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Liberian Government Corruption Probed

Liberia's 14-year civil war ended in 2003 with the departure of Charles Taylor and the creation of a transitional government to lead the country to elections later this year. But widespread allegations of corruption have tarnished the image of the caretaker body and have led to an investigation by the West African regional bloc ECOWAS.

The officer in charge of ECOWAS's mission in Liberia, Roosevelt Jayjay, says the corruption probe was opened at the request of Gyude Bryant, the head of the transitional parliament, or NTGL.

"When the chief mediator of the Liberian peace process, General Abdulsalami Abubakar was here in early March, some of the stakeholders mentioned allegation regarding improprieties in the spending of government resources," Mr. Jayjay says. "Chairman of the NTGL requested ECOWAS to send in investigators to review those allegations to ascertain the authenticity of the information being provided."

Though Mr. Jayjay says he cannot comment on specific allegations until the investigation is completed, civil society watchdog groups charge that government corruption is widespread.

Executive director of Liberia's Center for Democratic Empowerment, Ezekiel Pajibo, points to several of the more well-publicized scandals including the disappearance of revenues from Monrovia's harbor, a fleet of official vehicles that were ordered but never arrived, and government representatives that allegedly used public travel money to buy plane tickets that they never used, pocketing the refunds.

Earlier this year, transitional parliament speaker former rebel George Dweh was sacked along with several of his colleagues for embezzling more than 90-thousand dollars of public funds. And 400 officers in the national police force were dismissed this month amid charges of corruption.

Mr. Pajibo says such punishments are largely the exception, and a persistent stream of allegations have damaged the image of the interim government in the eyes of the Liberian people, who once saw the body as a caretaker for the nation's rebuilding.

"The word on the street is that this government is referred to as a 'come, grab, and go government'. We have people in this government who, within eight months have been able to build mansions from the ground to the roof," Mr. Pajibo says. "I don't know of any public servant who earns more than three-thousand U.S. dollars per month."

ECOWAS is not the only organization taking an interest in corruption charges.

In March, a United Nations panel of experts set up to monitor the ongoing embargo on arms sales and timber and diamond exports, called into question a concessions agreement negotiated by the interim government.

The panel says the government awarded what it called a 10-year de-facto monopoly in Liberia's diamond producing regions to a previously unknown company, the West African Mining Corporation, known as WAMCO. A small bank in London backs the company, which the panel says has never run a mining operation before.

The WAMCO deal has led to charges of bribery and kickbacks in the Liberian media.

The transitional government's concessions committee has denied any wrongdoing. And some in the government deny corruption is widespread in the interim body.

The director of Liberia's General Services Agency, which is in charge of logistics, Edward Farley says he has already spoken with the ECOWAS team. He says interim leader Gyude Bryant himself has been open about tackling corruption, and that most accusations that have been swirling around are unfounded.

"Chairman Bryant has always thrown out a challenge to the public that if they identify any corrupt government official, they should come out. Up to now, I don't think they have actually identified anybody who is corrupt in the government," Mr. Farley says.

The ECOWAS investigation has been under way now for several weeks. Upon completing their work, the investigators will present their findings to the body's top officials. The United Nations and donor countries have also tried to put pressure on government officials to stop corruption during the interim period.