27 May 2013

Liberia: LACC Asset Verification Report & Public Anxiety


THE LIBERIA ANTI-CORRUPTION Commission (LACC), in releasing its first report on the verification of assets recently declared by officials of Government, bumped into the bellicose outrage of "culprits"—subjects of that anti-corruption exercise. The media and the General Auditing Commission (GAC), particularly the GAC under John Morlu, are used to the tongue-lashing reactions of individuals caught pants down in graft and theft. The unearthing of official perfidy has been so much a crime that investigative news organs and the Morlu-led GAC put themselves at odd with the belligerent outbursts of scoundrels and kleptocrafts who employ their ill-gotten wealth to rally public sympathy and unleash paid lackeys and surrogates to repudiate reports on official dishonesties.

LACC HAS ALSO begun to battle reactionary "culprits" in the aftermath of its first Asset Declaration Verification Report in which it has booked up to 63 public officials for various dishonest declarations and failure to cooperate. Four of the officials, according to the LACC, were booked for misrepresentations and unexplained accumulation of wealth, some for incomplete verification due to outstanding issues, some for persistent excuses, amongst others. As it stands, the entire asset declaration process appears muddled by the reported issues, and the public remains aghast about such an important anti-corruption intervention.

WHEN PRESIDENT SIRLEAF in an official public statement requested her officials to declare their assets before taking office, a statement followed by Government's policy pronouncement for all officials to declare their assets, Liberians were moved that a radical leap was afoot to put an end to the aging mentality that public office was a short-cut path to quick wealth. But the unfolding of time is proving that public expectation about asset declaration is yet another political bluff by yet another political administration. The outright refusal by the Legislature to submit to this government policy, coupled by the toothless outcry by the LACC as reflected in its asset declaration verification report, tells it all; in fact, showing that Liberia is still wobbling in business as usual.

BUT LACC HAS a large part of the blame to share. In taking on the responsibility to implement the asset declaration policy of Government, the Commission projected itself as a super agency, a know-all Commission that needed no help from the non-governmental community. One of the ways the LACC has demonstrated and sustained this attitude is its fragrant and rather anti-constitutional disregard to heed loud public outcries to make public the asset declaration exercise. The Commission took the complicated, slippery and delicate exercise to its chest as if the anti-corruption and pro-transparency crusade represented in this exercise was a one-man show. Unknowingly or unknowingly, the LACC has not only been making itself a victim of scoundrels' conspiracy, but also providing sanctuary and cover-up for dishonest officials and their machinations.

THE EXCUSE OR justification for taking asset declaration exercise in the ambit of darkness is to protect the privacy rights, including personal ownerships of officials and possibly ward off unnecessary attack on these properties and the officials' persons by criminals. Properties owned by public officials before take public jobs are private ownerships and need not be made public, some have argued. But these justifications cannot stand in the face the Constitution as well as the demand for greater transparency and accountability in a chronically corruption-fraught society—a society that has witnessed from time immemorial the unmerciful plunder of state resources by a modicum of the population in public offices at the woeful expense of the majority of the people.

THIS IS WHY we agree with the civil society group, the Center Against Money Laundering and Terrorist Financing in Liberia (CAMTEFIL) when it says the LACC violates the Constitution of Liberia by denying Liberians the right to information about government functionaries by keeping asset declaration secret. It is conventional and constitutional knowledge that those who ascend to public offices are public properties; there is no cause to shield their backgrounds, including their wealth status. The great democracies Liberia imitates put and keep their officials on the prism of public knowledge. And more so, this country's Constitution, at Article 15c protects and upholds the right of the public to unhindered public information and knowledge.

THUS, THE LACC defeats itself in providing safe haven for potentially corrupt officials by taking such an essential accountability exercise out of the public glare. By excluding the media, the civil society and the larger Liberian public from having knowledge of what is declared by public officials, the LACC prevents the participation of the rest of Liberian stakeholders and the general public from fighting graft and theft in the public space. And this is a bad sign.

THE LACC NEEDS serious public backing to compel officials of government to declare their assets or to press the President to ensure that those who take public office communicate what they worth before joining government. The Commission cannot and will not be able to do it alone. It could field on public input to garner the needed information on public officials. As it stands, public anxiety is bobbling and LACC needs to make its anti-corruption crusade all-embracing—not parochial.

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