Liberia: US Spares Weah Administration After Latest Sanctions Brushes, What Does it Mean?

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COINCIDING WITH THE International Anti-Corruption Day last Friday, December 9th, the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), announced sanctions on a diverse array of over 40 individuals and entities that are connected to corruption or human rights abuse across nine countries.

IN THE BUILDUP TO Friday’s announcement of yet more sanctions from the US Treasury Department, anticipation was high in Liberia, the more sanctions were underway for the George Weah-led government.

In August, the Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) designated three Liberian government officials Nathaniel McGill, Sayma Syrenius Cephus, and Bill Twehway for their involvement in ongoing public corruption in Liberia. The officials were designated pursuant to Executive Order (E.O.) 13818, which builds upon and implements the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act and targets perpetrators of serious human rights abuse and corruption around the world.

ANNOUNCING THOSE SANCTIONS, the Treasury Department declared: “Through their corruption these officials have undermined democracy in Liberia for their own personal benefit,” said Under Secretary of the Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Brian E. Nelson. “Treasury’s designations today demonstrate that the United States remains committed to holding corrupt actors accountable and to the continued support of the Liberian people.”

THE DECISION by the US government was based on the fact that corruption has long undermined Liberia’s democracy and its economy, robbing the Liberian people of funds for public services, empowering illicit actors, degrading the business environment, and damaging the rule of law and effective governance in the country. “Corruption also contributes to diminished confidence in government and public perception of impunity for those with power. These designations reaffirm the commitment of the United States to hold corrupt actors accountable,” the Department said in August.

SO, IT WAS UNDERSTANDBLE why many Liberians anticipated more sanctions on the day set aside to highlight anti-corruption issues.

ON FRIDAY, THE Treasury Department announced sanctions on several organizations linked to corruption and crimes.

SAID THE DEPARTMENT: “Over the course of 2022, Treasury took numerous actions to promote accountability for human rights abusers and corrupt actors across the world, including sanctions on dozens of individuals and entities including in the Western Balkans, Belarus, Liberia, Guatemala, the Russian Federation, Burma, and Iran. Treasury utilized various tools and authorities — including Executive Order (E.O.) 13818, which builds upon and implements the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act — to demonstrate the U.S. government’s focus on promoting respect for human rights and countering corruption.”

ALTHOUGH Liberia escaped new sanctions in what was announced last Friday, Michael McCarthy, the US Ambassador to Liberia issued a word of caution, suggesting that the country was not yet out of the woods.

IN DOING SO, the US envoy recalled a passionate letter he had written earlier in the year, ironically penned on the anniversary of Liberia’s first President, Joseph Jenkins Roberts.

“Today is International Anti-Corruption Day an Open Letter from U.S. Ambassador to Liberia Michael A. McCarthy Nine months ago, I asked the purposefully provocative question, “What would J.J. Roberts have to say about Liberia today?” which helped spark a conversation about where this country finds itself 175 years after independence, and 200 years since the arrival of American settlers.”

NOW ON DECEMBER 9, International Anti-Corruption Day, and at the close of the bicentennial year, Ambassador McCarthy recalled. “I believe it may be helpful for Liberians to take another honest look in the mirror. Even though we are announcing no new U.S. sanctions here today, I want to assure the Liberian people that our anti-corruption efforts remain robust and continuous.”

IN THIS LIGHT, AMBASSADOR McCarthy opined that the Global Magnitsky sanctions of three Liberian officials in August demonstrated, the U.S. government can and will employ sanctions as needed on an ongoing basis, in support of our shared development, democracy, and security goals, guided by the U.S. Strategy on Countering Corruption.

THE CAUTION INDICATES that further sanctions will depend on how the George Weah-led government handles the upcoming presidential and legislative elections, currently engulfed in controversy over nagging census issues and bruhaha over the awarding of the bidding for the biometric contract for next October elections.

ACCORDING TO THE US Ambassador, the all-important goal of transparent, free, credible, and peaceful elections in October will be one important factor in decisions about additional sanctions in the months leading up to the vote.

ACKNOWLEDGING that the Global Magnitsky, or GloMag, sanctions are deservedly a hot topic in Liberia, Ambassador McCarthy said, some Liberians have urged the United States to implement more sanctions and even proposed names; others have objected that the sanctions process lacks due process.

THE AMBASSADOR HOWEVER SAID, “GloMag is a tool the United States uses to protect itself from particularly corrupt actors, not a punishment against a country or government. It is also in no way a substitute for a domestic judicial process in the host country, including prosecution. Ultimately, “due process” or an accused’s “day in court” can only happen under Liberian law, in Liberian courts.”

ACCORDING TO THE AMBASSADOR, Liberians generally agree with the US’s analysis that corruption is the primary cause of Liberia’s failure to thrive; most in the international community share that assessment. “That is why our Department of the Treasury took the extraordinary step of sanctioning five senior Liberian officials in only three years under GloMag. This set of sanctions has led to some positive results, including the resignation of the three most recently sanctioned officials.”

WHILE IT MAY be true that the US could be holding a rope over the Weah government’s head, in hopes that it will do the right things leading to next year’s elections and make much-needed adjustments to its governance structure to address visible lapses, the sad reality is, as the US Ambassador asserts, it will come down to how much Liberians are really feeling the pinch – or whether they are content with what is unfolding before their eyes.

FOR THE WEAH administration, it has a lot of work to do in convincing stakeholders that it is better than what the optics have been exhibiting.

LAST WEEK, while addressing a panel at the United States Institute for Peace, former President Sirleaf, drew some laughter, at the Weah government’s expense, when she said, without naming names. “I know there’s disappointment too. I’ve faced disappointment when I passed it on, I gotta to tell you that.”

THE COMMENT WAS an apparent reference to criticisms the former President has received, that she did not do a good job with her transition – and apparent anointment of President Weah as her successor.

THE DECISION by the US not to include Liberia on its latest sanctions list could offer an opportunity for the government to make right with the Liberian people. More importantly, it could be an offering of a new lease on life for an administration, limping into the final year of its first six years, racing against time to make things right.

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