this amount was “never” provided by the OHCHR.
The INCHR “disclaimed the expenditure” of US$150,000. The GAC therefore requested “the Swedish Government to investigate the regularity of the COVID-19 expenditure and request the OHCHR Management to submit the supporting documents to GAC for validation ten (10) days after the issuance of [the audit] report.”
Meanwhile, the GAC also found flaws in the INCHR’s internal financial reporting system. The GAC observed that the INCHR prepares its financial reports manually (Excel) instead of using an automated accounting software for the period (2016- 2017, 2017-2018, 2018-2019 and 2019-2020) under audit. As a matter of risk, GAC noted that the reliability of financial information could be doubted in the absence of automated accounting software.
But for most of these discrepancies the INCHR shifted the blame to the OHCHR, which is claimed spent the project funds, largely without the direct input of the INCHR.
But one point of contention for which INCHR could not shift blame on OHCHR was the issue of petty cash.
The GAC observed that, during the conduct of the audit, “[INCHR] Management exceeded the petty cash threshold established by the PFM Regulations of 2009.” According to the Public Financial Management Act of 2009, “the maximum amount that may be held as petty cash in any one calendar month is the equivalent of United States Dollars Two Hundred.”
However, the GAC said, “We observed petty cash replenishment requests exceeded the required threshold of US$200.00 monthly for the period (2016-2017, 2017-2018, 2018-2019 and 2019-2020) under review.”
The GAC did not specify the extent to which petty cash exceeded the required threshold. However, it stressed that: “Exceeding the petty cash threshold established by the PFM Regulations could lead to the misappropriation of funds.” The auditors therefore called on the INCHR to “provide justification for exceeding the petty cash threshold established by the PFM Regulations.
In response, INCHR simply said that it “will ensure that the established petty cash threshold as required by the Public Financial Management Law is maintained and upheld.” They did not dispute the GAC’s findings about the monthly excesses under the guise of petty cash, over the four years under review.
INCHR’s ‘lack of policies’
But this was part of a bigger problem within the INCHR. The GAC observed that the INCHR did not develop and/or maintain a given list of policy documents to govern the Management of the entity for the period under audit.
And while INCHR insisted that it has several policies and procedural manuals to direct its operational and administrative activities, the GAC, upon perusal of the related documents submitted, said the INCHR only submitted “a draft copy of its strategic plan and Financial Manual”.
INCHR had earlier told the GAC that the OHCHR, as part of the project document that concerns institutional support and strengthening, on August 21, 2019 contracted a consultant firm “PriceWaterHouseCoopers (PWC)” to carry out a review of the Commission internal management, Control and systems of the INCHR under the Swedish project.
“Though this is part of strengthening the capacity of the INCHR, the Commission’s finance, procurement, human resource and assets sections are yet to be digitized so as to enhance proficiency, efficiency, reliability and productivity in its internal control systems. However, the INCHR looks forward for strengthened capacity to address the gaps identified in the shortest possible time.
The OHCHR Liberia has yet to respond to these findings. When contacted via WhatsApp by this reporter for a response, Mr. Emelonye responded, saying, “I acknowledge receipt of your text and will revert as soon as possible.”
A week later, this reporter sent Emelonye another WhatsApp message to follow up on his promised response. “Silence means consent,” was the message that this reporter received.
OHCHR Liberia under probe
Meanwhile, the OHCHR, headquartered in Geneva, has communicated with the OHCHR-Liberia about an investigation of the management and its findings related to the INCHR.
OHCHR-Geneva letter was copied to multiple partners including the United States Embassy.
According to OHCHR-Liberia Country Representative, Uchenna Emelonye, the communication calling for an investigation was triggered by the INCHR.
In a letter dated November 13, to the INCHR, Emelonye said, “It has been brought to my attention that a petition calling for OHCHR-Liberia’s investigation has been transmitted to OHCHR Geneva and copied to multiple partners including the United States Embassy.”
He continued: “It was reported that the said communication was dated October 20 (the same day OHCHR/INCHR had its reconciliatory meeting) at about 6pm from an email address allegedly belonging to the Chairperson.”
“In view of the fruitful and purposeful discussion we had on October 20 and our determination to make progress, I am wondering if the said email was actually sent by the Chairperson for an on behalf of the Board of Commissioners or if the Chairperson’s email has been cloned or hacked,” Emelonye’s letter said.
He further wrote that “the said communication to my HQ purports to claim that INCHR has requested for a meeting with me since September which I have not honored. Recalling also that our meeting of October 20 was initiated by INCHR and the agenda also proposed by INCHR, I am wondering if the allegation that I have failed to honour your request for a meeting since September is factual and originates from INCHR.”
On August 4, 2017, the Government of Liberia signed a Host Country Agreement for the presence of the OHCHR in Liberia, following the departure of UNMIL human rights section, with the assignment of Uchenna Emelonye, as Country Representative and Sonny Onyegbula as his deputy, both of them Nigerians.
Interestingly, Onyegbula had previously served with UNMIL and was fully aware of the EU – Liberia Dialogue/Swedish commitment of US$4.9 million to Strengthen the Capacity of INCHR.
The US$4.9 million grant was said to have been accessed by the Nigerian duo through the proposal “Strengthening the capacity of the [INCHR]”.
Accordingly, the INCHR supported the funding request through a memorandum of understanding with the OHCHR office in Liberia.
But the GAC claims that, following its audit of the commission, they discovered serious allegations of misapplication and fraud in the management of the Swedish government's contribution to the Liberian human rights agenda.
It is alleged that Uchenna Emelonye and Sonny Onyegbula were given the role of managing the two funds, which the Swedish government sent to the INCHR.
One of the monies was the US$4.9 million to strengthen the capacity of staffers of the INCHR. The other was the US$150,000 for COVID 19 response. The report covered the fiscal period July 1, 2019 to June 30, 2020.
When contacted via mobile phone, the Chairman of the INCHR, Cllr. Dempster Brown, refused to comment on the issue. Instead, he referred this reporter to the OHCHR Country Representative, Uchenna Emelonye.
“INCHR and OHCHR are only collaborating and we do not report to them. Go and ask them about the Swedish funds, they are the right people to address the issue,” Cllr. Brown said.
However, several attempts to contact the OHCHR’s Country Director did not materialize and local staff assigned there said they could not respond to the audit report.
“You can contact our big people, they are the ones who can address themselves to your concern,” the staffer, who asked to remain anonymous, maintained.
Also, when the OHCHR’s Country Representative was contacted via mobile phone, his phone rang endlessly. Even when the reporter sent him a text message, he refused to respond.
When the Acting Chairperson of the INCHR, Rev. Bartholomew B. Colley, during whose leadership the audit was carried out, was contacted at his Capitol Bye-pass office; he declined to make any comment on the audit.
“All I know is that the GAC conducted an audit of the Swedish Funds, and the money that was sent for the COVID-19, and copies of that report was distributed to us and the National Legislature.”
Colley adds, “You can go and find the audit report then you will understand what is there. But, for me I cannot speak on the matter, because by our policy, we are restricted from commenting on the donor funds under the OHCHR.”
Unlike Colley and Brown, S. Herron Gbidi, former Executive Director of INCHR (2016 to 2021) expressed annoyance about the attitude of the lawmakers not to probe into the GAC’s recommendation.
“Look, we heard [that] US$150,000 was provided by the Swedish government to OCHRC that was intended for COVID-19 response. At no time did INCHR implement COVID-19 related activities sponsored by the OHCHR,” Gbidi claims.
According to Gbidi, the GAC requested the Swedish Government to investigate the regularity of the COVID-19 expenditure and request the OHCHR Management to submit the supporting documents to GAC for validation ten (10) days after the issuance of [the audit] report.
Gbidi recollected that the Swedish grant of US$4.9 million was accessed by both Uchenna Emelonye and his deputy, Sonny Onyegbula, through a proposal, “Strengthening the capacity of the [INCHR]”.
Accordingly, the INCHR supported the funding request through a memorandum of understanding with the OHCHR office in Liberia.
“It was insisted by the Acting Chairperson that accountability be inserted as a a core principle in the final MoU. The project execution began in 2018 but by the close of 2019, the walls of the INCHR began to collapse, because they sowed seeds of discord that were planted and nourished by them to divide us, Liberians, at the INCHR,” Gbidi claimed.