16 February 2014

Liberia: 'Fascination With Families'? Why Rob Sirleaf Went to Kuwait

"The GOL has not been able to get the "green light' for these (petroleum) products from Kuwait for over a year. All the visit paid by the GOL folks, nothing. The President asked Robert to go and "beg" the Emir for help. You know the Middle East has this thing for the "family" business. So Robert went and begged them and the problem has been solved and relief is on the way." - An Executive Mansion source speaking on condition of anonymity

Monrovia - Last week's announcement by the Liberian government's chief spokesman, Lewis Brown that President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf had tipped her son, Robert as a special envoy to Kuwait to lead negotiations with the Kuwaiti government for cheap petroleum products in Liberia, set off a firestorm and reignited a polarizing debate that haunted the president, climaxing with Robert's exit as chair of the lucrative National Oil Company of Liberia late last year.

For several months now, the Liberian government has been dispatching delegations to Kuwait in a bid to speed up the process and seal the deal on promised petroleum products, the Kuwaitis had pledged to Liberia. However, the fact that Robert was already in Kuwait when the announcement was made, drew ire from critics overwhelmed by Sirleaf's fascination with consistently putting her son in the line of her critics' fire at her own political expense.

Said Brown: "Mr. Robert Sirleaf is in Kuwait as special envoy of the President. Many of you have heard that for at least two years, the government of Liberia has been negotiating with the Kuwaiti government, for the supply of petroleum product (what better time) at concessionary prices to be used in our overall sustainable economic growth and development initiatives; but also to assist the government in lowering (if we can get petroleum product supply in our country at concessionary prices-concession means, that's not the normal price they will give it to us for)."

But some critics remain confused over why Robert had to be sent to Kuwait when his mom had already led a high power delegation to Kuwait last November during which time she met with the authorities of the Kuwait Fund for Arab Economic Development to discuss the current state of Liberia's infrastructure deficit, with specific attention on ports and road development.

"It comes down to the Kuwaitis fascination with dealing with families", said an executive mansion source who spoke strictly on condition of anonymity.

Said the source: "The GOL has not been able to get the "green light' for these products from Kuwait for over a year. All the visit paid by the GOL folks, nothing. The President asked Robert to go and "beg" the Emir for help. You know the Middle East has this thing for the "family" business. So Robert went and begged them and the problem has been solved and relief is on the way.

The source added that in addition to finalizing the petroleum arrangement, Robert was able to get the Kuwaitis to fast track (June/July 2014) $14MM worth of equipment for the Greenville port and secured additional funds from the Kuwait Development Fund to give $US40MM for the Garbanga-Melikona road. At the heart of the log jam is an announcement by the Liberia Petroleum Refining Company in 2012 that it had entered into discussions with the Kuwait Petroleum Company (KPC) for the supply of petroleum products at concessionary prices.

At the time, the LPRC management disclosed that the discussions were the result of a request made by Sirleaf during a previous visit to Kuwait. The request was for a special commercial arrangement between LPRC and KPC for the supply of petroleum products at discount prices to enable LPRC bring relief in the form of fuel subsidy to the Liberia Electricity Corporation (LEC), the National Transit Authority (NTA) and the John F. Kennedy Hospital (JFK), among others.

The deal was also aimed at helping these key institutions reduce the high cost of fuel and pass on the savings by expanding services to larger segments of the population, including vulnerable sectors. For example, it will assist LEC in expanding power access to low income families. The NTA will pass on its savings by reducing fares to certain categories of customers including students, security personnel in uniform and the elderly," the LPRC management said at the time.

"As this is a special bilateral commercial arrangement, only the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Liberian Ambassador in Kuwait are assisting the Liberia Petroleum Refining Company (LPRC) in monitoring the progress of these discussions at this time. On the Kuwaiti side, the Kuwaiti Ministry of Foreign Affairs is similarly assisting the Kuwait Petroleum Company, KPC," the management of LPRC averred in the press release.

This is not the first time that a pledge of petroleum products has stirred controversy in Liberia. Similar tensions arose in the aftermath of Nigerian and Japanese Oil Agreements which were characterized by lack of proper accountability and transparency, prompting many to wonder why the Sirleaf administration continues to entangle itself in deals when it cannot control the public outcry that follows.

To date, Liberians are still unsure what actually happened to the much publicized Nigerian and Japanese oil agreements, although the General Auditing Commission (GAC) commissioned audits of the two oil agreements showed a lack of proper transparency and accountability. The reemergence of Robert comes as petroleum prices continue to run through the roof. In the wake of last week's widespread shortage of fuel, many motorists were forced to dig deep into their pockets paying between $US8 and US$15 per gallon.

The question many are now wondering is whether Robert's Kuwait adventure will reap rewards and how soon? More importantly, Robert's latest suppliant into yet another petroleum play is splitting a wedge between supporters of Sirleaf and her detractors. On the one hand, Sirleaf's supporters see Robert's financial background as a key reason his mom continues to call on him to save the day. On the other, hand the President's critics are taking her to task for turning back the hands of times to the Tolbert and Doe years using her criticisms of her predecessors in her book, "This Child Will be Great" in which she writes: "Doe got greedy and the people around him got greedy too, and collectively they began to feed off the state's largess like a pack of hyenas." President Ronald Reagan, seeing Liberia as an important cold War ally, propped up the murderous Doe for years, going so far as to invite him to the White House in 1982, where he was "warmly greeted by the president as 'Chairman Moe.'

Sirleaf took it a step further in saying of Doe: "I look at the many idiots in whose hands our nation's fate and progress have been placed and I simply shake at the unnecessary and tremendous cost which we pay under the disguise of righting the wrongs of the past."

As a civil servant, Sirleaf has been often critical of the establishment, going the distance in criticizing government corruption at a conference in Liberia in the US in 1969, lambasting Tubman's 27-year rule 1944-1971 as a 'benevolent dictatorship'. Sirleaf did not spare Tubman's successor, Tolbert, and while serving as a deputy minister of finance under Tolbert, used a graduation speech in 1972 to criticize the Americo- Liberian settler - class, of which she was a de facto member - for its political and cultural hegemony over indigenous Liberians, warning of increasing sociopolitical tensions.

In 1975, the Financial Times reported that Sirleaf fueled controversy when she stamped 'BULLSHIT' on a request from Liberia's finance minister to the query of a British contractor. The story triggered embarrassment for the government at the time and increased Sirleaf stature as a critical voice of the times.

Ironically, decades later, some of Sirleaf's critics say, the hand she dealt her predecessors are coming back to bite and the reemergence of Robert, in the petroleum play may have unearthed an old ghost Sirleaf's supporters and even her detractors thought had now become a thing of the past - and a nagging controversy laid to rest.

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