Vote spurs final round of corruption in Liberia

Katharine Houreld – Reuters

MONROVIA, Nov 9 (Reuters) – As Liberia counts the votes in the final round of its first post-war presidential election, many officials in the West African state are indulging in a final round of their own.
A final round of surreptitious looting.
Computers are disappearing from offices, number plates are being changed on government cars so their drivers can keep them, and the head of the agency responsible for procuring — and recovering — state assets is receiving death threats.
“They threatened to shoot me, said that the war is not yet over,” said Edward Farley, the head of the government services agency. “But next week I am going to publish the names of everyone who owns government property.”
Endemic corruption was one of the key causes of the 14-year civil war that devastated Liberia, Africa’s oldest republic founded by freed American slaves in 1847.
Both contenders in Tuesday’s second round election run-off, soccer millionaire George Weah and former Finance Minister Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, have promised to stamp out graft if they win.
Under former President Charles Taylor, bribes from businessmen were used to fund the activities of militias responsible for a series of atrocities such as making roadblocks of human skulls and slitting open the stomachs of pregnant women. A quarter of a million people died.
A peace deal was finally signed in 2003, setting the date for elections, but a series of high-level corruption scandals frustrated early attempts to rebuild the country.
Following the disappearance of millions of dollars, foreign donors insisted the government sign up to a programme earlier this year allowing foreign experts to oversee all revenue-generating arms of government and the central bank.
Although many politicians opposed the Governance and Economic Management Programme (GEMAP) on grounds of national sovereignty, it is highly popular among ordinary Liberians.
“We love GEMAP,” said storekeeper Henry Williams, to nods from the crowd around his counter. “It will stop the politicians from stealing from us. Look at this country, the oldest republic in Africa and what have we got to show for it?”
TOO LATE
It may be too late to save many assets. No one really knows how many government vehicles and other state assets exist and ministers have been slow to provide an inventory demanded by the chairman of the transitional government, Gyude Bryant.
Farley’s agency purchased 138 government vehicles in the past two years, but says many others were bought directly from the budgets of individual ministries.
The shiny new four-wheel-drives, valued by the government at $37,000 each, caused widespread popular resentment as the most visible sign of the millions haemorrhaging from central government.
Unemployment stands at 80 percent and most of the population struggles to make ends meet on less than a dollar a day. Protests by civil society groups earlier this year were averted only after Bryant promised the vehicles would remain public property.
Now the National Assembly is trying to pass a law granting legislators the right to retain their vehicles after the current parliamentary session ends in January.
A draft of the resolution, leaked to a local paper, said:
“In the event the title documents (granting ownership) are not finalised within a week, every assemblyman is at liberty to use said vehicle as his/her personal property, without let or hindrance.”
Replacing the two-year-old vehicles will require a significant sacrifice in a country with an annual budget of only $80 million, especially since the government announced revenues fell nearly 50 percent last month because of uncertainty surrounding the first round of voting on Oct. 11.
WISPS OF CARPET
Inside the once-grand national legislature, members said the bill was being debated but refused to confirm the text.
In the hallway, wisps of red carpet still clung forlornly to the stairs and electrical wires dangled unused from the ceiling. Liberia has not had state-supplied electricity or water for 14 years and its government works mostly in darkness.
Nevertheless, the car park outside was full of shiny government vehicles, some already bearing new plates.
The licence number on one new white Laredo, the type purchased for ministers, was originally issued for an old sedan owned by Benoni Urey, the ex-Commissioner for Maritime Affairs.
A close associate of the exiled Taylor, Urey was accused of embezzlement and gun-running by the United Nations and his assets were frozen in Liberia, a decision later overturned by the Supreme Court.
“It’s the tradition in this country that (government) members keep their cars and we’re keeping ours,” Urey said, adding that he had decided to change the plates on the vehicle after government cars were damaged in riots last December.
On the potholed and rubbish-strewn streets of the capital, citizens reacted with anger to the impending legislation.
“People are disappointed with the government’s performance. They never responded to the needs of the people,” said Ezekiel Pajibo, head of the Centre for Democratic Empowerment, a civil group dedicated to tackling government corruption.
“In three budgets, there was no provision for social services; they never did anything for a single school, hospital or road, so why should we give them these cars as a reward?”
REUTERS
Reut01:01 11-09-05




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