Africa Confidential (London)
13 May 2010
Burnishing a stellar international reputation, Liberia's President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is steeling herself for a tough campaign for a second presidential term in elections next year.
Since winning power in 2007, President Sirleaf has been held back by the weaknesses of her political support base at home. Successful at winning international financial support and investor interest, Sirleaf and her immediate circle of technocrats have never looked entirely comfortable amid the cut and thrust of Monrovia politics.
Sirleaf's Unity Party lacks a parliamentary majority, which has slowed down her work, and a rash of corruption scandals around ministers and presidential appointees has gone down badly with the public.
The President is said to have been shaken when, in November, the Congress for Democratic Change, led by the retired football star and failed presidential bidder George Weah, retained a Senate seat in a by-election in Montserrado County, where Geraldine Doe-Sheriff, a former executive of the Liberian Petroleum Refining Company (LPRC), swept up the women's and youth vote.
In response, the President has merged her Unity Party with the Liberia Unification Party (LUP) and the Liberian Action Party (LAP), former allies in the 1985 grand coalition against the regime of Samuel Doe.
Critics claim that the merger will increase the power of the American-Liberian elite (known locally as 'Congo') whose ancestors were resettled in Liberia when slavery was abolished in the United States. Sirleaf's most powerful allies include many of her Congo associates from her days in government under William Tolbert, and others who worked under the kleptocracy of Charles Taylor and the corrupt transitional administration of Gyude Bryant.
The merger will bring her closer to Varney Sherman, the powerful legal counsellor to the local branch of the steel giant ArcelorMittal and several other mining companies. He contested the election against her in 2005, carrying the flag of Bryant's LAP, which now controls a significant block in the legislature.
The merger also brings in Sherman's in-law, the acting Senate boss Cletus Wotorson, who was Minister of Mines under Tolbert and Director of LPRC and the Nimba Mining Company under Doe. Wotorson is close to Eugene Shannon, the current Mines and Energy Minister, who was with Sirleaf in exile in Côte d'Ivoire. Today he is given almost free rein with the lucrative bidding procedures for Liberia's iron ore.
Iron Ore, Iron Lady
Another gatekeeper for the ore deals is the Deputy Minister of Operations, Ernest C.B. Jones, who leads negotiations with big investors such as BHP Billiton and the Israeli businessman Beny Steinmetz, who last month sealed a deal with Guinea to export iron ore via ArcelorMittal's railway in Liberia.
Jones wants Sirleaf re-elected, and diplomats worry that the Mining Ministry may be generating funds for next year's campaign. In December, United Nations experts criticised the Ministry for abusing diamond export procedures; Shannon's son Musa Shannon has diamond interests. The alliance will also cement ties with Adolphus Dolo, the influential junior senator from Nimba, a former general under Taylor. Unity Party insiders hope for tens of millions of dollars from Libya's Moammar el Gadaffi.
During the last year, the President has been criticised by oppositionists and members of her own government for the weakness of its stand on corruption. She has sacked or accepted the resignations of Agriculture Minister Christopher Toe, Public Works Minister Luseni Donzo, Information Minister Laurence Bropleh and Internal Affairs Minister Ambulai Johnson, her brother. There were allegations about the embezzlement of millions of the government's dollars.
Only Bropleh faces criminal charges. Donzo was moved to the position of Advisor on Infrastructure to the President, while the respected human rights activist Kofi Woods was moved from the Labour Ministry to take over at Public Works. Toe was controversially replaced by Florence Chenoweth, Minister of Agriculture under Tolbert, who implemented hikes in rice prices that led to riots in 1979.
The ministries of Health, Education, Mines and Finance have all been slammed by the Auditor General, John Morlu, over several million dollars of unaccounted funds. Sirleaf says she supports the audits but insists the findings show systemic failures rather than wilful corruption and that her government will tackle the problem. Her cousin, the Anti-Corruption Commissioner, Frances Johnson Morris, has spoken out about the government's inability to tackle corruption.
Last year Sirleaf dismissed Justice Minister Philip Banks, who is said to have soft-pedalled the corruption trial of Edwin Snowe, Taylor's former LPRC boss and a member of the House (AC Vol 48 No 3), who is subject to a UN travel ban and assets freeze. Unity insiders say US diplomats had told Sirleaf about alleged connections between members of her security apparatus, including her son Fombah Sirleaf, Director of the National Security Agency, and a mysterious Russian businessman.
The Russian, Victor Bogosyan, was deported in May 2009. A source close to the presidency says he 'had a line of government people waiting to see him'. Money-changers in town said he paid massive premiums for loans, while he set up a popular nightclub run by attractive Peruvian women.
The US officials are said to have linked Bogosyan to drugs deals. A Unity Party insider said that the President then summoned an informal meeting with all her security chiefs, at which Banks's officials explained that they knew all about this, and 'it was not something Madam President needed to know about'. Banks was soon fired.
Some politicians, activists and diplomats suspect that the Iron Lady's reform agenda has been ring-fenced by cliques, with the powers behind the throne said to be Ellen's sister 'Aunty Jennie' Bernard and her brother-in-law Estrada Bernard. A minister under Tolbert, he has close ties to Clarence Simpson, Tolbert's Attorney General and Associate Justice Minister, now an advisor to the Firestone rubber plantation.
Under Tolbert, Bernard was the boss of Willis Knuckles, Sirleaf's Presidential Advisor, who was caught up in scandal when a repairman found on his laptop pictures of him having sex with two women and emails soliciting payments for access to government contracts. Knuckles resigned as a minister in 2007 but is still believed to be involved in organising Sirleaf's travel. He is close to Medina Shepherd, a businesswoman angling for a senior position in the new Unity Party.
Juanita Neal, Taylor's Deputy Minister of Revenue and a presidential confidante, has made way for Elfreda Stewart Tamba, whose father Reginald Stewart, Director of Budget under Tolbert, was executed in 1980. Stewart was formerly a senior official in LBDI, a bank with close ties to Sirleaf, which holds various government accounts that are yet to be audited.
Sirleaf's opponents say her government is packed with American-Liberians, such as her family friend Binyah Kesselly, now Director of the Bureau of Maritime Affairs, on a salary of up to US$20,000 a month.
Another network is run by Morris Saytumah, who was Controller General of Liberia under Doe and Deputy Minister of Finance under Taylor. As Minister of State for Finance, Economic and Legal Affairs, he is known in political circles as the 'Prime Minister'. He clashed with Harry Greaves, the posh former Director of the LPRC, who was investigated after awarding a dubious contract to a Lebanese company, then embarrassed Saytumah by leaking voice recordings which showed that the supposed investigator, Aloysius Jappah, had in fact been sent to Greaves to demand $300,000 in extortion money. Both men were sacked.
Sirleaf's prospering allies include the family of Allen Brown, a former Taylor associate who was with her in exile in Côte d'Ivoire. His son Allen Brown Jr was invited home to take over some of the rice import monopoly traditionally run by powerful Liberian and Lebanese families, and to pour money into construction. Through his French connections in Abidjan he helped to bring Total into Liberian petrol retailing. He is said to have been squeezed out of some of his activities by Juanita Neal and Aunty Jennie.
Amid all this, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has listed Sirleaf among 49 political figures whom it blames for fuelling Liberia's 14-year war. It has asked her to step down from political office for 30 years (she is 71). Also among the 49 are Clarence Simpson and Richelieu Williams, Director General of the Liberia Civil Aviation Authority.
The TRC's recommendations are unlikely to be adopted by the legislature but they have damaged her in the eyes of many Liberians.