27 June 2013

Liberia: Fall Guy? Gwenigale Pressed As Liberians Eye Probe Into Missing EU Millions

Monrovia — Lawmakers were scrambling for answers and explanations Thursday over how US$13 million donated by the European Union to battle maternal mortality and morbidity was expended without benefiting the sector for which it was earmarked.

Senator Peter Coleman, Chair of the Senate committee on Health confirmed to FrontPageAfrica Thursday that the committee convened a special meeting Thursday to press Finance Minister Amara Konneh to provide details on why the funds were diverted.

Senator Peter Coleman acknowledged that as a result of the FPA investigative report, the committee's interest in the controversy heightened.

Senator Coleman said the committee has taken serious interest in the matter which is why Minister Konneh was summoned and recalled Thursday.

The crux of the committee's concerns centered around Minister Konneh's appearance before the committee on May 23, 2013 during which time, Minister Konneh took Dr. Gwenigale to task and accused the minister of Fiscal indiscipline over funds allocated to the health sector when he alarmed that the ministry was not making any impact in the sector despite huge funding allotted them in the National budget.

Konneh has been accused of lying under oath. Dr. Coleman dismissed suggestions that the EU funds were allocated to JFK because the funding for JFK has already been allocated in the national budget. "The JFK money has been sealed; the minister lied under oath," Dr. Coleman noted.

Said Minister Konneh: "A lot of money has been allotted to the health sector with no improvement made; for a matter of fact the health ministry had 22 million more in their 2012/2013 fiscal year budget than the previous budget year."

The Senators were also unhappy that Konneh was not forthcoming about a letter he had sent to Health Minister Dr. Walter Gwenigale on February 7, 2013 notifying the minister that an amount of Euro 10 million(US$13 million) had been made available for the health sector use to combat maternal mortality and morbidity.

EU Insisting on Written Report

Many remain baffled as to why the MOF failed to turn the funds over to the MOH. While the MOF is yet to address the issue, sources there have informed FrontPageAfrica that the funds were disbursed amongst the John F. Kennedy Medical Hospital, the Jackson F. Doe Hospital in Tappita, Nimba County and other hospitals around the country. However, the ministry has not been able to give a breakdown explaining the details about what amount each institutions received and what impact the money made to the sector after being expended in four months. The EU, FrontPageAfrica has learned remains insistent that it receives proof of how the funds were diverted and expended in writing.

Mr. Tomas Niklasson, Chargé d'affaires a.i. for the EU Liberia mission explained in an email response to FrontPageAfrica that the purpose of the EU programme is to support the implementation of the National Health Plan and to the Road Map for reducing Maternal Mortality and Morbidity using sector budget support as implementing modality. This means that the payments to the Treasury are done according to several conditions of progress in the implementation of the health plan and the road map as well as in the achievement of annual targets for the health sector including maternal health. Sufficient funding of the sector is a condition for progress in the implementation of the sector plan and the road map.

Mr. Niklasson cautioned that if the sector does not have the necessary level of funding, there is a risk of low performance in the sector and, consequently, no payment or limited payment from the EU programme. "In conclusion, the EU guidelines on budget support are not prescriptive regarding the use of EU funds which, after payment to the Treasury, are fully merged with the funds provided by the Government of Liberia. However, satisfactory progress in the health sector needs to be proved before each new payment."

Liberia ranks 7th in the world for highest rate of maternal mortality. Chad, Somalia, Sierra Leone, Central African Republic, Burundi and Guinea-Bissau are all worse. In 2012 there was an infant mortality rate of 72.71 out of 1,000 births, in 2009 138.24 out of 1,000 and in 2006 there were 155.76 out of 1,000. Liberia is 18th in the world for infant mortality. Globally, in 2010 there were 770 maternal deaths out of 100,000 live births; in 2008 there were 990 out of 100,000.

Konneh 'Contrite', source says

One lawmaker who spoke to FPA on condition of anonymity Thursday after the close-door session with Konneh, said the minister was 'contrite' and pleaded with Senators for not being forthcoming during his first appearance.

Earlier in the day, the Grand Kru County Senator raised the matter in plenary and asked for the matter to be brought on the floor for discussion by other senators but it was placed on 'Other Matters Agenda for the day.

Gwenigale fall guy, source says

Like Senator Coleman, some lawmakers agree that the $US13 million should have been given to the health sector as it was intended by the European Union and not diverted as Minister Konneh had done.

Representative Marimu Fofana (UP-District #4 Lofa County) and chair on the House Committee on Gender and Development said the sector needs more funding to address pressing healthcare needs. "The money should be given to the health sector because we need more money in that sector to help solve some of the challenges the sector is faced with," she said.

The issue has created a strain between the two ministers with sources suggesting Thursday that there was a discussion among officials and aides closed to the presidency pressing to replace Dr. Gwenigale with Dr. Wvannie Mae Scott-McDonald, making the health minister the fall guy in the saga due to Dr. Gwenigale's reluctance to tell a lie to the EU on how donor fund intended for health got diverted.

The lack of transparency, accountability and gross fiscal indiscipline has prompted fears that the EU could cut off millions of dollars in funding to Liberia if the government cannot provide a clear explanation as to how the EURO 10 million (US$13 million) intended for the health sector's effort to combat Maternal Mortality and Morbidity was expended in less than four months without reaching the fund's intended target.

Calling for probe, Liberians Differ

On Thursday, Liberians from a cross section of the capital were divided in their reaction to the report. "Samuel Kun believes that the EU should withhold all future funding to Liberia until the government can provide an explanation on how the money in question was spent. "I'm not really surprise of the government bad practices as it relate to corruption," he said. "My advice to the EU is let them cut off all aid to this government there is no need for money to continues be coming from outside to this country[Liberia] and it is not benefiting the common people."

In contrast, James Dossen says Liberians should not be quick to blame the government but wait for an explanation on how the money was spent. He said a lot has been done by the government in the health sector during the year under review for people to begin suspecting the government of corruption is unfair.

"As it relates to the purported US$ 13million squandered by this government I would like to say that Liberians should not be quick to believe that that money was misapplied," he said.

"One of the sectors of government that is even ahead of the decentralization program is the health sector; if you travel to the leeward counties you get to know that the health sector is very much functional."

Mohamed D. S. Kanneh agrees with Dossen but calls for a probe into the matter to establish the truth about the status of the money so as to clear any doubt surrounding the issue.

"I do not want for Liberians to just conclude on the issue the government has taken away US$ 13 million," he said.

"I'm of the conviction that government cannot confiscate that amount. Let the case be investigated so we can know what has happened to the $13 million that was sent by the European Union to the health sector."

Despite Minister Konneh's appearance Thursday, no clear cut explanation has been given over why the funds have not reached its intended target. The fund was designed to be placed in a pool monitored by USAID, the World Bank, the EU and other donor nations. The fact that it has not seen the light of day, is having a serious effect on the five counties earmarked to benefit from the pool.

"Since February health sector employees have not gotten paid, no medication, no generator. All the health workers have not received their salaries."

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