Former Justice Minister’s statement suggests former boss Ellen Johnson Sirleaf had different motive
Former Justice Minister, Counselor Christiana Hammond Tah, one of several former government officials named by Global Witness as beneficiaries of an Exxon Mobil bribery scheme reacting to recommendations and findings of a special presidential probe committee, has claimed instead that bonuses paid by NOCAL were all directed, authorized and approved by former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf under whose authority she served as Justice Minister.
She has further declared that the allegations contained in the report are a cheap shot designed by Global Witness to create the impression that she was “part of the corrupt organization that milked, plundered, and mismanaged the resources of Liberia”.
The former Justice Minister recalled that she was flabbergasted when she first received a letter from transparency watchdog Global Witness, alleging that she had received a bribe to award a contract to Exxon Mobil for Liberian oil block #13.
According to her, “the problem with the existing oil contracts was that NOCAL under previous leaderships had waived most of the benefits provided under the 2002 Petroleum Law for the Liberian people. Those provisions of the law scrapped include Chapter III
The Petroleum law was crafted in 2002 during the tenure of jailed former President Charles Taylor. Changes to the law were made in 2014 and approved in 2016 with the scrapping of certain provisions of the law relating to national ownership under Chapter III of the Petroleum law.
Scrapped under chapter III were Sections 3.3 which calls for equity interest in all production operations and exploration of hydrocarbon deposits in Liberia. Further according to the law “the value of such equity interest shall be twenty percent (20%) of the authorized, issued and outstanding capital shares existing at any time without dilution”.
Also scrapped under the watch of President Sirleaf was Section 3.4 entitled, Stock Purchase under Chapter III which provides for Liberian participation in the industry. that section reads thus: “The holder of the rights to hydrocarbon deposits shall notify the National Oil Company of Liberia, that shares equivalent to ten percent (10%) of its stock are available for purchase by Liberians and/or any such interested citizens.”.
But according to the former Justice Minister, “although the 2002 Petroleum law provided for State Participation, Citizens’ Participation, and payment of Royalties, all of those benefits had been waived by previous officials in the production sharing contracts.”
Investigation conducted by this newspaper shows that the 2002 Petroleum law enacted during the tenure of jailed Liberian former President Charles Taylor had not been amended at the time of the signing into law of the ExxonMobil oil deal, although provisions of the law were conveniently side-stepped.
Dismissing suggestions by Global Witness that she was paid a bribe by Exxon Mobil, the former Justice Minister declared that her committee was not operating in an independent environment suggesting in other words that President Sirleaf was secretly masterminding things from behind the scenes.
“But if anyone thinks we were operating in a truly independent environment, let me point that while voicing my opinion on a teleconference call with the external counsel, Mrs. Sirleaf interrupted me, stating in a very loud tone ‘Minister, you have your marching orders,'” the former Minister told the Costa Show recently.
Counselor Tah, in her reaction, further observed that in order to provide clarity and context to the issue it was necessary to provide a brief history adding that “Peppercoast (formerly Broadway) had the rights to oil block #13 under an agreement ratified by the Liberian legislature in 2007.
“There were allegations that bribes had been paid to certain members of the Legislature to ratify the contract. There were also rumors that certain Liberian officials owned shares in the company. We interviewed several individuals and tried to obtain records to substantiate the claims, but all of our efforts were an exercise in futility”.
Further, according to Counselor Tah, “in 2010, when the newly appointed CEO of NOCAL, Christopher Neyor, informed the Justice Ministry that Peppercoast was not in compliance with the terms of the production sharing contract, our advice was simple: cancel for breach of contract”.
Continuing, she said had Global Witness exercised sufficient due diligence rather than acting in reckless disregard for the truth would have found out just who was responsible for holding on to Block 13”.
According to analysts, this was a veiled reference to Special Presidential Advisor Robert Sirleaf who had by then taken over as Board Chairman as NOCAL. Mr. Christopher Neyor was then serving as Chief Executive Officer. But the pair would soon have a falling out which was widely reported in the media.
Their disagreement became so acrimonious that at one point Neyor openly accused President Sirleaf of wanting to destroy him. Neyor, in a June 17 2014, open letter to President Sirleaf published in the Daily Observer said “From the time Robert was appointed to the Board of Directors of NOCAL in 2010 and he realized the millions involved, he started to position himself overnight as an oil and gas expert and instructing me on how we could make a lot of money.
“When I didn’t go along, he began to undermine and intimidate me as CEO as well as then Chairman of the Board Clemenceau Urey. Neyor also said President Sirleaf was “fully aware that Robert began to portray himself as the de facto head of NOCAL and began soliciting huge amounts of money from individuals and companies with interest in acquisition of oil blocks”.
“Some of these companies approached me and I brought those to your attention only for Robert to tell them not to pay attention to me because I was going to be removed after the 2011 elections and he was going to become Executive Chairman (which was later proven right)”. Oil blocks were promised to these people of which you are fully aware and millions was brought in irregularly for the campaign with cash brought in on private jets and taken to your home”.
Neyor continued , “as your Energy Advisor, with your approval, I started quiet diplomacy with the Nigerian Government including then President Yar Adua’s office and the Petroleum Resources Minister to resume crude oil allocation to Liberia. The diplomacy continued when President Goodluck Jonathan took office”.
“The convincing reason we gave to the Nigerians and later to the Kuwaiti was to use the proceeds from the allocation transaction to reduce the high cost of electricity in Liberia until we have in place more affordable power generation sources”.
“Both for Nigeria and later Kuwait, when those sensitive negotiations I initiated and spearheaded was about to close, you put your son, Robert in charge of the closing as the Special Envoy. The Nigerian oil allocation intended to support lower electricity bill has been flowing now for years yet electricity cost in our country is the highest in the world. Not a penny from the allocation has gone to LEC fuel expenses and cost of power continues to be unaffordable to most of your citizens in areas where electricity is provided”.
But the special presidential probe committee, chaired by Counselor Ndubuisi Nwabudike recommended that all those named in the report as having received payments from NOCAL should make restitution of the monies received.
It remains unclear though whether the probe committee had access to such documentation during its probe. The probe committee has however charged the former officials for culpability and recommended that the accused officials restitute the monies paid them as bonuses.
Former Special Presidential Advisor Robert Sirleaf, was the first to fire off. In a five-page reaction Mr. Sirleaf wrote “Unfortunately, much of the public commentary in the Liberian press, the Global Witness report that precipitated the current discussion, and the discussion on social media reflects little understanding of the facts underlying the decision of the Government of Liberia to enter into that contract.“
“The recent focus is all on the bonuses paid by NOCAL to the members of the HTC, NOCAL senior personnel and the technical team that negotiated the Block 13 contract. Lost in the debate is the FACT that we replaced an unqualified (technical nor financial) holder of the Block 13 contract, Broadway Peppercoast, with one of the world’s most technically skilled companies, Exxon-Mobil, renegotiated an improved contract, and brought US$50 million to Liberia at a time at which our country desperately needed additional revenues.”
Meanwhile, speculations abound about what steps President Weah is going to take in view of the probe committee’s recommendations. It has now been well over a month since the submission of the Committee’s report and not much has been heard since.
However with clear indications that former President Sirleaf was the secret mastermind behind the Exxon Mobil alleged bribery scheme, it remains to be seen whether President Weah will muster the courage to hold his predecessor accountable given his pre-election pledge to fully protect her interests.