Monrovia — Riding in the backdrop of a stellar United Nations career, Jeanine Milly Cooper, a renowned farmer, came highly regarded and touted as one of the best appointments made since President George Manneh Weah assumed the Liberian presidency in January 2018.
At her confirmation hearing back in February, Madam Cooper said all the right things and even urged members of the Senate Committee on Agriculture to depoliticise the sector by allowing her the space to perform.
Cooper's request came in response to a question about how she would fit in a government setting and adjust to her new political environment, having spent all her professional life in the private sector.
"If I'm confirmed, I will have work to do. I mean real, real work to do. You are the experts in the political environment, please leave me to do my agriculture business. I cannot politicize this, if we do that we will lose. I mean Liberia will lose, this is everybody's business and no one makes it a priority than the other. I will do my best to operate in the political environment but focus on the work that I have been tasked to do."
Over the last 24 to 72 hours, the minister has found herself in the line of fire, struggling to stave off a stormy social media storm that appears to be rattling her squeaky clean image and persona and drawing her in the firing line of the rugged jungle of politics she had dreaded from the start.
Among the allegations, the minister is accused of ignoring procurement regulations and dishing out US$309, 630 to recent hires she brought on when she took over in early March. Madam Cooper is also accused of terminating contracts of old staffers and bringing in new onesand being at odds with the African Development Bank over the cancellation of a bidding process for heavy duty equipment.
Cancelled Bid vs. the ADB Concerns
The Minister is engulfed in a fierce storm regarding a unilateral decision she took in April cancel a bidding process for heavy-duty tractors and other agricultural equipment in order to rationalize spending of donor funds.
The minister requested a new bid that includes an expanded list of equipment better suited to Liberia's climate and topography; more aligned to farmers' needs and for smaller farm sizes and rationalized with agricultural assets already on ground.
Her argument? "We need to have a more rational use of available resources, especially as we enter a State of Emergency for the COVID-19. We can't afford to spend money buying equipment that will not be used".
The heavy-duty tractors and other agricultural equipment were to be purchased through a multi donor-funded project under the Ministry of Agriculture named: "Smallholder Agricultural Productivity Enhancement & Commercialization (SAPEC)".
The minister says the cancelled bid contained 17 pieces of equipment, parts and accessories. But the re-tendering bid has been expanded to 40 types of equipment that more directly benefit to rice producers, cassava processors and vegetable farmers.Some very expensive equipment in the original bid were actually duplicates of machines that had been purchased through other projects in the past, and are sitting unused in the Ministry warehouses," according to the MOA.
For the new bid, the minister says, priority will be placed on companies that have proven capacity to procure, maintain and repair equipment.
The SAPEC Project comes to an end in June this year after it started in 2013.
Its objectives are to enhance incomes of small holder farmers, particularly women and rural youth and Intensify land under cassava, rice and vegetable production and improve land husbandry.
In cancelling the bid, the minister argued: "Our farmers need equipment and tools suited for Liberia; for our farms and crops. Light tractors and skid steers that can facilitate de-stumping and land preparation on farm sizes that are as small as 1 hectare".
She continued: "Instead of three 16-ton trucks, that will have limited functionality, we should be looking at 3- to 6-ton trucks that are more agile and are more appropriate for off-road conditions. Farmers need help with post-harvest machinery, and to be able to use modern drying techniques that will reduce their losses after harvesting".
According to the minister, the cancellation is meant to avoid wasteful spending, and reduce the quantity of unusable or unused equipment in our warehouses.
ADB to Minister: 'New Procurement Will Delay'
The African Development Bank which is one of the funders of the project disagreed.
In a letter to the minster dated April 23, 2020, Mr. Andrew Mude who manages the ADB's Agriculture Research, Production and Sustainability Division (AHAI.2), wrote:
Dear Honorable Minister,
Subject: No Objection Request for Termination of Bidding Process for Procurement of Agro- Equipment
We acknowledge receipt of your letter referenced RL/MOA/JMC/M-068/'20 dated 21st April 2020 through which the Ministry of Agriculture requested for the Bank's No Objection to: a) terminate the ongoing bidding process for the procurement of Agro-Equipment under the SAPEC project; and b) launch an emergency procurement process to procure the specific equipment in the expanded list of Agro-Equipment. The Bank has reviewed your request and in order to arrive at a determination on the request, the Bank would need the following:
The proposed expanded list of equipment to be procured, the technical specifications and the cost estimates to ensure these are within the project budget; as well as the proposed procurement packages and method of procurement.
The justification analysis indicating the suitability of the list of equipment as align to the climatic and topographic conditions of the country as indicated in the request letter.
The above notwithstanding, the Bank is concerned that the launch of a new procurement process will further delay the acquisition of the equipment. Furthermore, given your plan to put the equipment to use before the rainy season, the Bank would like to encourage Government to give consideration to the option of continuing with the current procurement process if the new expanded list will include equipment that is already specified under the ongoing process; and at the same time launch a separate new procurement process for the additional equipment.
Please accept, Honorable Minister, the assurances of my highest esteem.
Four days, later on April 27, 2020, Mark Eghan, Senior Agriculture Economist at the ADB followed up another communication to the minister:
I also note the applied changes in the PMU staffing, as you are aware, the PMU is financed through a cost sharing arrangement by AfDB, World Bank and IFAD with staff recruited as individual consultants. The Bank has not received any communication of any procurement process leading to the recruitment of new staff for the PMU, changes in the PMU should follow the usual recruitment process. As you know, when the recruitment process has not been familiarized, any related expenditure may be declared as mis-procurement and government will be requested to refund such related expenditures.
Kindly ensure any changes to the signatures are duly communicated to the bank through the appropriate unit at the Finance Ministry.
On Monday April 27, Minister Cooper, sent an email to Bob Fassah of the ADB.
I think you are mixing up the terms' notification and approval. They are not the same. Please proceed with the notification. In these modern times, this can be done almost instantly with two clicks of the keyboard. Fast Track This.
The wave of allegations has no doubt dampened the minister and set her off to a rocky start, even eclipsing a notable gesture which won her praise when she first took over the administration of the MOA.
In March, the minister announced that she was putting her shares in her Fabrar Liberia Incorporated, a Liberian-owned agribusiness holding company with the sole purpose of increasing access of Liberian farmers to local and international markets, into what she termed as "Blind Trust."
The goal was to avoid any conflict of interest with her new role at the Ministry of Agriculture. "In this public forum, I like to say something about my company Fabrar, which I was running peacefully before, but which I have now put my shares into a blind trust so that I can focus my attention on the affairs of the Ministry," she said.
Madam Cooper introduced her two sons, including Fabio Lavelanet, who is the main person who started the company, as among others who are now going to be in charge of the running of the company.
Late Wednesday, the MOA issued a statement in a bid to slow down the wave of social media chatters dogging the minster.
MOA on the Defensive
In the statementWednesday, the MOA explained that the minister was informed by means of an official communication from Madam Precious Teteh, Deputy Minister of Administration, and the point person on the ministry's personnel matters, on May 6, 2020, alerting her on the pending expiration of some workers' one-year contracts as of June 30, 2020.
"Following this administrative notice as is standard administrative procedure and best practice, the MOA informed those on the contracts of the pending expiration of said contracts," the statement said.
The MOA noted that it has not terminated such contracts as is being rumored in the Liberian social media space. "The termination of contracts at the MOA is done -in accordance with official human resources procedures; Civil Service Agency's standards and employment laws of the Republic of Liberia-through official communications to affected workforce."
The MOA then issued a challenges to anyone to prove with a duly signed letter addressed to a worker that his/her contract has been terminated.
Regarding the awarding of contracts, the MOA categorically stated that the document circulated on social media and the narrative associated with it does not represent the actual happenings at the Ministry of Agriculture in the award of contracts. "The said document was a draft proposal sent to the Minister of Agriculture in an email dated March 4, 2020 -after her commissioning as head of the Ministry -for the setting up of an Agribusiness Development and Growth Unit Innovation Labs Programme, a component which was never approved by her and is non-existent at the MOA at this time."
Again, the ministry issued a challenge to anyone to prove through certified contract copies - duly signed and stamped with the amounts stated therein and proof of payments received.
Slamming 'Half-Baked Truths'
Three months into her reign at the MOA, Minister Cooper is no doubt facing some serious challenges. But the MOA insisted Wednesday that the ongoing saga is simply a distraction. "While this may be considered a distraction, the MOA remains focused on implementing the recently approved World Bank's US$ 10.5 million funding support to the Government of Liberia (GOL) through the Ministry of Agriculture (MOA) for its COVID-19 Food Security, Nutrition and Livelihood Plan."
Sympathizers of the minister say she's been wrongly targeted. "It is sad that, people will decide to run with half baked information without thoroughly investigating it, imagine someone hard earned career is being put on the line simply for serving her country, so sad that others have started buying into something they don't have any clue about," opined Cheick Ousmane Toure, under a Facebook post thread discussing the saga Wednesday.
For the immediate future, the agriculture minister is racing against time to fulfill many of the deliverables she set out to accomplish for a sector which has been lagging behind for decades. Standing in the way however,is her ongoing back-and-forth communications with executives of the ADB, funders of most of the projects earmarked for implementation but complicated by a number of unanswered questions relating to several documents suggesting conflict of interest. Although unsigned and finalized, according to the MOA, the documents pose grave complications for the minister and if not clearly explained, have the propensity to keep the ministry, on the defensive for quite some time.