Liberia's anti-corruption agency has 'dented credibility', says Information Minister

Liberia’s government has defended President George Weah’s commitment to fighting corruption amid accusations that his administration is attempting to hamper the country’s anti-corruption body. The head of the Liberia Anti-Corruption Commission (LACC) previously told RFI that Weah’s government was holding back its funding and threatening to remove its tenured head.

President George Weah during a conference in Paris, 12 November 2018.
President George Weah during a conference in Paris, 12 November 2018. Photo: Ludovic Marin/Pool/AFP

“Over the past few months there has been an internal wrangling in the corruption commission itself,” Liberia’s Information Minister Eugene Nagbe told RFI. “Some of the commissioners have been accusing the chairman of not being above board in his financial dealings,” he said, referring to LACC boss James Verdier.

Verdier said these allegations against him had already been investigated and were found to be “frivolous”, adding that he had requested a “multi-year system audit” for the LACC.

The LACC boss, who was appointed by former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, had told RFI that the anti-corruption agency’s experience under Weah was “terrible” due to problems with funding and fears that the government would replace the anti-corruption body’s tenured chairperson with a political appointee.

“We don’t have funding, we have struggled to actually have this administration put itself behind the fight against corruption and make some bold statements regarding transparency, accountability and ensuring that we can fight corruption,” Verdier said during an interview with RFI correspondent Darlington Porkpa.

Information Minister Nagbe dismissed Verdier’s criticism over the lack of funding and concerns over a new bill dealing with tenured positions in state agencies.

“If you look at Liberia’s current national budget this year there has been more allocation in our budget for transparency institutions including the corruption commission,” said Nagbe, describing how this had demonstrated a strong commitment to the fight against graft.

Q&A: Eugene Nagbe

Weah’s government allocated some 21 million US dollars to the transparency and accountability sector, which includes the LACC, for the current fiscal year. This compares with almost 45 million US dollars for the previous year which the finance ministry said included a “one-off allocation” due to the country’s elections.

The LACC’s budget stood at more than 2.2 million US dollars for the last year, falling by almost 200,000 US dollars for the current year, representing a reduction to the anti-corruption body’s budget of almost nine per cent, according to an analysis of the budget by RFI.

LACC boss Verdier said the commission’s budget had been reduced by 20 per cent and funds were being disbursed every month, although no funds had been transferred for the past four months.

Tenured positions

The LACC is one of the state organisations benefitting from a tenured chairperson with the aim of removing any potential political interference from the fight against corruption.

However, the anti-corruption agency is set to have its tenured position removed in a bill voted by the country’s parliament on 22 November, according to reports in the Liberian media.

“There are some categories of agencies that are not included, which include the Central Bank of Liberia and a couple of the transparency institutions," said Nagbe.

“We cannot have parallel authorities in Liberia,” said the information minister. “The LACC has to have autonomy and therefore the tenure of the commissioner will be very important for that, so that wasn’t touched in the proposed bill.”

A number of Liberian media outlets carried reports of the removal of the LACC’s tenured position and the bill is subject to approval from the country’s senate.

The LACC chief disputed the information minister’s account, saying that the anti-corruption agency was indeed being stripped of its tenure by the government.

Missing banknotes

One of the scandals that has dogged the start of Weah’s term as president is a shipment of missing Liberian banknotes worth some 100 million US dollars.

“How can we trust a government that’s said three different things about the missing money?” said Martin Kollie, head of the Concerned Citizens United To Bring Our Money Back (COCUBOMB) campaign group.

Several shipments of new banknotes ordered from abroad arrived in Liberia in November 2017 and were later cleared by the port authorities in February and March 2018, after Weah’s administration took over.

The banknotes vanished, however the government later said that they were actually all accounted for. A number of former and current government officials were slapped with travel bans and a Liberian court issued arrest warrants for more than 30 former central bank officials.

“The president asked the government of the United States of America for assistance,” said Nagbe. “USAID and the government of Liberia agreed that an independent firm would be hired that would come and do a forensic assessment of the situation, a forensic audit.”

The report will be made public before the end of February, according to Nagbe, and anybody found responsible for the missing banknotes will face the relevant charges.

“We don’t trust the government to institute a robust mechanism for dealing with the situation,” said COCUBOMB campaigner Kollie. “There are instances where the government has not shown any form of political will to fight corruption, corruption has already won the war against the Weah-led government.”

Weah’s real estate portfolio

The former football star’s property development has drawn some criticism during his one year as president with comparisons over the speed of building work on his personal properties in comparison with government projects.

FrontPageAfrica carried out an investigation into several properties said to be linked to Weah and compared them to state projects that Weah has lauded as part of his “pro-poor” agenda.

Information Minister Nagbe said Weah’s personal properties represent no conflict of interest and his detractors are “unfair” to use his legitimately acquired wealth against him especially when Weah has “not been distracted”.

“He’s played professional football, he’s got a lot of property in Liberia, a lot of property in the United States, properties in France, and he’s done that without even being in the government,” said Nagbe.

“He’s not used one penny of government money to continue what he has been doing since he was 19 years old,” the information minister added, pointing to projects under Weah such as new roads, a new military hospital and a new online registration system for universities.

Nagbe also responded to comments over Weah’s promise to re-roof houses in the Gibraltar area of Monrovia where the president grew up.

“Yes, he did make a public announcement that he wanted to personally pay for the roofing of that community,” said Nagbe.

“The cabinet met and voted and decided that this has to be one of the government’s special projects so that it can have some sustainability and some continuance,” he added, saying Weah did not pay for the re-roofing, the Liberian government did.

Weah made the fight against corruption a mainstay of his presidential election campaign. During his swearing-in ceremony he said that the best way to kick-start the country’s economy was making sure that “public resources do not end up in the pockets of government officials”.

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