Corruption controversies that have overwhelmed the Ellen Johnson Sirleaf administration since its inception in 2006 seem not to be coming to an end even as the administration wraps up its final term. Following the recent exposé on the Public Sector Development Initiative (PSDI) loan scheme that was reportedly squandered by top government officials, another corruption report has surfaced. The latest is a damning report, published by the Sustainable Development Initiative (SDI), suggesting that President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf relaxed some established protocols, and that her son Robert Sirleaf, through the National Oil Company of Liberia’s (NOCAL) social development programs and his (Robert’s) own foundation, might have misappropriated over US$10 million from Chevron-Liberia.
The report, released in Monrovia over the weekend, noted that audit documents obtained from the General Auditing Commission (GAC) point to gross misspending of Chevron’s social development funds by NOCAL and the Robert A. Sirleaf Foundation (RASF).
According to the SDI, the US$10.5 million was allegedly injected into tax-deductible community development projects across Liberia from 2011 to 2014.
These funds, established through the Chevron-Liberia Economic Development Initiative (C-LED), were intended to deliver 80 projects focused on enterprise development, health and education across the 15 counties for social and economic benefits for women, children, and youth.
According to the report, some of the projects are bogus, while others were over-funded (huge sums with barely anything to show), while others are non-existent.
The report claimed that President Sirleaf bypassed established protocols and mandated Chevron to provide money to NOCAL, which was at the time headed by Robert Sirleaf. According to SDI, the money, was later channeled through Robert’s foundation.
“Despite protocols, Chevron funding did not go through the Ministry of Finance and Development Planning, but instead was handled through NOCAL (which the President’s son Robert chaired for at least part of the time), and the President son’s private foundation,” the report said.
“Though President Sirleaf has been outspoken about why the funding went to her son’s foundation, Robert Sirleaf served as chairman of the Board of Directors at NOCAL, and presided over lucrative blocks 13 and 14 at the time of the Chevron deal. And given that Mr. Sirleaf also served as the President’s senior advisor despite Article 90 (a) of the Constitution, many questioned his role at NOCAL; especially with respect to the Chevron deal,” the report said. Article 90 (a) of the Constitution establishes a prohibition against conflict of interest.
Unable to obtain documentation on how and for what the $10.5 million was expended, agencies like Liberia Institute of Public Integrity (LIPI) has been vocal about its concerns, stating that the President’s decision to inform Chevron not to give social contributions to the Ministry of Finance and Development Planning demonstrates her lack of confidence in Liberia’s treasury.
However, this is not the first-time such allegedly gross misspending has beclouded Chevron’s presence in Liberia. Documents released by the GAC in 2010 allegedly point to hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes allegedly paid to legislators and their staff.
The Production Sharing Contract (PSC) between the Liberian government and Chevron granted 70 percent interest and ownership to Chevron for the right to drill, granted tax exemptions to reduce government equity and royalties to 5 and 10 percent respectively despite the 5 percent royalty fee and 30 percent yearly income tax required.
The SDI report, courtesy of audit documents, is the first to shed light on what these alleged missteps have cost in terms of community development, and specifically on the types of projects that the public missed out on because of the alleged misspending by NOCAL and RASF.
Over the last few months, reporters from SDI visited several of the alleged projects ostensibly implemented by NOCAL and the Robert A. Sirleaf Foundation using Chevron funding. Based on witness reports and testimonials, a number of the projects don’t exist, have not been started, or have otherwise been poorly executed under obscure circumstances, the report revealed.
“The report indicated that RASF must be held accountable to give an accurate account for what could have contributed to the infrastructural development of Liberia,” says James G. Otto of SDI. “Liberia must develop the culture of holding individuals and institutions entrusted with public funds to account in such a way that contributes to the governance process of the state.”
The three main projects of focus were the Youth Community Center in Logan Town, the Chevron Central Park in Vai Town and the low-income housing units in Buchanan, Grand Bassa, and Sanniquellie, Nimba County.
According to the audit documents, the center would house a well-equipped youth center furnished with a cyber cafe, computers and a cable TV network facility valued at US$700,000. These are non-existent except a few chairs. “There was no evidence of computers, television or internet connection at the time of the visit,” the report noted.
According to documents obtained, the initiative for the park (in Vai Town) was reportedly worth US$2 million under the name, the Monrovia Greenspace Initiative. With only four main structures – the entrance, an unfinished bathroom, a Palava Hut and a restaurant block – the park does not host much activity.
The last project visited was the housing development in Buchanan, Grand Bassa County, and Sanniquellie, Nimba County. According to the audit, 10 low-income housing units valued at the US$2.3 million were built in Lofa, Nimba and Grand Bassa counties.
Tenants of some of the units, according to the report, said the houses are substandard—the prices were too high—and there are no internal facilities. However, images captured from the visit by the SDI team seem to corroborate these assertions.
The units in Sanniquellie seem uninhabited, though there is information that the County Health Team is scheduled to move into a couple of the units very soon. Surprisingly, too, not many people in Sanniquellie seem to know where these units are, neither do they know about them being low-income housing, the report said.
Upon GAC’s request for an audit of the C-LED funds, NOCAL provided the commission with a list of 79 projects covering several counties. A detailed list of projects is available in the TIMBY reports of the GAC documents published below:
This is allegedly corresponded from the NOCAL Corporate Social Unit to account for the US $10.5 million in social development funding received by NOCAL and the RASF costs were allocated to some of the projects, while some were not.
The news about the positive search for oil on Liberia’s shores was seen as a promising sign of better things to come for the Liberian people.
As desperate as Liberians were to see their lives improve, maybe through oil money, their dreams, as of 2015, were shattered as the mammoth bureaucracy known as NOCAL went through bankruptcy—courtesy of unbelievably high salaries, allowances, and stipends for travels.
This unfortunate situation came just after Robert Sirleaf had resigned, maybe forcibly, as a result of a barrage of calls, perhaps to prevent further embarrassment to the administration his mother heads as president.
Even after Robert’s exit, the government did not even conduct an independent forensic audit of NOCAL’s finances, which would have cleared any lingering doubts about Mr. Sirleaf’s tenure.
NOCAL subsequently sacked its entire staff of 200 to reportedly save itself from collapse due to declining oil prices. The President, who took responsibility for the NOCAL bankruptcy, endorsed the cuts, saying they will reduce costs and put NOCAL on a more viable financial footing.
Many thought the reductions were not surprising, given NOCAL’s reputation as a dumping ground for political appointees, its bloated staff, and mismanagement.