Panama Papers Reveal Bright Parker, Johnson Sirleaf, 53rd Legislature, linked to shady mineral deal
By Alloycious David
Liberia’s former President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf’s longtime friend and special emissary, Clavenda Bright Parker, according to leaked documents, directed a company registered in a secret jurisdiction with ties to a mining company, awarded a mining deal amidst protest from local communities in Liberia’s Southeastern Grand Gedeh County.
Madam Bright Parker, Johnson-Sirleaf’s former classmate at the College of West Africa in Monrovia was the shareholder and director of Greater Putu Foundation Limited, an offshore company registered in Seychelles in October 2008, according to never before reported on files from the Panama Papers, a trove of 11.4 million files from one law firm. Despite her name featuring in the leaked documents, Bright Parker disputes having anything to do with Greater Putu Foundation.
Greater Putu Foundation Ltd was connected to African Aura, which signed a 25 year renewable mineral development agreement with the Liberian Government to dig for iron ore in the southeast. In May 2008, a Russian company Severstal bought part of the Putu Iron Ore Project from Africa Aura and completed the sale in 2012. Madam Bright Parker and former President Johnson-Sirleaf graduated in 1955 from the College of West Africa (CWA), a high school for elites in Monrovia.
Former President Johnson-Sirleaf and Madam Bright Parker were born in 1938. Madam Bright Parker was married to Clarence Parker, former Chairman of the former ruling True Whig Party who was executed by the military junta during the 1980 bloody coup. Johnson-Sirleaf met her late former husband, James Sirleaf, at the movies she attended on Bright-Parker’s invitation.
“We met at the movies,” Johnson-Sirleaf wrote “My friend Clave (Bright Parker) was invited to a show by a young man, who said she should bring me along and he would bring along his friend “Doc” Sirleaf. Everyone knew Doc (whose given name was James), and everyone knew he had just recently returned from attending college at the famous Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.
What neither Clave nor I knew at the time was that, apparently, Doc had his eye on me.” Bright Parker was former President Johnson-Sirleaf’s maid of honor when she married her husband few months later. Bright Parker is a pharmacist by training and is known as Liberia’s first pharmacist. She owns a chain of pharmaceutical stores in Monrovia. Bright Parker has three licenses obtained from the Ministry of Land, Mines and Energy on April 7, 2014, according to the Extractive Industry Transparency Initiative.
The three class B licenses were obtained under different codes (MBL 947/14, MBL 945/14, and MBL 946/14). They were applied for on January 21, 2014 and became effective on April 7, 2014. They remain effective until April 6, 2019. According to information from files of Mossack Fonseca, a law firm based in Panama but with offices in dozens of countries, including the Seychelles, Madam Bright Parker was the director of Greater Putu Foundation Limited, a company created in Seychelles.
Bright-Parker was appointed as director and sole shareholder in 2008. Although Bright-Parker’s name has been publicly connected to the company in the online International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) Offshore Leaks database since 2016, this is the first time that further details have been examined from the Mossack Fonseca files on the company and its connection to one of former president Sirleaf-Johnson’s closest confidants.
According to emails between employees at the Mossack Fonseca Seychelles office, the company that had been responsible for ordering and creating Greater Putu Foundation Ltd was Synergy Resources Advisors. This company was owned by Guido E.M. Pas. “Probably the prospective client,” the emails read, is African Aura Mining, highlighting Mossack Fonseca’s understanding that African Aura, the part-owner of Putu mining, was most likely behind Greater Putu Foundation Ltd.
The company was closed in early 2012, according to Mossack Fonseca’s files. Madam Bright-Parker in a telephone interview said she doesn’t know anything about Greater Putu Foundation. Mr. Pas is a Belgian investor who founded African Aura Mining, which acquired the Putu iron ore. Responding to questions, Mr. Pas said said he had no involvement with Greater Putu Foundation and that Madam Bright Parker was appointed in an effort to defend Africa Aura’s interest at the ‘highest level’.
Mr. Pas further said that Madam Bright Parker was recommended to avoid interruption of the mining operation by the inter-ministerial committee set up by the Liberian Government, which according to him was mounting pressure on the Africa Aura for ‘unknown reasons’. In a follow-up email, Pas said he thought the company “must have been set up…for the purpose of lobbying for the continuation of the Putu project which was under pressure from the Ministry for no good reason.”
The Ministerial pressure, Mr. Pas said “surprisingly continued (for unexplained reasons) and Mano River –or by then probably its successor African Aura- saw the need to defend its interest at the highest level; Ms Clavender Bright-Parker came recommended to take up this role, and it luckily was a brief role, and the project was put back on the rails after a potential interruption.”
He denied having knowledge of protest over the signing and ratification of the Putu Iron Ore deal by some Grand Gedeh County citizens, but said “I can imagine that in Liberia you can never make everyone happy”. The counties like the one where Putu is located probably feel sufficiently disconnected from power in Monrovia.” It is not clear why Mr. Pas would confirm Ms. Bright Parker’s apparent involvement in Greater Putu when she herself strongly disclaims any knowledge of the off-shore company.
Bright-Parker was former president Johnson Sirleaf’s personal envoy and Ambassador without Portfolio. On March 11, 2011, former President Johnson-Sirleaf appointed her friend as Director of the Board of Liberia Medicines and Health and Regulatory Authority (LMHRA), but she recently resigned the post. She is also former chairwoman of the Board of Directors of Ecobank Liberia and chairwoman of Center Songai Liberia, a firm accused of reneging on a US$ 100,000 loan according to a recent audit of the Private Sector Development Initiative (PSDI).
The PSDI was established in 2014 at Liberia’s Ministry of Finance and Development Planning (MFDP) to provide loans to small and medium-sized Liberian companies. The Internal Audit Unit (IAU) of the MFDP conducted a financial and operational audit of the PSDI project as part of the Internal Audit Unit’s (IAU) annual audit plan, which looks at identified high risk functions and operations, especially those that have not benefited from adequate internal audit coverage.
Out of the total loan disbursed to 46 businesses amounting to US$2,274,400, only US$283,614 had been recovered at the time of the audit in April 2017. According to the audit report, Center Songai Liberia has an outstanding balance of US$ 103,743 after it repaid US$ 9, 590. An amount of US$ 100, 000 was disbursed to the company, which is supposed to pay US$ 13, 333 interests on the loan.
Center Songai Liberia had close ties with the Ellen Johnson Sirleaf presidency and had benefited from funding made available by the United Nations and by government. The center has failed to respond to inquiry made via email through its National Program Coordinator, Christopher K. Fayia. According to information obtained from the Panama Papers on Greater Putu, the mysterious company was set up in Seychelles in October 2008.
The Seychelles has long had a reputation for secrecy. The Seychelles is a highly-secretive legal jurisdiction, especially when it comes to who owns companies incorporated there, according to the Tax Justice Network’s secrecy index. The Seychelles was one of the several offices of Mossack Fonseca, the law firm whose files form the basis of the Panama Papers. These documents contain financial information on politicians, officials, wealthy businessmen and others previously hidden from the public sphere.
Although offshore companies are in themselves legal, some offshore entities were used for illegal purposes such as looting government funds, tax evasion, fraud and bypassing international sanctions. The Panama Papers have led to resignations of prime ministers, government officials and high-profile moguls from around the world. Hundreds of probes, investigations and arrests have also occurred.
In general, said Alvin Mosioma, Executive Director of the nonprofit campaign organization Tax Justice Network Africa, “shell companies are perfect vehicles for public officials, including politicians and high ranking state officials to siphon public resources.” Speaking in general, Mosioma said that using close friends or relatives to hide commercial interests is a “simple trick” for politicians or other political actors who don’t want their true identity revealed.
There is, however, no specific information in the leaks showing that Bright Parker was hiding commercial assets for any other person. On February 26, 2009, President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf met with a delegation from Putu comprising of Severstal’s CEO and members of Mano’s Board. Although the discussion between the former Liberian President and the company’s executives was not disclosed to the press, a year later, in 2010, the Putu Iron Ore Mineral Development Agreement was ratified by the National Legislature.
Former President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf denied having knowledge about the existence of Greater Putu Foundation Ltd, and said she was and is still not aware of her longtime friend’s business interest. “Ms. Johnson-Sirleaf has never discussed anything to do with the proposed Putu Mine-, which as you probably know, never materialized neither has any business entity connected with it, with Ms. Bright-Parker during her presidency or since the transition.
The President was of course aware of the concession granted by the government to permit the development of the mine and the economic and other factors that apparently led the company to abandon its project,” she said in response to questions about the deal. The ratification of the US$1.6 million Putu deal at the time met stiff resistance from some citizens of Grand Gedeh County, the host-county.
Citizens under the banner of the ‘Grand Gedeh County Technical Committee’ for the Putu Mineral Development demanded that the National Legislature halt the ratification of the concession until several lapses contained in the MDA are clarified. The head of the citizens group, Dweh Boley and other Grand Gedeans questioned the bid document that led to the awarding of the mineral exploration right which was issued to the Mano River Iron Ore Resources.
The mineral development agreement’s refusal to specify the locations of the land in the county that will be committed to the project; the provision of information on the shareholdings of the company were also issues that the citizens flagged during the protest at the Legislature. Despite protests from the indigenous people of Grand Gedeh, some of whom gathered at the National Legislature for days, the deal was hastily passed by members of the Legislature.
There were smaller groups of placard-carrying protesters demanding to be part of the negotiation of the mineral development contract; which would affect them, but the Legislature downplayed their quest and ratified the agreement at speed. Lawmakers from the county who joined the protest soon abandoned the protest to the disappointment of local people a day to the passage of the concession.
The then House Speaker Alex Tyler and National Investment Commission Chairman, Richard Tolbert are on record for persuading legislators to ratify the Putu Iron Ore deal between Putu and the Liberian Government. Months following the passage of the concession, there was a riot in 2011 over hiring practices, specifically the refusal of Putu Iron Ore to hire local workers, led to two deaths in the concession area.
The incident culminated in the response of armed police officers of the Emergency Response Unit (ERU) of the Liberia National Police. The ERU was also called in response to a threatening letter allegedly left by disgruntled Putu workers threatening that company officials would be killed if a series of demands were not met, according to a 2014 study.
Sustainable Development Institute, a local civil society group concluded in the report entitled: “Poverty in the midst of plenty… how post war iron ore mining is failing to meet local people’s expectations” that it was alarming that paramilitary units had to be deployed in order to quell tensions and mutual suspicions in the concession area.
This investigation was a collaboration between the Daily Observer newspaper, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) and The Norbert Zongo Cell/Center for Investigative Journalism (Cenozo). It is published as part of West Africa Leaks, the largest-ever regional collaboration of investigative journalists in the region.