MPs not VIPs: US$55M on Cars but Liberians Live Under Poverty Line

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By Yasmin Anis, Accountability Lab Summer Resident. This post was originally published by FrontPage Africa.

Every day as I ride along on my penh-penhs (motorbike taxis)- what I consider to be Liberia’s premier mode of transportation, I inevitably see one or two huge black SUVs with tinted windows pass by. I look over, trying to determine which VIP is inside. No doubt they are staring back at me with the same curiosity, wondering who this foreign girl is riding around Monrovia carelessly on the back of motorcycles, (although I value my life as much as the next person – pehn-pehn safety will need to be an entirely different blog post).

This past weekend there was a big football game at the SKD stadium, part of Ambassador Weah’s peace initiative. As I was standing on the road desperately searching for one of my beloved penh-penhs, I witnessed a convoy of about twenty of these blacked-out 4×4 vehicles rush past me, no doubt shuttling Liberia’s political elite to the match. Cars were ushered to the side of the road and the streets were even void of pehn-pehns as the procession passed. No doubt their entrance into the stadium complex would lengthen the wait of the average citizen who had already been standing in line for the better part of the day in the blazing sun. All I could think to myself was: is this really necessary? In April of this year the Liberian Institute of Public Integrity estimated that since the current administration came into power in 2006 they have spent approximately US$55 million on vehicles alone. These expenditures are difficult to justify-according to the UNDP Human Development Indicators 83.8% of the Liberian population live below the international poverty line of $1.25 a day. This places Liberia at 174 of the 186 countries on the list.

This issue is hot on the heels of last week’s assault of one of the most prominent musicians in Liberia by a government official. The official was cited as being furious that the car containing the star had the audacity to cut across his official government vehicle. The government official then proceeded to follow the car and has admitted to hitting the musician in the face. The only reason this story made news is because of the well-known identity of the victim. But it begs the question: how many stories of this sort go unheard of? How many times have people in positions of power abused that power- and the wealth it may be linked to- at the expense of citizens? At what point can citizens ensure that MPs no longer act as unaccountable VIPs? Members of the Liberian parliament are elected representatives of the Liberian people but often act as if they are accountable only to themselves or to those to whom they owe their political position. If Liberia is to truly move beyond the exclusion and inequality of the past, it is public figures that must set an example through their behaviors. Huge public transport expenses and inappropriate behaviors in response to perceived slights are not the hallmarks of transformational leaders.

At the same time, Liberian citizens and civil society must also hold their leaders accountable for these behaviors. In this, they can learn from other countries. In Tunisia for example, citizens used state airplane logs and lane-spotting websites to uncover the numerous shopping trips that former First Lady Leila Ben Ali took to Paris, Milan, Geneva, and elsewhere using public resources.

Disdain from citizens and civil society can also turn into pressure for the international community to act. This was the case with investigations surrounding the lavish expenditures of Teodorin Obiang Mangue, for example, son of the president of Equatorial Guinea. With local support, international organizations gradually began reporting on Teodorin’s excess spending, including $20 million on artwork and $30 million on a single home in California. The awareness raised led both the US and French governments to investigate his assets in their respective countries, which lead to France issuing a warrant for his arrest.

Ultimately, citizens must hold their elected officials accountable, both for large and small transgressions of public resources and trust. At the same time, decision-makers in Liberia need to understand that they are accountable to the people. Though they may feel removed from their surroundings as they ride around in their spacious, air-conditioned SUVs, on either side of them there are still shared yellow taxis jam-packed with six or seven people at a time, struggling to deal with their daily lives.

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Making power-holders accountable in the developing world

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