Liberia’s Corruption Saga: Who Are the ‘Big Boys Global Witness Report?


Monrovia – It was anybody’s guess in Monrovia Thursday as Liberians woke up to some damning revelations contained in an exposé released by the London-based watchdog-group, Global Witness Wednesday uncovering more than US$950,000 in bribes and other suspicious payments by UK mining firm Sable Mining and its Liberian lawyer, Varney Sherman.

Report by Edwin Genoway, [email protected]

President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, in keeping with a pledge made to the London-based watchdog group, Global Witness, moved swiftly Thursday to take initial Action on Global Witness Report by setting up a committee to probe figures named in an exposé released Wednesday which uncovered that more than US$950,000 in bribes and other suspicious payments by UK mining firm Sable Mining and its Liberian lawyer, Varney Sherman.

SG Bolts Over Possible Conflict

The President in consultation with the Ministry of Justice appointed a taskforce to investigate the just published Global Witness on Liberia that linked several individuals and prosecute as the evidence may require.

The Liberian leader announced the decision today following a review of the report, which was submitted to the Government of Liberia by Global Witness alleging corruption and bribery on the part of several former and current officials of government.

According to an Executive release, the task force is to be headed by Minister of State Without Portfolio, Cllr. J. Fonati Koffa, who is named a Special Prosecutor along with a team of lawyers from the Ministry of Justice. The Task Force is also charged with investigating and resolving all allegations contained in current and past GAC reports.

An Executive Mansion source told FrontPageAfrica that Solicitor General, Cllr. Betty Lamin Blamo recused herself from the committee in a bid to avoid a potential conflict of interest. Blamo used to be a lawyer for Sable when she worked for Sherman & Sherman Law Firm.

The President has also urged all individuals named in the report to submit to and cooperate fully with the investigation.

Britain Asked to Aid Probe

The President has further written British Prime Minister David Cameron requesting full cooperation and assistance from the British Government, as a UK company is involved.

Multiple Executive Mansion sources confirmed to FrontPageAfrica Thursday that the President initially had planned to suspend members of the Executive branch named in the report, including her son, Fombah Sirleaf, head of the National Security Agency (NSA), Willie Belleh, Chair of the Board of the Public Procurement Concessions Commission (PPCC) and Mr. Sumo Kupee, a former Lofa County Senator now head of the Liberia Petroleum Refining Company. However, sources say the President was advised by her legal advisors to await the outcome of the report.

The President who aides say was visibly angry after receiving the report from Global witness, is quoted as saying that “the report brings home the fact that the real purveyors of corruption are those predatory investors who rely on the weaknesses of some officials and the vulnerability of poor countries to carry out dubious business transactions while being harbored by rich countries”.

The President called on the leaders of “rich and powerful countries to use this matter involving Sable Mining to take strong punitive actions against criminal- minded individuals, who export corruption to African countries, obtain illegal wealth and store their ill-gotten wealth in these western countries while economies of poor countries suffer as a result of these illicit deals”.

GW Mum on Mystery Big Boys

President Sirleaf also pointed out that the foreign businessmen and corporations that are alleged to have paid bribes must also be investigated and prosecuted by their respective governments.

Meanwhile, the Government of Liberia has formally requested Global Witness to make available all pieces of evidence cited in the report to assist the Task Force in the investigation.

In a letter to Global Witness, Information Minister Eugene Nagbe said: “The Government of Liberia is concerned about these grave allegations of bribery and corruption and therefore formally requests Global Witness to make available all pieces of evidence on this matter so that it can take appropriate actions to investigate and prosecute if a violation of the laws of Liberia is determined”.

Minister Nagbe said: “Transparency and anti-corruption watchdog organizations must transcend from merely making allegations in reports to adducing evidence to concerned authorities for appropriate legal action to be taken”.

Despite the President’s initial action, many in Liberia remained baffled over a missing piece of the puzzle in the GW report, relating to a payment of US$250,000 each made to two figures named only as “Bigboy 01” and “Bigboy 02”.

Jonathan Gant a Senior Campaigner at Global Witness when pressed Thursday by phone from London, said they too are hoping that the investigation in Liberia will determine who the duo linked to a half-a-million dollars are.

On the streets of Monrovia Thursday, many expressed disappointment, including supporters of the ruling Unity Party.

Disappointments Around Town

At the Center of Exchange of Intellectual Opinions (CEIO), Siaffa Kanneh, a resident of Monrovia, lamented that it is highly unfortunate on the part of Cllr. Sherman and all those that allow themselves to be used in that direction in order to give birth or right to corruption.

“Varney Sherman as an individual, looking at his status currently in the Liberian politics ranging from his attempt to take the Liberian presidency by contesting the 2005 election; and holding a respectable position in the ruling party, Unity Party, to be caught in an act that against the developmental agenda of the state is tantamount to economy sabotage.”

Jefferson Koijee, Youth leader of the opposition Congress for Democratic Change, for his part argued that he was disappointed that Liberia’s reputation was once again in ruins and took aim at President Sirleaf who has gone on record of transparency and pledging to make corruption a public enemy #1.

“When you read the Global Witness Report about the huge excess of money, over nine hundred thousand (US$900,000) plus, we think the President should demonstrate leadership.”

Koijee says he doubts whether yet another committee set up to probe yet another scandal will lead to prosecutions. “We think the President must do what is appropriate and what is right.

The President should not say she will launch an investigation; we think those comments are cosmetic. The issue is a grave; we cannot have a country with criminal empire; the President should dismiss those individuals involved.”

But Ramsey C. Smith, a bystander at the exchange center disagrees, suggesting that in fact the report’s timing makes it political.

“I believe in prima farcie evidence and facts; what are the evidences Global Witness have on our lawmakers.

“I strongly believe Global Witness has been paid to tannish the reputation of those good men and women at the level of the Legislature who have continue to contribute the growth and development of our country.

Those are the guys who continue to legislate policy that will create empowerment for the young people, or that will restore the sanity of our country; those are men that believe in the rule of law.

So, I strongly disagree with the report; it is internally politically motivated, and I can tell you for free, these are propaganda from politicians who want to put the sediments of the people against these good men and women of the legislature.”

Romeo Johnson, another member at the center argued that Global Witness was not political institution.

“For anyone to say that they want to drag the name of speaker Tyler Sumo Kupee, Varney Sherman in the mud because speaker Tyler will be contesting, is unfair.

Just look at the amount that has been apportion Richard Tolbert, speaker Tyler Sumo Kupee, Varney Sherman.

Those monies were given them at the level of the National Legislature to lobby and pass laws that will not be in our interest so that sable mining can take over the Wologisi Mountain.

The report also highlighted how Varney Sherman was angry with the election of Henry Fahnbulleh and how Sable Mining compensated Fahnbulleh with US$25,000 for him to resign and he did, that’s how you saw Wilmot Paye coming as Secretary General, so for this report, any serious government around the world will look into it and investigate it.

Public Divided Amid Skepticisms

The report, The Deceivers (1), showed how in 2010 Sable hired Sherman, who happens to be the current Chairman of the ruling Unity Party, in an effort to secure one of Liberia’s last large mining assets, the Wologizi iron ore concession in northern Liberia.

Sherman told Sable that in order to obtain the contract the company must first get Liberia’s concessions law changed by bribing senior officials, according to a source familiar with the discussions. The account is backed up by leaked emails and company documents seen by Global Witness.

According to the documents, Sherman then began distributing Sable’s money to some of Liberia’s most important government officials.

“Sable and Sherman paid bribes in order to change Liberia’s law and get their hands on one of its most prized assets, the Wologizi concession,” said Jonathan Gant, Senior Campaigner with Global Witness.

“The government must act fast and investigate Sable, Sherman, and the officials they paid.”

Neither Sherman nor any of those named in the report have spoken out so far although FrontPageAfrica has learned that a press conference is planned for Friday by UP chairman.

For now, many appear divided over the report but skeptical at the legislature.

“This is the reason over the past time all of the 68 concession agreements that was signed by the legislature do not have a trigger-down effect on the Liberian people.

Varney Sherman brought in Sime Darby, but go to Grand Cape Mount today see if the company has any impact on the lives of the people, indeed, the lives of the people in that county has not been improved,” Sekou Kanneh lamented.

Sable Mining: Bribes and Questionable Payments in Liberia

15 April 2010: $500,000 in two equal payments marked “Bigboy 01” and “Bigboy 02”

22 April 2010: $200,000 for the convention of the ruling Unity Party, paid out to Sable’s lawyer Varney Sherman. Sherman was elected chairman of the party at the convention unopposed after his opponents “were persuaded to back off”, according to a local newspaper.

23 April 2010: $50,000 for Richard Tolbert, Chairman of Liberia’s National Investment Commission and one of the most important decision-makers in Liberia’s tendering process for mining rights. Tolbert denied taking bribes from Sable.

26 April 2010: $50,000 for Morris Saytumah, Minister of State for Finance, Economic and Legal Affairs, attached to the presidency.  In March 2011 Saytumah, after he left office, wrote a letter for Sable—backdated to April 2009—saying that “the Government will assist the Delta Mining in its bid for any iron ore reserve that it may be interested in and has the technical and financial capacity to operate”.

28 April 2010: $10,000, labelled as “Sherman’s contribution to IE Sports Association”, with the funds coming out of Sable’s account. This was a reference to the Invincible Eleven soccer team and associated teams, of which Richard Tolbert was President.

5 May 2010: $10,000 labelled as “Heine’s contribution to IE Sports Association”, headed by Tolbert (see above). Heine van Niekerk was Chief Executive of Sable’s Liberian affiliate.

24 June 2010: $10,000 paid to Willie Belleh, Chairman of the Public Procurement and Concessions Commission, who held a key position in the tender process for mineral concessions and helped review the procurement act. Belleh denied receiving any payment.

24 June 2010: $25,000 labelled as “Political contribution – UP Secretary General resignation”. Henry Fahnbulleh, recently elected Secretary General of the ruling Unity Party, resigned under pressure from Varney Sherman the day after the payment was made.

29 July 2010: $5,000 for Lofa County Senator Sumo Kupee.

29 July 2010: $5,000 for Cletus Wotorson, at the time the Speaker of the Senate. Kupee and Wotorson’s payments are listed in internal company records. Kupee and Wotorson denied receiving any payments.

23 August 2010: $4,500 labelled “accommodation ECB Jones and C Onanuga”. Ernest C.B. Jones was Deputy Mining Minister, while Chris Onanuga was Delta’s long-standing fixer before and after its purchase by Sable.

25 August 2010: $75,000 for Alex Tyler, Speaker of the lower house of Liberia’s parliament at the time.

12 May 2011: Sable made a purchase worth $1,070.87 at Twin Bore Agencies, a Johannesburg gun shop, for the Liberian President’s son, Fombah Sirleaf. It is unclear what was purchased. Sirleaf is head of Liberia’s National Security Agency.

13 June 2011: $6,532 to take Fombah Sirleaf on an all-expenses-paid hunting trip in South Africa.

2 August 2011: $5,000 to Eugene Shannon, a former Mining Minister who lobbied a cabinet Minister Morris Saytumah to write his backdated letter backing Sable’s claim to Wologizi. Shannon denied receiving any money from Sable.

August 2011 to Jan 2012: $1,565.28 on a telephone and bills for Fombah Sirleaf. 

Total: $958,668