FEATURE : Is LACC Toothless Bulldog Without Prosecutorial Power?

-Liberia: The More We Reform Our Laws, The Less We Transform

By Frank Sainworla, Jr., fasinworla@yahoo.com

MONROVIA-The need to save and fully support Liberia’s integrity agencies cannot be overstated.

It is becoming increasingly clear that the more things change in this West African nation, the more they stay the same. Perhaps, as some believe, things even tend to retrogress one regime after another.

And it appears that the more Liberians frantically press for reform, the less momentum is seen in transformation of practice.

From definition, reform is to “make changes in (something, especially an institution or practice) in order to improve it,” while Merriam-Webster dictionary defines transform,” to change in composition or structure. to change the outward form or appearance of to change in character or condition: convert.”

Last week (Thursday, June 23, 2022), a one-day forum for civil society and anti-corruption institutions was held at the head offices of the Liberia Anti-Corruption Commission (LACC) in Monrovia’s Sinkor suburb.

It was organized by the Center for Security Studies and Development (CENSSAD) and the purpose was to strategize ways “to ensure speedy passage of anti-corruption Bills submitted by the executive to the national Legislature.” Among other things, the Bills submitted by the Executive in May 2021 include one calling for amendment of the LACC Act to give the anti-graft commission prosecutorial power and the Whistle Blower Act.

It is no doubt that passing of such legislations will strengthen the hands of the anti-graft agency. But does that the present LACC Act of 2008 does not give this commission any teeth to bite at all? As this writer sat in deliberations during last Thursday’s forum, memories flashed through my mind about what some legal experts said during the Sable Mining bribery scandal under former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, when the LACC then headed by Cllr. James Verdier was left in the cold (or some said left itself in the cold).

The then President appointed a Special Prosecutor, Cllr. Fonati Koffa to conduct an inquest into that scandal. It was said then that it was a function that the LACC with tenured commissioners had the power and authority to perform.

Liberians always seem to forever be waiting for the ideal laws to come before the ones already on the books are implemented—always anxiously craving for amendments/reform of the law and putting little in implementation.

Two cases in point:

Amendment of the elections law to stop voters trucking.

Back in 2014, Chapter 3.1 c of the New Elections Law was amended: “Is hereby amended as follows: “A person must register to vote at a voter registration center established by the NEC for the place where he or she ordinarily resides and must vote at the polling place established by the NEC for voters registered at that center.”

Following that reform of the new elections law, there have been even more voters trucking than ever with impunity. Just today, a sitting Representative for Montserrado County District #12, George Samah is now contesting the June 28, 2022 Lofa County Senatorial By-election. First, before being a candidate, one must be a voter.  And the provision in Chapter 3.1 c of the new election law says the voter must vote in “the place where he or she ordinarily resides”. Now, does Rep. Samah reside in Lofa County or Montserrado County? Well, the National Elections Commission (NEC) has to answer.

And the second is an attempt to solidify power at the local level by investing huge resources into passage of the Local Government Act during the last administration. They were all out for including provision to elect commissioners and Superintendents, although the country has not been able to implement Article 56 of the 1986 Liberian constitution which calls for election of chiefs.

Except former President Charles Taylor’s attempt to hold one after the 1997 election, all other governments to date have flouted this constitutional provision.

Says Article 56 b: “There shall be elections of Paramount, Clan and Town Chiefs by the registered voters in their respective localities, to serve for a term of six years. They may be reelected and may be removed only by the President for proved misconduct. The Legislature shall enact laws to provide for their qualifications as may be required.”

Some frustrated Liberians like this writer have even at some point called for a pause in the passing of new laws and a concrete commitment to implementation of the ones already on the books—be it those in the statute or the constitution, the organic law of the land.

How well have existing laws been implemented?

How well have we implemented the laws already existing on the books? How many Liberians know that although the LACC doesn’t have prosecutorial power, it does have arrest, search and seizure power!

Just take a look at the LACC Act of 2008 Section 10.4:

“For the purpose of exercising the power of investigation conferred on the Commission by this Act, the Manager of Investigation Unit of the Enforcement Division shall have the powers, privileges, rights and immunities of a police office in respect of arrest and detention of persons as well as search and seizure. The criminal procedures of Liberia shall apply to the exercise of such powers, rights and privileges.”

One would ask why doesn’t the LACC reform Bill include making assets declaration public?

Creating the integrity institutions but with no intention to make it work. It is one thing to establish these institutions but another to ensure they function in accordance with the statute creating them.

Let’s look at the National Code of Conduct Act that came into effect during the regime of former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf many years ago. Despite thousands of US dollars spent into validation meetings around the country and other processes surrounding the passage, the Act was signed into law without the Ombudsman’s Office that is legally responsible to enforce the law being set up to day. Thus, it is a very clear demonstration of the absence of the political will to fight corruption and ensure transparency and accountability.

Part 12.1 and 12. 2 of the Code of Conduct Act clearly calls for the setting up of the Office of Ombudsman with certain powers to enforce the law when there are violations:

“12.1 The Office of an Ombudsman is hereby established as an independent autonomous body which shall be responsible for the enforcement, oversight, monitoring and evaluation of the adherence to the Code of Conduct.”

“12.2 The Office of Ombudsman shall receive and investigate all complaints, in respect to the adherence to the Code of Conduct. In the case where there is a determination of guilt and violation of the code by private and Public Officials and Employees of Government, said violation shall be submitted by the Ombudsman to the Liberia Anti-Corruption Commission (LACC) or other relevant Agencies of Government. The Office of the Ombudsman shall be responsible to collaborate with the three Branches of Government and Civil Society Organizations in order to develop regulations for the Code of Conduct.”

Indeed, if Liberia is to effectively fight corruption, four key things are badly needed, which have been increasingly prevalent: Impunity, the lack of political will, lack of integrity and lack of leadership by example. The purpose of the Code of Conduct is also clearly stated in the Act:

“Whereas, the purpose of the Code of Conduct is, to set out standards of behavior, and conduct required of Public Officials and Employees of Government, it shall guide, regulate and ensure compliance with the norms and behaviors required of all Public Officials and Employees of Government. It is designed and shall be implemented, to ensure impartiality, objectivity, transparency, integrity, efficiency and effectiveness in the performance of their duties and mandates.”

The LACC recently indicted the Chairman of the NEC, Mrs. Davidetta Browne Lansanah and the matter went to court through the Justice Ministry, the Supreme Court ruled that the LACC was not the appropriate body to pursue the matter. But the Office of the Ombudsman as regards violation of the National Code of Conduct.

Yet, five years into his presidency, this has not risen the consciousness of the presidency to see the long overdue need to appoint officials of the Ombudsman office, probably because there is no political will, integrity is in short supply, impunity has overwhelmed the Liberian body politic and leadership by example is grossly lacking.

The CDC government of President George Manneh Weah won the 2017 election on the mantra, “change for hope” and that hope some say started faltering early in the its six-year term into “fading hope”.

Yes, President Weah is the one who has submitted the Bill to the Legislature seeking prosecutorial powers for the LACC and others. But his critics say he has largely been given lip service to the fight against the corruption menace, which the head of Liberia’s Financial Intelligence Unit (FIU), Edwin Harris said at last week’s anti-corruption forum that corruption is a national security issue.

“Leadership requires that we take steps,” the FIU boss said.

The point that should be made is that mere reform of anti-corruption laws and other laws in Liberia are not enough, in so far as integrity and the lack of will to make them work. Equally, ever since the return of post-war democracy from the 2005 elections, Liberia has seen numerous reforms on paper and not much transformation in the other two branches of government—the Legislature and Judiciary.

The former is yet to demonstrate transparency and accountability by yielding to an audit by the General Auditing Commission (GAC), while the Judiciary continues to be saddle by corruption as contained in numerous international and local human rights reports.

One way that Weah and his government can demonstrate their will to fight corruption is by stepping up financial and material support to integrity agencies. As the LACC’s Chief Prosecutor, Cllr. Jerry D. K. Garlawolu urged partners and the Liberian public during the just-ended to stand by this anti-graft agency and “fight for LACC”.

Calls for concrete actions in fighting this corruption menace have been coming from all fronts—locally and internationally. Studies have shown that corruption is largely responsible for Liberia being among of the least developed countries in the world, despite this country’s huge natural resources.

It is anticipated that Weah and his CDC government would take cue from repeated advice from the country’s donor partners to demonstrate concrete action in the fight against corruption, with the latest coming from the US Embassy’s Chargés d’affaires, Joel Maybury that the level of corruption is hurting this country’s investment climate.

“We are all very much aware of the realities of corruption in Liberia. The country is now in the bottom 25 percent of nations globally in the Corruption Perceptions Index. A recent report by the Center for Transparency and Accountability in Liberia showed that 90 percent of Liberians rate the level of corruption as high, and nearly two-thirds of Liberians lack faith in the government’s commitment to fight corruption,” the US diplomat one-day forum for civil society and anti-corruption institutions last Thursday.

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