US-Liberia Relations Deteriorating?

President George Weah.

If recent reports are to be believed, all is not well in US-Liberia relations. Liberian President George Weah and his delegation to the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in New York, are said to have been less than presidentially received. Visas for the President and entourage were restricted to 25-mile radius of the UN Headquarters, and reports are that the President and delegation were delayed, at least for a few hours, at the JFK International Airport. 

These are not signs of a healthy relationship between the two countries. Visa restrictions to the UNGA are usually reserved for leaders and delegations from countries with strained relationships with the United States. Increasing public corruption is believed to be responsible for the chilling of the relations between the two historically-friendly nations.

Earlier, in mid-August, the United States Government imposed sanctions on three Liberian Government officials including Weah’s Chief of Staff for “ongoing involvement in public corruption”. According to the US Department of Treasury’s Undersecretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, Brian Nelson, “Through their corruption, these officials have undermined democracy in Liberia for their own personal benefit”.  Nelson further informed that the designations of the three officials “demonstrate that the United States remains committed to holding corrupt actors accountable and to the continued support of the Liberian people.” 

President Weah responded to the designation of sanctions with an announcement of unspecified suspensions and investigations. Although the Liberian Constitution authorizes the President to hire and fire officials of the Executive that are not tenured “according to his will and pleasure”, the President claimed he could not outrightly dismiss his close officials out of respect for their “due process rights”. 

This position was widely condemned, including prominently by the Liberian Council of Churches and opposition leader Alexander Cummings in addition to my OP-ED entitled, “Weah could be Toying with Fires”. All the positions argued for more decisive actions to rescue the image of the country and the reputation of the presidency. About a month later, as President Weah prepared to depart the country for the UNGA, the three sanctioned officials resigned, and the President promptly accepted the resignations. Nothing further has been said of the investigations announced by the President, nor has there been any indication of one which is ongoing.

Long before the sanctions were announced, separately, US Government officials had called on the Liberian Government to rein in corruption and abuse of public offices by officials.  “Liberia still has work to do to seriously address and root out corruption. We bring this up as your friends who are eager to help. Corruption is an act of robbery. It robs Liberia’s citizens of access to healthcare, to public safety, to education”, Dana Banks, Special Assistant to US President Joe Biden publicly pronounced when she spoke on behalf of the United States Government at an official program marking the 200th Year of the return of freed people of color to Liberia.

Speaking at the Woodrow Wilson Institute in March this year, the US former Ambassador to Liberia and current Ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas Greenfield, said, “Liberia has a serious problem right now, and that’s taking on a number of issues, the foremost among them is the issue of corruption.” Ambassador Greenfield added: “Corruption is a democracy killer. It prevents the country from having the healthy business environment that it needs to lift Liberians out of poverty. And we cannot have that in a place like Liberia which we are counting on as a bulwark for Africa’s democracy.” 

The stark public warnings by officials of the US Government appeared to have been largely unheeded by the Liberian Government. According to Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index and Rankings of countries, while Liberia achieved its best ranking of 75 out of 180 nations during the administration of President Weah’s predecessor, the country has consistently recorded its worst rankings and scores under President Weah, which is now reported at 136 out of 180 countries from a previous of 137.

Despite spending millions of Liberian taxpayers’ dollars on public relations and lobbies in Washington, DC, President Weah and his officials have now trained their guns on Alexander Cummings, a former Coca Cola Executive, who is running to unseat Weah, for their current misfortunes in the chilling relationship with the United States. 

Cummings identified corruption as a cancer he promises to fight against, and has repeatedly called on President Weah and other elected and appointed officials not to engage in corruption, repeatedly claiming that “Liberia is too rich for Liberians to be so poor”. He blames this unfortunate situation on corruption.

According to Cummings, a highly-regarded international corporate executive, “Rather than uselessly shifting blames, all President Weah and his administration officials need to do is commit to doing the right thing for the country and our suffering people, including by stopping the stealing in the government.” He added: “There must be consequences for stealing from the poor Liberian people, mismanaging our country’s resources, and abusing the privileges the Liberian people have provided to leaders to serve them. We will not end the suffering and poverty in our country until we ensure our leaders are accountable for the power we gave them to serve our nation.”

It cannot be said that all is well in US-Liberia relations. By law, the Liberian President is the Chief Architect of the country’s foreign policy. To the extent that the relationship between the US and Liberia is deteriorating, the responsibility falls on the shoulders of President Weah to reverse this course. Liberians and Liberia are too connected to the United States to ignore worsening diplomatic relations between the two countries. 

The warning signs for Liberia are becoming ominous. Unfavorable relations between the US and Liberia cannot benefit Liberia. Restricting President Weah to only within the vicinity of the UN amounts to declaring the Liberian President unwelcome to the United States. For Liberians, this collapse in relationship, after Weah inherited a healthy one with the United States, Liberia’s biggest development partner and historic friend, should be concerning.    

* The author, BSc., LLB, LL.M, former Liberia’s Permanent Representative to the International Maritime Organization (IMO). Also served with Liberia’s Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism from 2008 as Assistant and later Deputy Minister for Press & Public Affairs. Jackson defends a political career which arises from his days as a student activist at the University of Liberia