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Liberia: All the President’s banknotes

President George Weah

Shiploads of new money, the death of a bank manager and a curious kitchen cabinet

It was just three days after the release of a report into the possible disappearance of several millions of US dollars from shipments of newly manufactured banknotes to Liberia that the deputy director for micro-finance at the Central Bank of Liberia (CBL), Matthew Innis, was found dead in a street near his home.

According to his family, Innis had gone to work on that Saturday 2 March 2019 to investigate as yet uncovered elements of the much-published new banknotes scandal. Previously, he had openly told colleagues that he felt that two powerful politicians, Finance Minister Samuel Tweah and Minister of State for Presidential Affairs, Nathaniel McGill, -both members of ex-footballer, now president, George Weah’s, kitchen cabinet – should be arrested and charged, together with the Central Bank governor, Nathaniel Patray III.

Days before Innis’ death, the United States-based research agency Kroll, at the request of that country’s development aid institution USAID, had released a damning report that had found “discrepancies at every step of the (new banknotes shipments) process.” It had implicated an Economic Management Team headed by Finance Minister Samuel Tweah in creating “risks for misappropriation and money laundering” of “significant funds.” But Kroll had stopped short of recommending any charges. A Presidential Investigative Team appointed by president Weah, investigating the same banknotes scandal, had recommended charges, but only of individuals who were associated with the previous government of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and no one else.

Really heavy money

The newly printed money had been ordered by the bank three years earlier, under the government of Ellen Sirleaf. It had been a bizarrely large order, of a value of around 15 billion Liberian dollars. It was the equivalent of over US$ 100 million, which was also equivalent to the amount of all the money that was already circulating in Liberia. Putting so much new money simply into the economy without strict measures to simultaneously take out old banknotes, Kroll and others noted, would very likely cause skyrocketing inflation – which it did, about which more later. Part of the later charges against Sirleaf-era’s deputy bank governor Charles Sirleaf (Ellen Sirleaf’s son) and previous governor Milton Weeks would be about a large part of the order -two thirds, 10 billion-, for which the Liberian parliament had not given approval.

But the exercise had also created many opportunities for individuals close to the money to simply pocket batches of it. One of the most salient such opportunities to do so was presented by the large variance that Kroll found between records about money amounts quoted by the printing company in Sweden, the way bills of shipping and air transport companies and the records held by the Central Bank of Liberia itself. If some documents were to be believed, the variance could have been ‘only’ US$3 million; if credence was lent to others, -for example the finding that in one shipment a packet of weighed money had been 159 kilograms heavier than the supporting documentation said it was- it could have been as much as US$12 million.

If it was not certain how much money there was to begin with, it would also be almost impossible to ever find out if someone, or several someones, had left the bank with parts of it. At two points in the paragraphs about the variances, Kroll would dryly write that “this discrepancy merits further understanding.”

 Parliamentarians said they had received new banknotes for their election campaigns

The investigations started in October 2018, months after media reports in Liberia, in August 2018, had published rumours about an entire ship, loaded with the full order of new banknotes, that was said to have disappeared. These rumours turned out to be false. There had not been one ship with all the money in it; there had been regular shipments with loads of money over the past two years. Finance Minister Samuel Tweah and the bank authorities assured the public that all the money had arrived and was in the bank.

Nevertheless, it was these rumours that had prompted the two investigations, from Kroll and the Presidency itself. Part of the reason for that was that anonymous parliamentarians had told a local newspaper that they had been given batches of new banknotes at the time of shipments in late 2017 to ‘help fund election campaigns.’  These were in full swing at the time and would lead to Weah’s election and inauguration in January 2018. It had also been noted that both competing political parties, the Unity Party of Sirleaf and Weah’s Congress for Democratic Change (CDC), had access to unusually plenty funds. “I was there at the time of the campaign in 2017,” says George Solo, former CDC secretary general and former close associate of President Weah. “It was awash with money. I was surprised at all the funds we seemed to have.”

Two governments

The shipments of new banknotes had started under the Sirleaf government and had continued to arrive under the new presidency of George Weah. Their arrival was now overseen by Weah’s close associate, new finance minister Samuel Tweah, who was in turn liaising with new Minister of State and Presidential Affairs, Nathaniel McGill. McGill’s mandate was Presidential Liaison, and he was known as the new president’s eyes and ears in all affairs of state. Tweah and McGill were the presidents’ closest associates.

When in March 2018, only three months into the new government, President Weah was seen constructing no less than five housing estates in and around Monrovia -including a luxury resort, a family church named after his late grandmother and a building he later donated to the Female Journalists Association of Liberia – opposition politicians started asking questions about Weah’s assets and bank balance. Weah said he had abundant wealth from his previous top soccer income, but some doubted this: a supermarket he said he owned in the US had been inactive for months and he had also declared poverty in a child maintenance case in that country. It was also noted that he had only started the construction for his Monrovia estates when he had become President and not before. “When we were together in the US he didn’t have that kind of money,” says George Solo, who has stayed in the US and “does not receive much communication from Weah” anymore.

This allegation comes from the belly of Satan

Minister of State Nathaniel McGill, meanwhile, moved into a new house in April 2018, at around the same time as Weah started constructing his houses. McGill has angrily denied anything untoward in his purchase of the mansion, valued at US$ 200 000, -reportedly without a bank loan and only on the strength of a US$ 6000 monthly salary which he had only received for three months at the time-, saying that “this (allegation) comes from the belly of Satan’ and that a loan from the Liberia Bank for Development and Investment was being processed. However, knowledgeable sources at the Central Bank said that the money used to buy the house was “McGill’s share of the newly printed banknotes.” They explained that no bank would give a politician a mortgage of US$ 200,000 because “such a man works at the pleasure of the president and he can be dismissed at will, and therefore the money will be at risk.”

At the time, in April 2018, there was still no talk of a missing ship, or any investigation into the printing of the new banknotes. But Liberia started to feel the inflationary effect of a lot more money suddenly circulating. In June 2018, the exchange rate of the Liberian dollar had risen to 155 Liberian to 1 US dollar, whereas it had been 94 Liberian to 1 US dollar before the new money shipments. The inflation had reduced many Liberian families to skimping on the portions of food they were eating. A bag of rice was costing 2,500 Liberian dollars, a months’ salary for many.

To address the food prices crisis, the new government did two things. First, it demanded the resignation of Central Bank Governor Milton Weeks for having infused way too many new banknotes into the economy. It replaced him with Nathaniel Patray III, a long standing banker who had had access to the vaults even during the country’s civil war when three armed factions had been battling one another for access to state resources in Monrovia. Patray III had been out of favour during the Sirleaf government but was now apparently back with a vengeance. Secondly, President Weah in a first nationwide address on the state of the economy, in July 2018, announced that the Central Bank would infuse US$25 million into the economy to mop up excess Liberian dollars.

Finance Minister Samuel Tweah and new bank governor Patray III would head the new Economic Management Team (EMT), that was to collect the excess banknotes and remove them from the streets. The EMT was further assisted by Presidential Liaison, Minister of State Nathaniel McGill, who received daily reports from the team and also, according to bank sources, often arranged and even chaired meetings with the EMT. McGill also co-represented the EMT at a press conference with money exchange businesses to explain the plan. The EMT, he said, was going to exchange 25 million US$ from the governments foreign account for excess Liberian banknotes, which would be collected by the Central Bank for destruction. At a later stage the businesses would then, again through the Central Bank, exchange the US$ dollars for new banknotes. That way, Liberia would have crisp new banknotes and old banknotes, of which there were still far too many in the streets causing all the rising food prices, would disappear.

Only it didn’t happen that way.

New discrepancies

The Kroll report -and later a specific audit by Liberia’s auditor general- lambasted the Weah government’s mop-up exercise. Again there were discrepancies, with the first announcement saying US$25 million would be used; a later decision to only use 20 million; then finally a report that it had been US$15 million. The money had also, inexplicably, been taken from a Central Bank vault instead of from the foreign account. Even more seriously, once again the records had not matched the incoming and outgoing amounts in the vaults. The US$ had also not been exchanged with the businesses that had been listed. After the Kroll report had come out in February 2019, Minister Tweah was asked repeatedly about this, but kept refusing to produce a list. His vague remark about “money exchange businesses in (Monrovia’s district) New Kru town” was met with clamour from money exchange operators from that part of the city, who stated on radio that they knew nothing about that.

The bank vaults had no money in them at all

Among those who had been exchanging large amounts, a bank source said, were individuals selected by the Economic Management Team “who had new printed Liberian dollars and needed US$ to do transactions or deposit in their various accounts overseas.” The source said money had been taken to their private homes for this purpose and that some powerful politicians had been among them. Finance Minister Tweah denied all such reports. He kept repeating that the equivalent of the US dollars had been recovered and that all was really in order. But both Kroll and the later government audit report found that, upon inspection of the bank vaults that should theoretically be full of recovered Liberian banknotes, there was no money in them at all.

Back to the murdered banker.

Central Bank micro finance deputy director Matthew Innis’ last two weeks must have looked something like this.

On 28 February 2019, the investigative report by the Kroll research agency had been released. Detailing many discrepancies with regard to the order and the arrival of the new banknotes, both under the successive Sirleaf and Weah governments, it also stated that the US$ exchange exercise headed by new Finance Minister Samuel Tweah and new bank governor Nathaniel Patray III had carried “risk of misappropriation, risk of money laundering, and risk of transacting with illegal businesses.” It also stated that “significant funds were unaccounted for” under the new government, too.

On March 1, 2019, the Weah government’s Presidential Investigative Team (PIT), headed by Justice Minister Musa Dean -who is also President Weah’s legal adviser- released its own investigation into the banknotes shipments’ mismanagement. In some respects it went much further than Kroll. It even called for arrests and charges, however, only of deputy bank governor Charles Sirleaf, previous governor Milton Weeks and a number of other officials who had been at the Central Bank from the time of the Sirleaf government. With regard to the new government’s responsibility, -citing ‘time and resource’ limitations-, it had only briefly interviewed Finance Minister Tweah and recommended a follow-up forensic investigation.

On the same day, the Liberian police arrested Charles Sirleaf and previous governor Milton Weeks.

Only officials of the previous government were arrested

The day after that, a Saturday, Matthew Innis did not come home from his work at the bank. He was found dead, with his head bashed in, on a street close to his home in Paynesville, outside Monrovia in the very early hours of Sunday morning 3 March 2019.  Mystifyingly, his body was removed and taken to a funeral home by a policeman before his family, alerted by neighbours, even got to the scene. Sources at the Central Bank said Innis had told colleagues that he felt Finance Minister Samuel Tweah and Presidential Liaison Minister Nathaniel McGill should also have been arrested and charged, together with new bank governor Patray III.

Hit and run

The Liberian Justice Department, through Justice Minister Musa Dean, soon concluded that Innis had been killed “by an unknown hit and run vehicle. But Innis’ family did not believe that. “How can a car hit someone and only his head is affected?  Only his head had bruises, like he was mobbed,” one of the family members told local reporters in Monrovia. Then it turned out here had been another accidental death already. Days after the Matthew Innis death was reported in Liberia’s media, the family of another former Central Bank staffer told journalists that Kollie Ballah, a driver who had made many trips “carrying Central Bank money to different destinations,” had died in an accident on 11 February 2019. They also said that Ballah had “been one of those interviewed” by the Presidential Investigative Team about what happened with the new banknotes. “He knew a lot and was ready to tell the truth until his death in that fake accident three weeks ago,” a close relative to the deceased told journalists.  This was confirmed by a source at the bank, who said Ballah had told him about the private homes he had taken money to.

Another reason why the family suspected that it was not a normal car accident was because “the car was found burned but Kollie did not have any burn marks.”

And then there was another one. On 25 March 2019, three weeks after Matthew Innis’ death, opposition parliamentarian Adolph Lawrence, who had asked for an investigation into the Innis case, was killed when a truck careened down from uphill into the vehicle he was driving on the road below. The accident occurred days after Lawrence had demanded the appearance of Justice Minister Dean and Police Inspector General Patrick Sudue to report to parliament on Innis’ death.  The police reported that they were unable to investigate the cause of the ‘truck failure’ since the truck driver, who had apparently survived the crash, “escaped from the scene” and was now “on the run.”

 Do I look like I could even kill a fly?

Former CDC Secretary General George Solo said from the US that he believes that “those who were involved with the banknotes also know more about the deaths,” and that he had heard “some in the party,” talking about “dealing with those who make problems for us” with regard to the banknotes issue. He added that he had heard “about such conversations even before these individuals were killed”. Solo also said he was convinced that Presidential ‘eyes and ears’ man Minister Nathaniel McGill, specifically, “knew of every disappeared penny.”

Those in Monrovia who believe, like Solo, that the three deaths were not traffic accidents but murder, point to a meeting, or meetings, held -at some time either in March or April 2019- by Nathaniel McGlll with former rebel generals from Liberia’s civil war. Opposition parliamentarian Yekeh Kolubah has said that at least one such meeting was held to “form a proxy army for President Weah to settle scores with critics and detractors.” Other sources said that McGill, at the meeting had dished out bags of rice and an unspecified amount of US dollar bank notes.

McGill has admitted meeting the generals, but refuted any effort to link such meetings with either the bank notes scandal or any deathly car accidents. “People from all walks of life troop to my office and to the president’s office every day,” he said, adding that allegations involving him in the killings of banker Matthew Innis and Rep. Lawrence were “preposterous and senseless.”  “Do I look like someone that is capable of killing even a fly?” he asked.

Vague assurances

Nevertheless, one group of former rebel leaders has since threatened opposition parliamentarian Kolubah. On 17 April 2019, ex-Liberia United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) Chief of Staff Ofori Diah publicly warned Kolubah to “report to (Diah’s) office within 48 hours,” saying that if he did not come “we (would) bring him by force.” After Kolubah’s supporters barricaded his house, however, the situation was refused by a reconciliatory meeting of President Weah and Minister of State Nathaniel McGill, among others, with Kolubah. The content of this meeting has, according to reports issued by both parties, not amounted much more than to vague assurances of peace and dialogue and mutual commitment against corruption.

Since then, a report by the Liberian auditor general on the US$ exchange exercise has largely repeated Kroll’s conclusions with regard to the untraceability of many businesses that would have received the dollars.It has also noted severely mismanaged record keeping, with all its risks for misappropriation and money laundering. In a response, the government has repeated that all the money was in fact exchanged and that any further questions should be directed at Liberia’s Central Bank.

Civil society organisations in Liberia called for a national protest day on 7 June to demand measures to deal with the food prices crisis and to stop corruption.

By Kaiwonde Gaye is a pseudonym

Used with permission.

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One comment

  1. Liberia keep getting dangerous on a daily basis
    President Weah is the first leader I’ve ever seen chosen by the people and condemn by the same people.
    He really need to put his act together and ask God for forgiveness and grace in order to be a better leader……..