Liberia Ten Years on: corruption and accountability remain country’s biggest challenges – By Blair Glencorse

Johnson Sirleaf is a reforming President, but the Liberian state still answers more to external organisations than its own people.

A decade ago on August 18th, 2003, the Accra Comprehensive Peace Agreement brought Liberia’s 14 year civil war to an end. As this small West African country faded from the international headlines, a new era of hope began. Deeply entrenched networks of corruption were a central cause of violence, and Liberians sought to move away from the past and towards a clean, accountable government that put the rights of its citizens before the self-interest of its power-holders. Ten years later, this vision is under threat and with it the stability of a country that is central to US and global interests in the region.

Under Ellen Johnson Sirleaf – the first female Head of State in Africa and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011- the government has made a series of reforms to address the country’s corruption problems. These have ranged from dismissing tainted civil servants, to pushing through new strategies for reform, to passing legislation to address graft. The budget has been opened up, business rules have been streamlined with management of natural resources becoming a central focus. Liberia was the first African state to comply with EITI rules governing extractive industries for example, and the first West African country to pass a Freedom of Information Act to support more transparent government. Recently, the government signed up to the Open Government Partnership and committed to a series of ambitious goals to help make itself more accountable.

However, Liberia is still far from a well-functioning society with secure peace and sustainable development. Nearly 7,500 thousand UN troops remain stationed around the country to prevent violence; the population has no public provision of clean water, sewerage or electricity; and over 76% of the population still lives on less than $1 a day. Late last year at the UN High Level Panel on the post-2015 Development Agenda, President Johnson Sirleaf herself stated that corruption in Liberia has become “systemic and endemic“, and Liberia was ranked towards the very bottom of Transparency International’s recent Global Corruption Barometer.

At the root of Liberia’s problems is a deep lack of accountability. Since 1822 when repatriated American blacks arrived in Liberia, the legitimacy of political actors in the country has been derived not from the delivery of services to the public or responsiveness to constituents, but from participation in deeply entrenched patronage networks. This system has perpetuated itself because the objectives of both the ruling elite and ordinary citizens converge in the pursuit of relationships that provide security, thus placing personal obligations over private or public duties.

The problem is not that the legal framework for accountability does not exist. A host of institutional changes have created bodies to fight corruption – ranging from the Liberia Anti-Corruption Commission (LACC), to the General Auditing Commission (GAC), to the Public Procurement and Concessions Commission (PPCC). However, the formal structures set up to build integrity largely lack the mandate, powers and resources to combat graft. Public sector salaries are low (despite significant increases in recent years); the civil service is not subject to regulations to prevent nepotism, cronyism, and patronage; and at the local level, institutions do not provide sufficient incentives for participation in decision-making. Within public bodies, information and opportunity are often jealously guarded, which can make collaboration and cooperation very difficult.

As a result, it can be tremendously time-consuming and exhausting for citizens to navigate formal governance systems according to the written rules. Necessity dictates (for both citizens and civil servants who want to facilitate reform) that bribes are paid or favours given in order to reduce processes to even a vaguely manageable amount of time and effort. Moreover, the formal legal system is largely inaccessible, unaffordable and overly time consuming for the average person; and customary channels of justice are largely geared towards promoting reconciliation rather than accountability.

This issue goes beyond the role of government to the Liberian people themselves. Politicians, civil servants and businessmen may abuse their positions, mistaking their wealth for legitimacy. Yet, at the same time, citizens who often complain about officials “eating money” are also willing to accept patronage from these power-holders when it suits their own interests. A syndrome has developed whereby those with access to resources through any kind of position of power are seen as “stupid” if they do not use this access to maximize their own wealth. In this way, public and private moralities have become divorced and the corrupt status-quo continues.

A final element that stymies the struggle for accountability in Liberia is the state’s orientation towards international organizations and businesses. Though democratically elected, Liberia’s government arguably answers more to outsiders than to its people. Over $340 million in aid per annum is delivered through a myriad of government agencies, NGOs and contractors, which reinforces dependency, leads to uncoordinated activities and generates sub-optimal outcomes. Well-qualified Liberians are drawn away from government or civil society positions by higher wages in donor organizations, which undermines domestic capacity. Meanwhile, huge contracts between the government and natural resource extraction companies have been far from transparent – recently, Global Witness reported that “a quarter of Liberia’s total landmass has been granted to logging companies in just two years, following an outbreak in the use of secretive and often illegal logging permits.”

All of this is important because it is at the heart of Liberia’s security and West African stability. The Liberian people are angry about their lot and frustrated that the channels for upward social mobility are largely closed to them. Unemployment and under-employment levels remain dangerously high – particularly among young men – and the region is awash with weapons. A recent UN Panel of Experts Report revealed a government “deeply concerned about mercenary and militia activity” and reported a “hyper-political and polarized environment” in Liberia. This is a combustible combination.

To give Liberia a better chance at cementing peace, those who care about the country’s future should redefine their thinking to focus more directly on the core elements of accountability. First, we must match our view of accountability with local realities. Corruption may be easy to condemn in the Western context, but in a system like Liberia’s, censure may do more harm than good. Prosecuting high-level transgressions may make sense in selective cases, but in others it may make it harder to attract relatively decent and competent people into public service. Instead, the focus must also be on changing the incentives and relationships that give rise to endemic graft as part of a campaign to build a contextualized system of values and ethics.

Second, we must support the creation of accountability institutions not just on paper, but in practice. This means bolstering the capacity and scope of anti-corruption bodies; encouraging collaboration among and between relevant agencies; and building constructive bridges between civil society organizations that work on these issues and key government ministries such as the Ministry of Lands, Mines and Energy, and the Ministry of Public Works. It also requires greater emphasis on the implementation of existing laws – for example, a civil society group recently registered the first administrative Freedom of Information case law precedent in Liberia, which is a step in the right direction.

Finally, we must use different tools and timeframes to build peace and accountability. Large conferences and lengthy reports may have their uses, but they are far from sufficient. Instead, international organizations should carefully support alternative approaches (using religious leaders, cultural networks or new technologies, for example) to drive anti-corruption messaging in ways consistent with Liberia’s oral traditions. And we should be patient in measuring impact, because cultural changes of this sort take time. Young people can be especially useful to these efforts since they are less beholden to traditional patronage structures and tend to be more creative.

There has now been ten years of peace in Liberia, and the country’s worst days may be behind it. But in order to ensure this remains the case, it is critical that the Liberian government, its people, and its partners across the international community focus more directly on accountability issues.

Blair Glencorse is Executive Director of the Accountability Lab, based in Liberia. You can follow the Lab on Twitter @accountlab

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4 thoughts on “Liberia Ten Years on: corruption and accountability remain country’s biggest challenges – By Blair Glencorse

  1. Blair, This is an excellent overview and summary, and I commend the work you are doing with Accountability Lab. However, I don’t share your view that censure of law-breaking officials can do more harm than good, or discourage the continued recruitment of good public servants. In my opinion, the environment has deteriorated to its present state precisely because there have been so few prosecutions, criminal proceedings, or other serious consequences. Even those caught red-handed are at most dismissed from office but often times just rotated to a different position. I am not even aware of example where the ill-gotten gains recouped by the state. There is so little penalty for engaging in embezzlement or other abuse of office that the practice is seen as without risk, in addition to the social, political and personal pressures which encourage misuse of the privileges of position.
    I understand the assertion that you can’t fire everybody; that if you shun decent officials who don’t always play by the rules, you may end up with a replacement that is only worse than your original problem. But I just don’t agree that its worthwhile or sensible to have no meaningful consequence when a government employee abuses their office. It sends the signal to them that such practices are acceptable, as well as all the rest of the employees in government and the public at large. The system of patronage and graft must be dismantled from the top, to show that there are no untouchables, and that anyone who steals or is corrupt runs the risk of serious consequence. Until then, there is no reason to think anything will meaningfully change. In my view, there has always been the opportunity to seriously dampen the corruption which is holding back progress, through the prosecution of corrupt individuals, with forfeiture, fines, court cases, and jail time. That so little of that has happened is one of the primary reasons why increasingly volumes of corruption clog the system, and indeed perhaps why talented, upstanding young people chose the non-governmental or aid fields over going into a frustrating and dysfunctional system in public office.

  2. Hi Matt- thanks so much for reading, and I don’t disagree with you. I am all for accountability and for the punishment of misdeeds, especially as it relates to issues of corruption and the misuse of public resources. I suppose the point I’m making is that this may be necessary but not sufficient- firing or prosecuting these people certainly deals with a symptom of the problem but not the cause. Anyone that fills their position will still be operating within a system with the same incentives, rules and pressures which lead to unaccountable behavior. Deterrence is important, but this is a systemic, not an individual problem. As you know, a lot of what can pass for ‘facing up to’ corruption is actually public name-calling and mud-slinging, which can obscure the core of the problem. I think the solutions to this are multiple and complex and will take a very long time- but certainly include thinking harder about how to understand accountability within the Liberian context; and designing approaches that can lead to collective changes in behavior.

  3. Does this seem like a Leader willing to fight Corruption? Our Leader Lack the will to tackle the Corruption issue. There are too many instances where Madam President will reappoint folks to a new position after she’s dismissed them. Madam Sirleaf have also tried on many instances to appointed people convicted of fraud and that have served time in federal Prison in the US to Liberian Government Position.

    In Liberia: It is time for The President and Musa Bility to Go
    17. August 2013 08:29 / Omar Tariq Fahnbulleh / Liberia . Opinion . Politics / Comments (0)
    I have been thinking about this, for a while, and have mentioned it to a couple of people. It is time for our President Madam Sirleaf to GO. Madam yesterday undermined her Justice Ministry’s indictment in the LAA case. The Liberian Justice Ministry issued an indictment of several Liberians, some serving in the Government of Liberia, but our President came out and issued a vote of confidence for one of the major players in the Indictment, Mr. Musa Bility. Our president instead of letting Justice take its course decided to step on our Constitution and insert herself into the case and undermine the Justice Ministry by interfering with the legal proceeding.

    Why would Madam Cockrum or Mr. Johnson want to return to Liberia to face trial when the President has already vouched for one of the defendants?

    Who is Musa Bility?

    To know who Mr. Bility is, one only has to read the news out of Liberia. This calls into serious question the judgment of the President, and her anti-corruption claims.

    In July 2012,

    State prosecutors alleged that SCRIMEX Chief Executive Officer Musa Bility defrauded the government of U$350,000, adding that their evidence against his company was overwhelming for indictment.

    In June 2013,

    The Confederation of African Football, instituted a six month ban against Musa Bility, in his role as President of the Liberian Football Association, for “violating statutes relating to the use of confidential documents.”

    In June 2013, the Tax Court of Liberia ordered Mr. Bility’s assets seized and sold.

    The action of seizure and sale of assets as well as closure of the premises of his companies, according to the writ of execution, stemmed from a September 7, 2012 judgment which compelled Bility to pay US$165,000 representing the amount he owes the government of Liberia in taxes

    So even though State Prosecutors have, at least once, presented a successful prosecution of Mr. Bility for defrauding the government of Liberia, the President of Liberia, announces, after a second indictment of Mr. Bility, that she has complete confidence in his integrity.

    For the President to say she has confidence in the integrity of Mr. Bility, is at the same time saying she has no confidence in the integrity of the Ministry of Justice. But it begs the larger question: where in the world, does a President, whose government and country is rife with corruption, step in to serve as a personal character witness for a person indicted for corruption, even before the trial has even begun.

    This is the second time, Madam Sirleaf has done this. She visited Mr. Guyde Bryant when he was under a major indictment for corruption. Madam Sirleaf has neither the desire, nor the intention fight corruption. It was never part of her agenda and it will never be.

    Our President, every step of the way, has undermined the fight for corruption in Liberia. She appointed Mr. Francis Cabah back into her Government when he was fired from Social Security for Corruption. I am here scratching my damn head, in fact, my head hurts. In the recent tapes released by Madam Cockrum we heard the Defense Minister indict the entire government of Liberia when he stated that there are folks in the Government that have stolen but are still allowed to write checks for the Government. We have yet to hear from our Elected Leaders.

    Again I will say its best Madam Sirleaf leaves office now, considering we have UNMIL in Liberia for another four years. If she leaves now, this will give her replacement a chance while we have UNMIL to do what is right and put in place the programs to move Liberia forward. Is there anyone, at this moment in time, who believes if Madam Sirleaf stays in power and we stay on our current trajectory, when her term ends and UNMIL leaves we will have Peace?

    – See more at:

  4. Just stumbled on this article while looking for material on the African freedom of information laws! Couldn’t resist to comment because I found it very interesting. It highlights the problems that hinder African development at large. As Africans we need to deliver ourselves from this predicament. Unfortunately the African elite that should be in a position to scrutinize and hold those we appoint into power to manage our public goods accountable have also joined them and are busy “eating”. This leaves the voiceless and deprived to their misery of continued poverty and lack of development. There is need to deal effectively with nepotism, cyronism, patronage and impunity. Well funded and effective systems (processes, people and technology) need to be implemented in order to counter accountability challenges and hence enhance transparency. Massive sensitisation campaigns regarding the rights of ordinary Citizens who will in the end stop promoting corruption. The to-do list is long but we are stuck with bad leaders that promote bad governance, a theme often discussed but that just continues!

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