The ghosts of the L$16 billion alleged missing money will just not go away however hard authorities may wish or try. Truth be told, the matter will not go away with a wave of the hand simply because it is a matter of grave pubic concerns which remain unaddressed. The first issue of concern is that of pay for civil servants whose salaries have now delayed for at least three months.
Civil servants are being informed by the Minister of Finance through the media and other means that there is a serious shortage of Liberian dollars on the local market, which has implications for the payment of salaries of civil servants. Finance Minister Tweah, claiming that the issue is being politicized, has declared that the solution lies in the printing of new banknotes.
It can be recalled that since news of the disappearance of those Liberian dollar banknotes was brought to public attention, government officials, particularly the Minister of Finance, have been very vocal insisting that no money actually went missing. But just where the money did go was and still remains an unanswered question. Both teams of forensic investigators (Kroll and PIT) were unable to verify whether the L$16 billion was being held in the Central Bank of Liberia's (CBL) vaults or in private homes as speculated by the public.
A CDC lawmaker, Representative Solomon George, adding his take to the issue at the time, called for the emptying of the vaults at the Samuel K. Doe stadium in Paynesville in the full glare of the public at which time the money would be counted note by note as a way of establishing the truth. His calls however went unheeded by the authorities.
And as controversy about the alleged missing money heightened, President Weah announced plans by government to infuse US$25 million into the economy in order to reduce the amount of local currency in circulation. The argument was that too much Liberian dollars on the market chasing too few goods was causing inflation to rise and therefore, reducing the oversupply of Liberian dollar banknotes including the withdrawal of mutilated banknotes from the market was the way to go in order to restore sanity to the currency exchange regime.
Liberians generally welcomed the announcement, trusting that their economic woes were about to end. To the contrary, economic conditions worsened for the people despite the infusion exercise. Later, it was revealed by both the Kroll and PIT reports that the US$25m was virtually stolen by government officials.
But just where have the L$16 billion banknotes gone to? There are strong public speculations the money is being held in private homes awaiting the right moment to exchange it through the banking system along with the introduction of the Liberian dollar banknotes the government plans to print.
It must not be forgotten that CDC Chairman Mulbah Morlu had publicly disclosed that he personally saw pick-up loads of money being loaded at the CBL Waterside vaults and being transported to unknown locations.
It is a matter of public record that the L$16 billion banknotes were printed during the tenure of President Sirleaf. Some of the money was brought into the country during her tenure and the rest was brought in after President George Weah assumed office. This newspaper recalls that during the period just before elections, new five-hundred Liberian dollar banknotes were in wide circulation on the market. Some of that money it was learnt was used to pay WASSCE fees as promised by then candidate George Weah. Those notes, save a few, have virtually disappeared from circulation.
In a few days, the month of December (Christmas and New Year season) will be rolling in. The government has promised that it would pay civil servants in December, however, payment of salaries appears to be hinged on a singular factor and that is the printing of new banknotes. But the printing of the new banknotes appears to have already run into hurdles with indications that the Crane company may not print the new banknotes because of a standing Liberian government lawsuit against it.
This suggests that civil servants may likely go unpaid for Christmas if Crane refuses to budge. Moreover, should Crane eventually consent to print the money, chances are that the printing may not be completed before Christmas. Additionally, the printing of new notes, as recommended, will exacerbate the problem of oversupply of money on the market.
This is especially troubling because the disappeared banknotes suspected by the public to be held in the homes of top officials of this government, could find their way back into circulation with the holders receiving hard currency (US dollars) in exchange for the banknotes which they have been holding illegally. There are just too many loose ends, it appears, which tend to undermine public confidence in mitigating measures being proposed or contemplated.
Additionally, it must not be forgotten the Sirleaf government had committed to withdrawing mutilated notes (Legacy Notes). The banknotes were taken to a location out of town to be destroyed by fire. The banknotes were however not burnt allegedly because a sudden rain shower doused the fire and the banknotes were taken back to the CBL vaults.
President Weah's solemn pledge to protect President Sirleaf perhaps may have been the main contributory factor to his refusal to conduct an audit of the past government. And this has proved his greatest undoing. Suggestions are that he may have then been compromised by a predecessor eager and desperate to secure a successor prepared to take an oath of "OMERTA". The Free Dictionary defines "OMERTA" as a code of silence practiced by the Mafia; a refusal to give evidence to the police about criminal activities.
Was this the case? No one knows for sure. One thing is however sure: President Weah made a GRAVE ERROR when he committed to "OMERTA", publicly declaring that the protection of President Sirleaf's interests would be his primary concern. But with her son facing criminal charges, the "OMERTA" appears broken into bits. Now he must lay the ghosts of the missing billions to rest.