THERE'S NOT SUGAR COATING around the controversy surrounding Mr. Akintunde Ojo, an alleged Nigerian drug criminal who reportedly bribed his way through the George Weah-led government for the acquisition of a Liberian diplomatic passport and a diplomatic post, for the purpose of carrying out his drug deals under the protection of Liberia's sovereignty.
THE GOVERNMENT THROUGH lead spokesman, Information Minister Lenn Eugene Nagbe insists that it acted prudently and legally in the appointment of Mr. Ojo as the country's Honorary Consulate General to Mexico.
PRIOR TO OJO'S appointment, the only relationship on paper between the two countries was an August 23, 2002, international football friendly duel on US soil in which Liberia lost 5-4.
MEXICO ATTAINED ITS independence from Spain on SEPTEMBER 16, 1810 while Liberia attained its independence as a US colony on July 26, 1847.
THE TWO COUNTRIES have no economic ties to boast of and no known history of collaboration on anything beneficial to either side, thus raising suspicion and controversy regarding Mr. Ojo's appointment.
EVEN MORE TROUBLING is that fact that Mr. Ojo was reportedly denied a diplomatic passport during the regime of former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in 2014.
ADDITIONALLY, MR. OJO is also said to have been denied a US visa, using a Liberian passport.
SO, HOW DID MR. OJO beat the system? How did he manage to get a diplomatic passport in the current government when red flags in the past government found him unqualified to be granted one? Additionally, how did he manage to return to Liberia, four years later and defied the system under the current regime, to obtain not just a passport but an honorary diplomatic post to of all places, Mexico.
LIBERIA, LIKE MOST West African nations, uses ECOWAS Passport. It does raise some suspicion that Nigeria, from where Mr. Ojo hails did not provide him a diplomatic passport all these years - or even a post in Mexico.
IN FACT, UNLIKE LIBERIA, NIGERIA HAS a long-standing relationship with Mexico.
BOTH COUNTRIES are regional powers in Latin America and Africa, respectively and both nations established diplomatic relations with each other on April 14, 1976. Three months after establishing diplomatic relations, Mexico opened an embassy in Lagos, however, the embassy was closed in 1979 due to financial restraints. In 1981, Nigeria opened an embassy in Mexico City and later closed its diplomatic mission two years later in 1983. Nigeria reopened its embassy in Mexico in 2000 and Mexico followed suit by opening an embassy in Abuja (the new capital of Nigeria since 1991) in 2008.
IN FACT, In 1981, former Nigerian President Shehu Shagari attended a summit for Heads of States in Cancun where he met with his counterpart, then Mexican President José López Portillo and leaders of other nations. Since 2000, bilateral relations and high-level meetings between both nations have steadily increased. In March 2002, Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo paid his first visit to Mexico to attend the Monterrey Consensus held in the northern Mexican city of Monterrey. In September 2002, President Vicente Fox became the first Mexican head-of-state to pay an official visit to Nigeria. In September 2005, Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo paid a second visit to Mexico.
SO, IF ANY country should be dispatching an Honorary Consul to Mexico, it is Nigeria, not Liberia.
ALTHOUGH INFORMATION MINISTER LENN EUGENE NAGBE, explained to FrontPageAfrica Sunday that the government followed all internationally- accepted practice, in granting Mr. Ojo, Honorary Consul status, there are simply too many red flags punching holes in this controversy.
ACCORDING to the Minister, there is simply no evidence suggesting that Mr. Ojo failed the smell test. "Now regarding Representative Snowe and others who are regurgitating the falsehood that the government sold diplomatic passports to a drug dealer, the onus is on them to come forward with the information they have. The government is interested in seeing the evidence, however scanty. The government of Mexico too will be interested and so will the government of the United States who are working in close cooperation with our own security apparatus in fighting diverse areas of national and transnational crimes."
THE MINISTER INSISTS that the current President Weah did not invent the posts of Honorary Counsels or Ambassadors at Large. "In fact, there were hundreds of these foreigners appointed before he became President of Liberia. It is he who started streamlining the process to ensure that these people who actually represent the interests of the country, are properly vetted before being commissioned."
TO THE CONTRARY, Article I of the 2012 Revised Regulations on Honorary Consuls in Liberia, intended to revise the regulations and procedures for the appointment and termination of Honorary Consuls issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 2009, "Non-Liberians Honorary Consuls shall not be entitled to Liberian Diplomatic Passports".
THE REVISED REGULATIONS FURTHER STATE: "Honorary Consuls of the Republic of Liberia Shall be granted no additional privileges and immunities other than that provided by the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations. With the exception of Liberian citizens appointed as Honorary Consuls of the Republic of Liberia in other countries. An Honorary consul shall operate under the jurisdiction and/or oversight of the Liberian Ambassador accredited to a Receiving State or a Liberian Ambassador accredited to a country in geographical proximity of the Receiving State.
THE REVISION came in the aftermath of an embarrassing scandal unearthed by Danish journalist, Mads Brügger, whose documentary, "The Ambassador", released in August 2012, uncovered elite corruption in Liberia through a shadowy network of European diplomatic passport brokers.
BRÜGGER MANAGED to disguised himself as Mads Cortzen, portraying himself as a businessman who managed to get a Liberian Diplomatic Passport and an appointment as an honorary Liberian consul and ambassador-at-large to the Central African Republic.
USING HIDDEN CAMERAS, Brügger recorded meetings with brokers for the purchase of the Liberian position, with diplomats and foreign businessmen in the Central African Republic's capital of Bangui, and with various government officials including the C.A.R.'s defense minister and its white mercenary head of security. Most striking of all, though, he records his meetings with a diamond-mine owner who promises access to diamonds not cleared for removal from the country--blood diamonds.
THE AMBASSADOR documentary was a major embarrassment to the administration of former President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf in the same vein as the granting of Honorary Consul status to Mr. Ojo is today.
WHAT THE OJO SCANDAL has shown is that Liberia has simply not learned anything from the fallout from The Ambassador Documentary.
TODAY, HOLDERS of Liberian diplomatic passports are under scrutiny because in less than two years, hundreds of passports have been granted to the highest bidder and the the former Director of Passport and Visas at the Liberian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, declared Persona Non Grata by the United States of America.
ON SEPT. 10, 2020, US Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo, announced the public designation of Mr. Wonplo due to his involvement in significant corruption.
ACCORDING TO Mr. Pompeo, Mr. Wonplo, in his official capacity at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs from 2018 to 2019, 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.
THE PERIOD UNDER scrutiny falls in line with the same time Mr. Ojo was granted his diplomatic passport and his Honorary Consul appointment.
THE PUBLIC DESIGNATION 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. Wonplo, I am announcing the public designation of his spouse, Dennice Wonplo, and their minor children. This designation reaffirms U.S. commitment to standing with the people and government of Liberia in their fight against corruption. The Department will continue to use these authorities to promote accountability for corrupt actors in this region and globally."
IT IS CLEAR from all that has transpired over the past few days that Liberia's diplomatic passports have been compromised.
THE BEST WAY the Weah-led government can save face is to revoke Mr. Ojo's appointment and help restore credibility to Liberia's diplomatic standing.
Senator Nyonblee Karnga-Lawrence (Liberty Party, Grand Bassa County) is right. These serious allegations of Liberian diplomatic passports being sold to alleged drug lords under the guise of representing Liberia in other countries, has the tendency of undermining the security of entire West Africa.
SAID THE SENATOR: "Our passports are linked to the West African Sub-region. Each passport designate its holder as representing the broader West African space. To criminally sell these passports, as it is being alleged, to international criminals and terrorists, is to risk our credibility in Ecowas, and undermine our regional standing," Sen. Lawrence noted.
THUS, THE SENATOR laments, the compromise of Liberia's international standing and reputation dangerously risks every Liberian holding a passport including diplomats.
SADLY, IT APPEARS that Liberia's diplomatic passports have fallen into the wrong hands, just as it did during the dog days of the civil war, when criminals floated the globe and the country's passports were sold to the highest bidders.
SADLY, A CASE OF MISCARRIAGE of Liberia's diplomacy is taking shape and demands urgent attention and action from the Weah administration.
PASSPORTS BORDER security and reputation. If fallen into the wrong hands, could do irreparable damage to a vulnerable, gullible and insecure third-world country like Liberia. This is why it is important that the Weah administration seizes the moment and control the narrative of what is unfolding before it loses its standing within the comity of nations - and a world facing daunting challenges in dealing with visible threats of terrorism, crimes and mayhem.