Justice Minister’s recusal poses challenge to President Weah’s mandate
The recent recusal by Justice Minister and Attorney General Cllr. Frank Musa Dean, who is currently the only confirmed prosecutor at the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) may, more likely than not, pose serious challenges to the investigation of the Global Witness report of alleged grave acts of corruption by former government officials involved in the sale of Oil Block 13 to U.S. petroleum company ExxonMobil.
With the recusal of Cllr. Dean, the question that remains to be answered is who will lead the team of investigators. Cllr. Daku Mulbah, the man appointed by President George Weah as Liberia’s Solicitor General and lead prosecutor, has yet to appear before the Senate for confirmation.
Cllr. Mulbah was the chief prosecutor of the case growing out of the 2016 Global Witness report that linked several former and present government officials, including former House Speaker J. Alex Tyler and Grand Cape Mount County Senator Varney G. Sherman, to alleged bribes bankrolled by Sable Mining, a UK-based mining company.
According to Global Witness in that report, Sable Mining paid bribes to several key government officials to manipulate the Public Procurement and Concession (PPC) Law in order to increase the company’s chances of outrightly winning the rights to mine iron ore in the Wologizi Mountain, Lofa County.
There is no news about the resurfacing of the case from the Wologizi matter, since Cllr. Fonati Koffa and the Special Presidential Taskforce, constituted by former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, backed off from the trial on grounds of lack of cooperation from Global Witness to furnish them with evidence.
Cllr. Koffa was elected in 2017 to the House of Representatives for Grand Kru County Electoral District #2, although by then the government had spent well over US$750,000 on the case.
Before the Justice Minister Cllr. Dean’s recusal, a release signed by Information Minister Eugene Nagbe announced President Weah had given Minister Dean two weeks to come up with a preliminary report on the ExxonMobil Oil Block 13 bribery allegations.
The release quoting the President, said that if illegality (corruption, wickedness) is determined, those culpable will bear the full weight of the law and therefore urged all to cooperate.
But, in a communication on Tuesday, Minister Dean noted that, “I hereby recuse myself from the investigation commissioned by the president into the acquisition of the National Oil Company of Liberia’s (NOCAL) Block 13 by Broadway Consolidated Peppercoast (BCP) and its subsequent sale to ExxonMobil.”
Cllr. Dean by then said the decision to recuse himself was based on the fact that “I served as president and Chief Executive officer (CEO) of NOCAL between 2004 and January 2006.” Observers however pointed out that Minister Dean’s recusal came in the wake of expressed concerns by Global Witness that Cllr. Dean’s previous stint as head of NOCAL rendered him unfit to preside over the investigations.
Global Witness claimed that the initial sale of oil Block 13 to Oranto Petroleum, over which Dean presided, was done under arrangements tainted with fraud.
It remains unclear though whether the Minister’s recusal was driven by expressed concerns about possibilities that he may have been part of a fraudulent arrangement to award Block 13 to the Nigerian company Oranto. Dean added, “I have obtained the approval of President George Manneh Weah to recuse myself from the investigation.”
In making this recusal, Minister Dean said, all oil blocks awarded between 2004 and January 2006 were awarded pursuant to the companies’ compliance with NOCAL’s full disclosure requirements, under penalty of law.
According to Dean, his recusal is intended to avoid any semblance of conflict of interest and to ensure that the investigation is characterized by transparency and integrity.
It may be recalled that London-based Global Witness released a report on Thursday, March 29, claiming that ExxonMobil’s 2013 purchase of Liberia’s Block 13 oil license, more likely than not, enriched former government officials, who may have illegally owned the block.
The National Oil Company of Liberia (NOCAL) also made unusual, large payments to senior government officials who authorized the 2013 deal, Global Witness said in a report entitled, “Catch Me If You Can.”
Global Witness’ Senior Campaigner, Jonathan Gant, called on the Liberian government to investigate those allegedly involved in Exxon’s 2013 oil deal for corruption or wrongdoing. Global Witness also claimed that it saw evidence, shortly following the authorization of the 2013 Exxon deal, in which some senior Liberian officials were paid “bonuses” of US$35,000 by NOCAL, which more than doubled their annual salaries.
“These officials, and the positions they held at the time, were NOCAL’s Chief Executive Officer (CEO), Randolph McClain; National Investment Chairman, Natty Davis; Finance Minister Amara M. Konneh’ Lands, Mines, and Energy Minister Patrick Sendolo; Justice Minister Christiana Tah; and NOCAL’s Board Chair, Robert Sirleaf,” the report said.
Block 13 was originally awarded by NOCAL in 2005 to Liberian-Anglo Company Broadway Consolidated/Peppercoast (BCP). In 2007, the block was ratified by the Liberian legislature.
“But Global Witness’ evidence shows that the company was likely part-owned by former Lands, Mines and Energy Minister, Jonathan Mason and former Deputy Minister, Mulbah Willie. Mason and Willie are suspected of granting the oil block to a company in which they held interests while they were also ministers in 2005, which was illegal under Liberian law,” Global Witness said.