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Last Button on Joe's Coat

Many times when the issue of law and order in Liberia is mentioned, the response has always been that the laws are on the books, it is only the implementation or enforcement of those laws that begs the question. What this suppose to mean is that there are laws governing every aspect of life but because of one reason or the other ranging from corruption to incompetence, those in authority have refused to apply those laws. I really don’t believe that there are laws for everything already written some years back. What good are any laws when they are not adhered to? Laws need to be visited and to use computer parlance, updated at all time to remain current with ever changing situations. But there is some truth to the statement that the enforcement of laws currently on the books continues to suffer. Let’s take the issue of bribery for example, which is a crime under Liberian laws. According to the law, the one giving the bribe and the one receiving it are both guilty of the crime. But many explanations have continued to float as to why this act is still rampant. A US state department report alerting US citizens of bribery in Liberia states:

“Petty corruption is rampant; poorly paid government officials are not immune from the temptation to collect fees for doing their job. The result is that travelers may be asked for bribes and inconvenienced for not paying them .” The Safety Security section of the report further states “Although corruption issues have improved, travelers may be detained by police officers who solicit bribes.” Police are the one paid to police such action of bribery. But when police officers are involved, the population is at risk. The situation even gets helpless when the chief executive is indifferent, acquiescent or simply decides to walk away when she herself is offered a bribe. It puts our hope for transparency, blind justice and law enforcement way out of reach. Where else can the Liberian people whom have been consistently robbed turned for solace and refuge from criminal entities?

Few weeks ago, the president of Liberia came face to face with a bribery – one of those crimes that has been eating the very fabrics of the society but decided to walk away leaving the culprit to go on and continue in his crime. It was on April 21st in District #4, Grand Bassa County when it was reported that the Managing Director of Equatorial Oil Palm, a new oil palm company offered the president a bribe in broad day light. It was reported in the local dailies that during a program which the president attended to inaugurate the company’s new multi-million dollar palm mil in New Cess, she was offered a check sealed up in a white envelope. Accordingly, the president was visibly irritated and took the podium to publicly repudiate the alleged criminal:

“I don’t even want to know how much is in this envelope. In fact, I am not permitted to receive neither check nor cash from any concession company. So, use it for the Bassa women market project, after that you can build another one.” Everyone in the audience heard the president publicly announce that she was not permitted to receive bribes but directed the alleged criminal to use the money somewhere else – the Bassa Women Market Project. End of story! No arrest was made. In a country where the president is everything, no one comes after the president has spoken. If the president sets you free, you are free indeed!

I am not sure if the president took notice that a crime had taken place or fully understood what unfolded in her presence. What if another guy had gone to sell illegal drugs to the President? Will she respond that the drug seller should sell the drugs somewhere else and take the proceeds to support Some Market women Project? Two things are concerning: 1. the president looking away when a crime is being committed and 2. how will this guy attempt to bribe the president so openly if he has not been doing business with the president or any member of her staff the same way? Was this out of ignorance or business as usual poorly executed? We will never know.

I thought the president was well positioned to deal with the situation head on and use it as a teaching moment in her fight against corruption. Setting examples on such criminal would have dispelled any smidgen of thought of business as usual. International multi-million dollar companies bribing or attempting to bribe the government is not new. Still fresh on the minds of many Liberians was another backdoor deal about selling carbon credits. In June 2010, the City of London Police’s Overseas Anti-Corruption Unit arrested Mike Foster, the Director of Carbon Harvesting Corporation (CHC) in connection with an investigation into the CHC’s alleged plan to bribe the government of Liberia officials in order to secure land concessions in the Liberian forest. According to the reports, the CHC paid or planned to pay $2.5 million in bribes to Liberian officials in exchange for land concessions from which the company hoped to earn $ 2.2 billion from selling carbon credits to its European clients .

Whether to save face or hearing about the issue for the first time, President Sirleaf set up a committee, two weeks later, to investigate the alleged scandal. The committee since then concluded its findings and submitted its report to the president. To the best of my knowledge, none of the committee’s recommendation was implemented almost a year later. As we say in Liberia, “the president did not pick them up nor lay them down.” Evidently, the committee’s report died prematurely while corruption, kick backs, and back door deals live on happily ever after.

How could that be? For the president to come face-to-face with the same kind of multi-national concession companies notorious for bribing our government and wave “play continue” for such a red card offense makes the fight against briberies and other infringements of the rule hopeless with Mrs. Sirleaf at the helm of state power. The buck should stop at the president's office. That is why such lackadaisical attitude in the face of a daylight bribery attempt is disheartening and represents as we say in Liberia, the cutting of “the last button on Joe’s coat.”

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