US sanctions top aide to President Weah, two other Liberians in anti-corruption push

By Julian Pecquet
Posted on Tuesday, 16 August 2022 13:30

Liberia's President George Weah attends ECOWAS summit to discuss transitional roadmap for Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea, in Accra, Ghana, July 3, 2022. REUTERS/Francis Kokoroko

The Joe Biden administration has sanctioned three top Liberian officials, including a top aide to President George Weah, in the latest US crackdown on alleged corruption in the country that is a close American ally in West Africa.

The US Treasury Department announced on 15 August that it was blocking US property and interests in property owned by Nathaniel McGill, who is Weah’s chief of staff and the minister of state for presidential affairs; Sayma Syrenius Cephus, the solicitor general and chief prosecutor; and Bill Twehway, the national port authority managing director. The three were designated under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act – or GloMag – for their alleged involvement in “ongoing public corruption in Liberia”.

“Through their corruption these officials have undermined democracy in Liberia for their own personal benefit,” Under Secretary of the Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Brian Nelson said in a statement. “Treasury’s designations today demonstrate that the United States remains committed to holding corrupt actors accountable and to the continued support of the Liberian people.”

Weah under fire

The Biden administration says McGill manipulated public procurement to award multi-million dollar contracts to companies in which he has ownership. Cephus, meanwhile, allegedly received bribes from criminal suspects to have their cases dropped, while Twehway is accused of diverting $1.5m worth of vessel storage fees into a private account.

All three of these individuals have contributed to Liberia’s worsening corruption

The Liberian Embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

This week’s sanctions mark the latest escalation in a years-long US campaign to stem perceived corruption under President Weah.

Back in December, the Donald Trump administration sanctioned Senator Harry Varney Gboto-Nambi Sherman, the chairman of the Liberian Senate Judiciary Committee. A year later, the Biden administration followed suit with sanctions on Senator Prince Johnson, a former warlord turned close Weah ally.

The US Congress has also made its concerns clear. Last year, New Jersey Congressman Chris Smith, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs panel on Africa and co-chairman of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, accused Weah, during a commission hearing, of leading a “kleptocratic government” whose political corruption began “on the day he assumed office, by depleting the government coffers for personal use while the people of Liberia suffer”.

Public theft has emerged as a major issue in the 2023 presidential election, in which Weah is expected to run for a second term.

Although Weah’s government has beefed up its lobbying presence in Washington in recent months, his opponents are also making in-roads with Congress and the State Department.

The latest sanctions are “a message that is clearly being sent to the Weah administration that the United States government [is] fully aware of the corruption and human rights violations that are ongoing in Liberia”, says Alan White, a former chief investigator for the UN Special Court for Sierra Leone who helped put former Liberian President Charles Taylor away and now represents Alexander Cummings, the 2023 opposition candidate. “[…] I believe that there will be more to come,” White says.

US priority

The latest designations come as the Biden administration has made the fight against global corruption a US priority.

Last December, the White House released a US Strategy on Countering Corruption that makes the fight against corruption a core national security interest. Earlier this month, the National Security Council released a US-Africa strategy that highlights anti-kleptocracy efforts as a key factor in the Biden administration’s priority of fostering openness and open societies on the continent.

“The United States will work with African governments, civil society, and publics to increase transparency and accountability, including by supporting investigative journalism, combating digital authoritarianism, and enshrining laws, reforms, and practices that promote shared democratic norms,” the strategy states.

“Consistent with the first-ever US Strategy on Countering Corruption, the United States — working with our African partners — will seek to improve fiscal transparency, expose corruption, and support reforms.”

State Department spokesman Ned Price also highlighted the administration’s anti-corruption push in a statement.

“All three of these individuals have contributed to Liberia’s worsening corruption,” Price said. ”These designations reflect our commitment to implementing the United States Strategy on Countering Corruption and to partnering with the Liberian government and people to help the country chart a better course forward.”

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