More questions than answers abound in the wake of the Special Presidential Committee’s (SPC) report charging 18 former officials of the Ellen Johnson Sirleaf administration to pay back monies received from the National Oil Company of Liberia (NOCAL) in exchange for services rendered.
Some of those charged to make restitution have since left the country while others continue to maintain their innocence claiming that they legally performed services on behalf of government and wee accordingly rewarded. A key concern is whether this move by the Weah led government is part and parcel of genuine efforts to institute accountability or whether it is just another play to the galley. Another key issue of public concern, now that the SPC has submitted its report, is whether this government can muster the political will to actually prosecute said accused individuals.
This question arises given the open and favorable disposition of key players in the Weah led government to “eating government money” as some including CDC stalwart and member of the House of Representatives, Acarous Moses Gray, and Vice President Jewel Howard Taylor especially who have openly declared that now is their “time to eat.”
According to political observers, these concerns are further heightened by the alarming tendency displayed by most officials of this government to ignore the Asset Declaration requirement which is a legal obligation imposed on all government officials serving in high positions of trust.
Not even President George Weah, according to observers, has heeded the call to declare his assets, although he has been repeatedly called upon to do so as it is now six (6) months since this government assumed office. Meanwhile, it can be recalled that following the Global Witness report on Liberia in March 2018 accusing several officials of receiving kickbacks from US oil giant Exxon Mobil in return for awarding Exxon Mobil exploitation rights for Oil Block LB13.
Under the leadership of former US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, oil giant Exxon Mobil signed a US$120 million deal for an oil block in Liberia that its officials knew was rife with corruption, according to the transparency watchdog, Global Witness. Further, according to a March 29, 2018, Newsweek report, the deal between Exxon and Liberian company Broadway Consolidated/Peppercoast (BCP) was signed in 2013 despite Exxon’s concerns that the deal could violate U.S. anti-corruption laws.
The investigation by Global Witness showed that Exxon’s executives were aware that the oil block they purchased was partly owned by former politicians who had taken ownership of the block through illegal means. “Exxon knew its purchase might enrich these former politicians.”
“The company also knew the oil block had originally been awarded to BCP after Liberia’s oil agency paid bribes,” the report outlined. “Despite these corruption red flags, Exxon didn’t walk away from the deal. Instead, it engineered a plan to skirt U.S. legal exposure, using the Calgary-based Canadian Overseas Petroleum as a go-between to purchase the block,” the Global Witness report underlined.
It may be recalled that the six Liberian officials (Robert Sirleaf, Christiana Harmon Tah, James Kollie, Amara Konneh, O. Natty B. Davis, Patrick Sendolo) who approved Exxon’s purchase were also simultaneously awarded suspicious payments of over US$20,000 each by Liberia’s oil agency, according to the report.
One of the officials was Robert Sirleaf, the son of former president Ellen Sirleaf. “The payments were probably made from the same bank account into which Exxon had just deposited US$5 million for Block 13, although there is no evidence that Exxon itself directed or knew about payments to officials,” according to the Global Witness report.
At the same time the deal was moving forward, company representatives, including former US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, lobbied the U.S. government to strike down a section of the Dodd-Frank Act that requires resource extraction companies like Exxon to disclose payments made to foreign governments for the commercial development of natural resources.
Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had reportedly argued to members of Congress that oil companies should not be required to disclose these payments. The rule, known as Section 1304, has never come into force because Congress struck down its implementing rule around the same time Rex Tillerson became Secretary of State.
“The law requires companies report their project-level payments to governments. It’s been law since 2010, but it hasn’t had an implementing rule,” Stefanie Ostfeld, deputy head of Global Witness in the U.S., told the influential American magazine, Newsweek. “They overturned the rule in 2017, the same day Tillerson was sworn in as secretary of state… So the law is still intact, but it doesn’t have an implementing rule, so companies don’t have to report.”
Transparency watchdog groups have repeatedly argued that striking down Section 1504 would create an environment in which corruption could flourish. But in reaction to the Global Witness report, President George Weah on April 17, 2018, set up a special committee to probe and establish the veracity of the Global Witness allegations, according to an April 17 press release from the office of the President.
The Committee was given two weeks to conclude its probe. In a 35 page report produced by the Special Committee, 18 former officials of the Ellen Sirleaf government were named and charged to restitute the monies paid out to them by Exxon Mobil through the National Oil Company, NOCAL. They were listed in several categories based on the amounts they were charged to restitute a total amount of US$500,000.
Meanwhile, Special Presidential Advisor to former president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Robert Alvin Sirleaf in a five-page reaction to President Weah’s Special Presidential Committee report charging him to restitute funds received from NOCAL says “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.”
For now, it remains to be seen just where the road will lead in this entire saga. President Weah’s decision to seek Legislative approval of the Committee’s report, according to observers, is an attempt to garner support from across the political divide as a way of strengthening his hand to commence a prosecutorial action against the accused should he muster the courage and political will to do so.
Should he opt to prosecute the accused, he may run into hurdles trying to get all of the accused to appear before a court in Liberia as a number of them to date, remain outside the bailiwick of the Republic. Short of having his government issue international arrest warrants for those individuals, according to a prominent Liberian lawyer (name withheld), naming and shaming as well as extradition could be other options the government could employ to bring the individuals to book.
The problem is, with the exception of the United States, which has an extradition treaty with Liberia signed in Monrovia on November 1, 1937, Liberia does not have extradition treaties with other member states of the United Nations or the African Union or even ECOWAS that would lend easily to such efforts, the lawyer maintains. In view of this, according to the lawyer, this case may have an outcome similar to that of the Sable Mining bribery case which has since stalled even before former President Sirleaf left office.