A Test Case of President Weah’s Declared Resolve to Fight Corruption

President George Manneh Weah

Hope deferred, it is said, makes the heart sick and filled with longing. Such is the case with the past and present governments whose solemn pledges to fight corruption and treat it as ‘Public Enemy Number 1’, have floundered and left the Liberian nation with a sense of loss and left the people feeling distraught.

Corruption is an age-old problem in Liberia. The first coup d’etat in the nation’s history in 1872 was triggered by acts of corruption linked to President Edward James Roye. A little over a hundred years later in 1980, the second coup d’etat in the nation’s history occurred. Prominent amongst a host of charges levied against the government of President Tolbert was that of rampant corruption. 

And for that, 13 former officials are summarily tried in a kangaroo court and sentenced to death by firing squad. The executions, which were carried out in the full glare of the public, left most Liberians with a feeling of hope that a new day had dawned as corruption had been dealt a fatal blow. But their hopes were misplaced because not long after, the coup makers themselves became involved in acts of corruption. In keeping with its promise to return to civilian rule in 1985, elections were held in which the leader of the military Junta, Samuel K. Doe, was a contestant.

Doe imposed a banning order on the Amos Sawyer-led Liberian People’s Party and the Bacchus Matthews-led United Peoples Party.  By popular accounts, Doe lost the elections to the rival Liberia Action Party. But he declared himself a winner amidst reports of open fraud. The US Secretary of State at the time, George Shultz, declared the elections were fair by African standards, thus legitimizing an illegitimate power grab by the military dictator.

Fast forward, corruption and gross human rights abuse were major push factors that led the country down the road to civil war. For fourteen (14) long years, the country was balkanized by warring factions led by individuals whose sole motivation, it appeared, was to illegally expropriate the nation’s resources without accountability. A Peace agreement, signed in 1996 followed by-elections in 1997, saw the rise to power of Charles Taylor of the rebel National Patriotic Front of Liberia. Taylor’s 6-year rule was characterized by gross human rights abuse and runaway corruption.

Faced with rebel forces banging at the gates of the Capital, Monrovia, Taylor abdicated in 2003 and went into exile in 2003. Following his departure, a Transitional government composed of the warring factions and civil society was set up, in keeping with the tenets of the 2003 Accra Comprehensive Peace Agreement (ACPA).

The Transitional government, composed of disparate elements, proved to be very corrupt over the period of its two-year tenure. Following the election of President Sirleaf in 2005, the head of the Transitional Government, Liberian businessman Charles Gyude Bryant and some of his officials were criminally charged for corruption and tried accordingly.

This development, unprecedented in the nation’s history, raised so much hope that the new government was committed to fighting corruption. It also set a precedent that former leaders can be held accountable for acts of corruption. At her inauguration in 2006, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf pledged to fight corruption and treat it as ‘Public Enemy Number One. But again, the hopes of the people were misplaced and dashed.

Corruption flourished under President Sirleaf, despite the fact that under her rule several national integrity institutions were either established or strengthened. But her critics maintain that she undermined those very institutions by her tolerance to acts of corruption, to which some family members were allegedly linked. Later, she would admit that corruption had become a vampire suggesting it was clear that she had lost the will to fight corruption. Under her watch, 66 Concession Agreements were signed, out of which 64 were bogus or tainted with corruption. 

Her successor, President George Manneh Weah, at his inauguration, made a similar pledge to fight corruption and promised harsh measures against those falling out of line.  Four (4) years later, it has become clear that President Weah has lost the will to fight corruption, which has since taken on runaway proportions under his watch. He appeared to have given his officials the nod with his refusal to declare his assets as required by law.

Further, under his watch, no official has been dismissed nor prosecuted for corruption. And there are many instances that come readily to mind: the missing L$16 billion; the US$25 million mop-up exercises and, most recently, the alleged bribery scam involving a top official in the Presidency who has been suspended. Also is the case involving the Liberia Anti-Corruption Commission (LACC) deputy, Kanio Gbala, the National Port Authority (NPA) managing director, Bill Twehway, and others.

But the communications director of the NPA has meanwhile dismissed allegations of its managing director’s involvement in the current case pending before the LACC. However, the public, going by comments received by this newspaper, appears distrustful of the promised investigation into the affair.

LACC deputy Kanio Gbala has done the right thing by recusing himself, pending the completion of the investigation. It remains to be seen whether the NPA boss, Bill Twehway, will similarly step aside from his official duties pending the outcome of the investigation, given his perceived closeness to President Weah.

At this stage it remains unclear whether President Weah will suspend or dismiss Bill Twehway, should the investigation find him culpable. Bill Twehway, who calls himself ‘Gbehkugbeh Jr.’, is said to be a very close confidante of President Weah. As to whether Gbehkugbeh Sr. will find the resolve to prosecute “Gbehkugbeh Jr.” if found culpable, is the big question. But judging by public comments aired on local radio talk shows, President Weah will either let “Gbehkugbeh Jr.” off the hook or treat him with a mere slap on the wrist. In the mind of the public, President Weah has already lost the fight against corruption. This is a test case. The nation now awaits President Weah’s resolve.