…. The children, who attend public schools in and outside of Monrovia, sit in dilapidated classrooms where there are no desks and benches. There they are taught by teachers whose monthly wages, paid sporadically, are far less than the $15,000 monthly salary paid to a lawmaker and the cost of a dress the president’s wife wears.
Madam Clar Weah, with all due respect Madam first lady, I love you and that is why I stood as the “BESTMAN” in your wedding, but there is something that does not add up. How is it possible that the budget of the first lady’s office exceeds the allotment in the budget for all the schools under supervision by the Monrovia Consolidated School System (MCSS)? In contrast, our neighbors in the sub-region like Ghana and Nigeria are spending 12-14% of GDP on education while we are spending 4-5% on ours. Those stats alone will tell you the story. Hmmm, no wonder we are experiencing a “MASSIVE BRAIN DRAIN” in our country.”….James Salinsa Debbah in a FACEBOOK post on 27 January 2021. Mr. Debbah’s post was prompted by the amount of money that constitutes the budget allocated to the office of President Weah’s wife. The money, reported by various sources to be in the amount of $1.5m, was allocated to Mrs. Weah’s office for administrative use.
To many, the comments by Debbah, came as a surprise, if not a shock, for he and Weah for many years, stood shoulders to shoulders as the star players of the Liberian national football team. It is even rumored that they are cousins. However, Debbah, inspired by his concern for the deteriorating academic performance of public school students, is not blinded by any of these sentimental attachments to Weah to recognize that the amount of money in the budget, allocated to the office of the president’s wife, is undeserved and misappropriated. Consequently, as Debbah fears, it will seriously undermine and diminish the efforts of educators to prepare future generations of Liberians to meet the challenges of nation-building. This was acknowledged in a conversation with the president of one of the public colleges. He divulged to me that a budget of $546,000, along with two used cars, was allotted to his college for operation. This amounts to nothing in comparison to what has been gifted to Clar Weah’s office, an office where no public policy of any sort is discussed, generated, and implemented for the public good.
As a citizen, I struggle to understand the reasons why Liberia, under any administration in the past or present, should appropriate $1.5m in the budget for the office of a president’s wife. In their presence, Clar Weah occupies a position to which she was not elected. Because it is not an elected position, she should not get paid nor be given a financial allowance. Primarily, her role, in which she accompanies the president to official functions or serves as his representative, is conventionally ceremonial. Generally, she lives at the expense of the country. When she travels, her airfares, hotel, and rented automobile bills are paid for by the country. This treatment extends to people she selects to accompany her. This was demonstrated in Qatar, in 2022, where the president and his wife spent almost two months watching football games played in the World Cup. Additionally, those who are assigned to her as staffers, how many are not known, are paid by the government. So, what explanation of reasons can be used to justify the appropriation of the $1.5m budget for Clar Weah?
In a desperate search for an explanation, it was floated around in private and official conversations that the $1.5m was allocated to Clar Weah to run charity programs. This well-designed deception must be taken seriously because of two reasons: it comes at a time of Weah’s friendship with a Burkinabe and when all major institutions of government, constructed to ensure the working efficiency of Liberia’s constitutional system of checks and balances, have crumbled under the weight of corruption. Hence, the allocation of millions of dollars to the president’s wife, to fund charities, raises serious and legitimate suspicion of corruption. Why should public money be made available to a president’s wife to fund charities?
In 2018, after Weah took office, I wrote an article titled “Is That Emmanuel Shaw Again?” In the article, I warned about the new culture of corruption that was going to emerge in Weah’s administration under the supervision of senior government officials. In this culture, legally constructed companies, but surreptitiously owned by government officials, will suddenly appear before government commissions to bid for contracts as was done under Doe’s administration. The emergence of this so-called charity, undoubtedly, follows in these footsteps. Rumors have it that Mrs. Weah professes her concern for Liberian girls’ access to education. This has always been her concern, the rumor claims, and thus the reason for founding a charity to address it. The revelation of her concern must be appreciated by every Liberian. But it begs some reasonable questions that commence with the understanding of Liberia’s history in the area of education and women.
Unlike the Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, where girls are proscribed from going to school, Liberia has no history of having instituted an official policy that denied girls access to education. So, as it is now in Liberia, with no restrictions placed on females’ access to education, what is the urgency that requires millions of dollars to be given to Clar Weah to ameliorate it? If there are problems inherent in our cultural beliefs and patriarchal values that undermine Liberian girls’ access to education, shouldn’t it be the responsibility of the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Gender to address them? If Clar Weah has been concerned about education for Liberian girls, what are the preliminary steps she has taken to galvanize public attention around it?
The purpose of charity organizations is to provide help for the downtrodden in society. Generally, the money used to operate them in service to the people in need is raised from financial donations or contributions via appeals by the organizations. These donations are usually voluntary and made by individuals and foundations impressed by the respective ages, visions, accomplishments, integrity, and purpose of the charity organization. This is complemented by the organization of social events, whether it is a gala ball, dinner, dance, or a charity sports event to raise money. But none of these characteristics is found to be associated with this so-called charity for which Clar Weah’s office is assigned millions of dollars of public money. Undoubtedly, there is something rotten and stinky about this. The sudden creation of a charity organization, exclusively supported by public money and presided over by the president’s wife, therefore, does not require a genius to recognize and conclude that the good name and purpose of charity are being deployed to conceal the corrupt purpose for which the charity was founded. Neither should it surprise anyone why the word charity is associated with the reasons for which the money was assigned to Mrs. Weah’s office.
In Africa, charity work has become a calling for the wives of African presidents, using public money to portray themselves as caring and sympathetic figures. However, there is a particular reason for their involvement with charity work. It has become a very convenient way for them to siphon money from public coffers to personal bank accounts. For it is in the service of humanity, it hoodwinks the public and serves as a shield that protects the wives from reasonable suspicions and allegations of corruption to enrich themselves.
In Burkina Faso, during the 27-year rule of Blaise Compaoré, his wife, Chantal Compaoré, was known to operate charities funded by the government. In 2020, they were driven out of office. But Compaoré, according to the magazine, “People With Money,” is worth $96m while Chantal is worth $10m today, astronomical amounts far too much than what they had in their personal bank accounts before Compaoré assassinated Thomas Sankara and became president. How the Compaoré’s used the name of charity work, to enrich themselves with public money, has been copied and used in countries like Cameroon, Togo, Congo-Brazzaville, Gabon, Uganda, etc. That this modus operandi has emerged in Liberia must not surprise anyone. In the immediate months after he ascended to the presidency, Weah was linked to the purchase of an aircraft for presidential use. He denied that $30m was paid to purchase the aircraft. However, he asserted that the plane was offered to him to use for travels by a benevolent friend, an unnamed Burkinabe. According to Weah, the friend is a “manager of a big company in Burkina Faso.”
This assertion by Weah should draw the attention and concern of serious Liberians. If Weah is to be believed, his Burkinabe friend is a millionaire, if not a billionaire. But in Sub-Saharan Africa, it is unusual, if not impossible, for a businessman to attain the status of millionaire or billionaire, without the assurance and protection of a quid pro quo arrangement with the government. Such an arrangement requires the businessman to offer unequivocal support for the government in return for favors and advantages granted by the latter, enabling the business to be lucrative and the businessman a millionaire or billionaire. So, to be a successful businessman and wealthy, in poverty-stricken Burkina Faso, Weah’s “friend” must have been a beneficiary of such an arrangement under which, undoubtedly, he served as a counselor to the Compaoré on financial matters of personal interest to them. In this role, it is reasonable to suspect that Weah’s friend acquired deep personal knowledge of how the use of charity organization served the Compaoré very well financially and, therefore, decided to recommend its use in Liberia to Weah. The Liberian lawmakers, who have never missed any opportunity to take every cent home, were willing to be partners and participate in this corrupt scheme.
As instructed by the Liberian Constitution, lawmakers must approve or reject funding for projects in the national budget. This role, accordingly, one will assume, was played by the lawmakers. However, there is no public record indicating that such a debate, to approve or disapprove of the money, was held. It is more than a year now since the $1.5m was transferred to Clar Weah’s office. But no lawmaker, except Rep. Yekeh Kolubah, has publicly expressed any concern and criticism. This capitulation in silence is a vexing problem in which serious questions are embedded about the integrity of some of the lawmakers. The legislature, which sits Commany Wesseh and Milton Teahjay as senators, approved the budget for Clar Weah’s office. The focus on these two senators is not random. It is unique because of their past involvement in anti-government student politics in the 1970s and is now sitting today as senators.
The juxtaposition of their past and presence prompts one question: If this was in the 1970s, with William Tolbert as president and $1.5m was proposed and approved for Victoria Tolbert’s office, what would they have claimed and done? Undoubtedly, they would have publicly accused and convicted President Tolbert of corrupt deceptions cleverly constructed for his personal financial gains via the public coffers. The University Spokesman, the students’ newspaper, at the direction of Wesseh and backed by the vocal support of Teahjay, would have carried editorials repeating the accusations until they were heard and permanently embedded in the mind of every Liberian citizen. But here they are, serving as lawmakers, but sadly and easily compromised by their reception of political corruption under which their votes for the $1.5m were secured. Sitting as a senator now, Wesseh, more than those he criticized in the 1970s, has a deep appreciation for the corrupt financial gains that have ensured him a comfortable living that he enjoys and does not want to lose. What a disappointment, Comrade Wesseh.
Liberia is a country where ordinary citizens struggle daily to meet the demands of life. It is a place where children, under 15 years old and forced by poverty, sell on the sidewalks barefooted in the dust and rain while government officials, both appointed and elected, drive by them unconcerned. The children, who attend public schools in and outside of Monrovia, sit in dilapidated classrooms where there are no desks and benches. There they are taught by teachers whose monthly wages, paid sporadically, are far less than the $15,000 monthly salary paid to a lawmaker and the cost of a dress the president’s wife wears. But rather than commit significant financial resources to the improvement of education and public healthcare services, they appropriated almost $2m to Clar Weah. If the president’s wife wishes to run a charity program, she should raise money from wealthy donors like their Burkinabe’s friend.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Mr. Benedict Nyankun Wisseh is a graduate of Charlotte Tolbert Memorial Academy in Monrovia, Liberia. He lives in Brooklyn, New York, and can be reached at [email protected].