Liberia: US sanctions on Liberian President’s key allies tests his anti-graft claims

By Dounard Bondo, in Monrovia

Posted on Friday, 19 August 2022 18:17
Liberian President George Weah in Paris, France November 12, 2018. Ludovic Marin/Pool via REUTERS

When US President Joe Biden’s administration imposed some of the heaviest financial sanctions on three top Liberian officials this week, he fired a broadside across President George Weah’s government.

The three officials sanctioned – Nathaniel McGill, Sayma Syrenius Cephus, and Bill Twehway – are all senior figures in the presidency and members of Weah’s inner caucus.

Nathaniel McGill is Minister of State for Presidential Affairs and Chief of Staff to President Weah; Sayma Syrenius Cephus is the Solicitor General and Chief Prosecutor of Liberia; and Bill Twehway is the current Managing Director of the National Port Authority (NPA).

For the opposition, President Weah’s subsequent suspension of the three officials and call for them to be investigated doesn’t go far enough. They want the three to resign or be sacked.

The three are sanctioned under the US Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act which targets human rights violators and corrupt officials and business people around the world. Magnitsky sanctions are among the most powerful in the US’s financial tool box.

The officials will be barred from entering the US and all their all property and interests there will be frozen. All business entities in the US linked to them, directly or indirectly, will also be taken over.

The corrupt acts

A statement by the US embassy in Monrovia accuses Nathaniel McGill, in his role as minister of state, of bribing and receiving bribes and kickbacks from would-be investors and companies with which he is linked.

McGill is also accused of manipulating public procurement procedures to award multi-million dollar contracts to his own companies. US officials also accuse him of involvement in several other corrupt schemes including soliciting bribes from people seeking government jobs and misappropriating state assets.

The US officials say that Sayma Cephus had developed close relationships with suspects in criminal investigations and has received bribes from individuals in exchange for having their cases dropped.

He is also accused of using his position to block investigations and the prosecution of corruption cases involving members of the government. On top of that he is alleged to have tampered with evidence in cases against opposition politicians to ensure their conviction.

Finally, the US officials accuse Bill Twehway of diverting $1.5 million in vessel storage fee funds from the port authority into a private account. Twehway is said to have secretly formed a private company to which he awarded a contract for loading and unloading cargo at the Port of Buchanan. The state contract was awarded to the company less than a month after its founding.

Fighting corruption?

This is the third time that Liberian officials under Weah’s presidency have been sanctioned by the US government for corruption. In 2021 and 2019 two lawmakers were targeted.

Yet few think these sanctions will influence Weah’s run for a second presidential term next year. Neither is it likely to deflect the political aspirations of the three officials.

President Weah is not sanctioned …he will lose very little of his political base.

Last month, Bill Twehway was said to be running for a senatorial seat and local papers report that McGill is also positioning himself for elective office.

Ibrahim Nyei, a Liberian researcher and political scientist, doubts the sanctions will affect the political plans of the president or his top allies.

“President Weah is not sanctioned …he will lose very little of his political base. Going by history, sanctions by the US did little to affect the political base of  Varney Sherman and Prince Yormie Johnson [both senior lawmakers].  If the sanctioned officials choose to run for elective office, they could still win”

But the sanctions may be seen as an indictment on president Weah’s fight against corruption ahead of the 2023 general elections.

This month, the national assembly in Monrovia amended the laws governing Liberia’s Anti-Corruption Commission (LACC) after receiving a request from the president.

While the amendment gives the LACC prosecutorial powers, it also allows the government to replace its commissioners. And it bars the LACC from seizing or freezing assets of indicted officials unless it can prove that they are a flight risk.

Critics argues these amendments weaken the fight against corruption, allowing for the dismissal of tenured commissioners and their replacement by party loyalists.

Now the LACC faces a stern test. It will have to investigate, on Weah’s orders, the multiple charges against those top three officials made in the US sanctions order. Its conclusions will be a matter of compelling interest among politicians in Washington DC as well as Monrovia.

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