Recalling history from which comes the phrase “Playing Fiddle While Rome Burns”, it is recorded that during the great fire that consumed Rome in AD 64, Roman Emperor Nero was all the while, comfortably seated in a tower watching and playing this musical instrument, called the fiddle, while his great city, Rome, was being laid to waste by a great fire. Thus, “Playing Fiddle While Rome Burns” means to neglect priorities, especially during moments of crisis, and instead occupy oneself with unimportant matters.
There is a disturbing parallel between President George Weah’s apparent aloofness and the immense challenges faced his by embattled officials struggling to counter media narratives of the mystery as well as to resolve the contradictions arising from conflicting official statements on the disappearance of the L$15 billion in newly printed banknotes.
For the past weeks, the missing money issue has played globally on nearly every important media outlet here and abroad and it has drawn Liberia into the international spotlight all for the wrong reasons. For what else could be more self-damning, self-defeating and gravely injurious to the reputation of the country and this government, than the unsolved mystery of the reported disappearance of billions of Liberian dollars cash and the not yet accounted for 25 million US dollars said to have been “infused into the economy”, intended to halt the downslide in the value of the Liberian dollar?
As President Weah admitted to the nation, during his maiden UN General Assembly meeting, he was accosted by his colleagues and he felt embarrassed by the barrage of questions from them on the “missing billions”. As if to make matters worse, the New York State Federal Reserve, custodian of Liberian government foreign exchange reserves, has since announced it will no longer do business with the Central Bank of Liberia (CBL) until the matter can be resolved in a transparent fashion that will leave no lingering doubts about the credibility of the investigative team’s findings.
The matter is yet far from resolved and one, perhaps the nation included, would expect that President Weah would issue an “all hands-on deck” call and bravely take the helm to steer his ship of state clearly out of dangerous waters. But this appears to not be case as President Weah, according to reports, has left the country for Equatorial Guinea on an official visit — but first to Congo Brazzaville to watch the Lone Star football team play against their Congolese counterparts. All of this is happening while his country is faced with deep crisis with unknown potential consequences.
Questions are rightly being asked about the significance of the visit to Equatorial Guinea while the country remains in a state of uncertainty arising from the billions of Liberian dollars gone missing according to official accounts. Is President Weah, for example, seeking financial assistance from the life serving dictator of that country, Teodoro Obiang?
In Equatorial Guinea there are no anti-graft institutions and the government is reportedly riddled with corruption and nepotism. One of the sons of President Obiang, Mbega Obiang Lima is the minister of mines, industry and energy. Another son, Teodorin Nguema Obiang serves as vice President appointed by his father, this son has been the subject of money laundering investigations in several countries.
A French Court found him guilty on charges of money laundering and embezzlement. The Court ordered the confiscation of more than 100 million Euros (US$120m equivalent) in French assets and imposed a fine of 30 million Euros along with a three-year suspended prison sentence. Earlier in July, Swiss authorities, in response to a French request, had seized property including 24 luxury cars and a yacht believed to be owned by him, although his government claimed it was state owned property.
More recently, in Brazil he was arrested at the Viracapos airport near Sao Paulo, Brazil, where more than US$1.5 million in cash and US$15 million in watches were seized from the luggage of a delegation accompanying him. Equatorial Guinea authorities had claimed that the cash was for the payment of Teodorin Obiang’s medical bills while the watches were said to be for Teodorin Obiang’s personal use as they were all engraved with his initials.
His father and President, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, is Africa’s longest-serving head of state, and he has held power since 1979. He was awarded a new seven-year term in the April 2016 presidential election, reportedly winning 93.5 percent of the vote which was reported to have been heavily rigged in his favor. He is an autocrat with broad powers to rule by decree and has been in power for 38 years.
He and former President Sirleaf are said to enjoy close ties in a relationship that dates back to the early 1990s when President Sirleaf served as head of UNDP Africa overseeing a democracy related project in that country. It was at that time, according to sources, that presidential lobbyist Riva Levinson, then working for Paul Manafort, struck up a relationship with the former President.
During her tenure, President Sirleaf is reported to have made several visits to that country and her son Robert Sirleaf is reported to be a good friend of Teodorin Obiang. It can be recalled that at one time President Sirleaf had hinted at possible Equatorial Guinea’s support for the airport renovation project but the arrangement is said to have fallen apart after a deal was reportedly struck with the People’s Republic of China to construct a new airport.
And now, questions are: What does Liberia stand to benefit from President Weah’s visit to Equatorial Guinea? Was it to seek genuine financial assistance from the government of that country? Was the visit intended to coax Teodorin Obiang into investing some of his ill acquired fortune in Liberia? Or better still, was the visit to Equatorial Guinea a mere smokescreen to shield him from public scrutiny about his trip to Congo Brazzaville to watch the Lone Star football team play against their Congolese counterparts?
Unfortunately, Liberia did lose the game anyway thanks to poor preparation and the lack of a coherent football development program. On the diplomatic side, what points did President Weah score from this visit coming at a time when the entire nation is gripped with anxiety over the disappearance of billions of Liberian dollar banknotes? Further, how much did this trip cost and how much value did we gain in return, given our precarious financial situation?
President Weah owes the Liberian people an explanation on this score, keeping in mind that national governance is not and can never be a “Chay dey ni Pehn Khanon” affair falling strictly within the purview of the Big Papa.