12 February 2014

Liberia: Executive Pavilion Flap - Clash of Nobel Laureates Resurfacing?

When the Executive Mansion announced last week that it was suspending the renting of the Executive Pavilion and restricting use to only government functions, many wondered what was behind the sudden change in the procedural bureaucracy. The Executive Mansion statement which reads: "Going forward, the facility will be reserved strictly for government functions", fell short of stating why the Executive Mansion came to the conclusion.

"I have no idea and don't' want to assume because maybe they (the government) had it in the pipeline and maybe it was a coincidence and maybe because we had the last program and they suddenly sent their memo out. But Liberia has so many things going for them to be worried about a tiny foundation. Our foundation is a tiny piece of Liberia. I think it was just a coincidence in my hearts of hearts." - Leymah Gbowee, Nobel Laureate

The timing of the decision, however, is now raising eyebrows amid concerns that the target of the government's decision may be Nobel Laureate Leymah Gbowee, who recently held a successful program at the venue. Some of Gbowee's supporters are already raising eyebrows and suggesting that because of her strong criticisms of President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, she has now become a target.

During the program, Gbowee's Peace Foundation Africa (GPFA) unveiled a US$3Million plan for the construction of a technical institute on the Robertsfield Highway; outside Monrovia and the Nobel Laureate also announced that the institute would provide technical and other professional skills to be identified for females from 7th through 12th grade.

Gbowee told the gathering that the institute was intended to help advance the education of young Liberian female students and has already secured a five--acre of land worth US$10,000 to jumpstart the technical institute.

The program was a launching pad for Gbowee to raise some funds to commence the construction of the project. However, FrontPageAfrica has learned that some inner circle Sirleaf aides, fearing that Gbowee may be harboring political ambition may use the program as a tool to fulfill what they see as a perfect vehicle.

Gbowee, who until her resignation in 2012, was head of Liberia's Peace and Reconciliation Commission, went out on a high not, criticizing her fellow laureate (Ellen) for corruption and nepotism.

Both Gbowee and Sirleaf, were named joint winners of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 for their work promoting peace in Liberia. Ironically, Gbowee, was instrumental in helping Sirleaf win the presidency in 2005 and her subsequent re-election in 2011 Gbowee resigned over concerns that Johnson-Sirleaf had failed to root out corruption and nepotism in her government. The government did not take Gbowee's resignation lightly and disagreed with the timing.

Contacted this week about the speculations regarding the president's decision to block the use of the Pavilion to private functions, Gbowee told FrontPageAfrica: "I have no idea and don't' want to assume because maybe they (the government) had it in the pipeline and maybe it was a coincidence and maybe because we had the last program and they suddenly sent their memo out. But Liberia has so many things going for them to be worried about a tiny foundation. Our foundation is a tiny piece of Liberia. I think it was just a coincidence in my hearts of hearts."

The timing of the decision also comes amid a reason clampdown on Non Governmental Organization(NGOs) by President Sirleaf, who in her annual message declared iterated that since the restoration of peace and democratic governance in Liberia, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) - both national and international - continue to contribute to the reconstruction process of our country. The President went on to say that Liberia has a total of 997 NGOs to date - 874 National and 123 International - operating in the 15 counties of Liberia.

"These NGOs had traditionally provided services in wide areas of humanitarian assistance and development. More recently the emphasis has been on democracy and governance; human rights; environment and natural resources. In these latter functions, some NGOs have sought to become super-national bodies, challenging national sovereignty even as they themselves lack national and international governance status and rules in transparency and accessibility."

The President said as her government strives to speed up our post-conflict development, it must ensure efficiency, transparency and accountability of NGOs in their delivery of services to our people. We must guarantee a strong inter-sectoral framework and information-sharing mechanisms between the institutions of government and non-governmental organizations."

In this light, Sirleaf warned that the government would require national and international NGOs submit a report of their annual activities, and register with the relevant government agency every year.

"That NGOs disclose to the Government of Liberia the details of the funds pledged by donors for project implementation in the country; that funds secured for capacity building are utilized, in collaboration with the relevant Ministries or Agencies of Government; that all funds released to NGOs by a donor should be transferred from the donor to the NGOs through an account in a commercial bank in Liberia."

Continued President Sirleaf: "That all vehicles owned by NGOs should be registered in the name of the organization and be clearly marked with the name and logo of the organization or face impoundment; and that all assets owned by international non-governmental organizations purchased or acquired with donor funds are the property of the Liberian people who are the direct beneficiaries. In an instance where an organization decides to close down its operations, the organization shall surrender such assets to the sector Ministries or Agencies of Government in which such NGO operated."

Gbowee, whose stock has been on the rise since her Nobel Laureate feat, said her NGO has been in full compliance. "We have really been in compliance with all government regulations. It's a little bit edgy and unsettling in that this is coming up now."

Alexander Soros, son of Philanthropist George Soros, one of Sirleaf's strong supporters agrees: "The point is that Non-Governmental Organizations should remain Non-Governmental organizations. So they should be able to act freely and I think that considering the fact that madam president herself use to be the head of an NGO in West Africa is very troubling and it would be very interesting to see what happens from here."

Soros told FrontPageAfrica in an interview last week, that such attacks on NGOs is bad for Liberia. "It is not good and a lot of the things that she's complaining about, NGO's do already so in many respects this has been a form of populism because there is a potential that NGOs get in the way of what they think are the new beneficial deals, but whenever you see clampdowns on Civil Societies, you've seen it in Israel, you've seen it in Russia and the worse example in Zimbabwe, it is not good."

Gbowee's rise among international NGOS has not gone unnoticed. Her partnership with Abigail Disney, another Sirleaf admirer has prompted some supporters to take notice. Disney was instrumental in producing Gbowee's much-acclaimed "Pray the Devil Back to Hell".

As friends with Harvard Kennedy School's Ambassador Swanee Hunt, Disney had the opportunity to go on a trip with Sirleaf where she was inspired to produce the movie on which Gbowee is featured.

The film, which premiered at the TriBeCa Film Festival in 2008 and won the Jury Prize for Best Documentary tells the story of a movement of local women who had helped bring peace to Liberia by pressuring the warlord Charles Taylor, who was allegedly using drugged teen boys to commit atrocities such as rape and beheadings, to stop warring with the rebels who challenged him. After succeeding, these women later helped elect Sirleaf president.

Presidential Press Secretary Jerolinmek Piah told FrontPaeAfrica on Tuesday that the government took the decision because the facility was being misused and was losing its sanctity for the purpose for which it was constructed.

"The government decided to close the building to the public because those who managing it were using it for money making and the building was not intended for commercial purposes," said Mr. Piah.

He said those managing the building were leasing it for huge amounts of money between US$ 1,500 and the government needed to put a halt to it before the situation got out of hands.

Mr. Piah denied that the government' decision to close the building to public use was because Gbowee's organization had asked to use it adding that the human rights activist enjoys a cordial relationship with co-Nobel laureate, President Johnson Sirleaf.

"The government has nothing against anyone, including Madam Gbowee, People do leave government, but that does not mean they become enemies of the government," he said.

"Madam Gbowee and the President have met on several occasions since she left the government. Gbowee is a very important woman in Liberia and there is no way would close down a particular place because we do not want her to use it. We have no interest in doing so."

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