‘Democracy on Trial’: Interpretations Lost In Translation; Glimpse of ‘Iron Lady’ Resurfaces


Monrovia – Depending on who you spoke with Wednesday, Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf is either the most calculated politician in Liberia’s history or a politically-shrewd vindictive political manipulator with an Ax to grind.

On a day when two powerful men in the National Legislature, House Speaker Alex Tyler, the third in line of succession to the presidency and Cllr. H. Varney G. Sherman, head of the ruling Unity Party and the influential Judiciary Committee were escorted into the Criminal Court C Courtroom, a variation of interpretations bordering the whys and why nots? – and the why now theories ventilated the city as many wondered why many other major corruption cases had gone under the radar floated amongst the repeated murmurings in street corners, talk radios and Hitai shops.

‘Process is Selective’, Some Say

Patrick Sia, one of the hundreds of people who gathered in the courtyard Monday summed up the truncated complications of many sceptics regarding the ongoing probe into bribery allegations unveiled by the London-based Watchdog group, Global Witness.  “This process is selective justice.

There are many government officials that the LACC has indicted for corruption and there are many audit reports before the President but nothing has been done about it.  Today it is Tyler and Varney Sherman. I am saying if justice is for all, it should affect all. I want to challenge the legislature today – and I can safely say that today’s members of the legislature are boys.

I say this because to allow a lady to abuse and bring to public ridicule to the legislature by bringing them to court in such a manner. What has happened to Fomba Sirleaf, the Korean people five hundred thousand? Why he was not brought to court?

Is it because he is the son of the President? The cases are there and I challenge the both houses today; Madam Sirleaf needs to be impeached.”

But for every raising doubt, there were defenders like Representative Zoe Pennue (Independent, Grand Gedeh) a member of the 53rd legislature, who suggested that perhaps the chickens had come home to roost.

“Sometimes it is good to test the law; no one is above the law. We warned the Speaker to respect the law and appear before the court and today, the third man in the country has tested the law and everyone has seen it. So tomorrow if they go after others, no one should say we are doing it with prejudice. In the first place, I am part of that branch and if any disgrace is brought to that branch will reflect on me.”

But Menipaki Dumoe, Secretary General of Tyler’s Liberia People Democratic Party (LPDP) disagrees, posting on his Facebook page hours after Wednesday courtyard drama that “Democracy is on trial in Monrovia today”.

‘Trumped Up Charges’ Against Speaker

Dumoe wondered: “Can president Sirleaf tolerate her opponents when she is losing? She is at it again and being cheered on too. What Sirleaf wants, Sirleaf gets but I hope the future of a stable Liberia that is reconciled and at peace with itself is not sacrificed for the political objectives of our President.”

Describing Speaker Tyler as his “friend and fellow partisan”, Dumoe described the charges against the party leader as “trumped up “corruption charges” and expressed confidence that the rule of law would prevail in Tyler’s favour.

“We believe in the rule of law and will continue to be law abiding in the hope that our people will demand the same treatment for all persons named in the Global Witness report.

We as a people are back in the position we found ourselves a few decades ago, it is my hope that we do not make the same mistakes we made back then, that led to mindless bloodletting and a near destruction of the Liberian state.

The judiciary has a crucial role to play here and if it fails us we are doomed! The riots will return to our streets and distrust of the system could lead to new warring factions and thousands of dead bodies again. I pray our painful past is not our immediate future.”

Janjay Baikpah, head of Vice Chairman for Operations of the National Youth League of the Congress for Democratic Change averred that no stone should be left unturned in pursuit of justice.

“For us as leaders of the young people we want to see the right thing and we want the government to leave no stone unturned.

We need to go through the process and those who will be set free be free; but we want a free and fair process. I am among many people who see this process as lip service, because there are many audit reports before the President and nothing is being done about them. So if this government is serious about fighting corruption we need to do it holistically.”

But beneath the scepticisms, questions of validity and impartiality regarding the Task Force set up by the President lingers.

Cllr. J. Fonati Koffa, the Task Force’s head comes is the center of controversy with some questioning why Sirleaf tipped the former head of the opposition Liberty Party to do what some critics say is her dirty work.

Mixed Views on Task Force Head

Koffa, who was tipped to succeed Cllr. Benedict Sannoh as Justice Minister has been widely criticized for having a tainted record while a lawyer in the United States.

Supporters of the Task Force head point to Article 21-J of the constitution Article 21-J: Any person who, upon conviction of a criminal offense was deprived of the enjoyment of his civil rights and liberties, shall have the same automatically restored upon serving the sentence and satisfying any other penalty imposed, or upon an executive pardon.

Cllr. Koffa’s supporters have turned to social media to draw comparison with Christopher Poulos, who had been convicted in 2008 of possession of cocaine with intent to distribute and spent an additional two years in federal prison but was granted access badge to the White House.

The law student, now 33, recently finished an internship in the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, the Washington Post reports that “Although Poulos’s trajectory is unusual, he’s not the only person with a criminal past to work in that White House office: JD Stier left college to serve 25 months for selling marijuana and landed a job as the Office of National Drug Control Policy’s national outreach coordinator after working as a field organizer for Obama’s 2008 bid.

And the office’s director, Michael Botticelli, has been in recovery since his driver’s license was suspended almost three decades ago after a drunken-driving incident.”

Some have also turned to U.S. President Barack Obama’s particular philosophy that the United States is “a nation of second chances.” “The societal reclamation of Poulos, a once-homeless teenager from Portland, Maine, shows what that kind of thinking looks like in real life,” the Post reported.

But many of Cllr. Koffa’s critics are not showing him mercy and there have even been suggestions in recent weeks that the Global Witness corruption investigation was an attempt to get back at Sherman, the head of the judicial committee in the Senate who reportedly objected to Cllr.Koffa’s appointment.  But Cllr. Koffa denies the vendetta claims.

“I didn’t write the Global Witness report; I didn’t engineer the Global Witness report. The Global Witness report came to us and I was assigned that responsibility as a result of grave damage to the country’s image.

The only way your theory or the assumption of someone can be true is if indeed they can show that I participated in engineering the report from Global Witness. I had no clue about that, and I absolutely and categorically deny that it is about any vendetta,” Koffa said.

A Trail of Allegations Dog Sherman

But even amid the scepticism over the Task Force chair, many in the courtyard Wednesday saw a glimmer of hope for the fight against corruption after seeing two powerful men in the national legislature being escorted into a criminal court, dogged by allegations of corruption.

The GW report puts Sherman at the center of a what many say could be the biggest scandal in Liberia’s history next to the Knucklesgate E-Mail scandal.

The files suggest that a Sable Mining, a company had a series of local officials on its pay roster.  The leaked files include a confidential email sent in August 2010 by Sherman in his role as Sable’s lawyer.

The message entitled “CONFIDENTIAL – Sable Mining’s Account with Sherman”, lists a series of transactions, including: payments as high as $50,000 (£34,000) that appear to have been made to several well-placed Liberian officials; plus a transfer for $75,000 that is labelled “Payment (facilitation) revised PPCC Act” – seemingly a reference to the country’s Public Procurement and Concession Commission Act, which impacted on mining rights.

Global Witness has said the leaked documents show “Sable was able to bribe many of Liberia’s top politicians, which is trying to turn the page on 14 years of civil war, corruption and most recently Ebola”.

Sherman has acknowledged that Sable used his lawfirm’s account because it did not have an account in Monrovia and Sable, according to The Guardian, has acknowledged that it funded the account and that the email was received by Groves and Heine van Niekerk, who it described as “the de facto chief operating officer for Sable in west Africa”.

“Van Niekerk says he was not aware of any bribes being paid, while Sable said Groves paid no attention to the message,” The Guardian reported.

The report notes that at the time of the payments, Groves was chief executive and Edmonds was chairman of Sable, which owned a 36.5% stake in the Liberia business.

“Sable increased its shareholding to 63.5% in 2011. Edmonds resigned as chairman of Sable in 2014, while Groves remains as chief executive.

The Guardian quoted Sable as saying about the GW report: “Although many of the issues raised by Global Witness were subject to internal review a number of years ago, they have prompted a further review of all of these matters. We have found no evidence to support or justify this attack on the company or its directors, past and present.”

For now, the Task Force appears to be moving ahead but not without hiccups.

Amid questions about the selective nature of the ongoing proceedings, Cllr. Koffa told FrontPageAfrica Wednesday: “All witnesses who are actively cooperating have not been indicted. Some have rescheduled, some, we need clarification.

We will call them back. Some we are waiting for additional evidence. We indicted those who refused to cooperate.”

As Liberians and the international community await the outcome of the investigation and the Task Force deciphers incoming evidence and process cooperating and not-so cooperative witnesses, murmurs of strains appear to be lingering amid reports of leaks and dissent on the force.

There have been some suggestions that the President should have stuck with one of the existing integrity institutions instead of setting up yet another Task Force when many others have yielded great findings but fallen off on the implementation front. But critics say some of those institutions have been idled on a number of cases on the docket.

In the backdrop of it all, are mounting concerns from key stakeholders that the Sirleaf administration has lost its grip on the war against graft.

While many say Wednesday’s action may go a long way to resuscitating some life into the war against corruption, the jury is still out on whether Sirleaf can rekindle the spark amid a close-knit society of complications that Sirleaf acknowledged to FrontPageAfrica in a recent interview lessens her resolve when asked whether she had lost the Iron persona.

“Strong in spirit, strong in determination, strong in conviction, but sometimes a little sad now at some of the unfair talk around the town. The cheap talks that just take away from our effort. Like I say it does not deter me, I keep pushing on but you know, the iron to lash out at them, I do not do that anymore.”

Rodney D. Sieh, [email protected]

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