Economic Sabotage: Pres. Weah’s Litmus Test on Fight against Corruption – The Block-13 Case

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Report by Lennart Dodoo, [email protected]

Monrovia – At the Buchanan cabinet retreat last week, President George Manneh Weah made a solemn promise to ensure that former officials of government who are believed to have dubiously sold off Oil Block 13 to ExxonMobil would be prosecuted.

“My officials and I will review the document and will ensure that anyone found culpable will be dealt with in accordance with the laws of Liberia; this is to send a signal that we are prepared to confront any form of corruption and mismanagement in government,” President Weah assured.

Litmus Test for Weah

This would be a litmus test for Pres. Weah who sees taking up the issue to the letter as a means of regaining the trust and confidence of the citizens and international partners in a country that has suffered so much from the devastation of corruption. Besides, this would be an indication to Liberia’s development partners that the country is prepared for development under his administration.

Former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf prided herself as the “Iron Lady” of Africa but she admitted failing on the fight of corruption at the end of her 12-year administration. At the beginning of her first term, she categorized corruption as “public enemy Number one”, but halfway into her second term, corruption became a “vampire”.

The biggest single corruption and bribery case ever in Liberia – the Sable Mining scandal of 2016—exposed top officials of her government and some of her key confidants at the time.

Global Witness reported that about US$950,000 was paid in bribes to various strategic officials of the Sirleaf-led administration to prepare legislation for easy awarding of the Wologizi concession to Sable Mining Africa Limited, a subsidiary of the Sable Mining Limited in the United Kingdom.

But the new Liberian leader is positioning himself to rewrite the country’s history in the fight against corruption, beginning with the Block-13 saga.

Block-13 involves some of the most powerful personalities of Madam Sirleaf’s regime, including her favorite son, Robert Sirleaf. Robert served as Chairman of the National Oil Company (NOCAL). The scandal also involved former Finance Minister Amara Konneh, who Madam Sirleaf described as one of her most trusted confidants and boasted once that she could walk in the dark with Amara behind her and would never be afraid.

Others mentioned by Global Witness report are former NOCAL CEO, Randolph McClain; Former National Investment Commission (NIC) Chairman, Natty B. Davis; former Lands and Mines Minister, Patrick Sendolo; and former Justice Minister Christiana Tah as officials who allegedly received huge bonuses following the authorization of the oil deal in 2013.   

Pundits believe prosecuting these grand personalities would be a herculean task for the Weah-led administration.

GW Revelation of Block-13

Global Witness on March 29 this year released a report in which it called on the Government of Liberia to investigate officials involved in the Exxon Mobil’s US$120 million purchase of oil Block 13 in 2013 for corruption and wrongdoing and to ensure the independence of the Liberia Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative.

Block 13 was originally awarded by NOCAL in 2005 to Liberian-Anglo Company Broadway Consolidated/Peppercoast (BCP). In 2007, the block was ratified by the Liberian legislature through bribery.

But Global Witness’ evidence shows that the company was likely part-owned by former Mining Minister Jonathan Mason and his deputy, Mulbah Willie (late). Mason and Willie are suspected of granting the oil block to a company in which they held interests while they were also ministers in 2005, which was illegal under Liberian law.

Exxon knew that Block 13 was originally awarded through bribery and that its purchase of the oil block could enrich former officials who might have been behind BCP. Undeterred by the corruption red flags, Exxon went ahead with the deal anyway.

Global Witness’ evidence shows that it structured the transaction in a way to skirt US anti-corruption laws by using a Canadian company – Canadian Overseas Petroleum Limited (COPL) – as a go-between to buy the block.

Weah’s Committee Recommendation

To jumpstart the investigation, Pres. Weah established the Special Presidential Committee comprising Cllr. Ndubuisi Nwabudike – Chairman; Cllr. Pearl Brown Bull, Cllr. C. Alexander Zoe, Rev. Joseph Gardea Johnson, III, and Mrs. Frances.

The committee presented its findings to the President on Wednesday, May 16, 2018 presented their final report with some punching recommendations.

FrontPage Africa has obtained excerpts of the report, which generally recommends restitution and economic sabotage charges for the culprits of bogus sale of Block-13.

The committee recommended that officials who were mentioned to have received monies in the form of bonuses/honoraria for signing the sale of Block-13 be made to restitute the amounts into government’s coffers.

The report read that that “receipt of such payment be published in a recognized daily newspaper within 15 days from the date the report has been made a matter of public record. It added, “Failure to make said payment or restitution as recommended, they the members should be charged and prosecuted for receiving unlawful reward under section 12.51 and 12.12 of the New Penal Law.”

The committee also advised that as a matter of law and public policy, members of the board of NOCAL who authorized the payment of half a million United States dollars and honorarium/bonus should be made to restitute the amount. They are to make the restitution within 30 days after the report has been made a matter of public record.

Should they fail to make the restitution, they would be charged with misuse of public money under Chapter F of the New Penal Law.

The members of the NOCAL Board mentioned in the report, according to the Committee’s recommendation, should be barred from serving on any board of a public office.

The Committee recommended that a law be made to prevent any statutory board member of any public corporation from receiving prerequisite, emolument or benefit, directly or indirectly on account of their service on the board or any other duty required of them by the government.

Cllr. David A. B. Jallah, appointed by President Weah in April on the Committee to review all concessions, management and other agreements/contracts currently in force in Liberia, should recuse himself from the committee, it said.

It is “of the opinion that it is unfair in inappropriate for Cllr. Jallah to seat on a Committee to review the founding documents and concession agreements of other companies when he has willfully refused to make available the records relating to his own company available for public scrutiny.”

The Committee could not find records of these companies at the record sections of NOCAL, the Ministry of Lands, Mines and Energy, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Legal Department) and the Liberia Business Registry. There were no documents pertaining to the award of concession license of Block-13 to BCP.

The Committee, therefore, called for an immediate investigation to determine why these records were not available at the registry and at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

President Weah has also been advised by the Committee to commission a forensic audit at NOCAL before a new leadership is set up. “The said audit should not be limited to simple accounting of the corporation’s finances, but must also include audit of the stewardship of leadership since its inception.

The Committee further suggested that the Financial Intelligence Unit (FIU) should immediately conduct an investigation to determine the Liberian shareholders/beneficial owners of Pepper Coast who benefitted from the divestiture payment made to Cllr. Jallah.

“After the investigation by the FIU, both Hon. Jonathan Mason and any other government official who is found to have directly or indirectly benefitted from the amounts paid to Cllr. A. B. Jallah as divestiture funds for Pepper Coast Plc. on account of their ownership interests in BCP should be charged and prosecuted for economic sabotage under subchapter F of our New Penal Law,” the Committee asserted.

According to Global Witness, If Mason owned BCP shares when Exxon bought Block 13, he would have received a share of the US$68.5 million Exxon paid BCP. Willie died in 2012, so any money he was owed would likely have gone to his estate.

There is also evidence that Adolph Lawrence, who became a Representative in 2012, held a BCP ownership interest in 2011. If Lawrence continued to hold this interest when Exxon bought Block 13 in 2013, he also would have broken the law and may have received part of the money Exxon paid BCP.

Exxon has not responded to Global Witness’ request for comment. COPL has denied that Mason held shares in BCP. COPL also stated that Lawrence resigned from a job he held with BCP in 2011 and that any money he received was reported to the Liberian government.

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