Why Liberians are Really Angry about Corruption

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This newspaper has tackled Liberia’s corruption challenge from many angles over its 35 year history, recounting, analyzing and opining on current events – full many of which centered on the use of national resources by public figures.
In fact, corruption remains a fixture on the headlines and bulletins of the Liberian media, and the word ‘GRAFT’ screams perpetually across front pages, just above the photograph of the sitting President, the Finance Minister, or the head of any big-budget public entity. With such headlines constantly leaping out at a public too lazy to read the stories beneath them, the constant anger against Government is expected.

“The Government is doing nothing!” they say. “They’re just eating all our money!”
Indeed, President Sirleaf’s political opposition has accused her administration of being the most corrupt Liberia has ever had. Supporters, of course, deny this; and international think tanks fuel the debate with reports confirming high public suspicion of Government’s financial mismanagement.

While this debate will doubtless continue long after Ellen steps down, one thing distinguishes her presidency from those of her predecessors: people are allowed to openly express their dissatisfaction, with no fear of retribution. No one gets a visit from the military police at 2:00AM, or gets thrown into jail, or gets killed. No one gets their business shut down, or their newspaper burned to the ground. The President has been patient and poised before a public that has often disrespected her in the most personal manner.

So, all things considered, may we suggest that one reason this administration seems to take the corruption cake, is because the subject remains welcome to overwhelm our national discourse?

To be clear, denying that corruption is rife in the current administration would be foolish. After all, the media suffers from Government’s refusal to pay for legitimate ads. And when we are finally paid a mere fraction of what we are owed, we, too, get those friendly phone calls from comptrollers’ offices demanding “commission.”

Our intent, therefore, is not to dismiss the reality of the day, but to acknowledge the elephant in the room: the fact that corruption is not anyone’s public enemy; rather, that it is our favorite national past time.

Liberians are right about one thing: the trillions of dollars that Government has been mandated to steward during our nation’s 168-year history are, in fact, our money. “We the People” have a right to determine how it is spent, through legislative representation; to remain informed about its use; and to receive just recourse when that money is misused (a dream yet to be realized).

We, however, are not entitled to directly access the money ourselves – unless we are employed or contracted by the Government, and therefore, receive due payment for the goods and services rendered. Generally, the impact of ‘our money’ should be felt through human and infrastructural development.

The trouble is, however, that we Liberians do not truly accept the concept of good financial governance. That is too boring, too slow, and too hard. Let us be honest, “We the People” prefer for public funds to “trickle down” the way they did during a previous administration.

It is said that a former Liberian head of state kept many boxes of public cash in his dining room. And when “friends and neighbors” came calling, he would hand out hundreds and thousands of United States Dollars to these individuals, for their personal use.

How generous! Or so many Liberians thought, because they benefitted first-, second-, and third-hand from that generosity. And, today, many look back on that era with painful nostalgia, because…well…”money was flowing. We weren’t hungry.” But since that corrupt supply line is now cut off, as Government works earnestly to reform its rotten systems, “We the People” are suddenly all hot and bothered about corruption.

Granted, President Sirleaf inspires public dismay because the Liberian people believe that she and “Public Enemy Number One” have become best friends.

But the truth is, that is not really why “We the People” are angry. “We the People” don’t care that money is (allegedly) being stolen from national coffers. “We the People” don’t care whether or not Rob Sirleaf works pro-bono or Aunty Jenny gets board fees. “We the People’s” only concern about “corruption” is that “We the People” are not feeling the trickle-down effect.

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