29 May 2016

Liberia: Backlashes - - Will There Be Any Biting From GW Report?

Monrovia — For the first time in Government's war against what President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf described in her maiden inaugural speech as "public enemy number one", the first big fishes are canned in a corruption web with some unprecedentedly swift and decisive actions so far taken. The Speaker of the House of Representatives, Alex Tyler, who is constitutionally third in the country's political succession and the Chairman of the ruling party, the Unity Party, Varney G. Sherman, amongst many current and former officials of government have been pestered out of their homes and arraigned before a grand jury to hear allegations of corruption and fraud against them. At quick glimpse, some pundits are tempted to believe that the long awaited day of reckoning has come for public scoundrels and miscreants and that President Sirleaf has now become to assert herself and to live the true creed of her promised anti-corruption crusade. Nevertheless, there are other pundits who are casting an Eagle's eye at the move by government or President Sirleaf, conjecturing that--as the Liberian parlance goes--it is a floor show soon to die a natural death in haze of public inertia and Liberian tradition. They are citing a range of shelved critical reports on costly misdemeanors by several of official. *The Analyst* takes a look at the competing appraisals of the GW corruption report amongst Liberians as to what is or is not to happen in the coming days and weeks.

Liberia has been on edge since the last two weeks as the media scavenged a damning report unveiling a syndicate of fiscal misconduct on the part of several current and former officials of the Ellen Johnson Sirleaf government.

*Leafing GW Report*

The London-based corruption watchdog group, Global Witness, released an investigative report alleging bribery of top government officials by Sable Mining to change Liberia's procurement law in order to acquire operational license the mine the mineral-rich Wologizi Mountain.

The Global Witness reported: "Edmonds and Groves came to West Africa in 2010, hungry for iron ore. When the country's public procurement law interfered with their plans, they set out to change it. Leaked documents show how their London-listed Sable Mining spent hundreds of thousands of dollars bribing top officials. Behind the scheme was the chairman of Liberia's ruling party, who doubled as Sable's lawyer. When Sable Mining arrived in Liberia in early 2010, almost all of the country's most valuable iron ore fields had already been parcelled out. Just one prize asset remained. Andrew Groves was prepared to do anything to get it."

According to the corruption watchdog organization, the company in 2010 hired a leading Liberian lawyer, now Chairman of the ruling Unity Party and Senator of Grand Cape Mount County, Cllr. Varney Sherman, who allegedly carried out the bribery of the government officials.

Global Witness reported that the payments paid to the government officials, labeled, "Payment (facilitation) revised PPCC Act" went to Speaker Tyler in the sum of $75,000, as 'Consulting fees--A Tyler'; $50,000 to Morris Saytumah, a presidential aide and cabinet minister who was "President Sirleaf's representative on concession negotiations"; $50,000 to Richard Tolbert, a former Wall Street banker who headed the National Investment Commission--key to granting licences and setting terms for foreign investors, and $10,000 to Willie Belleh, chairman of the Public Procurement and Concessions Commission--responsible for all investment agreements with the Liberian Government.

Also included on the bribery list, according to Global Witness, was $20,000 which allegedly went to the Invincible Eleven, a football club where Tolbert was president, while a separate document shows half a million dollars in payments to 'Bigboy 01' and 'Bigboy 02' whose identity Global Witness was unable to establish.

*Unprecedented Reactions*

The Sirleaf administration, including its justice system, was not known for summary investigations let alone condoning homes of corruption culprits in line of pursuing justice before the Global Witness-unearthed corruption scandal. The government is known, nearly notoriously in thrashing corruption allegations and human rights misconducts involving officials even if those results emanated from revered international organizations.

The president is also on record for defending or siding with accused officials, at times putting her "neck on the chopping board" for corruption "indictees".

Scores of corruption-related reports, both from the Liberia Anti-Corruption Commission and the General Auditing Commission (GAC) have been dusting on the shelf while the millions of United States Dollars found to be squandered, siphoned or misapplied by officials remain in limbo.

National and international stakeholders and ordinary citizens watching the hypocrisy with which the Sirleaf administration has conducted itself in policing kleptocrats throughout its two terms and how it had treated corruption reports; and many people were already giving up on the administration's will and capacity to fight corruption until the massive bribery scandal were reported by the Global Witness.

But in an unusual move that stunned skeptics and perhaps the entire nation, the Government seized on the Global Witness report, swiftly putting in place a special tribunal and ordered the accused officials to turn themselves over for investigation.

The refrains of repulsive actions to the Global Witness corruption allegations soon sparked from most of the Global Witness indictees, principally ace lawyer Varner Sherman, who is also Senate Committee Chair on Judiciary, and House Speaker Alex Tyer.

Both men had rejected the legitimacy of the president-established taskforce, strongly protesting that they would not appear before it.

The task force is headed by the former Chairman of the opposition Liberty Party, Fonati Koffa, who was few weeks earlier nominated by President Sirleaf as Minister of State without Portfolio.

Sherman had contended he would neither appear before the Koffa-headed tribunal nor divulge information about his client, alleged bribe giver Sable Mining, as he claimed to be protected by the Constitution and dictates of the customs and traditions of Liberian law practice. Speaker Tyler, for his part, had argued that he would not appear unless the taskforce was comprised of independent Liberians, including the civil society and other legally authorized bodies of government.

Reading from the long history of impunity that came with such postures from officials accused for fiscal misconducts, many citizens had thought that the rejections by Sherman and Tyler would be the end of the Global Witness corruption allegation story.

But again in an unprecedented move, the government swiftly unleashed arresting officers on the two recalcitrant lawmakers and senior public servants, including condoning their homes until they surrendered and sought bonds.

The twist and turns that occasioned the government's action to have Sherman arrested, some partisans of the ruling Unity Party of which President Sirleaf is the standard-bearer, attempted for hours to obstruct the arrest of their Chairman and the search of his Sherman & Sherman Law Firm.

*Will Additional Backlashes Come?*

As the government has exercised some level of authority and power in the Global Witness report, compelling the accused to stand perhaps reluctantly before the anti-corruption taskforce, and with the U-turn of the accused, some of whom have already appeared, Liberians have begun to ask and contemplate what they regard additional actions to make the investigation process more meaningful and authentic.

Already ripples have been coming from the Capitol Building, specifically at the Lower House, where colleagues of Speaker Alex Tyler, have been contemplating requesting him to recuse himself from presiding over their affairs, including sessions, until the taskforce investigation is over.

According to sources, one or two legislative sessions at the Lower House could not go on because some lawmakers there were--and perhaps still--contending that their indicted colleague, Tyler, needed not to hold on to power as long as he has not been cleared from allegation of corruption.

The Speak of the House of Representatives is the head of the Lower House of the National Legislature, and third in political hierarchical line, next to the Vice President of the Republic of Liberia.

"As much as we know that mere allegations are not equal to a guilty verdict, and that the accused is innocent until proven guilty, it is also true that mere denial is not equal to acquittal or innocence," said a Lower House lawmaker who added, "I don't want to be named in print at this stage of our action."

"So since our Speaker is caught between acquittal and guilty verdict, such a man cannot be the leader of this august body; that's my point. By saying we are an 'august body', it means the ground of the Lower House, coupled with all that we do, is honorable, sacred and noble. While we pity his condition, we cannot have an indictee to lead us; otherwise we are no more a noble group of people here."

In other jurisdictions that are truly honorable, decent and transparent, the lawmaker said, "Tyler and all those accused and holding public positions would have since resigned voluntarily without pressure from anywhere."

The Liberian public is now bracing itself to see if the lawmakers linked to the Global Witness bribery allegations, as well as executive appointees still holding on will resign their posts or remain holding on while the investigations proceed.

Some are suggesting that President Sirleaf who mustered an unusual courage to compel investigating the accused officials needed to complete the courage with the suspension of officials in her administration.

"That will lay the moral grounds for others, such as those in the Legislature, to follow," said the previously quoted lawmaker who does not want to be named in print for now.

Some pundits contend that it would a tug of war to get Speaker Tyler and Senator Sherman voluntarily resign their posts neither will their colleagues muster the moral courage to seek their resignation. That is to be seen in the next few days and weeks.

*Pessimisms in the Air*

Some Liberians, despite the bold stance Government has taken, are still not optimistic that justice will be served. There are those who think that, as the national custom is, the current corruption saga will drag on until everyone forgets that it ever happened.

"Firstly, the posturing of President Sirleaf as seen in the use of state apparatuses to compel culprits to court is her usual way of blindfolding the international community and the people of Liberia," Josiah T. Nne said, writing on a popular social network page. "That someone in her office knows about the deal very clearly nearly suggests our president got some knowledge and once the likes of partisan-turned foe Varney Sherman threaten a covert blackmail of being inclined to link her to the scandal, there will no more be a case to investigate."

Another Liberian, former Economic Advisor to ex-President Charles Taylor, writing on another Facebook page said: "Varney Sherman will never step down. Alex Tyler will not resign. Never. I don't even believe any court in Liberia will bring them down guilty. I am not cynical. This is the reality in Liberia. We have our own reality. It is called poverty of ideas and a mindset steeped in underdevelopment. That's wy no real progress can be made in my beloved country. The UP will never ask Varney to step aside as Party Chairman until at least he clears himself o the charges."

Whatever the case, Liberians are poised to see what comes out of the nerve-wrecking corruption saga--yet again.

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