Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Liberia: Bribery or 'Coldwater' - Liberty Party on Pres. Sirleaf's back

Source: All Africa

Once upon time in Liberia it was acceptable for government officials, including the President, to ‘take tours’ of concession companies operating in the country. Company executives, often with known ties in government, used these tours to shower the visiting officials with “coldwater” and praises for their ‘farsightedness’. With the advent of Liberia’s new political dispensation, the ‘coldwater’ and praise-singing culture has been discredited as official corruption. President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf knows it. But her attempt to reject a ‘coldwater’ or gratuity from an oil palm company last week in Grand Bassa County has caught the attention of the Liberty Party, and it is crying ‘Wolf!’ The Analyst, reports.

The opposition Liberty Party (LP) says the LIBINIC Oil Palm management’s public offering of an envelope with unknown cash value to President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, and her rejection of the envelope without an accompanying legal action, qualifies as a tacit receipt of bribe.

The party therefore wants the money recovered, wherever it is, made a public asset, and accordingly deposited in into the public treasury for the purpose of accountability and appropriate application for public good.

The party’s concerns and recommendation were contained in press statement it issued under the signature of its national chairman, Israel Akinsanya.

What happened?
The release said during President Sirleaf’s tour of the LIBINIC Oil Palm plantation in New Cess in Grand Bassa County, last Thursday, the management of the plantation offered her an envelope containing an unknown cash value.

The release quoted a local daily as reporting that prior to taking to the podium to admonish President Sirleaf to use the content of the envelope to the benefit of the Liberian people, the LIBINIC manager tried in vain to surreptitiously pass the envelope under the table to her.

According to the daily’s account cited by the release, President Sirleaf, who had rejected the envelope, immediately took to the podium to debunk the LIBINIC manager, describing his action as unacceptable.

She however advised the manager to take the money, whatever it was, back to the management’s coffers, construct a market building for the women in the plantation area as the company had volunteered to do. Upon doing that, the President advised further, LIBINIC could use the money it attempted to give her to undertake other projects for the benefit of residents of the concession area.

Observers say the President’s decision to comment on the ‘coldwater’ was apparently necessitated by her concern about the suspicion, speculations, and allegations it would whip up amongst critics and skeptics.

‘Visibly irritated’, the release quoted the daily as further reporting, she told the gathering, “I don’t even want to know how much is in this envelop. In fact, I am not permitted to receive neither cheque nor cash from any concession company. So, use it for the Bassa women market project, after that you can build another one.”

The British manager of LIBINIC, apparently oblivious to how embarrassing his failed attempt to offer the ‘coldwater’ was to the Liberian leader, according to the daily’s account quoted by the release, had taken to the podium to flaunt his company’s largesse to the Liberian people.

“Madam President, this is a gesture from us to assist your market project and we hope that you use it wisely,” he reportedly said with an admonition that observers recognized as patronizing.

Patronizing it could be, but to LP, what stood out was what it believes to be an attempted public bribing of the President of Liberia.

Rejected coldwater or public bribery
The transparency of the exchange, many unsuspecting observers say, should put the matter to rest; but LP said its information beyond the media report is that President Sirleaf did not act with her hands as she did with her tongue.

Instead of ordering the return of the envelope and its contents to the company and directing it to apply to the benefit of the people, the President allegedly ordered Grand Bassa County Superintendent Julia Duncan Cassel to take charge of it.

By this alleged order to the superintendent, whom the LP described as the President’s official lieutenant and confidante, the party contended that the President has inadvertently, or knowingly, accepted bribe from LIBINIC – that whatever was in the envelope was intended for a special market project for women in Grand Bassa County, being beside the point.

“The tenets of good governance require that whatever project, special or otherwise, that the President of Liberia is to undertake should be budgeted and appropriated by an act of the Legislature. Such insidious taxes that are paid by companies directly to the President of Liberia and/or other government officials in the form of ‘donations’, hurt the economy, damage the integrity of government, and have been one of the reasons for the rampant corruption that has characterized the Sirleaf administration,” it said.

It noted further, “Uncontrollable corruption, which characterizes this government, is one thing, but public bribery or undisguised illegal gratuity is something else!”.

It contended further, “The content of the envelope is evidence of an attempt to commit a crime – bribery or at least illegal gratuity!”

The party wondered why the so-called rejected envelope turned up in the hands of Superintendent Cassel instead being deposited into government treasury or returned to LIBINIC and concluded that one thing would explained the disparity between speech and action.

“Because if an agent of the President is in possession of that envelope, then the President did not reject the money; the President constructively received the check,” the party said, further raising the legal question of why the LIBINIC manager remained a free man instead of being behind bars for attempted bribery.

The party said what raised its suspicion, beyond the public show of bribery offer and rejection, was that LIBINC’s 50-year concession rights to operate a palm plantation in the county lacked important social commitment provisions, besides being silent on the investment volume.

“Unlike other concession agreements, the contract neither contains the total amount of the investment nor the number of jobs it would create. John Bestman, the President’s former Campaign Manager and a senior executive of the President’s Unity Party, is reported to have financial interest in LIBINIC,” the party said, failing so say whether Bestman’s alleged connection represented any legal breach.

Added to the LIBINIC suspicion, the party said, what happened during the tour has “put into disrupt the office of the President of Liberia, exposing it to the influence of the highest bidder.”

Observers argue that the case in point is unrelated to any public bidding, but LP thought otherwise.

“A situation whereby individuals are allowed to make unrestrained “donations” to the President with unrestricted use of such funds by the President, subjects not only the President, but also our entire system of governance, to the tentacles of corruption. The transferring of the check to the Viceroy of the President did not cure the problem,” it contended.

With this practice, the party said, there was no wonder that the control of corruption has been illusive to the Sirleaf Administration despite its often-avowed promise to wrestle it to the ground.

“By constructively accepting money from an entity whose operation the government regulates, the President not only sends the wrong message about fighting corruption, but she actually encourages corruption,” the party said.

In its view, the LIBINIC experience could, besides being contagious, embolden junior employees of government, such as legislators, immigration and custom officers, police officers, port workers, local government administrators, to accept so-called gratuities from customers.

“The President’s action is not only wrong and unacceptable, but her action also does not demonstrate an appreciation of the ills that have caused our country to be in its current mess,” the party said, recalling similar situation with the donation of pickup trucks by the Mittal Steel mining company to the Legislature.

Meanwhile, LP has called on President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in what it called the “interest of protecting the integrity of the Presidency”, to disclose the full amount of the LIBINIC check.

Upon doing that, the party said the President must ensure that “every penny thereof is appropriately accounted for”.

“The President should also use this opportunity to make it clear to LIBINIC and all persons doing business in our country, by her action and not mere words, that giving gifts to the President of Liberia or any other government official for personal appropriation or use as they see fit is wrong and will not be tolerated in the future,” the party insisted.

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