-Former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf describes legislators (including some from her own party) during her 12-year administration
If you had ever thought that the high death rate is the only nightmare that has plagued or created dark cloud over the National Legislature, then, you might need to reconsider, as there seems to be a problem that is of more essence and worrisome. It is the problem of lawmakers apportioning huge salaries and perks for themselves, while the masses drown in abject poverty with basic necessities such as food, education, healthcare and others trickling down, at best.
And former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has described the tendency of lawmakers, especially those of the 52nd and 53rd National Legislatures, which spanned her twelve-year administration, as always seeking personal gains at the detriment of the people — “devilish”, she called it.
In a brief commentary first published originally in the Daily Maverick, a South Africa-based news outlet, Madam Sirleaf said Liberia had been seriously affected by corruption and dependency as a result of the 14-year civil war.
The commentary is titled: “Liberia: Lessons learnt after moving the poster child of death and destruction in the right direction.”
The former President accused the Legislature during her reign of not being supportive of the democratic process that would have ensured that much was done in good governance and economic growth—successes that would have had trigger down effects on the masses—as they (lawmakers) were mainly focused on retaining their own interests.
“My biggest surprise was how devilish they were, my own party included,” Madam said in the commentary, adding that her 12-year leadership in Liberia and the history that preceded her administration has made her to believe that the consistent application of governance can make a big difference and turn apparently hopeless cases around.
“I had wanted one term. But the things I wanted to complete were not finished at the end of that first term. Civil society was the key driver of democracy. The Legislature was not that supportive of the democratic process as they were mainly focused on retaining their own interests. My biggest surprise was how devilish they were, my own party included.”
The Senate had five Presidents Pro-tempore, while the House of Representatives had three Speakers during Madam Sirleaf’s 12-years administration. Those who served as Presidents Pro-Tempore were Senators Cletus Wortorson (Grand Kru), Isaac Nyenabo (Grand Gedeh); Gbehzongar Milton Findley (Grand Bassa), and Armah Zulu Jallah (Gbarpolu). The late former Bomi County Senator, Lahai Lasana, briefly acted as President Pro-tempore as well.
The Speakers during her rule were Montserrado County District #6 Representative Edwin Melvin Snowe; Bomi County District #2 Representative, J. Alex Tyler; and Margibi District #3 Representative, J. Emmanuel Nuquay.
Efforts made by the Daily Observer to get responses from these former Legislative leaders since the publication of Madam Sirleaf’s commentary have yielded no fruits. Several emails sent to three former Speakers are yet to be responded to. Calls made to others were not answered.
However, this is not the first time the former President has accused lawmakers of being “greedy” and always seeking self benefits at the detriment of the people.
She said in an interview while in the US in 2016 that lawmakers constantly ignore the dire needs of the country and its people while frequently setting high salaries and perks for themselves during budget appropriation periods.
Justifying Huge Salaries and Perks
The lawmakers were also frequently criticized by the public over their huge salaries while neglecting the funding of basic necessities that would benefit the people. But the lawmakers have always defended their huge salaries with some saying that there was a need for addition.
During a summer visit to the US in 2015, Representatives, Togba Mulbah and George Mulbah, both of Bong County, denied allegations that they made too much money while ordinary Liberians struggled daily to make ends meet.
Both of them told the Voice of America (VOA) that Liberian Legislators are “Victims of misinformation” and are being “demonized” because of their positions—also insinuating that Liberian lawmakers make very little compared to their colleagues in other neighboring countries.
“We make 14,000 Liberian Dollars as our basic salary. Then we have 2,000 United States Dollars as transportation allowance; then we have US$1,900. That is what comes to us directly in terms of physical cash. The rest of it goes towards other utilities that we use,” said Togba Mulbah at the time.
“We are victims, and I want you to underscore this. We are victims of circumstances. We are victims of misinformation. People squarely blame us for what we don’t have,” he said.
Togba Mulbah said Liberians find it easier to demonize their lawmakers by often accusing them of financial impropriety, even when there is no evidence.
George Mulbah said Liberian legislators make very little compared to their counterparts in other countries, especially Nigeria and Kenya, though he failed to provide comparative analyses on the economic strengths and vibrancy of those countries as compared to Liberia.
Current Vice President, Jewel Howard Taylor, while serving as Senator of Bong County, defended the high salaries of Lawmakers—even calling for further increment.
Speaking as vice standard bearer at a Coalition for Democratic Change (CDC) rally in the US in 2017, Taylor said Senators in Liberia were earning US$10,000 as monthly salary and US$2,000 for fueling their vehicles.
She said the amount is not enough because lawmakers often take up paying school fees, hospital bills, house rent, and undertaking funeral rites for their constituents—adding that the US$2,000 worth of fuel was not enough to support even three trips to her county.
While Ellen accuses the lawmakers of sucking the blood out of Liberia during her reign, her critics say she is the real devil while the lawmakers are her disciples or adherents.
A 2016 Moore Stevens report discovered that the Legislature signed over 66 bogus concessions with multilateral companies, a revelation that received a barrage of criticisms from the public. And it was the President who affixed her signature to the bogus concessions, not making it legitimate and binding on the state but authorizing their operations.
Veteran Liberian journalist, Jerry Wehtee Wion, who is based in the US, described Madam Sirleaf in a commentary as a liar—further referring to her as a master of schemes and scams.
“Only 2 out of the 68 concession agreements you Ellen bragged about were deemed good for the country, according to Global Witness. You are a liar, Madam.”
“You lied that you attracted $20 billion worth of foreign investments to Liberia, schemes and scams you perpetrated on our gullible people to drive them from their ancestral lands simply to plant palm trees for palm oil as your “foreign investments.”
Despite the infusion of millions of dollars into Liberia from Liberia’s international partners during and after Ebola, journalist Wion said the healthcare system the former President left behind is still not “worth to treat one’s dog.”
“Thus, you never had your blood pressure checked at any public medical center in Liberia while you were in power for 12 years. Instead, you ran to America each time for your annual medical care paid for with our tax dollars,” he said.
At the mercy of Greedy Elites
Former Finance Minister, Amara Konneh, was nearly sent to jail by outraged lawmakers who said he had usurped their constitutional authority to decide tax and spending. This happened when the Minister was trying to balance the books after the devastating Ebola virus that practically brought the country to its knees and the economy totally ravaged.
The saga began with a letter in which Mr Konneh’s office pointed out to Senators that spending could not go on as before. The reasons were obvious. Liberia’s economy had been hit by twin shocks: First, the 2014 calamitous Ebola outbreak, which killed thousands of people and brought foreign investment to a halt, and the drastic drop in the global market prices of the nation’s prime commodities, iron ore and rubber.
As a result, it was projected at the time that the country would have a revenue shortfall of about US$70 million in its US$622 million budget and Mr. Konneh was asking the Legislature to trim its own budget by about 10 percent; part of across-the-board cuts he was imposing on all but non-essential items. It was when the Senators ordered his arrest on charges of contempt—a situation that the Supreme Court had to intervene in with a stay order.
It was no secret that behind the almost comical posturing laid a serious issue, the tendency of the elites to bask in wealth at the detriment of the suffering masses.
The running costs of the Legislature soak up more than 10 percent of the national budget.
Being one of the poorest states in the world with average income per capita of US$469, Liberia was paying lawmakers US$13,000 a month, not counting generous allowances for housing, petrol and other emoluments.
Grand Gedeh Senator, Alphonso Gaye, said in an interview that their compensation was modest compared to places such as Nigeria and Kenya. “When I visit my home I’m overwhelmed with requests for money. One will say the village hand-pump is broken, another will say that he needs help with school fees or medical costs or money for his roof.”
“These are the things they demand of lawmakers. You need some cash. Your respect in this country depends on your capacity to respond to people’s demands.” Mr. Gaye, whose defense had a ring of truth, said.
A 2015 study of public sector wage bills by the World Bank found that countries in sub-Saharan Africa spend almost 30 per cent of government revenue on public sector wages, nearly double the average in higher-income states. Yet public services, including schools and hospitals, are mostly dire.
The findings support the view that poor countries suffer from what economists call “extractive” institutions, which are poor at providing public goods but adept at enabling governing elites to extract income.
Senator Gaye’s points were also echoed by Nimba County Senator and notorious warlord Prince Johnson.
He said legislators were not overpaid, adding that some colleagues go practically bankrupt dishing out money to hangers-on. “The first law of nature is self-preservation. I have to survive before I can help someone else. I cannot be a Senator in this country and live in a zinc shack. I’m a big man. I’ve got to live big,” PYJ said in an exclusive interview with an international journalist.