How the Government Silenced Accountability in Runup to Election

President George Weah in a letter to the House said, “Under the ECF Program, the Executive and partners are concluding negotiations before finalizing the resource envelope for the next fiscal period.”          

Three months after the government raced an act through the Legislature overhauling the Liberia Anti-Corruption Commission, Liberia’s independent corruption watchdog has almost ceased functioning, all but ending scrutiny of government corruption in the runup to next year’s election.

A source inside the Commission, who requested anonymity for fear of losing their job, said prosecutions have been stalled because of the changes that included the firing of all staff including chairperson Cllr. Edwin Kla Martin as the Weah administration “concentrates on the 2023 elections.” This week’s decision by the Supreme Court to halt some of the changes in the act has further clouded the Commission’s future.

“Uncertainty hangs over the future of the LACC,” the source said. “Cases are not going to court. Lawyers are challenging us claiming that we are to dissolve. Asset declaration to the LACC has dropped.”

The source said morale among staff is at zero. “There is no zeal to work at the LACC since the passage of this new act,” the source said. “Employees are showing a lackadaisical attitude on the job. We are not prosecuting cases and investigations are ongoing but not aggressive as they used to be.”

Critics say this is exactly the outcome the government wanted. Since the Weah administration came into office in 2018 it has been plagued by corruption scandals. They escalated this year when the LACC implicated several high-profile public officials including Jeanie Cooper, the Agriculture Minister, Francis Wreh, the head of the Liberia Institute of Geo-Information Services, and two of his deputies.

Within weeks the government had submitted the “Act Restating An Act to Re-establish the Liberia Anti-Corruption Commission” to the legislature which mandated the firing of all staff and the requirement that they reapply for their jobs. The act had some sweeteners – it gave the Commission the power to prosecute corruption directly without going through the Ministry of Justice – but it also stripped the commission of its authority to seize public officials’ assets or freeze them if indicted, except if the commission proves the person is of flight risk.

A month later the United States Treasury took the extraordinary step of putting three of President Weah’s key ministers on the Magnitsky Sanctions list in a highly embarrassing rebuke for a government that is heavily reliant on United States aid. Liberia remains at the top of corruption rankings. The latest Global Barometer Index found Liberia was the third most corrupt country in Africa.

Frances Johnson-Allison, former LACC Chief and former Supreme Court Chief Justice, said the crippling of the Commission is the outcome the government wanted.

“It’s obvious the act of telling an integrity institution official to resign and reapply is clear that it was intended to undermine the fight against corruption and also to impede our democratic journey,” said Johnson-Allison. “Without asset declaration people will be amassing wealth without accountability.”

At the same time, some anti-corruption activists say they are afraid to call out corruption and criticize the government after a series of mysterious deaths of potential whistle-blowers in the country. LACC chairperson Martin has said he has been the target of death threats from government supporters since his firing.

“The work we do is risky work,” said one leading anti-corruption campaigner on the condition of anonymity. “We duly step on toes and because of this a lot of people especially those at the center of the things we say, do or write about often are not happy, so they come after us.”

“Nothing has changed in the work,” the source said. “We are aware that these threats will come. Even if it means harming us it will be the price that we paid for standing for the right thing and helping to change the country.”

Proponents of the bill argue critics have nothing to fear. They say the act will deepen the Commission’s powers to root out and discourage corruption. Deputy House Speaker J. Fonati Koffa denied that existing investigations would be scrapped.

“I think the critics are under the mistaken impression that the passage of the new act nullifies previous actions or investigation by the LACC. Remember the underlying crimes have not been changed,” Koffa said.

But critics said the overhaul was a cover for firing Commissioner Martin. The LACC was created in August 2008 after a task force recommended its structure and governance to former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. The act gave the commission the power to investigate and prosecute cases of corruption as well as educate the public about the drawbacks of corruption and the benefits of its eradication.

Key to the Commission’s independence was the requirement that the Commissioner could not be fired. He or she was appointed by the president but would then serve for five years. This was designed to protect the Commissioner from political influence and intimidation.

“I was at that commission for five years and that never happened,” Allison-Johnson said. “Nobody ever asked us to resign and reapply because that would be a violation of the act which grants tenure to commissioners.”

Staff inside the Commission said they believed Commissioner Martin was targeted.

“The LACC will have no use if corruption is still thriving,” said the anonymous source. “This is why when Cllr. Martin took over and he became robust in tackling, exposing big names.”

While some anti-corruption activists have welcomed the prosecutorial powers – something Cllr. Allison advocated for – there are other aspects of the law that concern them. In addition to losing its authority to seize or freeze accused public officials’ assets the law also limits citizens’ access to information as well as the Commission’s openness and responsibility to the public and stakeholders, according to critics. The new law limits the Commission by imposing unreasonable secrecy, they say, which prevents it from sharing fundamental information with the public about its interactions until an indictment is issued.

Such a clause unjustifiably limits the Commission’s capacity to connect with the public and the media to provide updates on the progress of current investigations according to Andersen Miamen, Executive Director of CENTAL, the anti-corruption organization.

“They use what they steal to counter the prosecuting authorities, so it is only logical in the wisdom of the fighters against corruption. So, for us, removing it from our law when we had it in the first place weakens the commission,” Miamen said.

Lofa County Senator Steve Zargo, one of the critics who voted against the bill, said the challenge of corruption in Liberia had nothing to do with inadequate laws. The problem is enforcement of them.

“We don’t have the inadequacy of laws to prosecute people,” he said. “Why should we amend the LACC act before we can fight corruption?”

For some activists the very fact that a government so mired in corruption is pushing the overhaul of the Commission undermines any improvements they might intend to make.

“You cannot have people that are being sanctioned for corruption trying to pass an Anti-Corruption Act,” said Lawrence Yealue, the executive director of Accountability Lab. “I think that is the sad part when we ask our country if we close our eyes to the reality that the Anti-Corruption Act should be passed by people that have clean hands. Yet the Chairman of the Committee is Senator Varney Sherman, who has been sanctioned by the US government for corruption, so for that same person to chair a committee to pass an Anti-Corruption Act is laughable. If the group doesn’t have integrity will the law have integrity?”

Meanwhile the Supreme Court decision this week to halt some changes has further complicated the overhaul. Former LACC boss Martin sued the government for prematurely terminating his services and breaching the constitution. The Supreme Court has given both sides until November 10 to respond to the court’s writ.

This story was a collaboration with New Narratives as part of the “Investigating Liberia” project. Funding was provided by the Swedish Embassy in Liberia. The donor had no say in the content.