Liberia is still struggling with the aftermath of the 2014 Ebola outbreak and the stubbornly low prices of coffee and other commodities that its exporters rely on to bring in badly needed foreign capital. But to the country's lengthy list of problems, we can now add one more.
As the New York Times and Wall Street Journal reported earlier this week, authorities in Liberia are investigating the disappearance of $104 million in newly printed bank notes intended for the central bank - a suspected fraud equivalent to 5% of the country's GDP.
The theft reportedly occurred some time between late 2017 and early 2018, as former President (and Nobel laureate) Ellen Sirleaf was handing over power to her successor, soccer star George Weah.
Liberian officials said the bank notes—more than 16 billion Liberian dollars—were ordered by the central bank from overseas printers but disappeared between November and August. The money, packaged in canvas bags and 20-foot-high sealed containers, was cleared through Liberian customs between November and August but never made it to the central bank’s headquarters in the capital, Monrovia, the officials said.
The government said the matter was being taken extremely seriously because it had national-security implications.
The disappearance is a blow for Liberia’s crisis-addled economy as it recovers from the commodity-price crash and devastating Ebola epidemic that has claimed more citizen’s lives than in any other nation.
While Weah has blamed his predecessor for the disappearance, arguing that the banknotes were ordered when she was still in office, local investigative reporters discovered that the notes were cleared by Liberian customs workers back in March, after the Weah administration had taken over, according to Quartz.
The notes...were ordered by Sirleaf’s administration in 2016. Lenn Eugene Nagbe, the government’s spokesman and Cllr. Frank Musah Dean, attorney general, told reporters the containers had arrived in November, while the Sirleaf administration was still in office. But leaked shipping documents from the port show the containers were cleared in February and March of this year, after the new administration had taken over.
Sirleaf has criticized Weah for casting aspersions on her rule (tainted as it was by brazen nepotism)...
Ms. Sirleaf quickly hit back, calling it unfortunate that the government of Liberia "would give false information that wickedly impugns the reputation of past officials and by extension the country itself," according to Front Page Africa.
She said the Central Bank of Liberia had conducted an internal investigation that the current government has refused to release.
...But a breakthrough in the state's investigation revealed that both administrations may have been complicit. Investigators released a list of 15 "persons of interest" who have been ordered not to leave the country.
One of them is Charles Sirleaf, the former president's son who served as deputy governor of the central bank during the present and previous administrations.
The plot thickened this week when the Ministry of Information issued a list of 15 "persons of interest" who have been barred from travel.
Among them was Milton Weeks, a former Central Bank governor who worked in Ms. Sirleaf’s government and resigned in July. Also on the list was Charles Sirleaf, Ms. Sirleaf’s son, who is deputy governor of the Central Bank in the Weah administration. He held the same post during his mother’s tenure.
However, whether anything will ultimately be done to hold corrupt politicians to account remains uncertain. As one economist told the New York Times, the country's "deeply embedded culture of patronage" has left it with "makeshift" administrations.
"You can have Jesus Christ heading all of these ministries, but if the president of Liberia is not serious, nothing happens," economist John Morlu said.
At the end of the day, the people of Liberia will bear the brunt of this theft as already unmanageable inflation in the price of staples like rice grows immeasurably worse.