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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.

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Soon after, a series of e-mail exchanges surfaced on the Internet implicating the president's close aides in corruption. The e-mails appear to show former minister and presidential confidante Willis Knuckles and current minister Estrada Bernard – Johnson-Sirleaf's brother-in-law – accepting bribes from Yoram Cohen, the operator of Liberia's lucrative shipping registry, Liberian International Ship and Corporate Registry (LISCR). While LISCR has called the allegations "baseless," the government has announced an investigation and denied the president's involvement in the scandal.

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Last year, Liberia's Auditor General John Morlu, responsible for checking official accounts, caused an uproar when he declared that Johnson-Sirleaf presided over a regime "three times more corrupt" than that of her predecessor, Gyude Bryant, who currently faces graft charges. Mr. Morlu says he still stands by his analysis: "I made that statement in 2007, and I have been proven correct."

Morlu also warns that if corruption is not stamped out, "we might have a revisit of the civil war. Corruption hurts everyone and if people are hopeless they turn to violence." This is a real concern in a country with 85 percent unemployment where people knew little but civil war for almost a quarter of a century until the exile of warlord President Charles Taylor in 2003.

There are some signs of change, though. An Anti-Corruption Commission came into effect earlier this month. Thousands of "ghost workers" have been struck off the civil service wage list, some corrupt civil servants and ministers have been sacked or reassigned, and Liberia has qualified for debt relief.

Last week, the government disqualified India's Tata Steel and South Africa's Delta Mining Consolidated from participating in a relaunched bidding round for the $1.5 billion Western Cluster iron ore project, citing "acts of violation" by the two companies. Authorities alleged that an earlier bid may have been compromised by "external influence" and launched an investigation to further Johnson-Sirleaf's zero tolerance for corruption policy.

But skeptics remain. "The test of the sincerity of anticorruption measures is if they traverse political parties," says Corinne Dufka, a West Africa specialist at the New York-based Human Rights Watch. In Liberia, she adds, this has yet to happen.

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