5 April 2013

Liberia: Johnson Sirleaf Plays Musical Chairs - Liberia's Superficial Reshuffle?

Photo: Liberia Government
President Sirleaf names members of her cabinet. (file photo)


Despite poor performance or being implicated in corruption scandals, many ministers survived President Johnson Sirleaf's recent cabinet reshuffle.

President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf's long-anticipated cabinet reshuffle has led many to question the Iron Lady's commitment to real government reform and the fight against corruption.

With only one minister replaced and a handful of deputies ousted despite allegations of corruption and poor performance in a number of areas, Johnson Sirleaf's critics say the president is failing to take action against some of her closest associates and create a more inclusive government.

"If you can promise the people of a nation a cabinet that can be representative of them and don't deliver that, then we have a problem", said George Solo, Chairman of Liberia's main opposition party, the Congress for Democratic Change (CDC), at a press conference in Monrovia.

"You come back and shuffle this cabinet to clear things up, only to move one low performing minister from point A to point B. It is a joke."

Some of the president's supporters also agree that the recent moves will do little to effect real change within the government. "The president is only appointing people she is comfortable with and she is not broadening the political scope", says Samuel P. Jackson, one of Johnson Sirleaf's senior economic advisors. "It was not a cabinet reshuffle, it was musical chairs".

Sirleaf's safe seats

The reshuffle in mid-March saw Minister of Commerce Miatta Beysolow replaced by Axel Addy, and Minister of Transport Eugene Nagbe transferred to the Ministry of Youth and Sports. A number of deputy ministers were sacked and replaced in the Ministry of Education, Ministry of Internal Affairs and the Ministry of Commerce and Industry.

Vabah Gayflor, the former Minister of Gender in the previous government, and then Minister of Labour, is now Director-General of the Cabinet. During her tenure as the Minister of Labour, Gayflor reported the creation of 20,000 jobs, but that figure was widely disputed and not backed by concrete data.

A number of ministries that have met criticism in recent months - whether for poor performance or alleged corruption - including Agriculture, Education and Labour, remained relatively unscathed.

This is the first cabinet reshuffle Johnson Sirleaf has made during her second term as president which officially began in 2012. In November 2010, Johnson Sirleaf dismissed her entire cabinet, putting them on administrative leave before reappointing some and ousting others.

Civil society groups have hit out at the president in particular for failing to take action against ministers that have come under fire in recent months, either for poor performance or alleged involvement in corruption.

Minister of Agriculture Florence Chenoweth, for example, was spared despite being deeply implicated in a scandal regarding the questionable manner in which 25% of Liberia's land and 40% of its rainforests were sold off to foreign logging companies.

The issuing of illegal logging permits under the guise of Private Use Permits (PUPs) was documented in 2012 report by Global Witness and the Liberian Sustainable Development Institute (SDI).

During Chenoweth's tenure as Minister of Agriculture and chairman of the board of directors of the Forest Development Agency (FDA), 66 illegal PUPs were issued. In January, Johnson Sirleaf dissolved the FDA's board of directors, ordered a full audit of the agency, and suspended the issuance of PUPs and exports of timber felled under such licences.

Similarly, Minister of Education Etmonia Tarpeh, a close friend and ally of the president, has kept her job despite the fact that in February, Johnson Sirleaf expressed outrage at the appalling condition of Liberia's education system.

During the cabinet retreat with officials of her government, she bluntly described the Ministry of Education as "a big mess", stressing the need for a total overhaul of the ministry.

With this statement, many were hoping that the president was ready to make sweeping changes within the ministry. But instead of replacing the minister, Johnson Sirleaf fired all of the deputy ministers.

Superficial shuffling

"The cabinet reshuffle we saw is a reflection of a deeper problem we have in Liberian society", says Silas Siakor, director of SDI. "The president's reluctance to break ranks with some of her so-called loyalists reinforces the public perception that being a friend of people in the president's inner circle is the most important requirement for a cabinet post".

Siakor argues that all the ministers named in government audit reports, like Chenoweth, should be under investigation. "When the president speaks of a commitment to fighting corruption while keeping high profile suspects in the cabinet - to me that is a contradiction."

During her second term, Sirleaf Johnson has also faced heavy criticism for appointing her family members to government positions and for failing to address government corruption.

At a reception at the University of Liberia last year, former political supporter and human rights lawyer, Counsellor Tiawan Gongloe, criticised Johnson Sirleaf for having become an "imperial president", referring to the appointment of her three sons to key economic and security positions.

Robert Sirleaf is the president's key political advisor and president of National Oil Company of Liberia (NOCAL), Fombah Sirleaf is the head of the National Security Agency (NSA) and Charles Sirleaf is the deputy governor of the Central Bank.

Critics such as Gongloe claim Johnson Sirleaf has failed to address the issue of government corruption and take action against her friends and allies in government. The Liberia Anti-Corruption Commission has reportedly only prosecuted one case successfully since it was established in 2008.

Johnson Sirleaf has made public gestures towards improving performance and accountability within her government, such as making her ministers sign performance contracts committing to fulfil their duties when they were appointed last year. But Dan Saryee, executive director of the Liberia Democratic Institute, says the lack of transparency in the performance contracts and the reshuffling process is part of the problem.

"On what basis were those chosen removed? There was no transparency or benchmarks."

Like many Liberians, Saryee believes the reshuffle was largely superficial and an attempt to address public anger over corruption and bad governance. "There were people who were linked to corrupt practices who weren't touched in the reshuffle...this was just an attempt to quell public discontentment", he says.

Clair MacDougall is a journalist currently based in Monrovia, Liberia and covering West Africa. Her work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Newsweek, The Daily Beast, The Washington Times, BBC's Focus on Africa Magazine, Ms. Magazine, Think Africa Press, The Caravan, and others.

She has worked as a reporter in rural Australia, India and Ghana. Follow her on twitter @ClairMacD. STORY_BIO: Wade C.L. Williams is a Liberian journalist and the newsroom chief of FrontPage Africa.

She is also a fellow of New Narratives, a project supporting African journalists reporting Africa. You can follow her on Twitter at @wadeclwilliams and Front Page Africa at @FPAfrica.

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