By: Sam K Zinnah
The Freeport of Monrovia and the Robert International Airport “two of Liberia’s gateway to its economy” has become mere hustle grounds. When President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf took oath on January 16, 2007, she overtly encouraged and invited Liberians in the Diaspora to return home and contribute to the reconstruction of their country that is recovering from more than decade of civil war. During several visits to the United States and other countries around the world, President Sirleaf continuously encouraged Liberians to return home and help with the reconstruction process but many Liberians who have attempted doing business in Liberia ‘over the year’ have complained about the level of bureaucracies and corruption at the Freeport of Monrovia and the Robert International Airport (RIA). Undoubtedly, the security and administrative setting of the various ports of entry in Liberia serves as primary cause of the level of corruption, for in societies where the sigma of venality and gift is progressively attenuated by corrupt and impunity habits, the moral threshold of civil servants becomes remarkably compromised. The fact that the culture of impunity has been practiced and condoned since the birth of Liberia certainly serves as justification.
Condemnation of bureaucratic corruption is not quite enough to contain its practice in Liberia. The facts that both developed and developing nations have laws against bureaucratic corruption suggest a universal indictment of extra-legal and executable/punishable laws against it. Since corruption is essentially an opportunistic behavior and exercised by port workers and administrators in Liberia, a genuine effort to stem it must begin with practical reforms of existing laws, rules of conduct, custom and tradition that govern socio-political and economic relations. For any change to be effective at the various ports of entry in Liberia, it must be drastically enforced and punishable by laws.
It is becoming regretful to express to any Liberian abroad who whish to ship anything to Liberia because the various ports of entry to Liberia are now referred to by many Liberians as “worse than hell on earth”.
In November of 2006, I shipped a forty footer container (TRIU9199576 seal: 19783641) to Liberia. The container arrived the week of December 24th 2006. My experience with the Freeport of Monrovia and some custom officers became a painful memory that I will always remember. Upon the arrival of the container, all offices went on the rampage with the intention of grabbing anything as a bribe to let the container out of the port. My custom broker joined the corruption queue and thought him “and his squad could use the opportunity to empty my pocket or bank account. It is sad that many Liberians who are opportune to share some of the wealth of the west cannot invest in our home country due to the high level of corruption at the various ports in Liberia. Usually, contacting the port authorities does not bring any resolution to ones problems. The custom duties are irrational and the path of clearance is extremely bribery and corruption. From December 2006 to March 17, 2007, I realized that the port management deliberately delays their process to force storage on customers. The various offices responsible for signing documents are ‘more often then none’ empty. Deputy Managers who suppose to work for eight to nine hours daily will appeared in their office(s) for two hours and pretend to be holding meetings. After the two hours, they are out for the day. If the custom, security officers, and other port workers “without portfolio” running around the port do not heavily oil the mouth and elbow of their bosses, they run the risk of being transfer to an area where there is absolutely no chopping or assigned unpleasant functions. So, even the biggest boss knows what’s happening in the corners. During my frustrations from December 2006 to May 2007, I was very investigative and determine to expose some of the dark forest operations at the various ports of entry. In January of 2007, my container was scheduled to be release. On the scheduled date, one of the managers insisted that he had not received the tele-release from the shipping line. While I was sitting by my phone and waiting for the latest story about the container, my cell phone rang. When I asked what the latest was? I was told that the container could not be released in the absence of tele-release. I immediately called the New York office of the shipping line and reported the issue. In few minutes, an agent from the shipping line called and confirms that the tele-release was sent and received by the Monrovia office. A copy was sent to my email address. I forwarded a copy of the document (with all the shipping information) to my agents who later printed the hard copy of the document and took it to the appropriate offices for verifications. Because there was no cash escort, my agents were told that the documents needed to come from New York directly to the port. I was referred to the GEMAP representative (Adlophus Doring) ‘at the time’ in a telephone conversation with Doring, he said the issue was above his jurisdiction. He then referred me to the port Manager. All efforts to get the port manager “Toga Nganangana” were fruitless.
While the container case was dragging, Bobby Jimmy “who was supposedly hired by Uriah Glaypo” to clear my container, “with the help of some high ranking port official”, elbowed his way out of the port with three forty foot containers. Jimmy’s successful exit shows that if corruption has to be combated in any of Liberia’s’ sectors, it must start from the top. These are the same people who in a long time have not only plunder Liberia’s economy, but have done everything to ensure that foreign, even Liberians abroad fear investing in Liberia. We should explain our experiences for the public to read if the heads of the National port Authority or the Roberts International Airport finds it frightening to read or considered.
The collection of custom duties at the Air and sea ports in Liberia are good idea if the funds are used to improve and maintain the infrastructures but this has not been the case in Liberia, so where do the funds go? Since there are no proper accountability or used of funds collected, this is considered another form of extortion. When customs officers, on a daily basis, take home extorted goods from merchants what do their spouses or family members say? (sweet heart or darling, a good steal today ooooo; more grease to your elbows).
The incident and extent of bureaucratic corruption is everywhere a function of prevailing levels of political and economic competition. In well-developed democracies with heightened political competition, corruption is relatively rare, and in cases where there is strong evidence of it, the effects are often economically insignificant. This is because corruption is bread and nurtured in secrecy; where there is openness in government coupled with political competition, the rule of law is closely observed, and corruption personally contained (Werlin 1973).
A host of factors account for the notoriously abysmal economic growth rate or the absent of it in Liberia. Underdeveloped human resources, extremely low level of productivity, in ability to attract and sustain direct foreign investment, continuous mismatch of capital and needs, and deplorable infrastructures, but prominent amongst these is corruption.
My recent inquiry into some of the causes of corruption in Liberia has made strong connection to the culture of impunity. Much of the problems are rooted in the fact that many people in Liberian society enter Government with very low or no moral character and have little or no respect for public property. Majority of those in high ranking positions live by the three Gs: Get, Grab & Go. These crooks and hustlers fight tirelessly to get into government positions and then grab whatever opportunities they see and get out of the country “Liberia”.
The major reason why these crooks always succeed in getting into high places in government and snatching away people’s or the country’s wealth is because there has been no system by which new and succeeding administrations would be compared by law to pursue and prosecute perpetrators of public crimes in Liberia. Instead, these criminals run away from Liberia and spent some time in foreign country (ies) and later return to Liberia with their stolen riches. They used the same stolen riches to elbow their ways back to public offices and continue their usual routine.
The misuse of office by government functionaries is relatively common in Liberia in areas of public procurement, revenue collection, government appointments and contracts, licensing and permits. In these areas of specialty, graft and venality are readily executed through anyone of the following activities:
A civil servant receives from a private contractor a fixed percentage of awarded government contracts; the kick back may be in kind or cash paid directly into the beneficiary’s pocket.
Police or other law enforcement agents use their offices to extort bribes in lieu of official fees or taxes.
Customs agents insist on payment above the official rates or side payment before providing requisite services to both importers and exporters.
One victim who recently returned from Liberia told me “if you want to see how corruption can cripple a society, go to Liberia.” The victim explained how his luggage spent almost a week at the Robert International Airport and was half way empty when he finally took delivery of it. He said, he was asked to pay U.S.$300.00 for his luggage.
Another victim “Paul Kennedy” visited Liberia in December and was forced to abandon his luggage at the Robert international Airport. Paul “in a telephone interview upon his return’ told this author that he was very discourage about the way he was treated at the airport in Monrovia. He referred to the situation at the airport as worse. He said a custom officer asked him to pay USD380.00 for personal effects and gifts that had people names written on them.
After three months of hustle at the Freeport of Monrovia, my container was finally released on March 17, 2007. Instead of taking the container to the ELWA campus where the container was to be off loaded, it was forced into the Telema fishing company’s yard with custom officers, BIVA representatives, and port securities sweating to enter the container and grab something for themselves. While the container was being of loaded, some custom officers broke into one of the cars and lay away with a bag containing two laptops. In the process, one bye standers saw one of the laptops being smuggled in notorious Jimmy Bobby’s car. A police officer was called to intervene while the rest of the custom officers, BIVA representatives, and port securities were left unattended to. While in the process of investigating the mysterious disappearance of the laptop bag, one of the cars from the container (a 1995 black toyota 4 runner) mysteriously disappeared from the Telema fence. Wittnesses or bystanders saw one custom officer driving the 4 running toward the port. I immediately called StarRadio and reported the incident. When the reporters arrived at the port, they were told that there was unpaid storage on the container but how the arrangement was made to get the container out of the port remains the misery of the century. After series of investigations, it was finally discovered that the 1995 toyota 4 runner was in the process of being covertly bought by notorious Bobby Jimmy. According to Jimmy, Uriah Glaypo took USD5000.00 from him “Jimmy” and promised to give him the 4 runner in exchange.
From the week of December 24, 2006, the last car was finally released from the Freeport of Monrovia on May 5th, 2007. To date, one of the laptops from the container is at large.
Sam K Zinnah