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Persistent corruption threatens Liberian stability

Despite President Johnson-Sirleaf's tough rhetoric on the international stage and the country's modest progress in global rankings, there is growing concern back home.

By Tristan McConnellContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / September 25, 2008

Big talk: President Johnson-Sirleaf touts her government's gains at the UN General Assembly.

mike segar/reuters


Monrovia, Liberia

At dusk, streetlights come on in the Liberian capital, Monrovia, making it safer to walk the crumbling pavements. Before the election of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf as president in 2006, there had been no electricity for 15 years. On the surface, Liberia looks like a model for postconflict development. But widespread corruption threatens to undermine recent gains.

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This week, a report released by Berlin-based watchdog Transparency International (TI) ranks Liberia 42nd worst in a list of 180 countries on perceived levels of public-sector corruption, an improvement on its 2007 rank of 23rd worst.

"Corruption is the most serious threat to our growth and our stability," says Thomas Nah, head of the local chapter of TI in Monrovia. Previous TI reports have described Liberian corruption as "rampant," on par with Kenya's and Zimbabwe's.

With the help of billions of aid dollars from the United States and Europe, it was hoped that this West African country – founded by freed American slaves in 1822 and now led by Africa's first elected female head of state – would put its corrupt and bloody past behind it. But for all President Johnson-Sirleaf's talk on the international stage about fighting corruption, there are growing voices of concern back home.

"Johnson-Sirleaf's celebrity blinds the international community to the reality on the ground in Liberia," says Mr. Nah.

The president and former World Bank economist has had a challenging summer. In July, parliament censured Richard Tolbert, the head of the national investment agency, for illegally granting a tax waiver on a $150 million investment deal. Mr. Tolbert was one of numerous diaspora Liberians handpicked by Johnson-Sirleaf to help rebuild the country after decades of civil war. He said the waiver was "an honest error," but as opposition politicians called for his arrest, observers described Tolbert's "error" as symptomatic of the corruption that plagues Liberia more than two years into Johnson-Sirleaf's reign.

Corruption worldwide

Most corrupt:

1. Somalia

2. Burma (Myanmar)

3. Iraq

4. Haiti

5. Afghanistan

42. Liberia

Least corrupt:

1. Denmark

2. New Zealand

3. Sweden

4. Singapore

5. Finland

18. United States

Source: Transparency International