Winning the war on corruption

An appeal to all Liberian Professionals to help end the practice


An Editorial by “The Voice of Liberia”
May 1, 2016


Liberia is on the rise and the people are more and more aware today of government workings than any time in the nation’s 169 year history. Winning the war on corruption must be treated as a national security issue to address the ticking time bomb of discontent and apathy amongst citizens.


In 2013, Transparency International (an organization considered the czar of corruption), rated Liberia as the number one destination for the practice of corruption. For Liberians at home and those abroad, it is not a misplaced categorization. This nation which was founded more than one hundred and sixty years ago in 1816 and declared independence in 1847 (history lessons), but has struggled with corruption ever since.


Liberian professionals (“educated elites”), who have led the country since independence in 1847, have been either unable to curtail the practice of corruption or have been unwilling to change course. Corruption and nepotism have resulted in the marginalization of the majority poor and devastating poverty. A popular and bloody coup d’état in 1980, saw the overthrow of President William Tolbert and thus bringing to an end more than 130 years rule of the True Whig Party.


The military junta led by Master Sergeant Samuel K. Doe, in its blind euphoria, subsequently executed more than half of the government’s cabinet members – Liberia’s elites and educated class.  The man (Samuel Doe) who led the coup, just a few years into his role, also fell prey to the practice of corruption and nepotism, leading to an all-out war with another group organized by war criminal, Charles Taylor and supported by current Liberian President, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (TRC report).


Over the last several decades, our native Liberia has been marred in corruption, civil wars, and outright abuse of power by a small group of people, thus perpetrating the cycle of violence and poverty upon the majority population.  Liberia’s educated class is the main culprit in this entire nightmare.


Today, Liberia’s struggles against corruption and nepotism continue unabated despite the creating of anti-graft entities to fight this societal scourge. The outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus in 2014 exacerbated the practice and a government seems to have lost sight of its priorities, while the cancer (corruption) continues to affect the moral fabric of Liberian Society.


Every now and then, I interact with a government employee or a staff from a semi-autonomous government agency or a police officer manning a make-shift checkpoint. Most often time, the conversation is similar to previous ones I have had with Liberian civil servants who have been charged with a duty to offer government services to the public.
I have had several occurrences of real-life situations where paid-government workers willfully solicit “karto” (“cold water” or bribe) to do their work. The examples below represent my best attempt to share my experience, while at the same time protecting the identities of individuals so as not to cause an embarrassment to our counterparts and colleagues from across the aisle. This is also an attempt to contribute to the ongoing national debate in Liberia regarding societal ills and how to we can move the country forward, while being reasonable and sensitive.


These examples do not in any way insinuate that every staff of the agencies or ministries discussed can be accused of corruption, but these experiences represent professional behavior by some employees from the various agencies of government:  

Ministry of Labor: In this case, there was a labor issue that had been identified on a project site in one of the counties where the organization I worked for operate in Liberia. A staff had been terminated during his probation period due to poor performance. Being dissatisfied with his termination, he went to the Ministry of Labor agency in that county and complained about working conditions at the project site. Upon investigation by the Labor Inspector, it was found that there were a number of staff working fulltime for a few months without contracts. All other allegations were unsubstantiated. We were invited to a meeting with the Labor Department. After the presentation of findings, we agreed to make good on labor requirements to issue contracts to those who were fulltime staff and to pay daily workers on a daily basis as per law. All employment contracts were forwarded to the Labor Department for attestation.

Then on a courtesy visit to the Labor Office in that county to update our counterparts on actions we’ve taken to ensure compliance, the labor representative said something like this, “my man, you should come good when visiting us next time.” Translation: bring us a tip.
He had done his job and I had made a commitment to ensure compliance. Now, I can’t say this was an outright request for a bribe, but I didn’t give a penny when I visited the County’s Labor Office. I also vowed to ensure that our labor practice is enhanced in compliance with the laws of the land. 

As professionals, we are doing a job we’re paid to do. A number of staff contracts are still at the labor office for attestation. We will wait for the professionals at the Labor Department to do their work.  


NASSCORP: The National Social Security and Welfare Corporation of Liberia was created by an ACT of legislation in 1975 to provide job-related injury protection for employees. The act was amended in 1988 by the subsequent government to include pension and welfare schemes.


Sometime in May of 2014, the organization I worked for received a correspondence from NASSCOPR about their need to conduct a five year audit of our organization’s employee contributions. Technically, why even wait to conduct an audit of a firm or organization after five years? We agreed on a date and convened a meeting. The NASACORP Team of about four smartly dressed professionals, all seemed to be great human beings, were assigned to the case. On the first day, we concluded presentation and Q&A session with the team. They proceeded to audit our receipts, which had been made available.  After the Q&A session, I had returned to my office to carry on with my daily work routine while our accountants stayed to work with the NASSORP Team.

By lunch time, the NASSCORP Team Leader came into my office and our conversation goes like this: he said “my brother, you know we are from a poor background as a country and people; so I would appreciate if you can find something for me and my guys.” Surprised and incensed by his naïve request, I politely replied, “my man, I understand, but my organization’s code of conduct doesn’t allow me to offer you even one dollar.” His eyes widened and he looked at me with some degree of hesitation and suspicion. “But since you’re working at our offices today, we can offer you lunch like we do for our staff,” I added to relieve his anxiety.


Although we did offer the team lunch, this was just another example of a Liberian professional asking to be paid extra to do a job he is on payroll.


Liberian National Police: Whenever I drive around Monrovia, I usually come across makeshift police checkpoints at major intersections. Traveling in the interior of the country, there are regular checkpoints at several locations along the highways (from Monrovia to rural Liberia).


On a number of occasions, my conversations with uniformed police officers have been something like this: Police man said, “Sir, your license and registration.” Or “may I know you by your license.” I would show my driver’s license and registration or a driver I’m riding with would show his license and registration, as all of our company vehicles are duly registered and insured.  In almost all the instances, the police officer is given the documents requested, but he still says, “I know you got everything in order, but your boys are here oh.” Translation: we need some “karto” despite all your papers being in order.


The most recent experience was on a July 26th morning as I drove past the Executive Mansion headed towards Camp Johnson Road. Two officers pulled me over only to say, “Boss man it’s 26th oh; please find something for your officers,” without even asking for license or registration. I have now perfected my response, “keep up the good work officer,” I said and drove off. I am delayed at times, but will drive on once my license is returned, never offering a dime.


Ministry of Finance (MoF):  A few months ago in role, our organization’s financial accounts were being audited by a team from the Ministry of Finance for the microcredit component of our program. Now, the process had taken weeks to get a first draft report from the MOF Team. I have a belief in fairness and for organizations to pay their fair share of taxes to government, for such revenue is critical for development projects around the country. So when I saw a draft report the MOF allegedly implicating the organization of not paying its fair share of taxes, I asked our Finance and Accounts Team to treat the issue as a priority and work with the MOF Team to ascertain the validity of the allegation. The team was instructed to make available all relevant supporting documents around revenues and expenditures so the MOF Team could complete its work. “And if we are found to be delinquent, we must pay,” I said to the finance team.   


After a week of intensive work to reconcile the MOF Team’s findings with our finance and accounts records, it became evident that the MOF’s draft report had been riddled with mistakes and inconsistencies. Revenues reported were incorrect and expenditures that were not booked in their findings had supporting documents.   


We had several meetings with the MOF Team and their supervisor. To be fair, they didn’t ask specifically for a bribe. But with each passing day and week and the work not being finalized, we became suspicious of the team’s motives. So we inquire as to what the delay may be and this was the response we got: “we know your organization, but you think we’ll do all this work for nothing.” Translation: give us some money; we’ll go away and leave you alone.


Again, my response, “let’s complete the work we’ve started and if we owe any back taxes, we’ll pay. But if we over-paid, then government must credit us for the overpayment.”
For dubious businesses entities eager to offer a bribe to tax collectors in Liberia, such a practice only robs government of much needed revenue that would have otherwise been derived from the private sector. In fact, the Government of Liberia has experienced a budget shortfall most years, yet its tax collectors are busy cutting deals that benefit individuals, while the nation is being deprived of development funds.


Due to strike action at the Ministry of Finance June of 2014 and despite our best attempts to get the audit completed, the MOF team continued to delay its findings. As the Ebola outbreak spread across the country that year and due to changing priorities, the matter is pending resolution.


Ministry of Transport (MOT): This ministry is also contributing to impoverishing Liberians and promoting corruption without accountability. I had bought a small vehicle (a two door sedan) and needed to register it quickly because I always want to be on the side of the law. Now to register a sedan at MOT, it costs about $60 USD, but it is impossible to get a speedy and good service if one is not willing to play ball – i.e. give a tip/pay a bribe to get the registration done quickly.


Frustrated with the process, I gave the paperwork to my younger brother to process. He ended up spending over one hundred US dollars, whereby the flag receipt shows a fifty-nine dollars amount deposited into government treasury. He had to pay for the forms that he needed to fill out; he gave a tip to the runner (the person who takes paperwork from one office to another for signature); a cut for the person who signed the documents, and he even had to drop some extra change to the assistant processing the paperwork. Such a practice creates unnecessary hardship for ordinary Liberians who can’t afford the extra cost, a loss of productivity, and the promotion of the culture of corruption with impunity.
I was so angry when the young man brought up the vehicle registration with the above information of his misadventure. This is not considered a new phenomenon in Liberia, but how can a government entity be so insensitive to the collective needs of the people? This is just another example of Liberian professionals imposing an extra burden on ordinary citizens.


National Archives Center: The experience at Liberia’s National Archive Center is yet another one worth sharing. I have a land deed that I wanted to verify to ensure that it has been duly registered within the archives center. Per guidelines and receipts, it cost about two hundred-fifty Liberian Dollars (less than five USD) to conduct a search request of a deed.  So I sent our Public Relations Assistant (an honest and decent man) with the deed to conduct the search. He was told that with the recent budget shortfall in government, that the center doesn’t have money to buy stationary to conduct their work. And if he wants it done quickly, then he should talk like a man. Translation: give something and your request to conduct a search for your deed will be done quickly.  Here again, staff at a national agency charged with service to the public are refused to do their work if they do not receive extra payment from customers.


Ellen’s Legacy
Several insiders have spilled the beans on government corruption while others have accused President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of creating a dynasty through corruption, cronyism and nepotism: As the saying goes, “wherever you see smoke; there certainly is fire.” There have been allegations, secret recordings and revelations coming from former aides and those who have been part of the president’s inner circle. From Judge Melvin Johnson & Ellen Cockrum recordings, to an open letter from Chris Neyor, former NOCAL CEO (FPA); to lingering allegations of violations of the Public Procurement Policy/Laws by the President and her inner-circle, to allegations of government spending millions of dollars on lobbying fees, etc.;


The elder mother President and her administration are bogged down in a quagmire of conundrums, manipulations and illicit dealings, thus limiting an effective implementation of government priorities. Now, this administration, we are made to believe, is comprised of Liberia’s finest sons and daughters– Harvard graduates and those from other elite universities of Europe and the United States. There has to be some truth to all that is obtaining in the current government.


Lessons learned
The above occurrences and examples of corrupt practices take place on a daily basis right under the nose of Ministers and Directors, who in turn benefit from these small acts of corruption. As one government worker confided to me, “they [ministers] required principal deputies and head of units to ensure they get their cut; otherwise you lose your job.”
I can go on with several other examples where civil servants; those who are charged with public trust, are the ones demanding bribes, and in the process continue to promote a culture of corruption in government. Citizens groups are calling for the cancellations of several concession agreements as many of the deals are believed to have been signed in dubious fashion.


Such a behavior amongst Liberian professionals and civil servants only benefits profiteers and dubious business people, with little or no interest in developing Liberia. Those amongst the expatriate community (or foreigners) who are offering bribes for the most part have NO ties to Liberia. They are here to accumulate wealth for themselves and for their shareholders.


It is true that Liberia is a country with a poverty-background, but we are not a poor country. What we lack is proper management of our resources (natural and human); and a proper check-and-balance system.  The weak systems for government administration; and the lack of political will on the part of those in position of authority to rein in the practice of corruption, either out of malice or because they are also benefiting from the corrupt system, continue to hamper a real “agenda for transformation.” I am also acutely aware that Liberia’s development challenges are multi-dimensional and thus require a multi-faceted approach.
In order to fully restore basic services for citizens, curbing corruption shall pave the way to sustainable development in health, education, the livelihood sectors and in our ability to provide running water and electricity for a small country of less than four million inhabitants.
If and when Liberia tackles the deep-rooted practice of corruption and impunity, where elites steal from the masses and portray themselves as “smart,” it will go a long way in getting our people to the proverbial promise land.


Some common sense initiatives   
Below is a non-exhaustive list of some common sense initiatives that Liberia’s ruling government and people can undertake to begin to curb corruption. These do not require millions of dollars to implement, but rather a political and psychological will to change the course of our country and thus the destiny of our people: 

  • Eliminate government waste and put that money to better use: perks and allowances for scratch cards, gasoline slips, housing allowances, etc. can be eliminated and use the savings to increase salaries for low level staff in Government, like Police Officers who continue to harass citizens for tips. In all fairness, if Ministers and Deputies are earning salaries in the range of $5,000 - $15,000 monthly, then low level staff should be able to take home at least a salary they can survive on, taking into consideration the cost of living in the country.  This will contribute immensely to alleviating poverty amongst civil servants, thus curbing the practice of soliciting tips/bribes.
  • Create real “one-stop centers” at every agency of government providing a service to the public, with a window for the Treasury Department that would collect taxes and fees. For example, a “land/deeds court and processing center” will eliminate the need to have multiple agencies of government handle the sale/resale of land/real estate, thus curbing the practice of bribing/tipping judges to probate deeds, even though they may be fraudulent. It would also prevent the archives center from registering a fake deed because someone is receiving a tip/bribe in the process.  “One-stop-centers” at the Ministries of Finance, Commerce, Lands & Mines, Transport, Labor, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, etc. will significantly curb corrupt practices by “runners” and “middle men,” who facilitate corrupt deeds for higher-ups hiding behind their office desks. 
  • There have been a number of audit reports in which some very powerful and well-connected Minsters and Aides (some now former) were found to have either mismanaged public funds or embezzled. These reports are still gathering dust on the shelves of the Executive Branch of Government, notably the Justice Department. To show Liberians and the world that we’re serious about curbing corruption in government, we can start by prioritizing these reports and begin to prosecute perpetrators. This would instill some level of fear in people entrusted with authority and set precedence for others.
  • Liberians and business professionals, who are most prone to corruption, must begin a concrete and psychological shift towards “country and people first” and putting personal wealth accumulation at the bottom of their pyramid of needs. Churches and other places of worship, wedding and baptism ceremonies, public events to commemorate national holidays, amongst other gatherings, should serve as the fora to begin such an awareness campaign in earnest. Without a concerted effort on the part of all stakeholders, Liberians will continue to wallow in extreme poverty and disease.   
  • Expand recruitment pipelines; from inner circle to all Liberians: If current rulers desire to leave a lasting legacy and to be known as people who brought about economic development, transparency and accountability to our nation, now is the time to right the ship. If those entrusted with authority to serve cannot be held accountable, then they should resign their positions. If you cannot find qualified and honest Liberians within your inner circle, then it is time to expand that inner circle to the rest of Liberia and the Diaspora Community, where some of Liberia’s finest professionals are available and are willing to serve with honesty and integrity.

To our government officials, it’s time to do right by the Liberian People. You may accumulate all the wealth in the world, but if you cannot meaningfully impact the lives of your fellow Liberians, the majority poor, who continue to yearn for better services, you will only continue to remain poor mentally and psychologically.


Liberians want better education for their children, good primary healthcare, a better government that is smart and accountable; and a country where they have an opportunity to lead productive lives. If we are to win the war on corruption, we must make a commitment to be different and to lead by example.


If the war on corruption is not treated as a national security issue to address the ticking time bomb of discontent and apathy amongst citizens, sooner or later, ordinary citizens will take the law into their own hands as it has become the case with how the public treats common criminals.


A hint to the wise…


To contribute to this discussion or to submit a rebuttal,


Tamba AghailasAbout Tamba Aghailas

The author is an advocate, a leader, and a committed development professional.


Founder of The Voice of Liberia, he has written extensively on his country's recent past history. He can be reached via email (, Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.