Liberians Take to Streets to Demand Return of Lost Millions

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Hundreds of demonstrators marched in Liberia's capital on Monday to press the government for an independent accounting into how millions of dollars were diverted from the Central Bank of Liberia.

"This money is for our country, for our children, for tomorrow," protester Precious Williams, 43, told Reuters news service in Monrovia. "We are here to get our money back."

Liberian banknotes worth at least $100 million in U.S. dollars, ordered by the Central Bank from printers in China and Sweden, disappeared after reaching two main ports in the country between November 2017 and August 2018, Information Minister Eugene Nagbe said last week.

The amount represents almost 5 percent of the poor West African nation's gross domestic product.

Some demonstrators wore T-shirts and carried signs emblazoned with the phrase "Bring Back Our Money," repeating a social media hashtag. Other T-shirts said "Bring Back Our Containers," which is the title of a new hip-hop song about the shipping containers purportedly holding the cash.

The scandal has roiled the administration of President George Weah, a former soccer star. In a national address late Friday, he said an investigation had begun and that anyone "caught in any financial malfeasance will be held accountable to the full extent."

Weah, who took office in January, had campaigned against corruption.

The banknotes were ordered in 2016 during the administration of his predecessor, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. The country does not have its own mint.

Some members of Weah's cabinet have given contradictory statements about the amount of money and who might be at fault for lost funds.

Johnson Sirleaf denied any culpability. In a phone interview with the Front Page Africa news site last week, she accused detractors of giving "false information that wickedly impugns the reputation of past officials and by extension, the country itself."

Fifteen people have been barred from leaving the country, including Charles Sirleaf, the former president's son, and a Central Bank deputy governor under Weah's administration; and Milton Weeks, a former Central Bank governor, whose tenure dates to Johnson Sirleaf's presidency.

Weeks told Reuters that "the authorization to print the money came from the board" of the bank.

Martin Kollie, an activist and officer with the Student Unification Party, expressed skepticism about the integrity of a domestic probe into the missing funds.

In a phone interview with VOA, Kollie said, "We do not trust this government to set up any investigative panel. We want an international, independent forensic investigative panel."

Liberia's government has requested the U.S. government's assistance in tracking down the money. A U.S. embassy spokesman in Monrovia told Reuters it was considering the request.

The International Monetary Fund also is helping with the investigation.

Johnson Sirleaf, who in 2005 became the first woman elected as president of an African nation, is expected to be honored at a dinner Monday evening in Washington, at which she will be among several recipients of the Charles T. Manatt Democracy Award.

She is being recognized as "a member of the international community who demonstrates the dedication to democracy and human rights embodied by [Manatt]," the former board chairman of the International Foundation for Electoral Systems.

Johnson Sirleaf shared the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize with two other women. Earlier this year, she received the $5 million Ibrahim Prize for African leadership.

Source: Voice of America