“I have not read the audit report, but I got a briefing on it, and I know that there may have been procedural errors, but I believe that if someone says they had to go and buy a bus to carry people when a hundred people are dying on the streets and they did not go through a bidding process, I will leave it to you, to say which was better for them to have bought the buses to save the lives or for them to have taken two weeks to go through the bidding process”, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

Monrovia - Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf dealt a major blow to her “zero tolerance” Inauguration-day pledge Monday with what many political observers say signals yet another window-dressing posture on her administration’s Achilles, the issues of corruption which she promised in January 2006 to fight head on. Sirleaf declared on her inauguration day following her first election in a runoff process in 2005, when she vowed that her administration will ensure zero tolerance on corruption with a promise to deal with officials of government caught in the act.

Said Sirleaf in 2006: “Throughout the campaign, I assured our people that, if elected, we would wage war against corruption regardless of where it exists, or by whom it is practiced. Today, I renew this pledge. Corruption, under my Administration, will be the major public enemy. We will confront it. We will fight it. Any member of my Administration who sees this affirmation as mere posturing, or yet another attempt by yet another Liberian leader to play to the gallery on this grave issue should think twice. Anyone who desires to challenge us in this regard will do so at his or her personal disadvantage”.

Ten years on, the administration continues to struggle in convincing international partners that it has the political will to beat the graft. Out of 107 audits released by the GAC to date, only two have led to prosecution: Albert Bropleh, who served as head of the Liberia Telecommunications Authority (LTA), was prosecuted for corruption as was a forgery case involving the forging of the President’s signature in a US$1 million racket.

Other reports of widespread corruption backed by audit and investigative reports from anti-graft institutions, including the General Auditing Commission, the Liberia Anti-Corruption Commission and others have all been swept under the carpet. A few years back, the President blamed the failure of systems put in place at the Ministry of Finance for the inability of that Ministry to account for the expenditures of over US$6 million dollars.

The GAC in an audit of the Finance Ministry under the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries Initiative (HIPC) audit, one of the requirements for the waiver of Liberia’s debts reported that the ministry could not provide expenditure documents for over US$6 million and the President moved swiftly to defend her officials.

In the midst of the deadly Ebola virus outbreak, during which some government agencies engaged in the fight against the outbreak were accused of diverting funds and even materials to personal use, the General Auditing Commission of Liberia conducted an audit on the expenditure of Ebola funding in which the commission reported irregularities including lack of documentations for expenditures incurred.

Before the audits and at the height of the outbreak, Finance and Development Planning Minister Amara Konneh on September 11, 2014, declared that the government would take serious actions against individuals caught misusing funds intended to fight Ebola. Said Minister Konneh “Let me say this loud and clear, any individual or entity, found to have abused, the public trust in the management and operation of resources given to them to fight Ebola and at the same time do their regular business as a government, would be prosecuted in accordance with the law and we will put the necessary resources, at the government’s disposal, to show that that happens.”

In an audit conducted on the Ebola fund, the GAC reported that for the period under audit, financial activities and the conduct of the affairs of the National Ebola Trust Fund (NETF) were marred by financial irregularities and material control deficiencies for a number of transactions carried out by the Incident Management System and the eight Implementing Partners of the NETF.

Stated the GAC: “These irregularities were the result of the Incident Management System and the Implementing Partners aren't fully adhering to the Public Financial Management Act of 2009, Public Procurement & Concession Act of 2010, IPSAS Cash Basis of Accounting, the Ebola Trust Fund Financial & Procurement policy and other applicable laws and regulations.”

Sirleaf defends misuse of Ebola Funds?

Despite Sirleaf’s promise of zero tolerance on corruption supported by Minister Konneh’s threats of actions against individuals caught misusing Ebola funds, the President on Monday during a session with media managers at the Executive Mansion explained that the emergency situation at the time of the Ebola outbreak required actions that ran contrary to procedures.

Said President Sirleaf “I have not read the audit report, but I got a briefing on it, and I know that there may have been procedural errors, but I believe that if someone says they had to go and buy a bus to carry people when a hundred people are dying on the streets and they did not go through a bidding process, I will leave it to you, to say which was better for them to have bought the buses to save the lives or for them to have taken two weeks to go through the bidding process”.

President Sirleaf further said her government made available the US$5 million at the time when nobody had given support to fight Ebola and it was at a time hundreds of people were dying and the kind of urgency required decisions that were not in line with procedures. “It was at a time hundreds of people were dying when people were running away from the clinics, when we had chaos, in the midst of chaos, some things had to be done and so I am quite sure that it reflects the context of the kind of urgency that was required in some cases”, President Sirleaf continued.

According to the Liberian leader contributors will require audits by those to whom they have given their money, indicating that most donors gave money to UN agencies, international and local NGOs and will require external audits of the recipients of these funding, saying only funding provided through direct budgetary support specifically for Ebola to the government of Liberia will be audited by the GAC.

“A lot of their money went to UN agencies, went to international NGOs, went to local NGOs, they are going to require those audits most times by international external auditors based upon reports. There will also be audits of the amount that they give us for budget support specifically for Ebola, money that went into the consolidated account, subject to our budgetary process, that one will be audited by the General Auditing Commission out of the consolidated fund”.

President Sirleaf defended that some of her officials had to make decisions during the difficult period of the Ebola outbreak and some of the decisions ran contrary to all procedures. Said Sirleaf “As long as the funds were properly used for the purposes intended and so, I will read it within that context; because I know what people went through and I know that what some people did was just something good in those difficult days”.

The President further said: “In those difficult days when we had to make certain decisions, decisions that ran contrary to all procedures, when I took the decision that there would be cremation, that was a major decision that could shift this place because we never had cremation before in our country and everybody protested but I had to take that decision and I am glad I did, because by doing that and all the other things people did under emergency, we can all be proud that we have contained this virus and we are being applauded by the international community”.

Amid the damning nature of the audit conducted on the Ebola funding, there have been public calls for President Sirleaf and the government to take concrete actions especially when the alleged misuse of the funding contributed to the deaths of hundreds of Liberians but the comments by the President look to ease any perceived tension on officials involved with the Ebola funding. The comments from the Liberian leader will be viewed as something contrary to her professed fight against corruption.

Sirleaf and her West Africa counterparts, Sierra Leone and Guinea are lobbying for international support for recovery from Ebola for their respective countries and it remains to be seen what impact such comments appearing to defend misuse of funding will have on her appeals for foreign countries tax payers’ monies.