Washington — In June 2021, US President Joe Biden unveiled his administration's National Security Strategy in which fighting corruption was deemed a national security issue for the United States of America.
In establishing the strategy, the Biden administration recognized corruption's ability to corrode democracy. The policy also aims at fighting against corruption seen as a core U.S. national security interest. As part of the strategy, President Biden directed his national security team to lead the creation of a comprehensive strategy that, when implemented, would improve the U.S. government's ability to prevent corruption, more effectively combat illicit finance, better hold corrupt actors accountable, and strengthen the capacity of activists, investigative journalists, and others on the front lines of exposing corrupt acts.
The strategy outlines a whole-of-government approach to elevating the fight against corruption and places particular emphasis on better understanding and responding to the threat's transnational dimensions, including by taking additional steps to reduce the ability of corrupt actors to use the U.S. and international financial systems to hide assets and launder the proceeds of corrupt acts.
Over the course of the past few months, however, Ambassador Michael McCarthy, the US envoy accredited to Liberia has come under fire for trying to enforce the Biden administration's strategy with senior Liberian government officials, including the heads of both the Senate and the House of Representatives, taking turns throwing tantrums at the Ambassador for implementing the Biden administration's policy.
In March this year, Ambassador McCarthy, aptly timed a speech with anti-corruption coordinators to lament what he sees as a rapidly growing gap between the rich and the poor, the haves and the have nots in Liberia's bourgeoning post-war democracy.
The Singapore Parallel
In that speech, Ambassador McCarthy lamented that while he has great hopes for Liberia and dreams of a better country, a lot of missteps and corruption under the administration of President George Manneh Weah are holding Liberia from progress - and more US assistance.
The ambassador opined that he envisions a country, "where labor regulations are enforced uniformly without prejudice, and not for personal manipulation or political gain; one where all legislators appropriate funds to a Ministry without the expectation of kickbacks; one where all Ministers negotiate on behalf of what is best for the country, not on the basis of what funds are being paid directly to them; one where public appropriations are distributed as the legislature directed them - not in a random or weaponized fashion determined by individuals; one where schools have no ghost employees and are supplied with the actual number of teachers on their payroll; one where donated medicine is actually available free of charge to the poorest of the poor in public health facilities throughout the country. Liberia can be this country. Just as in Singapore, it is within the power of the Liberian people to make this happen."
Drawing parallels with Singapore, Ambassador McCarthy stated that with only 270 square miles of land, virtually no natural resources, and with a population almost the same size as Liberia's, Singapore had a reputation in the early 1960s as one of the poorest, most corrupt countries in Asia. Singapore's per capita Gross Domestic Product in 1960 was $428. "Today, he notes, "Singapore is one of the wealthiest countries on the planet, and their per capita Gross Domestic Product in 2022 had risen to $82,794. In comparison, Liberia's per capita Gross Domestic Product in 2022 was $630. How did this happen? Did they win the lottery? Was it by chance or coincidence? No. One of the primary reasons for the phenomenal success of Singapore, is that they decided corruption would no longer be accepted as a normal part of life."
Ambassador Michael McCarthy's critical and honest assessment of topical issues regarding misgovernance and corruption in Liberia is often greeted with mixed reviews. For many Liberians, the ambassador's critique of the George Weah-led government is often timely and hits the core of what many are feeling but afraid to say, perhaps out of fear. For sympathizers of the Weah administration, the ambassador's jabs cross the line, but Washington insiders say, everything the ambassador says falls in line with President Biden's National Security Strategy unveiled in June 2021.
In recent weeks, the heads of both the Senate, Senator Albert Chie and the House representatives, Speaker Bophal Chambers have been throwing pointed jabs at the Ambassador for speaking truth to the powers that be.
According to the Speaker of the House of Representatives, the ambassador's unprofessional approach to key issues of national governance does not sit well with the government. Speaker Chambers accuses Ambassador McCarthy of displaying undiplomatic behavior when commenting on the challenges faced by the current government led by the Coalition for Democratic Change.
Speaker Chambers went as far as to suggest that Ambassador McCarthy's conduct does not align with the views of the government and people of the United States, emphasizing that such behavior was unacceptable and not representative of how diplomats should conduct themselves.
Additionally, Speaker Chambers, who was a strong critic against former President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, asserted that any allegations from the ambassador would not be tolerated on Liberian soil. "It is important for diplomats to conduct themselves in a manner that is professional and aligned with the values of their government and the host country.
Earlier this month, while campaigning in the southeast, Senate Pro Temp Albert Chie also took the Ambassador to task, accusing McCarthy of being supportive of the opposition bloc by creating an unleveled field to the advantage of the opposition ahead of the October elections.
The Pro Temp's outburst followed a recent press statement released by the Ambassador, in which the Ambassador lamented the harsh living conditions of rural Liberians and alleged that the Legislature allocated to itself over US$65 million in 2022 for salaries and operations to feather their own nest while hospitals and county service centers withered on the vine.
Sen. Chie argued that Ambassador would have ascertained facts about the monies that lawmakers receive by visiting the projects being carried out by all lawmakers throughout the country. "What do we do with the money we get? We build clinics, we buy drugs, we build schools, we build guest houses, etc., that's what legislators all over the country do with their money," he said.
The Grand Kru Senator also argued that the Ambassador's recent statement is a strategy employed by him to strengthen the opposition in this election year.
Said Mr. Chie: "He's fond of spreading falsehood because this is an election year so that the opposition would be strengthened. He's lying because of his support to a field that shouldn't be level because this is a political year. How can you be spreading falsehood on the government? This is why Washington has recalled him because he's interfering with the politics of our country. He's a foreigner and he must stick to his position."
Washington insiders say the US is becoming increasingly frustrated due to the millions of dollars invested in the health sector in Liberia with the US remaining the largest bilateral donor in Liberia.
Demanding Accountability for Millions to Liberia
The United States is the largest bilateral donor to Liberia, with over $4.4 billion in bilateral assistance since the civil war ended in 2003. This is in addition to roughly $1 billion in assessed contributions in support of the UN peacekeeping mission UNMIL, which lasted 14 years and concluded in March 2018. This includes more than $54 million annually in health assistance to Liberia to support maternal and child health care, malaria and HIV prevention and treatment, and Global Health Security Agenda and WASH activities.
For President Biden, "Corruption threatens United States national security, economic equity, global anti-poverty and development efforts, and democracy itself. But by effectively preventing and countering corruption and demonstrating the advantages of transparent and accountable governance, we can secure a critical advantage for the United States and other democracies."
In recent months, the Biden administration has also come under pressure from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee where Senators Tim Kaine and Cory Booker--both members of the committee--introduced a legislation, which would require the US President to detail how nominees tipped to serve as ambassador's language skills, foreign policy expertise, and experience have prepared that nominee to effectively lead U.S. diplomatic efforts in the specific country in which they are nominated to serve. "Our ambassadors are critical to building and maintaining the relationships we need to protect not only our own safety and security, but that of our allies around the world," said Senator Kaine.
Senator Booker added: "Ambassadors are crucial to American diplomacy, dedicating their service to protecting the interests and security of the United States. Given the importance of their role, we must increase oversight and transparency within our nomination process and ensure that those nominated for these positions are adequately qualified to serve and represent our country abroad."
Message Resonating - From Liberia to Nigeria
Ambassador McCarthy's stance in Liberia appears to mirror that of US ambassadors in other parts of the world. In observance of anti-corruption day last December, U.S. Ambassador Yuri Kim, accredited to Albania, stressed the need to renew US efforts to end the scourge of corruption. "Corruption robs citizens and future generations of wealth and hope. It saps economic growth, hinders development, undermines democracy, and unlocks doors for criminals, traffickers, and terrorists."
In Nigeria, Claire A. Pierangelo, US Ambassador accredited there, also addressing anti-corruption day shared similar sentiments: "Countering corruption is not only a key concern in Nigeria but also a core U.S. national security priority for the Biden Administration. Growth and development, consistent with the richness and strength of Nigeria, depend on a new narrative and a culture where corruption has no place."
The controversy surrounding Ambassador McCarthy, whose tenure in Liberia is about to expire, following the recent nomination of Christopher Toner as McCarthy's replacement, comes amid Washington's concerns regarding the recent verdict in a US$100 million drug case in which a jury declared a not guilty verdict on the four suspects in the case. The verdict came against the backdrop that US embassy officials were on the scene of the bust last October and recorded the seizure on video as well.
For the Biden administration, issues of money laundering and drug operations put corrupt actors under the microscope. Recent illicit activities involving drugs, money laundering and corruption, have put Liberia at the forefront of a US policy where facilitators rely on vulnerabilities in the United States and international financial systems to obscure ownership of assets and launder the proceeds of their illicit activities. This amid rising fears that Liberia is slowly becoming a transshipment point for drug cartels. The Biden administration believes that as the world's largest economy, the United States bears responsibility to address gaps in its own regulatory system. This is why Washington appears to be increasingly concerned about the misconceptions by the Weah administration regarding Ambassador McCarthy's Term of Reference and the implications for Liberia's immediate and foreseeable future. "Literally, everything the ambassador is saying is in line with the national security interest of the Biden administration," a Washington insider told FrontPageAfrica this week.