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Tracking Senators’ Retreat and citizens’ push for accountability in Liberia

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Liberian Senators, often regarded as the elders of the nation’s bicameral Legislature, are in the news again for the wrong reasons. In 2014, they were accused of passing sixty-six bogus concession agreements against the people’s interests, as the Global Witness report referenced, and for allocating $30,000 for legislative projects in previous budgets. 

Years after this report, the ‘Elders of the Nation’ are in another potential scandal regarding the Senate Retreat. A civil society advocate, Martin Kollie, is threatening legal action against the controversial Senate Retreat, which has attracted criticism from Liberians.

What happened at the Senate Retreat? 

This piece will explore and discover what ordinary Liberians think about senators’ conduct, and discuss what governance experts believe is the way to prevent future occurrences of misconduct on the part of the country’s upper legislature. 

Constitutionally, senators are tasked with lawmaking, oversight, and representation, given the general belief that the people elected them to promote social welfare through democratic processes.

However, analysts suggest that many Senators prioritise personal benefits over their constituents’ interests. Recently, the Liberian Senate, headed by the Vice President, gathered in Buchanan, Grand Bassa County, the home of Senate Pro-temp Nyonblee Karngar Lawrence, for a four-day “Senate Retreat.”

There are conflicting claims about the retreat’s budgetary allocation. The Senators are accused of spending over $700,000 of taxpayers’ money on the four-day retreat in Buchanan. But as conflicting accounts emerged, Liberians took to social media to express their outrage, accusing the Senate of misusing funds while many citizens went hungry.

“What do you get from Nyonblee and Dillon’s plan? Looting, though,” commented Amos Darbie on Facebook.

Dakor Jr. H. Abraham added, “Liberia’s economy is now a football game. The Capitol Building is the stadium. The Light’ is the MVP for the league.”

Reaction to allegations

In response to the allegations against the senators, Gbarpolu County Senator Amara Konneh stated that the Senate spent only $50,000 for the retreat.

Before Senator Konneh clarified, Senate communications head Alfred Johnson admitted that the Senator spent a total of $47,000 on the retreat.

The conflicting figures from the Senators do not speak well of a house which is expected to be a house of records and of honourable men and women who are expected to champion integrity, transparency in public office, and good governance. 

Activist Martin Kollie criticised the Senators, saying, “The economy is no longer in the toilet. It just left the toilet. It is now in the septic tank. You wasted thousands of public money but refused to provide the budget and financial report. Is this what you call an open government.”

No Senator has critiqued the Senate as harshly in the past as Montserrado County Senator Darrius Dillon, who, like many others, criticised the previous administration for corruption. However, now in a position of trust, they face a ‘Catch-22’ situation, balancing the people’s welfare and personal interests.

Recently, Dillon lied about his air ticket and later joined lawmakers, including the current Senate Pro-temp, to accept $40,000 for personal vehicles, triggering a public uproar.

As the frustration grew, one student outside the Capitol in Monrovia shouted, “Our leaders are wicked,” while another across the street said, “Dillon is a Chinese light.”

Calls for a full expenditure report on the retreat have intensified, with more revelations emerging. For instance, Bong County Senator Prince Moye revealed on the Spoon Talk programme that each Senator received $10,000 for constituency visits before the retreat.

Senator Dillon confirmed on Facebook that the retreat budget was $50,000, covering logistics, media, lodging, and feeding for 108 people, including Senators, staff, facilitators, security, and drivers.

A search of Hotel Buchanan’s room prices and the retreat venue shows that the prices range from $125 to $58 per night. However, the total breakdown of how the $50,000 was spent remains unclear.

Although Senate Pro-Temp Madam Karngar Lawrence did not provide a detailed expenditure report, she criticised the media for unethical reporting without evidence. Nonetheless, the retreat’s budget and expenditures remain a significant concern.

Rooted in Article 15 © of the Liberian constitution is the “Right of the Public to be informed,” yet the Senate has remained tight-lipped on the matter, which is a gross violation of the country’s organic law.

Seeking to clarify, Senator Konneh recently exposed the Senate for using $565,000 for both a ‘retreat and constituency visit.’ This statement contradicts previous comments from him and Senator Dillon, who mentioned a figure of $50,000.

In his clarification, Konneh noted that the Ministry of Finance and Development Planning (MFDP) issued two cheques in favour of the Liberian Senate Operations Account at the Central Bank of Liberia on June 5, 2024, totalling $565,000.

“Check #1: $290,000 for four ‘Constituency Visits’ in the year,” said Konneh. “Check #2: $275,000 for ‘Committee Engagement’ and ‘Senate Retreat’ combined.”

Though the money was taken from the approved budget, the Senators violated the 2016/2017 Travel Ordinance Law, which focuses on domestic daily allowance.

Tracking Senators’ Retreat and citizens' push for accountability in Liberia
Tracking Senators’ Retreat and citizens' push for accountability in Liberia

Konneh, who chairs the Senate’s Public Accounts Committee, mentioned that “each Senator received a domestic allowance of LRD 328,000, which is $1,708 at the exchange rate of $1 = LRD 192.” However, the law calls for LRD 10,000, which is $52.08 per day for a Senator.

To this end, Konneh admitted and agreed to refund the money. He said, 

“My assistant is on his way to the CBL to refund LRD 318,000 out of the LRD 328,000 they gave us for Domestic Daily Subsistence Allowance (DDSA) into the GOL Revenue Account.”

As these revelations unfolded in less than a year under the new Boakai-led administration, an expert ironically urged the people to have mercy on the 30 Senators.

“In less than 200 days in office, they allocated and distributed $565,000 to undertake activities they decided, while millions go without a meal and thousands of young people die on illicit drugs,” said Eddie D. Jarwolo, head of NAYMOTE PARTNERS, one of the largest civil society groups in Liberia.

The Senate’s failure to account for its spending or provide a detailed breakdown leaves the country facing a harsh reality.

“The cost of a modern digital x-ray machine is $60,000. The $565,000 they just wasted in four days could procure nine modern x-ray machines for public hospitals in Grand Kru, RiverGee, Maryland, RiverCess, Grand Gedeh, Sinoe, etc.,” wrote activist Kollie.

Despite the criticism of lack of transparency on the part of the Senate concerning the body’s recent retreat, critics also worry that the public may remain uninformed about government activities, as the institution responsible for checks and balances appears to be entangled in corruption that has held the country back for years.

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