Liberia: Corruption and Accountability Remain Biggest Challenges

A decade ago on August 18th, 2003, the Accra Comprehensive Peace Agreement brought Liberia’s 14 year civil war to an end. As this small West African country faded from the international headlines, a new era of hope began.

Deeply entrenched networks of corruption were a central cause of violence, and Liberians sought to move away from the past and towards a clean, accountable government that put the rights of its citizens before the self-interest of its power-holders. Ten years later, this vision is under threat and with it the stability of a country that is central to US and global interests in the region.

Under Ellen Johnson Sirleaf – the first female Head of State in Africa and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011- the government has made a series of reforms to address the country’s corruption problems. These have ranged from dismissing tainted civil servants, to pushing through new strategies for reform, to passing legislation to address graft.

The budget has been opened up, business rules have been streamlined with management of natural resources becoming a central focus. Liberia was the first African state to comply with EITI rules governing extractive industries for example, and the first West African country to pass a Freedom of Information Act to support more transparent government. Recently, the government signed up to the Open Government Partnership and committed to a series of ambitious goals to help make itself more accountable.

However, Liberia is still far from a well-functioning society with secure peace and sustainable development. Nearly 7,500 thousand UN troops remain stationed around the country to prevent violence; the population has no public provision of clean water, sewerage or electricity; and over 76% of the population still lives on less than $1 a day.

Late last year at the UN High Level Panel on the post-2015 Development Agenda, President Johnson Sirleaf herself stated that corruption in Liberia has become “systemic and endemic“, and Liberia was ranked towards the very bottom of Transparency International’s recent Global Corruption Barometer.

At the root of Liberia’s problems is a deep lack of accountability. Since 1822 when repatriated American blacks arrived in Liberia, the legitimacy of political actors in the country has been derived not from the delivery of services to the public or responsiveness to constituents, but from participation in deeply entrenched patronage networks.

This system has perpetuated itself because the objectives of both the ruling elite and ordinary citizens converge in the pursuit of relationships that provide security, thus placing personal obligations over private or public duties.

The problem is not that the legal framework for accountability does not exist. A host of institutional changes have created bodies to fight corruption – ranging from the Liberia Anti-Corruption Commission (LACC), to the General Auditing Commission (GAC), to the Public Procurement and Concessions Commission (PPCC).

However, the formal structures set up to build integrity largely lack the mandate, powers and resources to combat graft. Public sector salaries are low (despite significant increases in recent years); the civil service is not subject to regulations to prevent nepotism, cronyism, and patronage; and at the local level, institutions do not provide sufficient incentives for participation in decision-making. Within public bodies, information and opportunity are often jealously guarded, which can make collaboration and cooperation very difficult.

As a result, it can be tremendously time-consuming and exhausting for citizens to navigate formal governance systems according to the written rules. Necessity dictates (for both citizens and civil servants who want to facilitate reform) that bribes are paid or favours given in order to reduce processes to even a vaguely manageable amount of time and effort. Moreover, the formal legal system is largely inaccessible, unaffordable and overly time consuming for the average person; and customary channels of justice are largely geared towards promoting reconciliation rather than accountability.

This issue goes beyond the role of government to the Liberian people themselves. Politicians, civil servants and businessmen may abuse their positions, mistaking their wealth for legitimacy.

Yet, at the same time, citizens who often complain about officials “eating money” are also willing to accept patronage from these power-holders when it suits their own interests. A syndrome has developed whereby those with access to resources through any kind of position of power are seen as “stupid” if they do not use this access to maximize their own wealth. In this way, public and private moralities have become divorced and the corrupt status-quo continues.

A final element that stymies the struggle for accountability in Liberia is the state’s orientation towards international organizations and businesses. Though democratically elected, Liberia’s government arguably answers more to outsiders than to its people. Over $340 million in aid per annum is delivered through a myriad of government agencies, NGOs and contractors, which reinforces dependency, leads to uncoordinated activities and generates sub-optimal outcomes.

Well-qualified Liberians are drawn away from government or civil society positions by higher wages in donor organizations, which undermines domestic capacity. Meanwhile, huge contracts between the government and natural resource extraction companies have been far from transparent – recently, Global Witness reported that “a quarter of Liberia’s total landmass has been granted to logging companies in just two years, following an outbreak in the use of secretive and often illegal logging permits.”

All of this is important because it is at the heart of Liberia’s security and West African stability. The Liberian people are angry about their lot and frustrated that the channels for upward social mobility are largely closed to them. Unemployment and under-employment levels remain dangerously high – particularly among young men – and the region is awash with weapons.

A recent UN Panel of Experts Report revealed a government “deeply concerned about mercenary and militia activity” and reported a “hyper-political and polarized environment” in Liberia. This is a combustible combination.

To give Liberia a better chance at cementing peace, those who care about the country’s future should redefine their thinking to focus more directly on the core elements of accountability. First, we must match our view of accountability with local realities. Corruption may be easy to condemn in the Western context, but in a system like Liberia’s, censure may do more harm than good.

Prosecuting high-level transgressions may make sense in selective cases, but in others it may make it harder to attract relatively decent and competent people into public service. Instead, the focus must also be on changing the incentives and relationships that give rise to endemic graft as part of a campaign to build a contextualized system of values and ethics.

Second, we must support the creation of accountability institutions not just on paper, but in practice. This means bolstering the capacity and scope of anti-corruption bodies; encouraging collaboration among and between relevant agencies; and building constructive bridges between civil society organizations that work on these issues and key government ministries such as the Ministry of Lands, Mines and Energy, and the Ministry of Public Works. It also requires greater emphasis on the implementation of existing laws – for example, a civil society group recently registered the first administrative Freedom of Information case law precedent in Liberia, which is a step in the right direction.

Finally, we must use different tools and timeframes to build peace and accountability. Large conferences and lengthy reports may have their uses, but they are far from sufficient.

Instead, international organizations should carefully support alternative approaches (using religious leaders, cultural networks or new technologies, for example) to drive anti-corruption messaging in ways consistent with Liberia’s oral traditions. And we should be patient in measuring impact, because cultural changes of this sort take time. Young people can be especially useful to these efforts since they are less beholden to traditional patronage structures and tend to be more creative.

There has now been ten years of peace in Liberia, and the country’s worst days may be behind it. But in order to ensure this remains the case, it is critical that the Liberian government, its people, and its partners across the international community focus more directly on accountability issues.

Blair Glencorse is Executive Director of the Accountability Lab, based in Liberia. You can follow the Lab on Twitter @accountabilitylab