Amara Did Not Take EU’s $13million – Ex-minister writes to end doubt

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Former Finance and Development Planning Minister Amara Konneh has presented documents, including official Liberian government transaction records, which put him clear of recycled allegations in relation to a certain $13million European Union health sector aid.

In 2013, media outlet Front Page Africa reported the European Union funding intended for health sector program was misapplied but in June of the same year retracted the publication blaming it on miscommunication.

The European Union delegation to Liberia on Dec. 1. 2019 clarified the EU has not stopped aid assistance to Liberia contrary to media reports it did due to misapplication of the money.

Six years after EU officials in Monrovia including then Head of Delegation Attilio Pacific certified the transaction, the claim continue to be renewed mainly by people oppose to Konneh and his political affiliation.

This has prompted Konneh to present to the public documentary explanation.

“Due to a strong GoL record of fiscal management, we were able to negotiate in my first year in office a $30 million direct budget support grants from the EU for the fiscal year 2012/2013 budget, $13 million of which was support to the health sector,” Konneh explained.

“ To reach Liberia, it was sent from the European Central Bank, to the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank of New York, before finally being received electronically by the Central Bank of Liberia (CBL) and deposited in the GoL’s Consolidated Account.

“Once the funds hit the Consolidated Account, the CBL officially informed the MoF about the deposit and the money were recorded in the Integrated Tax Administration System (ITAS), appropriate official “Flag Receipts” issued and disbursed to the health agencies.

“This was all done in accordance with  the 2013/14 Budget, PFM Law and Regulations. All of this is verifiable. The Tax Code for the transaction was 132101-103; BPS Number was 136383; and Flag Receipt Number was 1152432 – all verifiable in ITAS and at the Ministry I’d Finance and Development Planning and Central Bank of  Liberia.” 

Below is Konneh’s full explaination:

A year after my appointment in February 2012 as Minister of Finance, the FrontPageAfrica (FPA) newspaper ran a story on June 13, 2013 alleging that they had been informed by Ministry of Health officials that I had “diverted” 10 million Euros or the equivalent of US$13 million at exchange rate parity at that time of European Union (EU) budget support to the health sector – implying that those funds had been siphoned for my personal use.

To be fair, Mr. Rodney Sieh did call me the evening before he ran the story. I was in the middle of reviewing our fiscal data and Consolidated Account balance late that evening in my office so that commitments didn’t exceed available balance. It was a very long day. Nearly brain dead, I yelled at him and used words I regret, driven by my flawed thinking that no rational person would believe such a story. I had crossed the line for which I’m still paying a heavy price.

 

Here are the facts: Due to a strong GoL record of fiscal management, we were able to negotiate in my first year in office a $30 million direct budget support grants from the EU for the fiscal year 2012/2013 budget, $13 million of which was support to the health sector. To reach Liberia, it was sent from the European Central Bank, to the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank of New York, before finally being received electronically by the Central Bank of Liberia (CBL) and deposited in the GoL’s Consolidated Account. Once the funds hit the Consolidated Account, the CBL officially informed the MoF about the deposit and the money were recorded in the Integrated Tax Administration System (ITAS), appropriate official “Flag Receipts” issued and disbursed to the health agencies. This was all done in accordance with  the 2013/14 Budget, PFM Law and Regulations. All of this is verifiable. The Tax Code for the transaction was 132101-103; BPS Number was 136383; and Flag Receipt Number was 1152432 – all verifiable in ITAS and at the Ministry I’d Finance and Development Planning and Central Bank of  Liberia. 

Some people believed that I had gone to EU headquarters in Brussels, personally took delivery of $13 million and brought it in country in a suitcase. FPA ran the story for about a week, the radio stations amplified it across the land and the hatai (tea) shops in Monrovia ran with it for weeks and my opponents are still doing so today. This is understandable, as the money involved is plenty and the suitcase imagery is like a Hollywood movie. But the story is false, and I continue to suffer reputational damage from the saga.

I must note the context in which those allegations were levied against me. The funds transfer was made through the world’s two most powerful and secure central banks, in a post 9/11 world with all the stringent financial laws and regulations against money laundering. Most importantly it was conducted under the watch of then Executive Governor of the Central Bank of Liberia, Dr. J. Mills Jones, who was widely known to be a policy foe of mine. Moreover, as a standard procedure, the transaction was verified by the EU Delegation (Embassy) in Monrovia, led by then Ambassador Attilio Pacific who is still in the employ of the EU. Any rational person can see that it would have been IMPOSSIBLE to “divert” one red cent from that transaction. Thinking about all the safeguards in place and the secure nature of the transfer is what triggered my regrettable reaction to Mr. Sieh.

To the credit of Mr. Sieh and FrontPageAfrica, after reviewing the records and realizing there was no theft of funds occurred, FPA published a clarification, citing a ‘misunderstanding between the Ministries of Finance and Health.’ Nonetheless, my enemies continue to use erroneous story as their only weapon to throw mud at my character, record and service to Liberia.  The two links below show the clarification and the additional resources we were able to attract after the scandal when the EU Ambassador and team, and FPA verified the transaction:

1.      http://universalhealth2030.org/2013/07/04/liberiaclarifying-liberias-maternal-health-mystery-govt-finally-sets-record-straight/

2.      https://www.liberianobserver.com/news/eu-commits-us384m-in-aid-to-liberia

Interestingly, members of the then opposition, particularly those based in Minnesota, USA, launched a large demonstration when I was invited to address an annual gathering of the Federation of Liberian Mandingoes in the USA. They took their protest to the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Airport. They also wrote US customs officers, stating that I had stolen $13 million. In addition, they used internet images of malnourished children in Somalia and clippings of Liberian newspaper articles to accuse me of causing the deaths of babies. Like criminals, my three traveling companions and I were questioned and searched for hours by US Customs and Border Protection officers. It was a humiliating experience that I have never disclosed until now.  The US officials would later apologize and let us through.

At the event that evening, attended by the Mayor of Minneapolis/St. Paul who had brought a fire truck to donate to me for Liberia, I was shocked to see two groups of Liberian opposing protesters: the opposition, who called me a criminal, and supporters who believed in us, for which I was grateful. Although humiliated by the full breadth of the day’s events, I kept my head up and a big smile on my face.

Back to our small efforts on accountability and transparency in post-conflict Liberia. During my tenure, we invested heavily in an integrated public financial management system that regularly prove reports on financial statements and the state of the Liberian economy. We did so even when things didn’t look good, and in making citizens aware of the budget through our Open Budget Initiative (the latter for which an attempt was made on my life with petrol bombs). Some colleagues were dead against it and I would later learn about how they undermined our efforts to make government more open and accountable. We also reported on fiscal performance regularly by publishing fiscal outturns on time and subjecting them to yearly audits by the General Auditing Commission (GAC), which helped build donors confidence in our financial management system and led to the largest increase in donors using our system to support their priorities that were aligned with our development agenda. While opponents lied that we had stolen $13 million and blamed us for the deaths of innocent mothers and babies, the Americans who had never provided budget support before accepted an innovative budget support proposal from us later that year. Together, we engineered the first ever US Government budget support for Liberia through the Fixed Amount Reimbursement Account (FARA). It was strictly for the same health sector. We would also go on the bring home a whopping $300 million grant from the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), an independent U.S. Government foreign aid agency based on the principle that aid is most effective when it reinforces good governance, economic freedom and investing in their citizens. MCC is a prime example of smart U.S. Government assistance in action, benefiting both developing countries and the American taxpayers, with countries selected through a competitive process. MCC’s Board examines a country’s performance on 20 independent and transparent policy indicators and selects countries based on policy performance. The project proposals and their implementation are country led. I worked like a farm HORSE on this and delivered 100 percent even while they were lying and throwing mud at my character.

Despite these successes, some of our fellow citizens were disparaging us on a daily basis. Again, we paid a price. They nicknamed me “Mr. Budget Shortfall,” as if that was a crime and we should have generated budget surpluses when implementing sick therapy and an expansionary fiscal policy to rebuild the nation from scratch after 34 years of perennial decline and eventual collapse, and when our Legislature always used their appropriations power granted them by our constitution to inflate revenue numbers to finance their insatiable expenditures thirst. Legislators always rejected our professional revenue projections. More on contractionary and expansionary fiscal policies in the future.

Also, well before my exit from government, we had subjected ourselves to audits for our years of service at the MFDP, MoF and the MPEA by a suspicious and unfriendly General Auditing Commission. My team was the only Sirleaf Administration officials to do so, out of respect for the public’s right to government transparency. We did that because we had been assigned to manage what I considered game changing reforms that established the MFDP and Liberia Revenue Authority (LRA) on which we delivered.

Those are the facts on the EU $13 million allegations. The records are there – at MFDP, CBL, in LRA’s ITAS (revenue system) and the money trail between the EU Central Bank, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and CBL. You can also review our GAC audits they completed on MFDP, some of which are online at https://www.gac.gov.lr/reports.php. I have mine – both electronic and hard copies.

Nevertheless, I have come to accept that I will have to live with two groups of Liberians for the rest of my life: those who believe in me and those that believe the lies about me, in spite of evidence to the contrary. I have also accepted that I will go to my grave with this $13m EU money lie.  I wish I had invited Mr. Sieh, when he contacted me, to review the records of the transaction so he could publish a more balanced story, but I was “green” on how the media worked. That experience is the motivation behind my February 19, 2019 ‘Do no harm’ post targeted at inexperienced administrators and heads of public offices.

Though we went on, after the scandal, to raise hundreds of millions of dollars of EU, World Bank, IMF, African Development Bank and US resources for Liberia and a whopping regional Ebola response envelop when my colleagues from Guinea and Sierra Leone selected me to present our response and financing strategy to the European Commission in Brussels in 2014; and the fact that I have contributed to two EU donor conferences that raised more than $1 billion for The Gambia and Central African Republic since I joined the World Bank more than 3 years ago, and launched an WB-EU funded project in Nigeria last December; the damage was already done. And boy, my political enemies will not accept the retraction by FPA. But that is the nature of politics and the optics of the false story is easy to sell to a public that has become used to a symbiotic relationship between governance and corruption. In this atmosphere, it is hard for the truth to compete.