A couple of weeks ago, I dealt with the issue of corruption as part of a discussion of the general topic of ethics in public service. Today, we will look at two other ethical issues: nepotism and self-dealing.
Simply defined, nepotism is when a person in authority hires a relative to work in his/her organization. In Liberia, when you are a big man or big woman in government, you are under a lot of pressure to hire relatives. In fact, your relatives consider that to be one of the perks of office, and get quite upset if you don’t indulge in nepotism, if you don’t hire them. They don’t classify you hiring your relative as nepotism. Nepotism is when the other guy hires his relative.
Nepotism undermines the integrity of the public service. It is bad for the person doing the hiring and it is bad for the person being hired. No matter how competent the person being hired is, people will automatically assume that the only reason the person has that position is because of family connections. If the person is promoted or given an award, it will again be assumed that the only reason the person is advancing is because of the family connection.
We have had a few high profile cases of nepotism in our public service recently. Perhaps the most celebrated case was Rob Sirleaf being appointed chairman of the National Oil Company of Liberia (NOCAL) by his mother, President Sirleaf. Many attempts were made to explain the inexplicable, to justify the unjustifiable. References were made to his qualifications, his service on Wall Street, etc., etc. But the bottom line is that this was a clear case of nepotism and should never have been allowed to take place.
In private conversations, I told President Sirleaf as much, reminding her of her criticism of President Tolbert when he sought to appoint his daughter Christine Norman as an assistant minister of education (a lifelong educator, Ms. Norman was eminently qualified for the position), and again when he selected his daughter Wilhelmina Holder (who graduated from McGill, one of the most prestigious medical schools in the world) as health minister, and yet again when he appointed his son-in-law, Burleigh Holder, to succeed my father as defence minister.
So, what do you do when confronted with this conundrum? Face it head on! When I went to LPRC I said to my family, “If your last name is Greaves or Zackpah, then tough luck. You will never get appointed to a position of authority in LPRC while I am managing director there. End of discussion.”
Another common unethical practice in our public service is self-dealing. What do I mean? Self-dealing is when you use your position to do business with yourself. Robert Kilby was fired from his position as auditor general because he had the GAC, of which he was the head, enter into a contract with his own company from which he would derive a personal benefit. That is a complete no no.
Again, a personal example will illustrate how to deal with this in an ethical way. When I went to LPRC, I told my staff that LPRC could not do business with P. A’s RIBHOUSE. Why? Because my wife is the proprietor of that business. My wife got very angry with me. She pointed out that LPRC was one of her prime customers long before she even met me. Besides, other people did it. Why should I want to be the only white chicken?
My response was, “They are who they are and I am who I am. You have 18 other public corporations and 20 ministries to do business with. But LPRC is the one entity you cannot do business with while I am managing director there.” For me, the issue was not even a grey area. It was pretty black and white. It would be a clear case of self-dealing.
But every now and then an invoice would come floating across my desk for payment to P. A’s RIBHOUSE. I would call my public relations manager in and tell her, “Nyonblee (now Senator Nyonblee Karnga Lawrence), I thought I told you we were not to do business with P. A’s RIBHOUSE?”
“Yes, Chief” would be the reply. “But their food is sweet and when we are jammed, they are the only ones that can cater for us at short notice.” To this I would say, “Well, we are going to have to get to food that is not so sweet, aren’t we? And we will have to do a better job of planning so we don’t find ourselves in these emergency situations.”
Finally, I issued the following instructions to my daughter, who was then general manager of P. A’s RIBHOUSE, “The next time you receive a solicitation from LPRC for a quotation for catering, do not respond!” That’s how I brought that whole business to closure.
The writer is a certified public accountant and a businessman. He can be reached at