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Liberia: President George Weah and the missing billions

3 October 2018 at 20:29 | 6142 views

By Dabgbayonoh Kiah Nyanfore II, Monrovia, Liberia

I saw the video of President Weah speaking at the UN 73rd Session General Assembly.

The address was his first to the world body since his presidency. I was proud not only for making the case for Liberia to the UN but also for proving the truth that you should not overlook a person because he/she is from a low social background; that the person whom you unjustly view unqualified can prove you wrong.

During the Liberian 2017 presidential election, his opponents considered him dumb, unable to speak and read, that he was a mere soccer player. They said that if elected president, he would be unable to address the UN General Assembly and would embarrass the country. Weah, however, proved them wrong. He proved them wrong at his inaugural address in Liberia; at his annual speech before the Liberian legislature; at the European Development Days Summit; at the Nelson Mandela Peace Summit at the UN; and now at the general assembly.

Weah’s presidential opponents could not have given a better speech at the UN. He demonstrated that the one you view the least could become the greatest. History has shown us this truth. According to the Bible, David, a shepherd boy, was considered the least by his family. Yet he was selected by God, went to kill Goliath and later became one of the most powerful and successful kings. There were other great world leaders like David.

Weah’s speech touched on his administration’s main goals, including to help bring Liberia from poverty to prosperity, to fight corruption, to remember the past pain and bring the discussion to a just resolution, to administer a pro-poor government for all Liberians, and to foster national development through road connectivity, agriculture, and unity.

While the president should be applauded for a well-delivered speech, he faces a challenging issue at home; and it could lead to the rise or fall of his administration. Presently in Liberia, there is a saga of a missing container of $16 billion Liberian money. According to information, the container of newly printed bank notes arrived in Liberia and got missing since November 2017 before the Weah government came to power to August 2018 during his administration. No one has given a full account of the money. Some Liberians blame the Sirleaf administration while others point their fingers at Weah for the missing money. Of those who have been listed as persons of interest, no one, except former Central Bank Governor Milton Weeks, has been questioned by the authority.

While the president was in New York, hundreds of Liberians protested in Monrovia asking the administration to "bring back the money". They peacefully marched to key embassies requesting that the countries suspend foreign aid to Liberia. Demonstrators protested in the rain and made some school children stay home, and some protesters were said to have thrown rocks at police sent to guide the march.

Demonstrators have the right to peacefully protest, to bring to public attention a problem. But to demonstrate during a pending investigation of a matter and to also request suspension of foreign assistance is unfortunate and could hurt largely the poor, the majority whom you claim to stand for. A just protest is democratic, effective, and constitutional in many countries. In the 70s we demonstrated against the Tolbert government when it killed unarmed citizens. We marched because the government failed to bring to justice those who perpetrated the atrocity and massacre, allowing a continual culture of impunity, nepotism, and corruption. Demonstrating with facts or investigated evidence helps a just cause. About a year after our demonstration, the Tolbert government fell; and that was the end of the True Whig Party political dynasty; that was the death of a one-party state in Liberia. The government fell after Tolbert’s address to the UN.

President Weah must take the container issue seriously. He should not feel that because he gave a brilliant speech and majority of Liberians love him he will brush aside the problem. He must get to the bottom of the matter and prosecute those found guilty. He should not treat the investigation like the Sable Mining bribery case, which did not go anywhere and those involved went scot-free. That case involved some officials of the Sirleaf administration, including her party chairman, now a senator.

If Weah takes no serious action on the missing banknotes, he could be seemed weak, powerless, and ineffective. He will be viewed as an ordinary politician protecting friends and the powerful. It could tarnish his image, discourage and let down the masses that stood and voted for him. His opponents would be cheering and dancing. It would be difficult and hard for another young person to become president and inspire the poor and downtrodden in Liberia. The culture of impunity has historically led to the downfall of many past Liberian presidents.

I have suggested and advised that the Weah government audit the past administration, but mine and those of others were ignored. Protecting the Sirleaf government appeared to have been the norm. Sirleaf and her clique are seemingly the darlings of the Weah administration, though they would not have been nice and kind to Weah and the CDCiers, if the shoes were on the other feet. That is the truth. Sirleaf sent the late Gyude Bryant to jail for corruption when she just took power. Bryant was the chairman of the transitional government, which paved the way for the 2005 elections.

Had the Weah administration audited the Sirleaf regime, the new government could have unearthed the missing money. Auditing a previous administration is not strange and impossible. Succeeding administrations in Africa have done that. For instance, the new government of Julius Maada Bio in Sierra Leone is auditing the Ernest Bai Koroma administration.

I was disappointed when I learned that many suggestions sent to the administration were held back by some officials or those close to the president fearing and assuming that the persons making the suggestions were seeking jobs. As I see it, there are many qualified Liberians who are not wishing and looking for government employment but want the administration to succeed. I was also informed that those officials do not even let the president see or read communication of suggestions. This behavior is sad; it resembles those of past administrations. Former President Doe, for example, was surrounded by some insecure officials, professional sycophants who fooled and betrayed him.

Madam Sirleaf was angry at and strong on Weah and his administration in her reaction to the missing container, accusing the regime of trying to damage her image, that of her administration and the good reputation of her officials. That is classic Sirleaf, her image is paramount. Why could not the former president first call Weah tor clarify before lashing out? Since the money got missing in her and Weah administrations, she could have said that she would cooperate with the administration to get to the bottom of this problem, because it makes Liberia look bad. Weah needs to wake up, fight, and protect his administration. He should not appear na๏ve. He is in high-level politics now and not in a social and nice people club.

President Weah reminds me of Doe, an average Liberian from a poor family background and who suddenly became Liberian head of state and later elected president. He was Liberia’s first president of full native parentage. Doe was considered uneducated and inarticulate. I met him in his first year as head of state at the executive mansion in a private setting. He appeared to me to be intelligent, curious about things and eager to learn.

Secondly, I met him in Washington DC where he addressed the Liberian community. Our community speaker, the late Dr. Robert Stewart, addressed the program in a prepared speech. He was critical of the Doe administration, calling it corrupt and brutal. The atmosphere was tense; Doe apparently had not been confronted publicly in that way. Doe spoke without a text, responding to Stewart’s accusations point by point. For instance, he acknowledged the existence of corrupt behavior in the government, but he asked: "If you are a student on Liberian government scholarship in America, but fail to attend school yet at the same time receiving stipends monthly, will your behavior be considered corrupt or patriotic"? We the crowd overwhelmingly answered, "CORRUPT"! Doe had our complete attention. He spoke forcefully with logic and intelligence. Dr. H. Boima Fahbulleh, Jr., then foreign minister, was sitting on stage taking notes as Doe spoke. We were stunned by Doe’s intelligence, logic, and eloquence. We stood and clapped our hands when he ended. We did so not just because he was our president, but mainly because he spoke well and made us proud. Here was a man considered stupid and uneducated, but tore apart the speech of a Ph.D. holder and won the "debate". He proved us wrong of our perception and judgment of him.

My last meeting with him was at the ambassador’s residence in DC. Ambassador Dr. Joseph Guannu, whom I privately served as an advisor on American affairs, had kindly arranged for me to meet with Doe. The president was humble, not pompous and asked my views on matters. He did not pretend to know it all. I left with a positive opinion of him.

Doe’s determination to learn and better himself as head of state led him to return to school, becoming a classroom student at the University of Liberia. Some of his former classmates pointed out that the president was like an ordinary st, sudent, serious and answering questions and sometimes taking leadership in class discussions. He graduated with high marks.

President Weah, as a young man in Liberia, had a good relationship with Doe. A New Times writer details Doe’s help and kindness to Weah. Additional information states that Weah on most Saturdays visited Doe at the mansion. The president was an inspiration to Weah, and reportedly gave Weah "USD200K" for Cameroon and later for travel and expense money to Europe for professional soccer. In Cameroon, Weah stayed with Liberian Ambassador Carlton Karpeh, a fellow Kruman. Doe was a lover of soccer and promoted the sport well in Liberia. He intervened in a problem which Weah faced in Cameroon and acted as Weah’s older brother.

Weah followed Doe’s footsteps. After a heartfelt loss in the 2005 election, in which he was labelled uneducated, Weah went back to school earning Bachelor’s and Masters’ degrees. He won the senatorial election in 2014 preparing his way to national politics.

Sirleaf’s seemingly influence on Weah and his administration is surprising to some observers. Not only was she able to recommend some of her favorites to cabinet positions, but it also appears that she gets her way and desires. She had had a personal issue with President Doe and has not gotten over it. Though Doe died from the civil war which she was accused of financing, Doe’s family suffered financially after his death and Sirleaf became president. Doe was a silent partner to many businesses, but after his demise, the other partners kept quiet of his profit share from his family. Madam Sirleaf kept an anti-Doe sentiment with her in her presidency and tried to destroy any image of him. During her administration, the Liberian Supreme Court awarded Doe’s Widow Nancy Doe about US$6M for money legally belonging to Doe. But the Sirleaf administration failed to pay the money forcing the family to take the matter to the ECOWAS Court. A credible report states that she is influencing the Weah administration "to waste the case" by offering a "bribe" to and encouraging the lawyer "to take the case from ECOWAS" and remove from the suit so the family would forget the matter. But "the lawyer refused". It should be noted that when Sirleaf came to power, one of her first acts was to make sure that her friends or Doe enemies having claims against the Doe government receive compensation. Yet she fought Doe’s family for money which the administration took in escrow and maybe spent. Sadly she is influencing Weah to continue her battle against a dead man who, while alive, had helped Weah at a time when needed. One could call this wickedness and devilish. Weah must wake up from this apparent spell!

In summary, President Weah performed excellently at the UN. He made his enemies
to be ashamed, proving thatov one should not overlook anyone or take a person for granted. Weah is like Doe. However, Weah must take the container saga seriously and must get to the bottom of the matter. While the president must listen to advice from others, including from Madam Sirleaf, he must be his own man, the buck must stop with him and he must govern justly. Sirleaf’s influence seems personal just for her interest.

The president must be careful.