The Analyst (Monrovia)

Liberia: Robert Sirleaf Takes The Stand- Responds to Critics, Defends His Repute

Photo: James M. Garresen, II/Executive Mansion
President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf on an oil rig.

The hullabaloo which has greeted the Liberian oil sector particularly centers on fears that returns from the country's newly discovered oil and gas would be clawed away by bigwigs in power. Analysis and even innuendos have appointed suspicious fingers towards one person, the Chairman of the Board of the National Oil Company (NOCAL) which superintendents the sector, Robert Sirleaf who is a biological son of the President. Several critics have tried to draw a correlation between the fear for the loss of oil and gas revenue to a few person and the familial appointments at NOCAL. But the man who is in the center of the criticisms, having remained mute on the controversial for a long time, took the stand as if to say, "Enough is enough". At a press conference yesterday, Robert Sirleaf not only defended the rationale of his leadership at NOCAL and his professional standing, but also methodically refuted allegations of corruption and favoritism which have been flying all over the place. The Analyst attended the press conference and now reports.

There has been quite a scathing opposition to the son of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf' son, Robert Sirleat, assuming the leadership of Liberia's new valuable resource, oil, with some critics spewing corruption charges and that t his mother has been nepotistic in his appointment to the position.

This week, the allegations flared up again, this time coming from a member of the Lower House of the Legislature, Edwin Snowe, who unleashed a barrage of accusations against the Sirleafs.

Robert Sirleaf who had been quite quiet over these allegations finally broke away is professional urging of staying off the media as if he agrees with the Kru maxim that, "when accused that you are a slave while your mouth is filled of gari and you can't speak out, shake your head."

Yesterday, at a well-attended press conference Mr. Sirleaf indeed did not only shake his head, he also uttered lengthy strong words in defense of his appointment and performance as Chairman of the Board of Director of NOCAL, coupled with the "half-truths and falsehoods" splash at him by his detractors.

Board Chair & Son of the President

The NOCAL Board Chair spoke fondly about his mother, debunking his critics that his appointment is rather about merit and competence and not about son-ship of the President.

Like any child would be, he said "I am so proud of my mother. Even greater than that, I am the proud son of a resilient and determined Nation," adding, "I want to see all the children of this Nation succeed. I want to see our great nation prosper. I want to see our nation build upon its peace, through economic empowerment and opportunity for all people. I want to see the potential petroleum resources managed in a way that will benefit all."

Mr. Sirleaf said has blessed him at this time to be able to do something about it.

'It's about Less talk more action! It's about less attacking more developing. And so, throughout the public discussions, I have been silent, listening and opting to work harder, not only to prove critics wrong but to contribute to the development of our country, help the President, and to allow my performance to speak for me," he said.

The NOCAL boss said he has pondered about the debate over this appointment by his mother in his quiet moments, and knows that he could have settled for lesser public exposure and mischaracterizations, and even lesser political attacks on the President, who happens to be his mother.

"But, if I can do something to help our country – if by my talent, my experience and competence, I can help my country; if by the privilege and responsibility of being the son of the President and the trust that it brings, I can help our President succeed in her ambitious agenda of transformation; if I can help her build the durable and sustainable institutional frameworks to guarantee that revenues from the exploitation of our natural resources are used to benefit all Liberians– and if I turn away because it will cause me personal pain or draws political criticism, what would be the value of my birth right?" he said, reading a prepared statement. "And more importantly, what would be the value of my relationship with our people, I made the right choice in remaining steadfast. I owe Liberia me!"

As third Chairman of the board of NOCAL, he said, he came to the position of chairman after having served for more than two years as a board member and that his preference was necessitated by the growing demand on the public entity for increased transparency, reform and accountability.

Mr. Sirleaf averred that NOCAL will no longer continue to operate in secrecy, conduct its activities imprudently, negotiate feebly, and conflictingly present itself as a shareholder and a regulator.

He said the time has come for openness and reforms and that he accepted the challenge of heading the Company, knowing that every detail of his contribution would be scrutinized not only by the Liberian people, but by a larger international community.

"I not only welcomed the scrutiny I was the one who invited it. This would allow all to evaluate me, and my competency as Chairman of the national oil company for themselves," he said. "I ask you today to judge me based on what we have been able to accomplish at NOCAL and not based on what "they say."

At NOCAL, he said, he got nothing to hide and, in the spirit of his commitment to transparency, he welcome the National Oil Company's commission of an independent audit of all expenditures related to my activities in his official capacity as Chairman.

"I also insist that the report of the audit be published in keeping with the Freedom of Information Law of Liberia," he said.

The Gazprom Hubbub

Though Mr. Sirleaf, throughout his statement did not mention Rep Edwin Snowe by name, he responded to his allegations that he and the Russian oil company Gazprom were unfairly treated.

Snowe had criticized the Sirleafs for holding investments talks with Gazprom with whom he had negotiated and brought into the country to participate in the oil and gas sector and for foregoing what he considered a relatively better offers the company had made.

But in his response, Mr. Sirleaf said Snowe misrepresented the facts because the NOCAL Board Chair said, amongst other things, the Gazprom's offer was not in the interest of the people of Liberia as claimed.

In the midst of the last campaign preceding the general elections, Sirleaf said, a House Representative [Snowe] requested an audience with the President for the CEO of GPB Neftegaz, a subsidiary of Gazprom Bank, which itself is a subsidiary of Gazprom.

The company is now called GPB Resources a subsidiary of the Gazprombank Group. NOCAL continues to engage the company as all others on their interest in Liberia. I have not any personal issues with them.

"I want it to be made clear the House Member asked me to participate," he explained. "The President agreed to accord the Representative the courtesy and met with the GPB Executive. The President requested Cllr. Jeff Wood, of the International Senior Lawyers' Project (ISLP) to sit in on the meeting."

According to Mr. Sirleaf, the ISLP is an international organization of highly skilled and experienced lawyers of who assists governments, NGOs and other institutions in building the strength of their legal capacity. Mr Wood is one of the contributing "authors" of Liberia's PPCC law.

Mr. Sirleaf further told the story: "It was exactly to avoid the kind of scandalous charges from such characters that the President insisted that Mr. Wood participate in the meeting. She, however pointed out to the Representative that it would be a clear conflict in his role as a member of the Legislative Branch. It was then, and still is now ethically wrong, for the Representative to have participated in the meeting with the President and the representatives of a private company seeking an investment opportunity. The representative is a Legislator. At the time, and perhaps even now, a ranking member of the House's Committee on Concessions and Investments."

Mr. Sirleaf theorized that if the Republic had concluded a concession agreement with GPB Neftegaz, that agreement would have gone to the Legislature for ratification.

"Again, the President respectfully pointed this out to the representative, and judging from his prolonged silence, it appeared to all that he understood and accepted the President's position prior to the meeting. She asked where he would prefer to wait, HE chose the Palava Hut," he explained further.

In that meeting, he said, the GPB Executive expressed his company's interest in Block 13. The President listened, thanked him for the interest and gave him the standard response which was that the process was ongoing through the NIC by which every concession is agreed, and also he should directly engage NOCAL and then CEO Chris Neyor. The President indicated that the Inter-ministerial Concessions Committee (IMCC), NOCAL, and ultimately the Legislature ratification would determine the resolution of Block 13.

Sirleaf: "Let me throw a bit of light on the much-talked about the divestiture of oil bloc 13. Some people have excited themselves and saturated the airwaves with claims that NOCAL rejected the Gazprom offer of which caused the country to lose $27M in projected revenues. During numerous House Hearings on this matter, NOCAL has explained that the Offer submitted by

GPB Neftegaz was not in the best interests of the Country. GPB offered $90M to Broadway/Peppercoast and $10M to the Government of Liberia as a signature bonus in exchange for a 100% return on all of its investment once production actually began. NOCAL could not accept this."

Always with an eye to the future, he intimated, NOCAL could not accept this because this offer would have obligated Liberia to a $100M debt burden for $27M.

"Add a $100M to the high cost of exploration and a partner, GPB Neftegaz which then had no deep-water drilling experience; Liberia could potentially owe an estimated $500M by first oil under this deal. This does not benefit Liberia and Liberians. Rather, it hurts us and imposes a burden which we do not need."

The truth is, he said, any Liberian can invite private companies to Liberia to invest, and it is incumbent upon lawmakers to promote Liberia as a destination for investment.

"But there is a clear line – at least some of us think there ought to be one – between a lawmaker inviting a company to invest in Liberia and actively representing said company, to the extent of manufacturing a national controversy when it appears that the client company may not win its desired concession," he indicated, "I suggest those in positions of public trust who want to operate in such fashion, resign their post and open a private consulting firm that represents foreign companies in Liberia. One cannot be both the seeker of private opportunities while the keeper of public interests,, and certainly not while serving as the Chairman of the House Committee on Rules and Order and a member of several other committees, including Concessions and Investments."

Motives Beyond Attacks

Robert Sirleaf also explored underpinnings of vicious attacks he described falsehoods and half-truths against his leadership at NOCAL, saying that he is a victim of self-seeking individuals.

He said there is very little doubt that the attacks were largely personal and disguised as exposing the "ills in our society."

Strangely, the only "ills" exposed was how low greed and selfishness will permit individuals to sink, he said. "This is sad and an example of what is still wrong with our development. Wholly self-serving, hateful attacks were clearly motivated by the failure to have me participate in the decadent business of putting personal interests above the interests of our country, a practice which has led time and time again to the impoverishment of our people."

Mr. Sirleaf asserted that he had animosity, but only sympathy for the attacker [Snowe] or anyone who, after all that our country has endured, still thinks that we ought to settle for business as usual – "that we ought to take care of ourselves at the expense of those who appointed or elected us to serve them."

The attackers and their associates, he noted, should know by now that he will not participate in deals from which a few will get richer and the life of the ordinary man, woman and child stays stagnated.

"I will not participate in deals that will increase the number of Liberians who must abandon their pride only to beg for bread and for school fees, at the gates of a few who have gotten richer by depriving the people of what is rightfully theirs. This time, not at NOCAL, and certainly not with me."

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