What appears to be looming social and political crisis is hovering over the country as the George Manneh Weah administration, perhaps the first political administration in Liberia’s history, is expressly taking the fight against corruption to new levels—poised to recover the country’s stolen monies. Even before the campaign to effectuate the asset recovery and restitution process ever started, a war of words has begun between former government officials considered “persons of interests” on the one hand and the Government represented by the “Asset Investigative, Restitution and Recovery Team on the other. Of particular interest and fury is the feud that is developing between former Finance Minister Amara Konneh and the Team. In a communication responding to news about the citation to appear, Mr. Konneh is lamenting the manner and form he got news about his appearance before the Team, thus describing as “unjust and witch-hunt” the entire asset recovery exercise. The Analyst’s Managing Editor Stanley Seakor reports.
A few months ago, President George Manneh Weah announced in major policy statement that his government would institute measures to retrieve stolen wealth of Liberia dating as far back as ten years from individuals and organizations that must have done so.
True to his words, the President set up what has come to be known as the Asset Investigative, Restitution and Recovery Team (AIRReT) charged with the responsibility to fast-track the process of investigating recovering and restitution of the country’s monies lost to kleptocrats.
The seemingly much-spirited team did not take any long before it produced a long list of individuals dubbed “persons of interests” of largely former officials of the Ellen Johnson Sirleaf government, and requesting them to appear for questioning and investigation by the AIRReT.
But the release of the list of “persons of interest” has been backfiring, with a couple of listed persons casting doubt on the integrity of the asset recovery campaign and those put in charge by President Weah, particularly owing to the manner and form their names were publicized.
Liberia’s former Minister of Finance, Amara M. Konneh, who was one of the longest serving officials in the Sirleaf administration, is one of those who have reacted rather fiercely to the AIRReT publication of “persons of interest” originally in the online version of this newspaper, The Analyst.
In a letter dated July 18, 2019 addressed to the Chairperson of AIRReT, Cllr. Arther T. Johnson, the former Finance Minister demanded the basis of including his name on the list of “persons of interest”.
He said instead of the AIRReT “issuing nebulous statements based on unsubstantiated speculations, street gossips and media reports implicating me in some unnamed offense, please make clear the specific nature of the investigation, the basis of my inclusion on your list, and the specific GAC audits and/or LACC reports that you referenced in your press release.”
Mr. Konneh wrote to the AIRReT boss: “I am writing to inquire about the ‘partial list of Persons of Interest’ signed by Cllr. Lafayette B. Gould and approved by you in your respective capacities as Official Spokesperson and Chairman of the Asset Investigative, Restitution and Recovery Team (AIRRET). Said list was published by the online version of the Liberian Analyst newspaper on July 18, 2019, with announcement that the personalities named have been invited ‘to provide clarification on multiple questions’”.
Konneh who also served as Minister of Planning and Economic Affairs under the Sirleaf administration said he has received no formal communication since the AIRReT “printed the first list on June 19, 2019 that would constitute a legal summons for questioning, nor have I been informed of the exact nature of the matter on which you wish to question me.”
“I deem your approach to the conduct of this investigation to be unjust to pass the test of a witch-hunt,” he said and added: “You have not disclosed the basis upon which you have summoned me and yet expect me to appear on very short notice to present myself and answer questions that may require very detailed responses complete with relevant documentation.”
He said he would find it difficult to appear and answer any questions that AIRReT may have since he does not know the basis for including him on the list, and since he does not live in Liberia.
Mentioning him name on the list of “Persons of Interest” without any stating specific audits, documents or evidence set the basis for this investigation, Mr. Konneh said, “you have caused irreparable damage to my reputation and professional career.”
Furthermore, the former Finance Minister has threatened that if the AIRReT “cannot substantiate these claims with absolute evidence beyond reasonable doubts or fail to remove my name on your list, I will be forced to seek legal damages against you, the AIRReT and the Government of Liberia in an international Court.”
He opined that the AIRReT his named was added on the list of the “persons of interest” because he served his country Liberia.
“I am very proud to have served honorably under very difficult circumstances from 2008 to 2016 as Minister of Planning and Economic Affairs and Minister of Finance and Development Planning when macroeconomic stability was maintained year-on-year even when the Ebola pandemic hit our country in 2014,” he noted, adding, “I would do it all over again, if I had to.”
“My Records are Clear”
Meanwhile, the Former Finance Minister has been methodically and forcefully defending his character and official deportment and further relishing the work of the AIRReT.
In Facebook post explaining his stance to his friends, Mr. Konneh provided a detailed defense of himself and taking on the officials of the special investigative, weighing heavily on Solicitor General of Liberia, Cllr. Sayma Syrenius Cephus.
He wrote: “You will recall that on June 19, 2019, the Analyst newspaper in Liberia published online a list of former government officials that the new Liberian government deemed “corrupt.” In that publication, they accused one of my deputies, James F. Kollie, my successor, Boima Kamara and me of stealing $13 million of European Union Budget support to the FY12/13 Budget. This allegation was based on a newspaper story in June 2013, gossips and speculations. Justice cannot be bordered on sentiments. It has to be transparent and based on evidence which, for 6 years, no one has provided. This EU $13 million story is a lie on which I will publish a detailed account on Sunday. The EU has issued multiple statements refuting it.
“This time, a few names from the original list were omitted. My name is still on it but, this time, no reasons are given for my inclusion as was done for the first list. Could this have been an error or is this all just an exercise in selective justice? To date, I have received no formal communication from the Liberian authorities. I have, therefore, sent them the letter below, just this morning. For the record, no audits or LACC reports have implicated me in theft, financial improprieties or any other wrong doing. I challenge anyone to refute this with absolute evidence beyond a reasonable doubt!”
On a broader note for rational and sensible people, he said, the new Solicitor General (SG), Cllr Cephus, in defense of the $2.1 million budget he submitted to the legislature on July 15, 2019 to pursue criminal cases against officials of the last administration, alleged that former President Sirleaf and team stole US$4 billion.
Mr. Konneh’s Facebook post further noted: “For context, President Sirleaf’s government raised less than $6 billion in 12 years. I need not rehash this for some of those making these claims today who also served in her government. Salaries for workers alone accounted for approximately $2.4 billion over 12 years. Goods and services for running the government hovered around $600 million over 12 years. I don’t need to mention debt servicing, or the massive reconstruction activities that brought the economy back to pre-war levels.
“Moreover, $4 billion is the equivalent of nine (9) years budget of Liberia. For the SG’s claims to be true, Sirleaf and her team would have to have stolen every penny that we raised. If we stole that amount, how then did the post-conflict nation survive for twelve years during which civil servants got paid on time, debts were serviced in time, goods and services were purchased regularly, we increased public investments from 6% to a whopping 25% of the budget and delivered tangible public goods including some of which the new government will be dedicating on July 26th. Without the proper and transparent management of public resources, we would not have been able to accomplish all the above.”
Mr. Konneh asserted: “Today, the story is different. The Solicitor General has asked to spend $2.1 million of limited public resources on a promise to recover a non-existing and imaginary $4 billion. I will fight this witch-hunt and politically motivated phony investigation with every bone in my body to prove that they are lying and looking for people to shake down. If this is intended to silence me from speaking out on the real economic governance issues the country is currently facing, which even exceed the challenges we faced in the turbulent 1980s, then you’ve just gotten me started. You can’t point fingers through governance the way you did when you were in opposition.”