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.
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.
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.
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.