Oil, politics and the family in Liberia | Africa | DW | 20.09.2013
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Oil, politics and the family in Liberia

Eyebrows were raised in Liberia when President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf accepted her son's resignation as chairman of the National Oil Company of Liberia and as her senior adviser.

To some, Robert Sirleaf's initial appointment to these positions was seen as pure nepotism. “All along there has been this public outcry against Robert Sirleaf,” Senator Joseph Nagbe, who heads the judiciary committee in the Liberian Senate, told DW. “It is true that the decision by Robert Sirleaf is belated,” he added.

Referring to his advisory position to the president, Robert Sirleaf told a Liberian radio station his mother rarely took note of his advice. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf herself, Africa's only elected female president and Nobel Peace Prize winner, denied her son's resignation had anything to do with favoritism.

Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. Photo:Larry Downing, Pool/AP/dapd)

President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf was re-elected for a second term in January 2012

She insisted that Robert Sirleaf had simply completed an assignment to restructure the oil company. "We made a promise that he was there for something specific, and when that assignment was done, we would leave,” she said.

Oil bill delayed

The decision to accept his resignation comes just days after the Liberian House of Representatives delayed until January a debate on a new oil law aiming to increase transparency and competition in the sector.

Thomas Doe Nah is the head of CENTAL, a local branch of the anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International. He said the legislation was drafted by Robert Sirleaf and the National Oil Company of Liberia (NOCAL) and it reached the Senate without prior public consultation. The Senate passed the bill but the House of Representatives insisted on a hearing of experts before allowing to proceed any further. Nah was one of those experts.

“For me stopping the passing of the law at the lower house was a victory, because the oil company has become so powerful,” Nah told DW. ”People have the opinion that with a strong financial lobbying, they are in a position where the laws are always breezing through the legislature,” he added.

The legislation's backers claim it will guarantee accountability and the involvement of the Liberian people in the new oil industry. It promises Liberians they will receive 40 percent of the revenues. Nagbe said the money will trickle down to Liberians through jobs, the building of roads, schools and hospitals.

Blessing rather than a curse

Nah, however, demands caution. “These companies are not charities, you know, so whatever upfront payment they make, they usually want to recover it somewhere along the road,“ he said.

He also wants to ensure that the oil money does not simply line the pockets of the country's elite and that there is greater clarity about Liberian involvement in the sector. At the moment Liberians may not have the technical expertise to work on off-shore oil rigs but he believes they could provide catering or other services required by the industry. Both Nagbe and Nah would like to see oil turn into a blessing for Liberia, rather than the curse that some say has been visited on other African countries..

Nagbe believes it is unlikely that Robert Sirleaf's departure will have much impact on Liberia's oil plans. The country is on the brink of oil production and Robert Sirleaf, during his tenure, had already managed to attract several international oil companies like Exxon and Chevron to the country.

Titel: Liberian Woman crushing rocks Foto: ANDREW ESIEBO Beschreibung: Liberian teenager Mercy Womeh who breaks rocks to earn money to pay her school fees. Photo was part of an entry to the German Development Media Awards 2013 by Wade C. L. Williams, winner of region Africa.

Despite the promise of oil Liberia remains one of the world's poorest countries a decade after the end of the civil war

Nagbe added that the new chair should focus on making Liberia an oil-producing country as quickly as possible. Robert Sirleaf's successor is Fred Bass, vice chairman of NOCAL's board of directors. He takes over as acting chairman.

Three sons appointed to government posts

Even though Liberia's enormous resource wealth has attracted much interest from foreign inveestors, corruption is still seen as a big obstacle.

Almost all of the $8 billion (5.9 billion euros) worth of resource contracts signed by Liberia since 2009 have violated its laws, acording to a draft audit report commissioned by the government.

Despite declaring a zero tolerance policy for corruption President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has been criticized for appointing three sons to government posts. In addition to Robert, whom she said could now become "a private citizen," there are sons Fumba and Charles. Fumba is the head of the National Security Agency. Charles was suspended by his mother as deputy governor of the central bank in October.

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