Monrovia – How involved should children of presidential candidates be in their parent’s bid for the presidency?
The question often pops up in most modern democracies where the lines are most times difficult to be drawn particularly when issues of conflict of interest and nepotism arises.
The most high-profile is in Equatorial Guinea, where Vice President Teodorin Obiang, 47, the son of President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo is currently on trial for corruption and money laundering in a landmark case in France where he is facing an array of legal cases across Europe as authorities on the continent investigate the sources of his vast wealth and uncover new and even more extravagant ways that he spent some of it. In the USA, Vice President Teodorin Obiang has been seized by the US Government.
In Senegal, the former President’s son was tried and convicted for channeling state funds through bogus not profit organizations he formed.
In Liberia, the Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf administration was for the past few years dogged by allegations of nepotism and the role three of her sons, Charles, Robert and Fombah have played in the administration.
The President has also been criticized for the level of role played by her older sister, Jennie Bernard and brother in law Estrada Bernard.
Liberian history is replete with official corruption and presidential sanctioned nepotism, under the argument that these family are well qualify and deserving lucrative high profile government posts.
Nepotism Charges Haunt Sirleaf
Robert Sirleaf was a former board head of the National Oil Company of Liberia, Charles, a vice President at the Central Bank of Liberia while Fombah heads the National Security Agency (NSA).
Her sister, Jennie Bernard is also been under fire of late amid allegations of her strong ties to Lebanese businessman George Abi Jaoudi, said to have semi-monopolize over major commodities in the country while strangulating local and other foreign businesses.
It is a question that Sirleaf has been forced to address on numerous occasions and was said to be the driving force behind Robert Sirleaf’s resignation as head of the NOCAL board in September 2013.
Sirleaf, speaking in a 2016 Financial Times interview, was unrepentant when asked about the noise over the inclusion of her three sons in her administration.
"I will make no apologies for any of them.” In explaining why each of her sons were suited for the jobs the occupied, Sirleaf declared: “I don’t have a long list of qualified people. I trusted them. They had the skills. And I knew that they shared my values.”
But even as Sirleaf struggled to defend the inclusion of relatives in her government, critics and opponents of her administration have been quick to suggest that having so many family members in government often create the impression that the family is accumulating wealth that should actually be used to develop the country.
When FrontPageAfrica brought up the issue in a 2016 interview regarding perceived wealth of her family, Sirleaf said: “This family is not wealthy. Are we well off that we can support ourselves, yes, we are educated, we are professionals, we have worked, all of us we have made money, and we have the ability to make money all of us. That is what we are trained but to say money from this government, stolen money, I challenge it anywhere”.
The President went on to say that she felt because the misconception has been one of the greatest lies that the future will debunk.
“This family does not have excessive wealth; this family live by certain principles of my mother. We do not steal, we do not steal, do you understand, we have no shares in companies, we have nothing, I personally do not own a piece of property in America where I owned houses before and sold them before coming to Liberia.”
Last month, Sirleaf in a bid to erase some of those perceptions, made her assets declaration public, for only the second time in her presidency, as she urged those contesting to do the same. Said Sirleaf: "I further call on all Presidential aspirants, to consider in their own interest to do the same".
The President recently declared assets showed that Sirleaf is indeed a Millionaire, a far cry from her 2005 declarations when she registered a net worth of $218K.
Her 2005 declarations showed total assets (all in building, land and cars) of $344K and her liabilities of $126K, leaving her a net worth of $218K.
Although she claimed no home in America, her recent declarations showed that all her liquid and near liquid assets in are in the United States of America, such as she reported nearly $700K investment in Vanguard Fund.
Sirleaf triggered much of the criticisms on herself when on January 6, 2006, during her inauguration, she pledged: "In this respect, I will lead by example. I will expect and demand that everyone serving in my Administration leads by example.”
Sirleaf said the first testament of how her administration will tackle public service corruption will be that everyone appointed to high positions of public trust such as in the Cabinet and heads of public corporations will be required to declare their assets, not as part of a confirmation requirement, but as a matter of policy.
"I will be the first to comply by declaring my assets. My Administration will also accord high priority to the formulation and passage into law of a National Code of Conduct, to which all public servants will be subjected."
But despite the declaration and Sirleaf’s own publicity over her declaration, the rest of her officials have failed to follow.
Requests by FrontPageAfrica and other media houses for assets declaration to be made public have been greeted with a stiff wall by the anti-corruption commission and a rather complicated and lengthy Freedom of Information Act that makes it nearly impossible for information to be attained.
Efforts to gain access by journalists are often greeted with suspicions as Pres. Sirleaf suggested when she made her assets public in June, eleven years after her inaugural pledge.
Pres. Sirleaf charged: "In an environment of rumors, conspiracies, lies and suspicions, it is important that those holding high public office disclose their financial status to the public".
Vice President Joseph Boakai, the ruling party’s candidate in the upcoming presidential elections has gone on record to state that: “Corruption and impunity at the highest level are a sign that the balance of power still sits firmly with those in office, and not—as it should be-- those who vote them in.
According to the African Union, more than $148bn (£93bn) is lost to corruption in Africa every year. Much of this is perpetrated by and through public officials serving in democratically elected governments”.
2017: Candidates Kids Deeply Involved
Ahead of October elections, the issue of family and relatives’ ties is popping up again due to the heavy-handed involvement of children of the leading candidates in the upcoming elections.
Telia Urey, daughter of businessman Benoni Urey has been very active on the campaign trail and running errands for her father overseas. It was recently revealed that the daughter of one of the top contenders was signatory to a document suggesting that her father’s All Liberia Party had hired a controversial US lobbying firm for the campaign.
The firm, the US Africa Development Corporation based in Washington, according to The Hill, has been linked previously to helping launder millions of dollars for allegedly corrupt African politicians and their relatives, the paper said, citing a two-year-long investigation by the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations.
The probe at the time was part of US efforts to strengthen anti-money laundering and anti-corruption measures.
The report named a number of prominent foreign officials, including former Nigerian vice president and the son of Equatorial Guinea’s president, as moving millions of dollars into the United States with little scrutiny.
Telia is said to be actively involved in her father’s campaign, although Mr. Urey has ruled out a role for her in his administration if he is elected.
The businessman told FrontPageAfrica in a 2015 interview: “The first thing I have made it categorically clear: My immediate family have no space in government, no jobs for them, they are not going to work in government, no child of mine will be in government, no brother, no sister of mine will be in government. That is totally unacceptable and I want to set the standards."
"If they want to work let them go do business, they will not be in government.”
Mr. Urey said the rest of my relatives, would have a right to live like anybody but he could not determine.
“I tell you one thing and hold me to my words, look at me straight in the eyes, if any of my relative or friend of mine get involved in corruption, the example I will set up there will be far worse than I would do to others because I pray to God honestly and I promise that I will do and I am depending on all of you to help me do that. You know it is a difficult fight, but when one has the commitment, a sincere commitment not by words, and with the help of you and all well-meaning Liberians, we can tackle it.”
Liberty Party’s Charles Walker Brumskine, whose daughter, Charlyne, is very active on his campaign, where she serves as head of the women’s wing, for his part, did not rule out entirely, roles for members of his family when FPA posed the question to him recently.
Said Cllr. Brumskine: “I think it would be unfair to family members to say they will be absolutely excluded from government but I can assure you of this one thing: If any family member of mine - and I have three children - who are well qualified; if they are to assist government, it will not be in any lucrative position where the Liberian people can feel that they are there because they are making money for themselves.”
Regarding his daughter, Cllr. Brumskine said: “My daughter for example would very much like to help with child welfare and women issues; it is something I see that she would make the sacrifice to help Liberia; not because she would benefit.
I will probably have problem convincing my two sons who are making lots of money overseas to come and help us; but that is one guarantee I can give you, if they come, they will not be in charge of any lucrative agency of government.”
Charlyne triggered interest in a Facebook photo post of she and party chair Benjamin Sanvee posting with former Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan with the line: “The last time in Liberia that power changed from ruling party to opposition was in 1870.
It is difficult for power to concede power. But it can and will be done. This man did it. He was the first sitting Nigerian president to concede defeat. I salute you sir. President Goodluck Ebele Azikiwe Jonathan! Liberia, CHANGE IS COMING! OPPOSITION!!!”
Although none of his family members have been involved in his election activities, Alexander Cummings, standard bearer of the Alternative National Congress has not rule out entirely but says he will minimize roles for family members to a large extent: “I will minimize that dramatically because I know of the history."
"And even if your relatives are competent and doing everything on the up and up, the fact that they’re your relative will create noise and distraction. I think it will be unwise for me to say there will be no relatives in government. So, there will likely be a few but even they would be held to the same standards.”
Vice President Joseph Boakai has also dispatched his son, Jojo on errands ahead of the campaign season, according to sources, raising similar questions that dogged President Sirleaf over the past eleven and a half years.
Jojo seems to be playing a key and pivotal role in his father’s campaign, traveling along with him abroad on nearly every occasion.
Nepotism Issues Not New for Liberia
Issues of nepotism are nothing new to Liberian politics. In fact, in her 2009 Bestseller This Child Will be Great, Sirleaf, as a member of the Brownell Commission, in the post-1979 rice riot, was a strong advocate of the code of conduct for all public officials that would begin to tackle the corruption and conflicts of interest which she penned in her book, had become, so rife throughout government.
“Quite pointedly, the commission called on President Tolbert very specifically to examine the social impact of the very high visibility of so many of his relatives in monopolistic business ventures,” Sirleaf wrote.
Years later, in 2012, Sirleaf would come under serious criticisms from her then Auditor General, Mr. John Sembe Morlu, II, who asserted that the President had 'violated' the Code of Conducted as well as the Liberian Constitution by appointing her children in government.
Morlu’s criticisms came shortly after Sirleaf signed into law Executive Order 38, the Code of Conduct intended to ensure good governance. “Good governance speaks against negative vices such as nepotism and corruption.
The President has violated her Executive Order that she drafted and signed. No one forced it upon her.
It is wrong to sign a law and then turned right around and violate it,” Morlu said at the time. Ex-AG Morlu averred that another case in point is Article 5 of the Liberian constitution, which prohibits behavior that are against public policy.Executive Order 38 and now the Code of Conduct forbids appointing family members in Government.
Later that year, in October 2012, Nobel Laureate Leymah Gbowee also chided Sirleaf for not doing enough to tackle corruption and questioned why Sirleaf's sons had been given lucrative jobs as she announced that she was stepping down as head of the reconciliation commission.
As Liberians head for the polls, many are already beginning to take note as those eyeing the highest office in the land do all they can to gain an edge over their rivals. But not lost in the race for the presidency is the role siblings, children and relatives are likely or already playing ahead of the polls.
For the foreseeable future, however, many political observers say Liberians should be keen to take pages from history in deciphering the activities of those looking to lead, and in particular, look out for signs and similarities likely to draw reminiscences of the harsh realities of nepotism and greed lingering in a recurring state of impunity and political and economic uncertainty.
Like Sirleaf who was a staunch critic of Presidents Tolbert and Tubman for appointing their families in lucrative post in Government, so many of the current batch of Presidential candidates also attacked Sirleaf for appointing her families in Government.
From Tubman to Tolbert to Doe to Taylor to Sirleaf, Liberians are already witnessing the familiar arguments: Children are qualified and they are making a lot of money in America.” Is it really true? And even if it was true, is that a sufficient reason to populate the government with family and friends? Can Liberians hope for a change?