Liberia: Reversing the Gains?

opinion

With Liberia upgraded to Tier 2 on the US State Department's Trafficking in Persons (TIP) list early this year, it seemed as though the West African nation was showing impressive improvement in compliance with global policies to combat the crime. But barely a year after Liberia's passport director, Andrew Wonplo, was nabbed for passport fraud at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the fact that he and his entire family have been publicly banned from entering the United Sates raises new questions about how Liberia will fare in the next evaluation on the US TIP list.

Late last week US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, announced a public designation titled, "Public Designation of Andrew Wonplo due to involvement in significant corruption."

Secretary of State Pompeo said: "In his official capacity at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs from 2018 to 2019, Mr. Wonplo was involved in passport fraud that undermined the rule of law, reduced the Liberian public's faith in their government's management of identification and travel documents, and compromised the integrity and security of immigration processes."

According to a legal expert who does not want to be named, the US decision to chastise Wonplo and his family though a bold step that would have been taken by the Liberian Government to discourage corruption, the unfolding development at the Foreign Ministry, however, does not give certainty to the public about safety as Liberian passports enter in the hands of so many aliens and foreigners to roam the world under the guise of Liberian citizenship.

The legal expert in human rights affairs indicated that as passports are spread across a large segment of foreigners and aliens, it is highly possible that some have already landed in the hands of terrorists and human traffickers.

"In this way, those who have been illegally selling Liberian passports to non-Liberians, for huge amounts of money, it is becoming apparent that they may have been aiding and abetting terrorists and operators of human trafficking rings," said the expert.

Liberia's Tier 2 status on the US State Department TIP list indicates that the government has made some efforts including investigations of internal trafficking; allocating a budget to the anti-trafficking task force for the first time since 2014; promulgating a national referral mechanism; and identifying more potential trafficking victims.

The country's shortcomings, however, included the government's failure to sentence convicted traffickers to an adequate prison term, lacking adequate resources for law enforcement officials, and little or no understanding of trafficking to effectively investigate and prosecute trafficking crimes; and limited shelter and services for victims.

True to form, even Mr. Wonplo himself was prevented from prosecution, first by his being snatched from the hands of court officials before he could see the inside of the courtroom, though he had already been charged. Furthermore, in spite of the glaring amount of evidence against him -- blank passports and birth certificates found in his home -- the Ministry of Justice under Cllr. Frank Musah Dean showed no interest in prosecuting Wonplo and his Nigerian accomplice.

Finally, the Government of Liberia under President George Manneh Weah looked the other way as Judge Yamie Gbeisay of Criminal Court C presided over the request of Wonplo's lawyers to drop all charges against their client when the prosecution would not pursue the matter any further.

Given the handling of Wonplo's case, the legal luminary observes that the culprits are far bigger than Wonplo himself -- "well-placed hidden hands, closest to the seat of power" are more than the crime of passport fraud has the propensity to significantly diminish the gains Liberia has made in the fight against TIP.

Even though Liberia has not encountered overt terroristic activities in its territorial confines, terrorists have in the past attacked neighboring Cote d'Ivoire, Burkina Faso, as well as Mali, where a contingent of Liberian troops are stationed as United Nations peace keepers. These countries have people coming daily entering Liberia through porous borders and the main airports, mostly undetected.

"Already in our country, we see foreigners entering freely and using different routes; what happens when they possess our passport that gives them the freedom?" said the expert.

"We must also beware that as our passport gets in the hands criminally minded foreigners around the world, our country risks being blacklisted as a hub for terrorist or human trafficking activities," he added.

The US Secretary of State's designation for Wonploe is made under Section 7031(c) of the Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Act, 2020 (Div. G, P.L. 116-94). Under Section 7031(c), once the Secretary of State designates officials of foreign governments for their involvement, directly or indirectly, in significant corruption, those individuals and their immediate family members are ineligible for entry into the United States.

"The law also requires the Secretary of State to either publicly or privately designate such officials and their immediate family members. In addition to Mr. Wonploe, I am announcing the public designation of his spouse, Dennice Wonploe, and their minor children," the press release said.

"The Department will continue to use these authorities to promote accountability for corrupt actors in this region and globally," the tough-talking US diplomat stated.

Wonploe was arrested in August last year, and during police investigation, it was discovered that 4,250 pieces of blank Liberian passports were entrusted to the Passport and Bureau of Vital Statistics that was under his supervision as Passport Director.

The court document at the time noted that out of the 4,250 blank passports under the custody of the Passport Department, 4,180 booklets were recorded and issued to applicants (Accounted for), while 70 pieces were reported "damaged."

"That out of the 70 pieces reportedly damaged, 66 other booklets could be traced, while four of them could not be accounted for," the court's document quoted the investigative report.

Besides, the court record claimed that 17 booklets of birth certificates were illegally issued to individuals without any payment to the government.

In the wake of denial of Wonploe and his family, he has posted on his Facebook page that he would be coming out to speak early this week, but could not state what he intends to say and against whom. He and his family are so far the only ones bearing the weight of being blacklisted by the US government, as the public leans in to hear what he will have to say.

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