Corruption has always been one of Liberia’s biggest problems despite several promises by successive governments to fight it. Whether or not the Weah-led government is winning the war on corruption is still a matter of debate. But on August 15, 2022, the fight against corruption in Liberia suffered a massive kick in the teeth.
Liberians were greeted with a report released by the US Treasury Department under the Global Magnitsky Act, sanctioning three top government officials of the Liberian government for corruption-related offences. According to the report, those affected are Nathaniel McGill, Liberia’s Minister of State for Presidential Affairs and chief of staff to President George Weah; Sayma Syrenius Cephus, current Solicitor General (SG) and chief prosecutor of Liberia and Bill Twehway, Managing Director of the National Port Authority (NPA).
These officials, the report indicated, have been sanctioned pursuant to Executive Order (E.O.) 13818. The Global Magnitsky Human Rights Act targets perpetrators of serious human rights abuse and corruption around the world.
Following the sanction, the Liberian leader, George Weah, quickly moved to suspend the three top officials of his government, an action that still does not go down well with some Liberians and opposition members. They have since called for the immediate dismissal of the three officials from the government.
Having followed the discussions on the matter and the huge controversy it has generated, DUBAWA decides to take a comprehensive look into the history of The Global Magnitsky Human Rights Act; how it has operated so far in the fight against global corruption; and how Liberia’s three top officials were caught in the web.
State of Corruption in Liberia
According to a 2021 Center for Transparency and Accountability in Liberia’s report on corruption, a whopping 90% of Liberians think and believe that the country is extremely corrupt under the George Weah-led administration.
This is a stark departure from the promise the president gave in his inaugural address in 2018 after being sworn in as President of Liberia.
He noted, “As officials of Government, It is time to put the interest of our people above our own selfish interests. It is time to be honest with our people. Though corruption is a habit amongst our people, we must end it. We must pay civil servants a living wage so that corruption is not an excuse for taking what is not theirs. Those who do not refrain from enriching themselves at the expense of the people – the law will take its course. I say today that you will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.” But Liberians do not think the president is walking the talk on corruption. The damning Global Magnitsky Act report on the three Top Liberian government officials constitutes a reality check on the state of corruption in Liberia. Before we delve deeper into the identities of the three officials, an understanding of the Global Magnitsky Act is crucial.
What is the Global Magnitsky Act Report?
The Global Magnitsky Human Rights and Accountability Act was first enacted into law in December 2016 and gives authority to the President of the United States to impose economic sanctions against foreign individuals or entities engaging in human rights violations or corruption.
It was named after the Ukrainian-born Russian tax expert, Sergei Magnitsky, who died in prison in 2009 after being arrested in an alleged case of tax evasion. Before his death, he was responsible for exposing corruption and misconduct by Russian government officials while representing client Hermitage Capital Management. His arrest in 2008 and subsequent death after eleven months in police custody generated international attention and triggered both official and unofficial inquiries into allegations of fraud, theft and human rights in Russia.
The US government, in reaction to Magnitsky’s death, promulgated the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act in 2012, tailor-made for Russians suspected to have engaged in grievous human rights abuses. In December 2016, the Sergei Magnitsky Accountability Act was expanded beyond Russia to include global citizens found culpable for corruption and abuse of human rights. This amended law came under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act.
A December 3, 2021, Congressional Research Service (Page 2) indicates that the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act will expire on December 23, 2022, even though there are attempts by some members of Congress to pass new legislation that will make the ACT permanent or modify it.
The UN Security Council and the Magnitsky Act
For years, the UN Security Council has used the sanctions regime as a vehicle to fight the abuse of human rights in countries across the world. It is the option adopted by the UN to avoid the use of force against countries that are found guilty. Since 1966, a total of 30 sanctions have been slapped on countries including Yemen, Libya, Iran, Yugoslavia, Sudan, etc, and the sanctions mostly include economic and trade sanctions, travel bans, financial and commodity restrictions as spelt out in the UN website.
Unlike the Magnitsky Act, the UN system uses the sanctions committee made up of all 15 members of the Council and chaired by the president of the council to decide to sanction another country. However, “The Global Magnitsky Act provides the executive branch [US government] with standing, global authority to impose targeted sanctions against specific persons, including in countries with which the United States otherwise shares important bilateral relations,” the Congressional US Service has said.
Interestingly, however, the Magnitsky Act shares a similar sanctions regime with other US sanctions regime such as the “Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Acts (SFOPS), Section 7031(c),on corruption and human rights abuse.” As spelt out in Page 16 of the Congressional report, the SFOPS deals with individuals believed to have been “involved in significant corruption … or a gross violation of human rights.”
How widespread has the Magnitsky Act been used?
From its inception in 2016 several other countries especially in Europe have adopted the Magnitsky Act approach in fighting corruption and human rights abuses across the world. As a result, over 243 individuals and entities from 28 countries have been sanctioned under the Magnitsky Act.
Reactions to the Liberia Report
Liberia’s government officials have become the newest individuals to have been caught in the web of the Magnitsky Act.
Shortly after the sanction report was released, United States Ambassador to Liberia, Michael McCarthy, through a media engagement, said that the sanctions are as a result of a rigorous inter-agency investigation conducted to determine that these three officials engaged in corrupt acts.
So what did these officials do?
Nathaniel McGill, the suspended Minister of State and Chief of Staff in the office of President George Weah, has been serving in the position since the CDC-led government assumed state power in 2018. He was also the Chairman of the ruling party prior to serving as Minister of state and Chief of Staff in the office of the President. Since the inception of the CDC-led government, McGill is noted for living an extravagant lifestyle, a life he never had prior to becoming Minister of State and Chief of Staff in the office of President George Weah.
In July 2021, he buried his late mother in a luxurious manner by building a tomb well furnished with flat-screen television and a gold-polish casket. This action by McGill triggered a huge controversy, with critics singing songs of corruption.
As if this was not enough, in May 2022, he also built an island and named it in honour of his wife, Vivian Innis McGill (VIM Island), located in Marshall City on the edge of Farmington River next to the comfortable Lebasa resort as her 36th birthday gift. When asked about the source of funds for the building, McGill claimed the funds were provided by his friends.
Until his suspension, Sayma Syrenius Cephus was the Solicitor General and Chief Prosecutor of Liberia. According to the report, Cephus has developed close relationships with suspects of criminal investigations and has received bribes from individuals in exchange for having their cases dropped.
Cephus, prior to entering national government, has been involved in a series of alleged corrupt practices in the country while serving as private counselor for his clients as reported by the Front Page Africa Newspaper
Upon his nomination by President Weah in 2020, this paper detailed a barrage of corrupt practices by Cephus and provided reasons why the Liberian Senate should not have confirmed him as chief prosecutor of the country. Yet, he was still confirmed only to be designated by the Magnitsky report.
Following his sanction and subsequent suspension, Cephus wrote to President Weah accusing the Minister of Justice, Cllr. Musa Dean of masterminding his name being placed on the sanction list by the US Treasury Department. Cephus alleged that Minister Dean wrote to the US Embassy in Monrovia accusing him of running a parallel Ministry of Justice, a claim the Minister of Justice, Cllr. Dean and US Ambassador in Monrovia have since refuted.
The third official is Bill Twehway. He was Managing Director of the National Port Authority (NPA) and former Representative of Montserrado County District #3 in the Liberian Legislature
According to the report, “Twehway orchestrated the diversion of $1.5 million in vessel storage fee funds from the NPA into a private account. It further stated that Twehway secretly formed a private company through which he later unilaterally awarded a contract for loading and unloading cargo at the Port of Buchanan. The contract was awarded to the company less than a month after its founding. Twehway and others used family members to obfuscate their own involvement in the company while still benefiting financially from the company.” As a result of this, he was a subject of investigation by the Liberia Anti- Corruption Commission (LACC).
After becoming head of the National Port Authority (NPA) of Liberia, Twehway turned into a philanthropist with a series of donations to the people of RiverCess County, his hometown. At some point, he provided about eighty bundles of zinc for the roofing of some homes within a town called Zeo town, River Cess County. Residents have since petitioned him to contest the senatorial seat in the impending legislative and presidential elections in the country.
Liberia’s history of sanctions
This is not the first time the US Treasury Department has sanctioned senior Liberian government officials for acts of corruption and other human rights crimes.
Prior to the sanctioning of these three top officials, the US treasury Department sanctioned two lawmakers, Senators Varney Sherman and Prince Y. Johnson of Bomi and Nimba Counties respectively.
Senator Prince Y. Johnson is a former warlord-turned-politician and has been representing one of the largest counties in the country, Nimba since 2005. He was also the chairman of the Liberian Senate Committee on National Defense, Security and Veteran affairs while representing Liberia at the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) parliament. Upon being placed on the sanction list, the US Embassy in Monrovia issued a statement saying that while the U.S. government is proud of its longstanding partnership with the Ministry of National Defense and Armed Forces of Liberia which will continue, they would have no relationship with Senator Johnson.
The U.S. Embassy continues, “Senator Johnson’s gross human rights violations during Liberia’s civil wars are well-documented; his continued efforts to protect himself from accountability, enrich his own coffers and sow division are also well known. That the Liberian Senate would see fit to elevate him to a leadership role – particularly in the area in which he has done this country the most harm — creates doubts as to the seriousness of the Senate as a steward of Liberia’s defense and security.”
For his part, Senator Varney Sherman, the current chairman of the Liberian Senate Committee on Judiciary, Claims and Petition, was also sanctioned by the US Treasury Department on allegations of corruption in Liberia.
What are Liberians saying about the report as well as the Magnitsky Act?
The Center for Transparency and Accountability (CENTAL), a civil society organization and national chapter of Transparency International (TI), which is the global coalition against corruption, is excited by the sanctions slapped on the three officials.
In a strongly worded statement, CENTAL called on relevant Liberian Authorities to seek the support of U.S. Government to thoroughly investigate and prosecute the designated officials
While he applauds the Liberian government for the decision to suspend the three, the boss of CENTAL, Anderson Miamen, indicated that the government must go further by dismissing the three officials.
In addition,the immediate past administration, the opposition Unity Party (UP), has criticised President Weah’s action to suspend the three government officials. He is demanding the immediate dismissal of the trio from his government.
For his part, Presidential hopeful in the impending 2023 Presidential and Legislative elections in Liberia, Cllr. Taiwan Gongloe, has welcomed the action by the US government and noted the Liberian leader himself risks being sanctioned by the US.
The former President of the Liberian National Bar Association (LNBA), Counselor Tiawan Gongloe, asserted that if President Weah refuses to dismiss his three sanctioned officials, he, Cllr Gongloe and others will campaign for the president to be blacklisted from going to the US.