On February 15, the Executive Director of the Liberia Anti-Corruption Commission (LACC) accused the Vice Chairman of the LACC board of violating the Constitution of Liberia, the national code of conduct and the LACC internal code of conduct. The core of the allegation was that the vice chairman committed acts of corruption, and that the LACC was investigating him. The vice chairman has since denied the allegations and accused the executive director of incompetence. This was the first time for the LACC, since its creation in 2008, to announce that it was now looking within to identify and investigate alleged acts of corruption committed by a senior member of staff. This development is sufficient to leave one second-guessing the reaction of President Weah given his promises to fight corruption; and questioning whether the current board of commissioners can command both the moral legitimacy and public support it would need to execute their mandate given the gravity of the allegation.
By Ibrahim Al-bakri Nyei, email@example.com
But the LACC’s legitimacy crisis did not start with this revelation. We can trace it to the administration of James Verdier, a former chairman, who left the LACC amid accusations and counter-accusations of corruption between him and some members of the cabinet. Verdier’s controversial exit left the commission struggling for prominence in the new Weah administration. This moment presented the best opportunity to reform the LACC and strategically position it to support the new administration in the fight against corruption. The opportunity was sadly lost when the government proceeded with the appointment of new commissioners without doing any due diligence investigation — background character and competency checks on potential nominees. The appointment of Verdier’s immediate successor, Ndubuisi Nwabudike, exposed the LACC to further controversy and public discontent.
Upon Nwabudike’s nomination by President Weah, the FrontPageAfrica newspaper ran several news reports and editorials that shed light on his previous dealings and further questioned his credibility to hold such a crucial position. He was allegedly involved in scandals surrounding a wrecked ship at the Freeport of Monrovia. Both the executive and legislature ignored these reports and went ahead with his appointment. His subsequent nomination few months later (by the President) as Chairman of the National Elections Commission did not only fail, but revealed more about him: He could not prove his Liberian citizenship after presenting false citizenship documents and several other official documents with inconsistent dates of birth. Despite the public backlash (including his expulsion from the Liberian Bar Association) and failure to prove his Liberian citizenship, he was allowed to continue in the position of LACC chairman until he personally decided to tender in a resignation which takes effect on February 26, 2021. That the political leadership allowed him to stay at LACC up to this point beggars belief and brings to question their own credibility and the proclaimed seriousness they attach to the fight against corruption.
But the LACC’s legitimacy crisis is not an isolated event. It feeds into a bigger crisis of governance and undue political interference confronting Liberia’s integrity institutions. In 2018 President Weah violated statutes when he appointed Mr. J. Gabriel Nyenka as Head of the Liberia Extractive Industry Transparency Initiative (LEITI) Secretariat, and despite criticism from the civil society, Nyenka was allowed to hold the post for over a year. Nyenka did not get the cooperation he needed from LEITI’s domestic and international partners to deliver on his mandate since the process leading to his appointment was spurious. Nyenka’s case further exposed the rashness of the President’s decision to undermine the law and established institutional precedents. Left isolated by key partners, both Nyenka and LEITI lost their collective legitimacy. He was eventually dismissed and reassigned, thereby paving the way for a return to the status quo ante — a competitive selection process with the participation of all LEITI stakeholders.
These unfortunate developments have had consequences. Liberia’s ratings on various development indices plunged. For instance, the Corruption Perception Index published by Transparency International reports that Liberia’s score dropped from 31 in 2017 to 28 in 2019. Similarly, Liberia’s anti-corruption score on the Mo Ibrahim Index of African Governance dropped markedly from 46.5 in 2017 to 30.2 in 2019. Some international donors have responded to these underwhelming results by terminating or reducing support programs. In May 2020 Germany announced that it was ending bilateral development cooperation with 27 countries, including Liberia, for their failure to fight corruption and implement good governance reforms. Others, for instance, the United States and the European Union, usually react by reducing funding to government or by channelling their development assistance through nongovernmental organizations. Similarly, with the declining rate of foreign direct investment even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, it is highly plausible that investors might also be responding to unflattering risks and due diligence reports received on issues of corruption and governance in the country.
To reverse this trend, President Weah must take the appropriate actions in fulfilment of the promises made in his campaign manifesto about ‘fighting’ and ‘ending’ corruption in Liberia. On the day of his inauguration he openly proclaimed: “I further believe that the overwhelming mandate I received from the Liberian people is a mandate to end corruption in public service. I promise to deliver on this mandate.” Many Liberians, including myself, trusted him on this — raising our expectations for the promised ‘change’, and a ‘new beginning’ in our country. But these indices and the numerous reports of alleged scandals that continue to dent the image of his administration suggest that little or no progress has been made in the fight against corruption. These reports have further flattened our collective hopes and aspirations for that ‘change’.
The current crisis in the LACC, which has raised public angst about its future and role in the fight against corruption, suggests the body is currently not fit for the purpose it was created. This is because, if there are doubts about the credibility and legitimacy of LACC, as it is sadly the case with the current board of commissioners, then any hope of probity and accountability in the government disappears.
With a huge political capital at his disposal in the Legislature — despite the poor performance of the ruling party in the just ended senatorial election — President Weah still has enormous opportunities to fight corruption and promote integrity in public service. At this stage then, it is only appropriate that President Weah, acting within reasonable limits of the law, dissolves the current board and reconstitute the LACC board of commissioners. This will go a long way in restoring public confidence in the LACC and the government in general.
But the fight against corruption does not end with merely reconstituting the LACC. The LACC and all other integrity-related and anti-corruption institutions (i.e. LEITI, General Auditing Commission, Internal Audit Agency, Governance Commission, Office of the Solicitor General) will need enormous capacity, resources, and autonomy from political interferences to ably deliver on their respective mandates.
Finally, it would be unreasonable to expect President Weah to end political corruption, an age-old problem, in a six-year term. But it would be reasonable to expect him not to allow corruption to go on with reckless abandon on his watch. He could, therefore, make a start at rebuilding trust and confidence in the institutions responsible to fight corruption, most notably the LACC, and the government at large. Most importantly, he must commit to the rule of law by governing within the limits of his constitutional powers, and demand same of his officials. And lastly, he must consult wildly, communicate and coordinate across government and civil society on the issues of public integrity since they largely reflect a political and social problem of the ‘collective action’ type.