Bettie Johnson-Mbayo

The Happy Few’s Happy Places: How Liberian politicians and officials escape accounting for their wealth

Liberia’s Anti Corruption Commission (LACC), in conjunction with a set of relatively recent anti-corruption laws, are supposed to get public officials to declare their assets. The effort is based on the tremendous inequality between an impoverished people and a wealthy political elite in the West African country of five million, as well as on the lack of transparent public spending by the same elite. As such, the anti-corruption structures and regulations are supported by international donors and good governance activists.

Only they don’t work that well. Lawmakers can be seen on social media, flaunting hundreds of acres of farmland, expensive schools, high-end cars and even radio stations, while they declare only a fraction. In fact, most don’t declare anything.

The Liberia Anti-Corruption Commission (LAAC)

The Liberia Anti-Corruption Commission (LAAC) was founded in 2008. Its asset declaration drive is guarded by the country’s National Code of Conduct which states that every public official and government employee must declare their ‘income, assets and liabilities prior to taking office and thereafter: at the end of every three years; on promotion or progression from one level to another; upon transfer to another public office; and upon retirement resignation.’

Records show that in 2018, of 460 elected public officials, only one-fifth of these (92 individuals), declared any assets at all, with President George Weah famously commenting ‘he could not make anyone declare’. Equally famously, Weah refused to publish his own asset declaration, which he was able to do because, in the law as Liberia adopted it, the declarations are not open to the public. But the heavily donor-dependent country, under the same pressure that made it establish an Anti Corruption Commission, a Code of Conduct for public officials and an Asset Declaration process in the first place, recently introduced a Freedom of Information (FOI) law too. Its National Elections Commission (NEC) also established an election procedure that forces candidates for public office to declare their assets if they want to stand in elections. ZAM used the FOI law to request asset forms of a set of politicians who, because they had registered as candidates in new regional elections, had been forced to declare.

Most of the wealthy candidates had forgotten to declare a whole lot of things.

After four months of long, hard work involving emails, phone calls, letters and repeated visits to state offices – in one case, eight visits to the same NEC – persistence finally paid off. ZAM obtained twenty-five asset declaration forms and found that most of the wealthy candidates had forgotten to declare, inter alia, plantations, gold mines, private clinics and schools. In some of the latter cases, after acquiring the ‘charitable’ colleges and medical centers with funds of mysterious provenance, their owners still had them subsidised with government money, too.

How we did it

After two FOI requests to the Liberia Anti Corruption Commission (LACC) for access to Liberian politicians’ asset declarations were not responded to, ZAM then directed efforts to the National Election Commission (NEC). NEC regulations request candidates for elections to submit their asset declaration forms; if they don’t, they cannot participate. Since 29 politicians were candidates in the December 2020 county (regional) elections, ZAM requested the forms for these 29 from the NEC. It would still take a few emails, a hand-delivered letter on paper and in total eight visits to the NEC’s offices, as well as a set of repeated contacts with a number of officials over a four-month period, but then we had them on our desk: first a batch of sixteen, then another nine. 25 out of 29 wasn’t bad. It was a victory.

Using opensource information gathering, including information found on the internet, but also from archives, libraries and news reports, over another period of a few months, it became clear that there were substantial problems with at least two thirds, 16 of the obtained 25 forms. Quite a few politicians seemed to have forgotten about assets that they, their family or associates had proudly posted about on Facebook recently, while others had listed possessions like houses at far higher prices than these were worth, a well-known technique for hiding otherwise unexplained money.

Rice, palm oil, rubber

In the case of senator Prince Moye, for example, pictures of a ‘Prince Moye Farm’, that ‘produces rice, palm oil and rubber’ were posted by his wife Nancy Moye on Facebook in 2019 and 2020. Moye, a former deputy speaker as well as a senator, had not mentioned owning that farm in his declaration form in spite of the business likely making him quite a bit of money: on 17 December 2019, Moye’s press officer Mohammed Tejankella announced on Facebook that sales of rice from Moye’s farms would begin, with each bag sold for 2 400 Liberian Dollars (US$ 14). On 30 July 2020, Tejankella posted on Facebook that Moye cultivated ‘over 80 hectares’ of rice in 2019, and in 2020, would be cultivating about a hundred hectares of the crop.

Mrs Nancy Moye is clearly quite proud of the business. On 16 November 2019, she posted pictures of a rice harvest with a video of senator Moye himself harvesting the crop, with dozens of others singing. Nancy Moye also regularly posts updates with live videos from the couple’s second equally undeclared farm in Todee, in the rural Montserrado County, whereby she tags both her senator husband and press officer Tejankella. Mrs Moye furthermore shares photos where family members pose next to high-end vehicles in their home, though her husband declared no vehicles in his asset forms.

NEC asset declaration form – Prince Kermue Moye

Family members pose with high-end vehicles.

Senator Moye also did not list a training institute he owns, the Sumo Moye Memorial Academic and Vocational Institute1, which featured on one of Moye’s own campaign posters for the 2020 elections. Nancy Moye and staff of the Institute, have posted pictures of the premises and its uniforms on social media as well. The official information sheets from the Institute for the 2020/2021 academic year show that tuition costs at the school range from US$ 120 to US$ 150 per school year. Each student also has to pay an additional US$ 35 to US$ 40 for the uniform and a tracksuit. On 30 November 2020, just days before Moye’s election, his school’s official Facebook page advertised its auditorium as available for use as an event centre at the cost of US$ 175 per day.

In a written response to questions, Moye stated that he would ‘be glad to declare’ the farm in Todee, but that there were other claimants to the property, and that he would declare ‘once the litigations process (favoured)’ him. With regard to the farm in Mano-Wainsue, Moye said that this land ‘was offered by the community for the purpose of creating jobs and increasing food production (…)’ and that he had ‘no title to the land in question’. He admitted that he made ‘some investments there as per the request of and for the benefit of the local community.’ Moye did not comment on his non-declaration of the profits made off the possession and sale of the crops on the land. As far as the school was concerned, Moye said that it was ‘still being constructed and set up’, that all fees charged were ‘used to cover some of the running costs’ and that his office had been ‘underwriting the remaining cost’.

Church members were singing as they plucked the sheafs.

According to the CV he posted on Facebook, Augustine Chea, senator of Sinoe County, also owns a school. The Sinoe County Vocational Training School, mentioned as an ‘investment’ on the CV, was highlighted on Liberia’s official government website on 9 March 2021, when President Weah launched the establishment, ‘built by Senator Augustine Chea’ in the town of Butaw. The CV furthermore lists a logistics and commodity trading company called East Side Venture Inc, located in New Kru town in the capital Monrovia, as a business owned by Chea. Neither the training school nor the trading company were mentioned by the senator on his asset declaration form. The senator did not respond to questions sent to him on WhatsApp, though he blue-ticked the messages as seen.

NEC asset declaration form – Augustine Chea

Fees from patients

Jeremiah Koung, a senator for Nimba County, forgot to declare a hospital as well as a farm – though neither asset, like in the cases of Moye and Chea, are much of a secret. In the case of the farm, an entire church congregation knows about it. On 11 January 2020, dozens of members of the United Liberia Inland Church in his area were filmed, and later put on Koung’s Facebook page, as they helped harvest rice, singing as they plucked the sheafs. The Facebook video post noted that Senator Koung would also delve into cocoa farming ‘on 262 acres of land on this same location’ in Nimba County. The same Facebook page showed a short tour of the cocoa plantation on 8 February 2021. At the 37-second mark, a man sources identify as Senator Koung is seen in an orange stripy shirt atop black trousers, as guests film the property and cheer on.

Koung also owns a hundred-bed clinic called the Esther and Jereline (or E&J) Medical Center, built in 2016 in Ganta City. News footage on social media2 estimates its worth to be over US$ 2 million as of 2019 and describes it as privately-owned by Koung. Though the E&J Centre claims it is a non-profit hospital, its chief financial officer, Ebenezer Tokpah, was quoted in a 2018 news report3 as saying that ‘US $103 597’ is generated every year from fees paid by patients.

After having been asked on WhatsApp why he did not declare his assets, Senator Koung wrote back: ‘You can declare the balance for me please. Since you know all about my life. And please don’t ask me such questions again.’

Hiding embezzled funds

On 2 May 2020, Nyonblee Karngar-Lawrence, who was elected as senator for that county in 2015, posted on Facebook her ambitious plan to target a hundred acres of oil palm, a hundred acres of cocoa, fifty acres of fruits and a fish pond on land she apparently owns in Grand Bassa County. She did not list the land on her assets form; neither did she list a TV and a radio station, Akwe TV and Radio Bushrod 98.1 FM, even though the official Facebook page for Akwe TV proclaims Karngar-Lawrence as the owner of both. On 2 July 2020, also on Facebook, Bushrod’s news director Richard Fallah wished Karngar-Lawrence a happy birthday, calling her the stations ‘CEO and chief Financier’. In the 2020 elections, Karngar-Lawrence narrowly retained her seat.

Interestingly, Karngar-Lawrence is also among a set of sixteen senators who – in some cases additionally to under-declaring – also appear to have over-declared certain assets. Over-declaration of existing assets, like stating that one’s home is worth more than it actually is, is a well-known trick used to hide funds that are difficult to explain. ‘Over-declaration is a common tactic by politicians. They frontload certain assets (with embezzled funds) to be able to claim they acquired them from legitimate earnings’, says Victor Emejuiwe, a Good Governance Programme Officer at the Center for Social Justice in Nigeria.

The estate agent requested to remain anonymous for fear of repercussions.

In the case of Karngar-Lawrence, a home in Congo Town that is valued at US$ 100 000 on her asset declaration form, was assessed by an independent real estate agent as not worth more than US$ 30 000. The same estate agent – who asked not to be named for fear of repercussions – estimated the price of a house listed by Senator Zoe Pennue of Grand Gedeh County as at most US$ 60 000, while it was listed on Pennue’s form as worth three times more, at US$ 180 000. Another house owned by Pennue, who is a nephew of a former president and a former deputy managing director at the Liberia Petroleum Refining Company, had gone up in value between two separate asset declarations (the earlier one made for elections in 2011, i.e. in a period of 9 years), from US$ 25 000 to US$ 90 000.

The gold mining licenses are in the name of the spouse.

Pennue also did not declare three gold mining licenses which are in the name of his spouse, Inez Pennue, who lives in Europe. This is technically not illegal since the NEC’s ‘candidate financial disclosure’ forms do not ask for spousal declaration. Another scandal around Pennue, who in one month had allegedly received two simultaneous salaries as well as allowances from the House of Representatives and the Senate – together with senator Edmund Snowe, about whom more later – was reported but never resolved. The authorities never took action on that matter and both senators have kept mum.

Neither Karngar-Lawrence nor Pennue responded to questions regarding their assets put to them both on WhatsApp and email.

Son-in-law

Senator Edwin Snowe, like his close associate Pennue, is also an old hand at politics in Liberia. Before his divorce in 2006, Snowe was the son-in-law of previous wartime President Charles Taylor4 and a former managing director at the Liberia Petroleum Refinery Company where, at a different time, Pennue was a deputy. The divorce didn’t harm Snowe’s further career, however: he became Speaker in Liberia’s first post-civil war parliament, also in 2006, and has remained a lawmaker ever since. Intermittent scandals of bribery and misappropriation of public funds, among which the double dipping salary exposure of early 2021, haven’t hurt him either. He currently heads Liberia’s delegation to the ECOWAS parliament.

On his 2020 declaration form, Snowe listed residential buildings, farm land, a jeep and some cash to the value of US$ 1.5 million. He omitted, however, to list two lots of land in Sinkor county, deeds for which are kept at the National Archive and are registered in the names of Edwin Snowe and his ex-wife Zoe Taylor Snowe (it is not clear how this asset was divided between both parties, as the deeds still point to joint ownership). Snowe also failed to mention the Pumah radio and TV station, which he promoted on Facebook on 1 August 2020, calling Pumah ‘the first and only’ such station in his Bomi county. On 7 March 2021, the station’s deputy manager wished ‘CEO’ Edwin Snowe well on the occasion of Puma’s four-year anniversary.

Questions put to Snowe both on WhatsApp and email were left unanswered by the senator.

NEC asset declaration form – Edwin Snowe

A thousand staff

EXSECON provides security services for diplomatic missions.

Lastly, the largest business somehow forgotten on a declaration form amid the twenty-five forms obtained by ZAM, is Executive Security Consultancy (EXSECON), which has over a thousand staff in Liberia and provides security services for diplomatic missions and notable bodies such as USAID and the International Organisation for Migration. According to news reports never contested by him, EXSECON is the property of Senator Brownie Jeffery Samukai of Lofa County, who served as Liberia’s Defence Minister from 2006 to 2018.5 Samukai’s declaration form mentions three houses, but not EXSECON. On 2 February 2020, as Samukai hit the campaign trail, a supporter congratulated him on Facebook for ‘two and a half decades of job creation’.

Senator Samukai blue-ticked questions put to him on Whatsapp as seen, but did not respond. An email sent to him was also left unanswered.

US$ 300,000 from donors for your clinic.

Most lawmakers who submitted asset declarations with their candidacies for the December 2020 elections either own or are linked to schools, training centres, clinics and foundations covering education, vocational and health outreach. Six senators owned a health project, five owned a foundation and four owned a school. Six have both a health facility and a school. In some cases, a lawmaker will have all of these sets of assets.

There are a number of reasons why investments and associations in the field of health and education are so attractive to politicians. Firstly, they are a political tool to gain popularity; Secondly, they provide jobs to chosen people; and thirdly, perhaps most importantly, they can, and do, receive funds from the government’s health and education budgets. An investigation in 2018 by journalist Gbatemah Senah6 showed that senator Jeremiah Koung, the farm and clinic owner mentioned above, received US$ 300 000 from Liberia’s Health Ministry for his E&J Medical Center in the previous year. At the time Senah also exposed another senator, Oscar Cooper, who had received US$ 100 000 from the national budget for the school and clinic he had on his own farm.7

On 2 June 2021, the Liberian government announced that senator Prince Moye’s school had received the equivalent of US$ 3 000 under a new state education fund.8

Education and health are the sectors where Western countries pump in the most donor funds. For example, in 2018, the EU provided € 12 million as ‘support to Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) for young people in Liberia’, for a period of three years. In July 2020, Liberia and France signed a € 10 million grant agreement, also to support Liberia’s national TVET policy with a view to ‘agricultural development’. According to the US Congress, current US assistance, totaling US$ 96.5 million in 2019, ‘centers on supporting agriculture-led development and strengthening the health system, public service delivery, civil society capacity, and justice and security sectors.’

In a comment, Anderson Miamen, Executive Director, Center for Transparency and Accountability in Liberia said ‘legislators tend to align their foundations, clinics and schools to the budget, to allot money to themselves in return’, adding that ‘legislators building churches, colleges and hospitals is why we have said asset declaration is important.’ Miamen strongly advocated for the LACC to investigate all such cases and also for the ‘findings to be communicated to the public so that those who may falsely declare are held accountable.’

A Justice Minister was mentioned in oil block audit reports.

Running in circles

Sadly, there doesn’t seem to be any immediate chance of that happening. A brief effort to equip the LACC with some teeth in 2019 – to ‘recover funds that were embezzled, and misappropriated from the Liberian government as revealed by reports by the General Auditing Commission and the Liberia Anti-Corruption Commission’ – failed a short while later, in March 2020. The head of the stridently named Asset Investigation Restitution and Recovery Team, lawyer Arthur Johnson, then resigned, stating that team members were not paid, and that government institutions and officials did not cooperate. He added that ‘a Justice Minister’ was mentioned in ‘six out of twelve oil block audit reports.’

Johnson refused to speak to ZAM, but Lafayette Gould, one of the lawyers on the recovery team, said in response to questions that the team ‘was particularly blocked from accessing files at the National Oil Company of Liberia and the Central Bank of Liberia’. According to Gould, the asset recovery team was running in circles between President Weah and the Central Bank, which resulted in international investigators who were assisting the Liberian team losing interest. ‘We go to (sic) the president, he sent us to CBL (the Central Bank of Liberia); CBL will not say anything to us. So, the international investigators got tired.’ One of the international investigators, based in London, was traced and contacted by ZAM, but did not respond to our request for an interview.

The international investigators got tired.

At present, the LACC’s woes seem unending. Besides regulations that allow for loopholes such as registration in the name of spouses, the law that keeps asset declarations hidden from the public, and a clear lack of political will from those in power, its budget is also projected to drop to just over US$ 1.3 million for 2021–22, from over US$ 2 million in the previous year. Of this, only US$ 221 637 is budgeted for the division that oversees asset declaration.9

Kanio Gbai-Gbala, the LACC’s Deputy Chairman, told ZAM in response to questions sent to him, that there are two major barriers faced by those who want public officials to declare their assets: ‘the failure to robustly implement dissuasive sanctions partially as a result of a lack of a legal basis to do so and very little urgency by national leaders in all branches of government to make asset declarations a priority’. He added that ‘nonetheless, the Commission is working with the NEC to ensure that it tailors its asset declaration form to match that of the Commission so that the information provided prior to elections can form the foundation for elected officials to file their assets declarations or have their assets verified.’ He also said that a new ‘ideal budget’ for the Commission had been presented to the Liberian Legislature for consideration in the 2021-22 budget cycle.

In 2020, a group named Movement to Ensure Liberia Transformation (MELT) filed a petition requesting the courts to force the LACC to disclose those assets that had been declared by public officials, and won because the court dismissed the opposition to MELT’s claims by the government. However, no further progress appears to have been made on the case to date.

According to Gbai-Gbala the Commission has not received any asset declarations from any of the officials elected on 8 December 2021.

How to improve wealth tracing in Liberia

Eric Ngumbi, a researcher on Constitutionalism and Public Accountability in Africa, who has studied asset declaration systems across the continent and published with the University of Nairobi, commented on Liberia’s Asset Declaration form (as downloaded from the LACC website), saying that ‘there were key areas of improvement’ with regard to periods, dates, costs of acquisition and market values needed on the form. He also supported a requirement for ‘the actual name in which the asset is held’ and added that requesting evidence, like bank statements, ‘could bolster truthful declarations’.

Nigerian good governance expert Victor Emejuiwe said in response to questions that ‘asset declaration forms alone cannot stop corruption’ but that corruption could be minimised if ‘other agencies holding ownership information’ would work with an institution such as the LACC. ‘Countries (should) adopt an effective asset declaration, tracing and forfeiture system, with appropriate sanctions for erring officers and of course rewards for compliance.’ Enlisting the general public, by granting ‘access to public disclosure on asset declaration’, could lead to ‘flagging’ of undeclared assets by the public, he said, ‘in areas where the commission may not be present, or have the resources to cover.’

Given that lawmakers’ records can be seen in the National Archive as well as in the Online Repository of the Ministry of Lands, Mines and Energy, ZAM asked the LACC if it would start using these systems to verify assets. LACC deputy chairman Gbai-Gbala responded that ‘a taskforce that includes the Revenue Authority as well as the National Archives has been set up to support ‘our work on verification.’

Notes

  1. Named after Moye’s father.
  2. See: Facebook page here.
  3. See: A Private Hospital Receiving State Grants Raises Ethics Questions for Politician.
  4. Liberia suffered two civil wars; from 1989 to 1997, when Taylor seized power and 1999 to 2003, when new rebel groups fought and Taylor was forced into exile. At least 250,000 people lost their lives in both wars.
  5. In 2021, though elected, Samukai was sentenced to two years in prison for the ‘misapplication’ of US$ 1.1 million from the budget for Liberia’s armed forces. However, a condition that if he – and two associates – would pay back the money, the sentence could be suspended. ZAM was unable to verify if Samukai did in fact pay back the money, but he did not go to jail and is not yet a senator.
  6. See: A Private Hospital Receiving State Grants Raises Ethics Questions for Politician.
  7. Cooper saw no conflict between receiving this government funding and his position as a senator. He claimed both fell under the Adella Cooper Foundation, a non-profit run by his wife and was never investigated or prosecuted by the authorities.
  8. See: Liberia – Govt Disburses 9 Million to Schools in Bong.
  9. Republic of Liberia: National Budget FY 2020/2021, p. 137

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