Liberians recently propelled George Weah, a former soccer star, to the presidency, but as he is sworn in on Monday to replace Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, he will inherit the problem that stymied her progress against corruption: a political system based on coercion and bribery.
Liberia’s trajectory since the end of its last civil war in 2003, including Ms. Sirleaf’s tenure, is unambiguously positive. She obtained the cancellation of nearly $5 billion in debt and stabilized an economy that had contracted by 90 percent between the mid-1980s and the mid-1990s. Infant mortality has been halved since 2003. The government has made great strides in protecting human rights and free speech.
To explain the shortcomings that do remain — about 54 percent of Liberians live in poverty; Liberia ranks near the bottom of the World Bank’s 2018 index measuring the ease of doing business — many point to the country’s troubled history. After decades of war, institutional decay and societal collapse, the nation had to be rebuilt almost from scratch. A recession hit in 2008. In 2011, the prices of Liberia’s main exports — iron, ore and rubber — dropped. Ebola struck the country harder than any other in Western Africa.
All of this is true. But a more fundamental obstacle is the transactional and coercive nature of political life here. “Nothing for nothing” goes a Liberian saying to describe both mundane interactions and high political dealings. Pork-barrel politics is a distasteful, if accepted, part of democracy. In patronage systems like this one, the levers are blunter and far more personal. They boil down to money or favors — secured through jobs, contracts, material goods or simple cash. Liberia was ranked 90 out of 176 countries on the Corruptions Perceptions Index for 2016 (though up from 137 in 2005).
The Liberia Anti-Corruption Commission, which was set up by the Sirleaf administration, has opened 21 investigations, but only a handful of relatively low-level cases have been prosecuted so far. Ms. Sirleaf herself appointed three sons to key government positions; she maintains they were qualified, but the perception of nepotism has stuck.
Ms. Sirleaf defended her record in an interview with Foreign Policy a few months ago, saying that she had “underestimated the cultural roots of corruption.”
“I don’t think people understand the awesomeness of the destruction of this country — its institutions, its infrastructure, its law, its morals.”
This is not full absolution, but Ms. Sirleaf did inherit a shell of a country with only a tenuous peace. Maintaining stability and rebuilding basic institutions were her first orders of business, and they required making unsavory political deals — for example, trading justice for peace. In exchange for giving up fighting, former warlords were assured that they wouldn’t be prosecuted for war crimes. Some have since been elected to Parliament.
Ms. Sirleaf may also have weakened her own hand by governing well. Dictators of years past ruled by fiat or by weighting nothing-for-nothing bargains with a simple, loaded question: “You have a daughter, right?” Ms. Sirleaf removed brute force from Liberia’s political playbook. Political violence has abated. The rule of law and respect for the legislature’s constitutional role as a counterweight to the executive have been restored. But these changes have also emboldened political competition, complicating other types of reform.
No longer fearing reprisals for opposing the president, politicians have newfound influence. Lawmakers have taken to holding legislative items hostage, making material demands when the time comes to pass budgets, allocate money for schools, confirm political appointees or enact laws.
Her leverage limited by the tools of democratic governance, Ms. Sirleaf used “cash violence,” in Liberian slang, or the persuasive powers of the purse, to bring political competitors to her side. She gave or withheld government positions and contracts, and used off-the-book inducements.
Such structural problems resist easy fixes and the odds rarely favor reformers, but at certain moments — such as during political transitions — narrow windows of opportunity open. Mr. Weah is in such a moment, because Liberia, while still fragile, has passed through the period when restoring stability had to be an absolute priority. He can now turn to smaller technical fixes that did not even appear on Ms. Sirleaf’s radar.
For starters, Mr. Weah could set new expectations for greater accountability by promptly issuing an executive order asking all government ministries and agencies to publish their monthly expenditures. It’s a simple step, but it could have an outsized impact on combating government fraud by opening spending to public scrutiny.
Mr. Weah should instruct the finance ministry to allocate funds only to government entities with an approved procurement plan. Government contracts for goods and services — which, officials have told me, can account for up to 50 percent of the total budget — offer easy opportunities for graft. Just 41 percent of government entities currently have such plans even though those are required by law. Tying funding to compliance would change this practice is no time.
The new president should also ask the General Auditing Commission to examine the legislature’s 2018 expenditures and legislators’ assets. Remarkably, Parliament has never had to account for its spending despite persistent allegations of corruption. Giving legislators a full year’s warning would allow them to correct any problematic behavior; past practices should be ignored, as looking into them would be a political nonstarter. Calling for oversight of this kind would have been too contentious in the past, but the new Speaker of the House — the third-highest position in the country — is an ally of Mr. Weah’s and has previously said he would support such a move.
Mr. Weah faces a moment of consequence and a rare opportunity to build on Ms. Sirleaf’s successes. She brought Liberia back from the dead. Now it’s his turn to nurture the country’s fledgling institutions by taking on its coercive, corrupt political culture.
Benjamin Spatz, a scholar at the United States Institute of Peace, served on the United Nations Panel of Experts on Liberia in 2012–15.