Corruption remains a destroyer, yet a celebrated expression in Liberia. It is on the lips of every politician and ordinary citizen, but it continues to elude Liberians and cripple the country. It is the secret weapon deployed by varying cliques in our body politic to woo public approval but also used to stifle public interest.
In 1980, coup makers led by Master Sergeant Samuel Kanyon Doe, cited "rampant corruption" as the trigger for the overthrow of the William Tolbert government. In other words, the soldiers used their guns to fight corruption.
More than half a dozen officials of the Tolbert regime were executed in the aftermath of the coup. But no sooner had Mr. Doe and his colleagues trapped themselves in power, then they began to face a corruption contest they hardly won.
In 1989, Mr. Charles Taylor launched an insurrection to remove Doe from power, but his rebel movement which metamorphosed into an elected administration in 1997, became marred by massive plunder and thievery of private properties and state resources. Several counter-insurgency groups were organized to stop Mr. Taylor and for 14 long years, they looted and vandalized the country.
Public Enemy to Vampire
In 2006, while taking the oath of office, out-going President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, declared corruption as "number one public enemy." To prove a point, she did send former Interim Head of State, Charles Gyude Bryant to jail in 2009 on allegation of economic sabotage. Mr. Bryant was the Chairman of the National Transitional Government of Liberia (NTGL) that ushered the country into democratic elections in 2005 after the war.
But just few years into President Sirleaf's administration, the Country's Auditor General, John Molu, graded her regime "three times more corrupt than the NTGL." Though Molu was seen as a controversial figure by some, his robust, uncompromising style of public audit, policing waste and plunder in the public domain, kept cheats in check and credited him for creating national consciousness in the fight against corruption. It also cost him the job.
Whilst serving her second six years term, President Sirleaf would change her characterization of corruption from "public enemy" to "vampire."
And by the time she delivered her last State of the Nation's Address to the Legislature in January 2017, she sounded helplessly subdued by the menace. She told the lawmakers: "We have not fully met the anti-corruption pledge that we made in 2006."
She however went on to apportion the blame somewhere else: "It is not because of the lack of political will to do so, but because of the intractability of dependency and dishonesty cultivated from years of deprivation and poor governance."
One of her frontline fighters, the former Chairperson of the Liberia Anti-Corruption Commission, Cllr. Frances Johnson-Allison, seemed to have suggested one more reason for the failure when she pointed at 'friendship' as one of the challenges in the corruption fight.
Though President Sirleaf admitted failure in the corruption fight, her administration succeeded essentially in laying the foundation not to fight corruption with lethal weapons again, but to do so through integrity institutions and instruments.
I am talking about the formation of the General Auditing Commission (GAC), The Liberia Anti-Corruption Commission (LACC), Independent Information Commission (IIC), the Public Procurement and Concessions Commission (PPCC) and the Code of Conduct for Public Officials among other laws.
It should be noted that these integrity institutions were not allowed to operate at their full extent and potentials in some instances, but they could be useful in future fight against corruption if their independence is enhanced and the people manning those institutions are themselves the embodiment of, and develop the inclination and clarity to fight corruption head-on.
No place in my administration
Meantime, on 30 December 2017, President-elect George Weah, joined the chorus of condemnation against corrupt public officials even before taking office. In his victory speech, Mr. Weah said, "Person looking to cheat the Liberian people through the menace of corruption will have no place in my administration."
This must have been received like music in the ears of many who especially doubt his ability to deliver. How can Weah succeed where the "sophisticated Ellen" failed?
They argued that Weah would do little to quell this perennial trouble that so easily overwhelms the country because of the many former corrupt officials who joined and supported his party during the elections. Some of his supporters may also be wary of these 'wickedly clever' politicians who appear to be the masters of this game.
Throughout the campaign, the President-elect did not participate in any public debate, so his critics have been concerned about the 'How's' in his campaign speeches. How is he going to fight corruption and improve the economy for instance?
How will he fund free education? How will he provide free health care? These questions are lingering. His following say he is an action man. Now, he must face the nation. He must address head-on the vexing issue of corruption and the host of other problems that confront the survival of the country. And those who are incessantly dismissive of his potential must swallow their prides, at least for now.
The President-elect seems to have made his first impression on the subject, howbeit with another flowery talk. "Over the next few days, we will assemble the government committed to fighting for the ideas that have inspired our campaign, and dedicated to delivering for the Liberian people. Those chosen to serve will and must be dedicated to the ideas of grassroots social transformation," he warned.
'Talk is cheap' as we say in Liberia. So there goes another talk about corruption from another President. But only time will tell, whether this talk is not just another rhetorical hype or that the Weah talk will truly mark the point of departure in our professed fight against corruption. We are remaining hopeful for the betterment of our country and people.
There is a proposition that "corruption and those who practice it have the tendency of fighting back--and fighting back viciously." Those who boast therefore of fighting corruption must beware of this proposition. And for the most part, those who will fight back are right in the immediate surroundings of the leader - they are party members, they are government officials, they are friends and sometimes relatives of the President.
Of course there are those who may not be in the inner circle but who could be waiting to sabotage progress from their privileged position. There are others, former critics of the President, who seek to enter government to engage in actions that would prove themselves right that the President is not fit to govern.
Corruption is their way of achieving that end. Together, they will all fight back, so you must watch out, Mr. President-elect. Don't make the mistake, "everything rises and falls on leadership," says John Maxwell in his book, "The 21 Indispensable Qualities of a Leader: Becoming the Person Others Will Want to Follow."
Shifting the goalpost
I record when the fight got tougher, out-going President Sirleaf did not only gave corruption names, the focus shifted. She found justifications. Instead of going on the offensive, she went on the defensive.
Instead of providing answers and remedy to corruption in Government, the President and her supporters took the debate out of the ambit of public service, lazily contending about corruption being in schools, in churches, in the market places, in the press, in the family and so on.
That ploy effectively diluted and deflated the necessary conversation about public sector corruption and took attention away from the government. There can be no denying that corruption is at those levels, and there is nothing wrong with creating awareness among the population about anti-corruption.
But the fight that took the life of a president and 13 of his officials in 1980 was official corruption--how a few persons use their positions in public service to steal and plunder at the painful disadvantage of the impoverished majority of Liberians.
The corruption fight that culminated into the 14-year civil war that took the life of yet another president and left hundreds of thousands of our compatriots slaughtered was certainly about the national cake - the resources of the country.
I submit to you that government has all the machineries and instruments at its disposal to regulate the population and fight corruption. Government should be the check-point for all of us with bad habits. My Pastor usually says, "human beings are creatures of habits." True.
There is no guarantee that family members (including the mom, dad or children) will not cheat or violate each other, but when that cheating reaches a crisis proportion, the government is called in either through the police or the courts to restore order.
Similarly, if a reckless/corrupt family person, religious leader, teacher or cleaner, as the case maybe, enters government with such a habit, he/she should be taught a lesson regardless of status. Government must simply be the cutoff point for indiscipline citizens and not venue for excuses.
But then, those who are called upon to serve in the government bureaucracy must be different, including the President. That is why a Code of Conduct for Public Officials is absolutely important. Power by itself is a source of corruption. So those given power should not be allowed to operate by chance.
Sadly, politicians are perhaps the only group of professionals who hate to be regulated, but like to regulate others. That too is corruption. There is need to reinstate the Code of Conduct.
I am not just referring to those who serve in the Executive branch of the government. Our lawmakers and judges are no exception. For 12 years, there was no audit done in the Legislative and Judiciary branches of the government. How can the people who clamor for the 'rule of law' be above the law? For instance, our courts collect certain fees without receipts. Why? This too is corruption.
You see, what belongs to everybody, belongs to nobody. Therefore those given the chance to manage public resources or power including the President of the Republic, should not conduct themselves like they are the owners.
I am respectfully using the president here because he/she sets the tone - we all should follow the good examples of the leader. Once the leaders are prepared to lead by example, ordinary citizens who give bribes for services and facilitate corruption, business people who transact business under the table and dupes government of legitimate taxes among others, will think twice before acting.
Apart from the everyday stealing, bribery and/or fraud in government, there is what I called 'structural corruption.' Call it political, grand or systemic corruption if you like. Sorry, but I do not get it when we profess to be fighting waste and abuse in this impoverished country, but operate in opulence.
Thankfully, many Liberians have begun putting the spotlight on the amount of money we spend on our officials ranging from salaries, allowances, vehicles, travels, gas/fuel slips, per diems, entertainment, housing, etc.
It beats common sense that our leaders will apportion the resources of the country to themselves lavishly with little regard for the rest of the citizens. For example, do we need to buy expensive vehicles, at times US$50,000 to US$80,000, for one official? Must our officials fly business class?
What about the reported huge salaries/benefits of lawmakers, US$15,000 more or less monthly? How can you improve the lives of the people you represent if you apportion a lion share of the national envelop to yourselves. What moral high ground will lawmakers have to check on the wasteful spending in the other two branches of the government if they pay themselves uncontrollably? Sad!
I even get mystified by the extravagance of those who are in the forefront of this so-called fight against corruption - the integrity institutions. I have heard one of our corruption fighters justified riding US$60,000 vehicle. And the reason was there were other officials riding US$80,000 vehicles.
The last time I heard the Chief Justice criticized trial judges for asking for a little more increment in their benefits. They were supposed to be grateful for what they are receiving, in comparison to what they got in the past administration, according to the Chief Justice.
We are all taught to be grateful, but when our friends in the same service are receiving unmatched and lavished favors, the rest of the people will voice their discontent.
Honestly every capable Liberian should have the right to live in luxury, but not at the expense of tax payers. These are the imbalances among other vices that brought our country to its knees. Any government that does not recognize these practices as corruption will only be window-dressing the fight against corruption and will soon be found out.
By all measure, if there was any time in our history that we needed austerity measures, it is now. Please don't ask me why, because I have heard some people argued, "Why they did not cut expenditures when they were there?"
If you obliged me to answer, I will say Mr. Weah is coming to power on the "ideas of grassroots social transformation and pro-poor governance." So he cannot afford to do business as usual.
If Mr. Weah really believes in the change he talks about, he needs to check the philosophy of Dr. John Pombe Magufuli of Tanzania - how he changed his country. This country needs radical reforms in the way we do business as a government and people.
We must curtail the pomp and pageantry in government. Ideally, this is the government that must truly sacrifice for the good of the 'masses' that it professes to represent.
Have you not heard the out-going president say the economy is in destress? Have you not heard the speculation that the government is broke? Have we all not complained about the lack of basic social services and development in our country?
Have we all not lamented the poor healthcare and educational systems in our country? Does it make sense for over 70% of the national budget to go towards recurring expenditure - paying salaries and benefits?
Until those structural imbalances or political corruption are addressed in the governance process, there will be no victory over corruption. Liberia will certainly remain at the top level of the corruption index, our country will tarry at the bottom end of the human development index forever and "the poor shall always be with you," says the Son of Man.
Peter Quaqua is the former President of the Press Union of Liber and current President of the West African Journalists