(April 26, 2011)
PRESIDENT SIRLEAF’S SPECIAL PROJECT GIFT FROM
FOREIGN-OWNED COMPANY DOING BUSINESS IN LIBERIA
WHERE IS THE CHECK?
Liberty learned with grave concern that President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf on Thursday, April 21, 2011, was given a check by the management of LIBINIC Oil Palm Inc., during her visit to the company in New Cess, Grand Bassa County. Uncontrollable corruption, which characterizes this government, is one thing, but public bribery or undisguised illegal gratuity is something else! So, we decided to wait until the President or her government informed the people of what actually transpired at LIBINIC.
Then the Daily Observer, published in its Monday, April 25, 2011, edition that indeed, “The British manager of the company, sitting at the high table along with official guests, was seen pushing the envelope towards the direction of the President.” The Daily Observer reported that the President rejected the envelope, which was “ostensibly offered her (President Sirleaf) as a token of appreciation for the program.” But then the Manager walked back onto the platform and told the President, according to the Daily Observer: “Madam President, this is a gesture from us to assist your market project and we hope that you use it wisely.” The Daily Observer further reported that the President “visibly irritated” took the podium and said, “I don’t even want to know how much is in this envelop. In fact, I am not permitted to receive neither cheque nor cash from any concession company. So, use it for the Bassa women market project, after that you can build another one.”
The content of the envelope is evidence of an attempt to commit a crime—bribery or at least illegal gratuity! The President is said to have rejected the money, but who currently has it? Has it been deposited into government treasury or returned to LIBINIC? Because if an agent of the President is in possession of that envelope, then the President did not reject the money; the President constructively received the check. Has the Manger been arrested for attempting to bribe the President or for offering illegal gratuity to the Head of our Government?
What do we know about LIBINIC? On December 31, 2007, the Government of Liberia and LIBINIC signed a 50 year Concession Agreement. The Concession Agreement grants LIBINIC rights to operate on 34,500 acres in New Cess, Grand Bassa County. Unlike other concession agreements, the contract neither contains the total amount of the investment nor the number of jobs it would create. John Bestman, the President’s former Campaign Manager and a senior executive of the President’s Unity Party, is reported to have financial interest in LIBINIC.
When the President said that she could not receive the check and that she did not want to know the amount of the check, she was obviously trying, but failed, to avoid the appearance of “illegal gratuity.” So what did the President do? She directed that the check be turned over to the Superintendent of Grand Bassa County, Julia Ducan Cassel, who happens to be the President’s personal friend and a senior executive of Unity Party, for subsequent disbursement. Superintendent Cassel has been indicted by various government audits, none of which has been acted upon by the Sirleaf administration. She may therefore not be a fit custodian of the “rejected” money.
The constructive receipt of the LIBINIC check by the President, her public “rejection” notwithstanding, puts into disrepute the office of the President, exposing it to the influence of the highest bidder. Why did a British Manager feel that he could offer money to President Sirleaf and get away with it? A situation whereby individuals are allowed to make unrestrained “donations” to the President with unrestricted use of such funds by the President, subjects not only the President, but also our entire system of governance, to the tentacles of corruption. The transferring of the check to the Viceroy of the President did not cure the problem.
By constructively accepting money from an entity whose operation the government regulates, the President not only sends the wrong message about fighting corruption, but she actually encourages corruption. Obviously, it is this kind of behavior in high places in this government that has made it impossible for the Sirleaf government to control corruption.
The President’s action is not only wrong and unacceptable, but her action also does not demonstrate an appreciation of the ills that have caused our country to be in its current mess. And without an appreciation of those things and practices that got us where we are, the President cannot put forth a credible effort to combat ills like corruption. This government will also remain unable to set this country on the irreversible path of transformation it desperately needs. And one is apt to believe that it is perhaps this lack of appreciation of the real challenges that this country faces and the hard decisions that need to be made that, for example, makes the President to think little about allowing her Superintendent to take possession of the illegal gratuity from LIBINIC, or asking businesses to “make donations,” as she did in the case of Mittal Steel pick-up trucks for the Legislators.
Sadly, this act of President Sirleaf comes against the background of the 2010 Human Rights Report of the U.S. State Department on Liberia, which states in part, “The [Liberian] law does not provide criminal penalties for corruption, which remained systemic throughout the government … Official corruption and the sense of a culture of impunity, were exacerbated…” (during 2010).
As she turned over the LIBINIC check to her confidant and County Superintendent, the President must have realized that the Immigration Officer, who processes Resident Permits for the expatriate employees of the Company; the Labor Inspector, who ensures that expatriate employees have Work Permits; the Custom Officer, who assesses/collects the import duties and other levies; and the Police Officers who are responsible for vehicle safety and law and order within and around the concession area; all have their own “Special Projects.” These junior employees of government see and hear of the President constructively receiving gratuities from businesses, and are tempted to demand theirs from the common patron.
The questions the President should have answered before deciding whether or not to allow the County Superintendent to take possession of the check are: Should those civil servants who have far less in resources than the President and Superintendent Cassel feel compunction or even think that they are breaking the law when they “encourage” their own patrons to give them “gifts” for their “Special Projects”? Should they not be emboldened in corrupt practices because of the President’s action?
The tenets of good governance require that whatever project, special or otherwise, that the President of Liberia is to undertake should be budgeted and appropriated by an act of the Legislature. Such insidious taxes that are paid by companies directly to the President of Liberia and/or other government officials in the form of “donations,” hurt the economy, damage the integrity of government, and have been one of the reasons for the rampant corruption that has characterized the Sirleaf administration.
Liberty Party, therefore, calls on President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, in the interest of protecting the integrity of the Presidency, to disclose the full amount of the LIBINIC check, which is currently in the possession of her friend, the Superintendent of Grand Bassa, deposit the check into government treasury, and ensure that every penny thereof is appropriately accounted for. The President should also use this opportunity to make it clear to LIBINIC and all persons doing business in our country, by her action and not mere words, that giving gifts to the President of Liberia or any other government official for personal appropriation or use as they see fit is wrong and will not be tolerated in the future.
Thanks, and may the Lord save the State!
Chairman Liberty Party