NOCAL Broke? What Happened to Its Tens of Millions of US$?

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Why do we Africans always strive so hard to prove Time Magazine right in its 1975 utterance, “In Africa, things always go backward”?

Not long after that publication, civil wars broke out in newly independent Angola and Mozambique. In 1975, too, Nigerian Head of State Yakubu Gowon was overthrown, plunging Nigeria into many more years of military rule, some of them very evil.

Earlier in 1975 Time had put General Gowon on its front cover calling him and Nigeria “The First Black Power” because at that point Nigeria was swimming in oil revenues, with financial reserves in the billions of US dollars, one of the highest national reserves in the world.

We also know what happened here five years later. Liberia, a citadel of peace and stability for over a century and Africa’s oldest independent republic, was rocked by a bloody military coup that unleashed 10 years of terror, driving most of the country’s most highly educated sons and daughters into exile. This led to a 14 –year civil war that killed nearly 300,000, ruined our entire infrastructure, setting the country 50 years—Time said it: “backward”.

In 1980, too, Zimbabwe gained independence and soon its President, Robert Mugabe, began winning prizes for being one of Africa’s major food producers. But Mugabe’s thirst for power destroyed his political opponents and soon absolute power corrupted Zimbabwean absolutely, plunging the Zim dollar into worthlessness. Today at 90 Mugabe is still clinging to power and there is threat of starvation! What did Time say in 1975?

Just three years ago the world welcomed its newest independent nation—South Sudan. Today, sadly, it is in civil war.

The world welcomed Liberia’s return to democratic rule, when in the 2005 it produced Africa’s first elected woman President, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

The Daily Observer was the lone media voice that was convinced that she was, at that critical point in Liberia’s history, the only presidential option, especially as the alternative was a football superstar that had hardly done eighth grade. If she were elected, we told the people, world leaders, mostly men, would rush to help her and Liberia.
It happened, did it not? They quickly waved the country’s US$4 billion debt and helped restore Liberia’s international credibility. Thanks to international goodwill, too, our roads are being rehabilitated, the hydro, which Charles Taylor destroyed, is being rebuilt, and several billion US dollars have come in new agricultural and mineral investments, with millions more in petroleum explorations through the National Oil Company of Liberia (NOCAL).

Several highly intelligent and credible men and women have headed NOCAL, including its one time Board Chairman Clemenceau Urey, an insurance entrepreneur, and President, Dr. Fodee Kromah, a geologist. All seemed to have been going well until the President replaced Chairman Urey with her son, Robert Sirleaf. When Urey left the Board, there was US$31 million in NOCAL’s accounts. Ellen was heavily criticized for appointing her son to that high profile and moneyed post. Many saw it as a blatant case of nepotism and some, including the Daily Observer, it would bring her bad press. It did, leading her to fall out with her own Liberian sister, fellow Nobel Laureate Leymah Gbowee, who also criticized Robert’s appointment.

Robert remained in that position for over three years. When she retired him last year and named her smiling Legal Advisor, Counselor Seward Cooper, as NOCAL Chair, the Daily Observer warned the new Chairman that what was now required of him was far more than smiles, but toughness, to ensure that unlike Liberia’s gold, diamond and iron ore, the nation’s petroleum would benefit the ordinary people, not just a few at the top.

Alas! The widespread rumor that NOCAL after Robert Sirleaf is broke was last Tuesday confirmed when a NOCAL team appeared before a Legislative Joint Committee on Lands, Mines and Energy and the Environment.

“In Africa . . .” ah! We are afraid to repeat Time’s pessimistic and annoying 1975 utterance. How is that possible in Liberia when we are led by Africa’s most highly educated and one of its most exposed leaders, President Sirleaf, who has served the World Bank, Citibank and the United Nations Development Program and as Liberia’s Finance Minister?

Should no one be able to answer that question, there is one burning question for which the Liberian people will demand an answer—what happened to NOCAL’s money?
And yet, we remain eternal optimists. We believe, hope, trust and pray that in her remaining 30 or so months in office, Ellen can and will do some things that will establish for her a positive and tangible legacy. Let us all join her in working to make that happen. But she has to begin that process by doing it with an open hand. For starts, remove all those political appointees in NOCAL and bring in people who have been trained to do the job.

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