Activists Say Govt’s Failure to Release Auditors’ Deaths Report Creating Trust Crisis

Eddie Jarwolo, CEO Naymote

Monrovia – It is two years since Sylvester Saye Lama lost his wife Gifty, the breadwinner of his family, under unusual circumstances.

Gifty was one of four government auditors, tasked with uncovering government corruption, that were found dead in the space of weeks. Their deaths shocked the country, scared anti-corruption activists into silence, and raised serious questions about impunity and corruption in the Weah government.

“Since I lost my job in 2000 she was everything to me,” said Lama. The two kids and I are now living on a handout. I am now living with trauma.”

In an effort to calm public outrage over the deaths President George Weah announced a legislative committee would look into them. In an interview placed on the Executive Mansion website in October 2020 President Weah called on the United States Embassy to assist the Ministry of Justice headed by Counsellor Frank Musa Dean to investigate the deaths.

But after the announcement the committee seemed to disappear. Two years on there have been no reports. The failure of the committee to make public any findings has deepened public suspicion around the deaths.

At the same time the government has been overwhelmed by corruption scandals culminating in the US Treasury decision to put three top ministers on the Magnitsky Sanctions List. For Lama the silence of the committee underscores his claim that the government was involved, though he failed to offer any evidence of the claim.

“We don’t give credence to what they have said. We know the government was involved in the murder of my wife and I am not even afraid to say that,” Lama said emotionally. “I don’t even trust this government. I don’t even trust them.”

In October 2020 the lifeless body of Gifty Lama and her colleague Albert Peters – both auditors at the Liberia Revenue Authority – were found in a parked vehicle in the Monrovia city center. Both had been missing for 24 hours before the discovery of their bodies.

According to a state-sponsored autopsy report they died from carbon monoxide poisoning and inhalation of gasoline fumes.

Sylvester Saye Lama, husband of late Gifty Lama, protests after her death

Their deaths were quickly followed by the deaths of two other auditors – Emmanuel Barten NyeswuaDirector General of the Internal Audit Agency, who died after falling off a building according to a state-sponsored autopsy report. The report recommended police investigate the death. A fourth auditor, George F. Fahnbutu, was found to have died from a car accident.

Since I lost my job in 2000 she was everything to me,” said Lama. The two kids and I are now living on a handout. I am now living with trauma.” 

– Sylvester Saye Lama, Husband of the late Gifty Lama

FPA/New Narratives reached family members of the other three dead auditors. All refused to comment on the record. Some said they agreed with Lama’s belief that their family member was murdered but said they were afraid to go on the record.

In a phone call Justice Minister Dean refused to provide this reporter with a copy of the committee report saying it was online. However, a search of the Justice Ministry website found no evidence of the report. The news section of the Ministry website has not been updated since the Weah administration took office in 2018.

Transparency activists have also found no sign of the report or any work by the committee.

“We did research and cannot find the report,” says Eddie Jarwolo, Executive Director of NAYMOTE, a Liberian civil society organization promoting good governance. “So it can’t be secret the fact that you are working for the government. Nothing should be secret. It is a public office. We have checked on their website. It is not there. We checked all over but we cannot find it. The fact is it is a secret. That is why we cannot find it.”

Jarwolo says that the failure of this committee to release its findings, along with the failure of other committees set up to investigate issues of national concern, creates a crisis of trust in government among Liberians.

A recent Naymote report found that between 2018 and 2022 President Weah constituted 14 committees to perform special functions but only three of the committees have made public their findings.

The committees included some looking into actions of the Sirleaf government including a Special Presidential Task Force to “retrieve all government-owned vehicles” in the possession of former government officials and a Special Presidential Committee to review allegations made by Global Witness in its reports concerning the National Oil Company of Liberia. Another was a Special Presidential Committee to recruit two Deputy Auditor Generals of the General Auditing Commission.

“We think if the president appoints you to a committee it is just fair that you work to inform the public on the state of the committee,” says Jarwolo. “Or the president makes sure those people who are appointed on the committee report. That is the only way the people will take the government seriously. It makes people think the president is not serious.”

Other activists say the government’s failure to report the committees’ findings has contributed to poor performance by public officials. When even the justice ministry does not perform its function, why should the police and others under the ministry’s control perform theirs asks Dempster Brown, Chairman of the Independent National Commission on Human Rights.

“If those who are responsible like Joint Security chiefs are not receiving support that undermines the integrity of the government also,” Brown says. “That means the international community may look at the government and decide that it doesn’t care about human rights.”

Anti-corruption activists have told FPA/New Narratives that the deaths have created a culture of fear that they have not experienced since Liberia’s first post-war government took office in 2006. They have been reluctant to criticize the government publicly for fear of their safety. That has undermined their ability to play their watchdog role.

Justice Minister Musa Dean told reporter to “find the report online”

With no answers coming from the government Sylvester Lama is frustrated. He has been told an independent audit of his wife’s remains would cost $US25,000. That is money he doesn’t have. Lama has called on the international community to help bring the independent investigation he says is needed to get to the truth.

“We hope that the US government, not this government, will follow up.” Lama echoed statements he made to Front Page Africa after the memorial service for his wife in 2020.

“If there were a true justice system in Liberia, all of those family members were going to get justice. And so we continue to question the justice system in Liberia.”

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