US lobbying: War crimes fight looms over Liberia’s bicentennial

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: Africa’s Top 10 lobbying operations in Washington, D.C

By Julian Pecquet
Posted on Monday, 28 February 2022 17:53

Liberia's President George Weah meets with a US Congressional delegation to Liberia
Liberia's President George Weah meets with a US Congressional delegation to Liberia led by Representative Gregory W. Meeks, Chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee on 21 February 2022. (twitter @GeorgeWeahOff)

Liberia has launched a full-court lobbying effort around its bicentennial anniversary, but the opposition is putting a damper on Monrovia’s US appeal.

Back in August, President George Weah’s government hired three US lobbying and PR firms for a total of $660,000 per year: Washington lobbying firm Ice Miller Strategies, Carbon Thread Agency of Atlanta, and CNN analyst Bakari Sellers’ Strom Public Affairs in Columbia, South Carolina.

The three firms aim to help deepen relations with the US government and business community as the west African nation begins a year-long commemoration next month of the arrival of the first freed American slaves who would eventually found the country. They join KRL International, a consulting firm led by former Johnson Sirleaf campaign adviser Riva Levinson, which has had a $20,000-per-month contract with Weah’s government since January 2020.

Monrovia has begun to reap the fruits of its efforts, with President Joe Biden’s senior director for Africa, Dana Banks, leading a US delegation to Liberia on 14 February. A week later, New York Democrat Gregory Meeks led his own congressional delegation to the country as part of his first visit to Africa as chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Civil war wounds

The president’s opponents however aren’t giving him free rein to capitalise on tighter US relations ahead of an electoral rematch in 2023.

On 15 August, the Monrovia-based Liberia Renaissance Office hired Washington advocacy firm the BW Global Group for $180,000 over six months to hold accountable those responsible for the civil wars of 1989-1997 and 1999-2003. The Liberian office is led by Sylvester Grigsby, a former minister of State for Presidential Affairs under Weah’s predecessor, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Grigsby backs the opposition Collaborating Political Parties (CPP) coalition.

Working on the contract are longtime Africa lobbyists Jeffrey Birrell and Alan White, a former chief investigator for the UN Special Court for Sierra Leone who helped put former Liberian President Charles Taylor away. Birrell previously lobbied for 2017 presidential candidate Benoni Wilfred Urey, who was defeated in the first round.

BW is trying to build US support for the establishment of a War Crimes and Economic Crimes Court, which Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) recommended back in 2010. The firm also helped organise a Washington trip in October for Alexander Cummings, a former Coca-Cola executive who leads the opposition Alternative National Congress and supports a war crimes court.

The firm argues that Weah’s government is dragging its feet despite supportive rhetoric out of concern that some of its supporters could be caught up in the reckoning.

“That’s what Liberia is missing,” White tells The Africa Report. “They’ve never had reconciliation, because nobody’s ever been held accountable.”

They’ve never had reconciliation, because nobody’s ever been held accountable.

After backing the court during the campaign, Weah kicked the matter over to the Liberian Senate in 2019, which last year warned against “reopening old wounds” even as it called for the cstablishment a “transitional” justice commission. Complicating matters, two former warlords — George Boley and Prince Johnson — named in the 2010 TRC report are sitting members of the legislature (the Biden administration samctioned Prince Johnson for alleged corruption in December).

White says cost has been a factor, adding that the Sierra Leone court cost some $30m a year in its heyday. He has sought to gain assurances that Washington could help foot the bill, as it did with Sierra Leone.

Congressional interest

The US Congress has previously expressed its support with a House resolution in 2018 and a congressional hearing back in June 2021. Washington hasn’t appropriated any funding, however, but White took solace from a recent congressional resolution commemorating the bicentennary of US-Liberian ties while calling on the Weah government to redouble its efforts to “counter corruption, advance the causes of human rights, and implement critical economic reforms”.

“The US Congress is sending a powerful message to the Weah administration about the ongoing corruption issues and they will continue to seek and support continued targeted sanctions of this engaged in corruption,” White says.

Liberian Ambassador to the US George Patten says Monrovia welcomed the congressional action.

“The most important thing is that on the celebration of our bicentennial, Congress has deemed it necessary to remember Liberia,” he told The Africa Report. “We’ll continue to work with Congress and the US government to address some of the issues that were raised in that resolution.”

The lobbying hasn’t gone unnoticed by Weah’s government, which blamed BW after a delegation led by finance minister Samuel Tweah back in September was greeted by sharp questions about alleged corruption during its visit to Capitol Hill.

“This is the damage that has been done by the CPP,” Tweah wrote in a  leaked chat from the cabinet chatroom, according to Liberian newspaper FrontPage Africa.  “This is why they are paying $180,000.”

Meanwhile Ambassador Patten wrote in a statement for last year’s congressional hearing that the Weah administration was committed to post-war accountability despite being “beset by other demanding priorities” such as the fight against covid. He warned Congress about “opportunistic politicians” looking to weaponise the issue for their “selfish or pecuniary political agenda”.

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