In Liberia, A Damning Report Spurs Corruption Crackdown

Has a Global Witness report detailing high level corruption finally forced President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to do something about corruption?

The Chairman of Liberia's ruling Unity Party, Varney Sherman spent Monday barricaded inside his Monrovia home as members of the Presidential Taskforce Investigating the recent Global Witness Report, backed by police officers, came to search his premises.

A crowd of partisans gathered outside to support Sherman, one of Liberia's most powerful political figures. Others were there to support the investigation into a damning report issued by the international corruption watchdog Global Witness (GW), titled “The Deceivers” detailing how the British company Edmond and Groves bribed their way into huge acquisitions in Liberia, Mozambique and Guinea.

The Taskforce, set up by Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to investigate the alleged corruption by top government officials sent shockwaves through Monrovia when it issued arrest warrants and court subpoenas of financial statements to help with the investigation.

The Task Force's head, Liberian lawyer Cllr. J. Fonati Koffa, began executing a series of arrests and a search warrant for the Sherman and Sherman law firm owned by Sherman. Koffa was Chairman of the opposition Liberty Party until his appointment by the President as Minister of State without Portfolio one week before the release of the Global Witness Report.

The report released May 11th, details how Sable Mining Africa Limited, a subsidiary of Edmond and Groves, pushed its way through an already corrupt business climate in Liberia, making use of highly placed public officials to get their deals sealed. The company even went a step further by using bribes to change Liberian law to gain greater access to a much coveted mineral deposit inside Mt. Wologizi.

Sable allegedly went through the country’s most powerful men: The Speaker of the House of Representatives J. Alex Tyler, the Chairman of the Ruling Party now Senator of Grand Cape Mt. County, Sherman, the then head of the National Investment Commission Richard Tolbert, Presidential aide, now Senator, Morris Saytumah and a number of other powerful people.

“By August 2010 Sable had paid out more than $200,000 earmarked for some of the most powerful people in Liberia,” Global Witness states in its report. Another $500,000 was intended for two important figures known only as Bigboy 01 and Bigboy 02. Speculation into their identities is rampant.

“The payments are listed in a cache of documents leaked to Global Witness, including a spreadsheet from Sherman’s law firm listing many of the biggest sums. Alongside the bribes, thousands more went on entertaining the president’s son, the documents show.”

This well organized corruption allegation has caused serious outrage in Liberia, not because the people are surprised by it, but simply because they feel President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has not done enough to fight corruption by bringing people accused misusing the public trust to book.

Christian Nelson a Liberian talk show host, now based in the US, believes the fight against corruption in Liberia is nurtured by a system of governance where the executive refuses to exercise oversight power.

“Why corruption is the way it is in Liberia is simple, no system, plus laws are not enforced,” he said in an email to Okayafrica.

“Since the birth of the nation,” writes Nelson, “Liberia has made the fight against corruption priority number one but cannot get past stage one. Oh yes, there are enough laws on the books to even send Satan to hell so why is Satan still hanging around?”

Nelson’s views reflect how many Liberians feel about the fight against corruption. Many of these public officials take these corruption allegations as a joke, even using the media in Liberia to ridicule the GW findings.

The President has gone beyond just setting up a board of inquiry into these grave allegations, giving the team prosecutorial powers to go after anyone who is found culpable in the GW report.

Yet the Chairman of the ruling Unity Party Cllr. Varney Sherman has been adamant that he will not submit himself to the panel set up by the President to investigate these allegations of bribery.

“Is there a place in our jurisprudence where the accused submits himself to an investigation?” Sherman asked a local talk show host Mamadee Diakite on last Tuesday.

“If you know I have done something illegal, do your investigation and go to court but don’t ask me to submit myself to an investigatio. I cannot submit myself to an investigation where I have been accused of committing a crime.”

This refusal of Sherman refuses to appear before the committee to answer questions about his involvement in the Sable mining deal, has led the committee to take the stand that it is taking now by seeking police enforcement to make him comply. But during this same interview last week Sherman gave some clues on what his role in Sable Mining deal was.

"Since Sable Mining was not registered to do business in Liberia as a company, it couldn't open a bank account,” Sherman said.

“You can open a bank account in Liberia to the best of my knowledge, only if you are a resident of Liberia or a company registered to do business in Liberia. Since they were not registered to do business in Liberia, to get funds from England to them in Liberia for whatever they were doing in Liberia, that's when we offered our accounts at International Bank where funds came in for them and we delivered their funds to them as and when they asked."

Now the question is how many more public officials who own private entities are doing this? Why is Sherman not being asked the right questions? There seems to be a huge conflict of interest here as Sherman was Chairman of the Ruling Party and others involved held key positions in government and had immense power to influence decision making.

Sherman was Sable Mining’s lawyer and banker at the same time. Such conflict of interest is illegal in Liberia, especially as it relates to public officials.

The Liberian code of conduct for public officials states: “1.3.6 Conflict of Interest: is when a public official, contrary to official obligations and duties to act for the benefit of the public, exploits a relationship for personal benefit.”

But the Committee Chair Koffa in a statement to OkayAfrica said his committee has invited all those implicated in the GW report and if they are found culpable, they would be forwarded for prosecution.

“Our work is a national duty. We will go where the evidence leads us without fear or favor,” said Cllr. Koffa.

Despite this assurance some Liberians are looking at the committee as just another one of those appointed by the President that may have no impact. This pessimism from the President’s critics stems from the President’s inability to prosecute officials in her government who have been indicted by several audit reports. Some feel she has not stayed true to these words uttered when she took office in 2006: “Corruption, under my administration, will be the major public enemy.”

But supporters of the President still believe that she is resolved to fight corruption as promised more than ten years ago. Togba Emmanuel, a student of International Security Studies at Coventry University in the U.K told OkayAfrica via email that the President has done a lot to fight corruption, but the challenges are embedded in a political culture built over the years that ridicules honesty.

“How can her government be cleansed of corruption is a question that is grim to answer,” Emmanuel Said.

“The roots go so deep and demand such a radical reordering, among other things, the appointment of an independent Taskforce charged to investigate the Sable bribery links will serve the purpose for a new day if treated with sincerity.”

Despite these strides, many Liberians are skeptical about the final outcome of this investigation many feel it is just another charade by the President to show-off to the international community but the response to these allegations has been met by huge public outrage both at home and abroad. These actions taken by President Johnson Sirleaf against the alleged perpetrators would go a long way in showing that she is sincere about fighting corruption.

Photo courtesy of Sam Soko.

Interview: Sam Soko is the Kenyan Director Behind Sundance Hit, 'Softie'

We meet filmmaker Sam Soko who has made a stirring documentary about the Kenyan protest leader Boniface Mwangi

Filmmaker Sam Soko didn't intend on making a documentary about Kenyan photojournalist-turned-politician Boniface Mwangi.

The original idea he had was to make a manual of sorts, a short video guide, on how to protest, the do's and don't's. Soko, himself an activist artist who cut his teeth convincing friends to let him create political music videos for their apolitical songs, knew Mwangi's experience on the streets both photographing protests and staging them meant he had a lot to share with others.

But then came the blood. A thousand litres of it, to be precise. And the pigs. Dozens of them, with words like MPigs written on them. Like the graphic photos Mwangi had become known for taking—it was a sight you couldn't look away from. It was a protest Mwangi organized, in 2013, to decry corrupt members of the Kenyan parliament who had decided to increase their salaries, 2 months after taking office. And at his side, through the thick red liquid of it all, was Mwangi's wife, Njere, ready to be arrested with him.

"Once I was witness to his relationship, I started seeing him as a family man," Soko tells OkayAfrica. "Because he's planning a protest and all, but when you look at the footage, you start seeing the kids and you start seeing Njere. That's when it started hitting me, in the sense, that she was with him in such a crazy space."

Soko formed a creative and activist hub, called PAWA 254, with Mwangi, as they became part of the groundswell demanding democratic reforms in a country still left scarred from the division sewed between Kikuyu and Luo people by British colonizers. "We had a new Constitution at the time, and there was this hope that we finally could picket without being tear-gassed or being beaten, Like, our civil liberties could be held up." Instead, the government strengthened its police force into a notorious organization condemned by human rights activists. "That's very salient in the film," says Soko. "If you see how the police dress, for instance, at the beginning, it's very different; they become more militant towards the end."

Soko's debut feature-length documentary, Softie, which became the first Kenyan film to ever premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, earlier this year, is at once a love story between Mwangi and his wife and their three children, but also between Mwangi and his beloved Kenya, under president Uhuru Kenyatta. Central to the film is the tussle between how these different loves bump up against each other: what comes first — love of country or love of family?

We spoke to the Nairobi-based director about making the film, which opens in virtual cinemas, starting this Friday, September 18th.

Boniface Mwangi with his wife Photo courtesy of Sam Soko

OA: Early on in the film, we learn how steadfast Boniface Mwangi is — he talks about being willing to die for the ideals he believes in, which made me think of Nelson Mandela and his Rivonia Treason Trial speech. Boniface is someone in the present day who still shares this belief?

When we were working on the edit, and kind of crafting and thinking about what the story was going to be, something that we found that was really, really interesting is, with a lot of the stories, like the story of Nelson Mandela, you'd never see the other side. That's something we see later, up ahead, as a retrospective. We'd hear about Martin Luther King and then we'd read about Coretta Scott in, I think, 1990, like, 'Oh, this his was her struggle.' That sort of thing. But for me, Boniface and Njere represented a present day reality struggle that showcases what Mandela was going through, what Martin Luther was going through. That was kind of like unravelling the curtain; when you see Martin Luther marching, Coretta's at home, trying to help their kids do their homework. And this is the reality.

OA: And the film poses that question of love for your country versus love for your family, and which one should come first?

Exactly. They see it in different ways. Boniface sees it that if you improve the country, you improve the lives of those who you love. Njere's like, you have to have your family's back first. And that means everything else comes second. And she's right; she's not wrong. And he's not wrong.

OA: The film really is privy to some really private moments in Mwangi's life — how did you gain his trust?

When we started filming the short video, he was really involved with the protests, and we started doing the protests with him. So we were—quote, unquote—in the trenches with him in the protests, and somehow that's how he kind of welcomed us to his home. When you've been with someone in the streets, and you're tear-gassed together more than once, you already have a common bond. But then I started developing a relationship with him that was beyond the streets. Just checking up on him and asking, what's going on, what's taking place? That sort of thing. I think it took a while. And I think even from Njere, we kind of developed a kind of camaraderie that was separate from my relationship with Boniface, because I would actually be like, 'Hey, he said that, how does that make you feel?' And not necessarily on camera. But over time, he kind of accepted us to be there with a camera. At some point, I kind of felt like they were talking to me, and not necessarily the camera; like, the camera is kind of this thing that's there, but not there. That kind of trust, again, was built on a respect that I have for them and their values and what they're doing. I think that's something they saw. It made them trust me with their story and trust me with their family.

You're the director of the film, but you're also producer, writer and cinematographer. Did Boniface's own style as a photojournalist influence you in any way?

The film has three cinematographers, and a lot of my cinematography is within the intimate moments, because that's when they would only engage with someone they trust. But him being a photographer actually, to a point, made the work a bit hard because he's constantly looking at how you're doing it. He's in your face about the angle. He's like, 'Hey, why are you standing there, you should be there.' But in some places he did help 'cause he's been filming in the streets and filming protests for a very long time. So when you're there filming, he'll easily tell you, 'Dude, don't stand there. They're about to start tear-gassing. Go to the other side.' And it's weird, when you're on the other side and you're filming, and all of a sudden you see tear gas, you wonder, 'How the hell did he know?' You do that 234 times and you start knowing yourself, 'Oh, this is how,' and he was really helpful in that sense.

I can imagine that filming during the protests must have been one of the big challenges of making this film but what else did you struggle with? There were death threats for Mwangi, did that happen to you as well?

It's so funny, when you're filming and when you're in the protests, it's adrenaline talking. So you're not really thinking about whether you're going to be okay. This one time, I got arrested because the cop said I was a spy for the protesters. [We had everything] from cameras breaking to sound equipment messing up, but when it became a more political story, with death threats, it became scary even for editing the film. Because you don't know who's watching you. This one time, I was with him in the car, filming, and we were being followed. So we kind of had to be very careful who we are telling about the story. It was a very deep secret that we were making this film and there are people who are watching it now asking, 'How could you keep this from us from all these years?' Because we had to do that. Especially when the family was in the US. We had to do that for the sake of safety for him, Boniface, for his family but also the film team. I remember doing the pitches with different names. But then we were also lucky that we had our co-producing partner in Canada, Eye Steel Film, so they were able to house the edit there. I went to Canada to edit and that kind of also gives you a kind of freedom to think and work and create. That was the reality, and now I think we have PTSD from the film. I can't film another protest. I'm sorry. I'm out. Like, it tapped me out.

There are similarities to the Black Lives Matter protests here in the US, against police brutality and violence but the slogan takes on a different resonance in places like Kenya, where the police force is particularly heavy-handed. How do you see these protests as being similar but also different?

There are two things that you learn with the film. One, our voices can never be silenced. They will try, but I think humanity is like a pressure cooker. The more you boil us, the more you put that heat, the more explosive we become. And through people like Boniface's life, you see that there are human beings who exist, who do extraordinary things.

The other thing is the idea of activism doesn't necessarily just speak to the person who's on the street. It doesn't necessarily speak to the person who's holding the placard. An activist is someone like Njere and her life, and her family. And Khadija [Mohamed, Mwangi's campaign manager]. She's such a strong and powerful activist in her own right. She was Boniface's campaign manager for free. The work they did was so powerful. And you have these other people in the background who are doing such incredible things. The sum total of what they've done is [to] instigate… We have an election next year, but I am so sure that we are going to have so many candidates who are going to be like, 'We want you to donate to our campaign. We have these values and beliefs; this is what we want to do.' That is how we need to go about change or add on to the conversations of change.

The same thing that's happening with the Black Lives Matters movement. Yes, there are people going to the street and we should keep going to the street. But we need to push people to engage in policy and make sure these policy changes are made.

We need to stand for what we believe in, as filmmakers in spaces where we feel oppression exists. Like the rules that have come out with the Academy Awards, these are rules that should be celebrated because they add on to that conversation of diversity and representation. All these things—that sum total—is what makes the difference. It's going beyond the streets and going beyond our Tweets, going beyond our Facebook messages, making films and sharing films. We just need to keep pumping up the volume, keeping the heat up, keep pushing. It's gonna take a while, but we'll get there.

Photojournalist-turned-politician Boniface Mwangi during a protest in Nairobi, Kenya Photo courtesy of Sam Soko

That's where you as a filmmaker come in—this film was the first Kenyan film to get into Sundance, where it won a special editing prize.

There's another film I'm producing and, and, yes, I had my film at Sundance, that's great. But there's this other filmmaker who's making another film, and it's so cool, and this is the thing—we need to keep bouncing off this energy and this light and this vibe, and just keep pushing and making sure that the wheels keep turning. That's what we're all about.

How do you renew your strength, as a filmmaker but also as a Kenyan and as an African?

Being a Kenyan is hard. I think being an African is hard. Like, it's hard. There's a line I heard Boniface say once: 'I love my country, but I am afraid of my government.' But the way in which, personally, I find energy is when I meet new filmmakers, or you know, people who are like starting out and they want to make films that sound totally crazy. And they believe that they can do it. And I'm like, 'yes, yes, keep going!' We are planning to do a premiere. We have not confirmed the date yet but we're thinking it's around going to be early October in Kenya, because Kenyans haven't watched it. The government gave us an adult rating. They're putting us on the same level as porn.

This is the same government that banned Wanuri Kahiu's Rafiki because of its homosexual theme…

Exactly, that's what we're getting but the lemonade that we've made out of all this is, 'Guess what? This is cinema!' We're going to take it to a cinema. People are going to come to watch it in a cinema or watch it at home or watch it in the best way possible. And the people who've watched it have appreciated it as a film and a story, and their story. They've seen a reflection of themselves. That gives me so much joy because the Kenyans who've watched it, when they give you feedback, they say, this is truth; this is our truth. And they don't see just an activist. They see a couple struggling with love. They see our history in the last 10 years. And they're like, 'What the hell, we lived this?' and they see the things that are unresolved — and many things are unresolved. Seeing that reaction gives me so much strength and hope. But it's hard. It's very hard. Because, you know, you have to wake up and see the policeman getting a bribe. And you're like, 'Homie??'

"SOFTIE" Movie Poster

Watch the trailer for Softie here.

Softie | Official Trailer | A film by Sam Soko

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