By Chloe Fussell
The road from the airport in Monrovia, Liberia, is dotted with construction projects. Each time I do this journey it’s a game with our Liberian colleagues: which mansion is being built by which official, and where did they get the money? Arriving yesterday was no exception: the houses are mostly still half-built, with high walls and formidable metal gates.
So it was intriguing to hear this week that Leymah Gbowee, who shared the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize with President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf for women’s rights activism, has criticised the Liberian President’s failure to deal with high-level corruption and nepotism. Gbowee, who has resigned from her position as head of the country’s post-war Reconciliation Initiative, complained in particular about the President’s appointment of three of her sons to high positions, including the chair of the government’s oil agency.
There is no doubt that Liberia, like many developing nations with lots of natural resources, suffers from debilitating corruption. Last year Global Witness highlighted how government officials paid US$120,400 in “lobbying fees” to members of the Legislature to smooth the passage of oil contracts. A paper trail assembled by the government’s own accounting body – the General Auditing Commission (GAO) – includes receipts showing payments authorized by the state oil agency’s Vice-President Marie Leigh-Parker, which the GAO described as bribes. Ms Leigh-Parker remains in post, however. This doesn’t bode well for the future of a nascent oil industry that could transform the country for the better, but only if it’s fairly and openly managed.
Over the past two months, moreover, evidence has emerged that government officials have been busy granting poorly-regulated and often illegal permits for logging. These permits now cover a quarter of the entire country, threatening the future of some of Liberia’s most valuable forests. The President has reacted quickly to the logging permit scandal, ordering an investigation that is currently reviewing each of the 50-60 permits.
Past experiences of government investigations – the General Auditing Commission’s oil review included – have left many Liberians cynical about the chances of those at the top being held to account. But during a week in which Liberia’s endemic corruption is again being highlighted, the logging investigation represents an opportunity for President Johnson Sirleaf to walk her talk on this crucial issue and prove critics like Leymah Gbowee wrong. At stake is the country’s economic development and its stability; and maybe the mushrooming mansions on the road to the airport too.
Chloe Fussell is a campaigner at Global Witness