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October 7, 2022

Seeking answers for Liberia’s China snub, critics see UN condemnation as an attempt to evade US sanctions

By Liberian journalist Anthony Stephens with New Narratives, edited by Prue Clarke. First published in Front Page Africa.

Twice in the last twelve months, the Liberian government has confounded observers by breaking with a decades-long foreign policy of non-interference in other states’ internal matters to sign joint statements condemning China’s human rights record in the United Nations Human Rights Council. The statements, signed by a Dutch-led coalition of nearly 50 mostly Western countries, included only one other African nation-the tiny kingdom of Eswatini.

The statements have angered the Chinese government which has threatened to pull back much needed aid to Liberia.

In interviews with FPA/New Narratives more than a dozen top diplomats, China experts and former government ministers were at a loss to explain Liberia’s action. Former ministers have condemned it. But many saw a connection to yesterday’s US announcement of sanctions on three key Weah administration officials. They claim the Weah administration’s stand against China was a bid to please the US and dissuade them from imposing the sanctions.

Two former government ministers, speaking anonymously for fear of reprisals, told FPA/New Narratives independently, “there is no other reasonable explanation.”

Liberia has historic ties to the United States and has voted with the US on many issues in national forums in the past, even without being asked, according to Samuel Kofi Woods II, a prominent human rights lawyer and minister in the Sirleaf administration. But it has never taken a stand against China.

“In this case and under these circumstances, it is clear that Liberia badly wanted a quid quo pro and it could be on the issue of sanctions,” says Woods.  

The Liberian government has not offered any explanation for their support of the statements which condemned China’s human rights violations against Uyghurs and other Muslims.

Human rights groups have accused the Chinese government of genocide because of well-documented oppression of Uyghur and other minorities in Xinjiang province. The Liberian Foreign Ministry, which was responsible for the actions, rebuffed numerous calls, texts and in-person requests for comment.

If the government was trying to protect key officials it didn’t work. On Tuesday the US Treasury announced sanctions on Minister of State Nathaniel McGill, Solicitor General Sayma Cyrennius Cephus and the head of the National Port Authority, Bill Twehway. US Ambassador Michael McCarthy detailed allegations of widespread corruption against the three men. Ambassador McCarthy singled out Minister McGill, a key lieutenant of President Weah, for manipulating “public procurement processes in order to award multi-million dollar contracts to companies in which he has ownership, including by abusing emergency procurement processes to rig contract bids. McGill is credibly accused of involvement in a wide range of other corrupt schemes including soliciting bribes from government office seekers and misappropriating government assets for his personal gain.”

The Minister was recently filmed seemingly admitting corruption to a group of women in Bong County. “Even if I was stealing and giving it to the Liberian people, that’s a good thing I’m doing, because at least I’m not stealing it and carrying it to Europe… We take the small money we get we go to our people and build houses there,” he said.

McGill has since walked back the statement denying he had ever been involved in corruption. On Wednesday morning President Weah suspended all three ministers.

The threat of sanctions has hovered over Liberia’s power players for some time. In 2021 the US put Senator Prince Johnson, a former warlord, and Senator Varney Sherman on the sanctions list, based on the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act.

In January a leaked memo purportedly from former US lobbyist for Liberia Riva Levinson warned the administration that the US had “a dossier” on McGill and Cephas. Levinson warned against the prosecution for forgery and criminal conspiracy of Alexander Cummings, a former top Coca Cola executive and rival to Weah in next year’s presidential race, was being viewed negatively by US officials.

The case was promptly dropped. Sources told FPA/NN they had been approached by McGill seeking help to get in the Americans’ good books.

In an interview US officials insisted they had made no particular attempt to lobby the Liberian administration on the Human Rights Council statement and affirmed a long-standing policy not to dictate foreign policy positions of other countries. The United States was one of nations that signed the joined statements condemning China.

Inclusion on the sanctions list prohibits the named person or persons from doing business with any US entity or travelling there. People and entities, including banks, that engage in certain transactions with named persons can also be found in violation on the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act and sanctioned.

One former minister said it was hard to imagine how the men could retain their ministerial roles while on the list.

Whatever the reason for Liberia’s stand, it has inflamed the Chinese. The Chinese Ambassador, Ren Yisheng, expressed his anger in two formal letters to the government and in a tense meeting with President Weah at the Executive Mansion attended by now suspended Minister McGill and Foreign Minister Maxwell-Dee Kemayah.

After funding major construction on multiple projects including the Ministerial Complex and sending hundreds of Liberians on scholarships to China over fourteen years, the Chinese have slowed work on major projects. Construction on the SKD Boulevard overpass, that was set to start in October and offer major relief to Monrovia’s clogged arterial roads, has stopped. The Chinese had agreed to build a new broadcast center for the Liberian Broadcasting Service, the state broadcaster, and buy a satellite truck to allow remote broadcasting. Staff at LBS say Chinese workers, who helped keep the broadcaster running, have not been seen in months.

In June, shortly after Liberia endorsed a statement condemning China in the UN Human Rights Council for the second time, the Chinese spokesperson expressed the government’s anger.

“We are astonished,” said Wang Hao, then special assistant to the ambassador in an interview at the Chinese embassy. (Hao has since returned to China.) He would not confirm a pull back on any projects but he did say it was difficult to persuade the Chinese people to fund projects in the country now.

“They read this news: ‘Liberia joined pointing fingers at China’ and our people say, ‘why did you do so much for Liberia?’” Hao said. “How can a friend go to an international forum with those fabricated lies, make groundless accusations against their friend? Cooperation must be done on equal footing. We need your respect. We need your friendly gesture.”

The Chinese aid commitment, which China puts at US$ 23m a year, is about 10% of the combined US$ 200m given annually by Western donors. (More than half of that comes from the United States alone.) But as Liberia’s economy struggles under recession and rising prices caused by pandemic disrupted supply chains and the Russian invasion of major grain exporter Ukraine, experts say the loss of any aid will add to Liberians’ suffering.

China experts say it’s likely China will let Liberia’s stand go without major consequences because of Liberia’s small economy and lack of large opportunities for Chinese companies, and long links to the United States. Liberia does not have the large mineral reserves and consumer marker that have drawn Chinese companies to countries such as Guinea, DRC and Zambia. But it is also possible China will play a subtle game, freezing Liberia out in forums where it has clout such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Health Organization.

Several prominent Liberians have strongly criticized the administration’s stand against China.

Neh Dukuly Tolbert, Liberian ambassador to China during the Sirleaf administration said the statement was a mistake.

“China was the first to come to the aid of Liberia during the Ebola crisis,” Ambassador Tolbert said. “China has been accused of human rights violations. I am not a judge and I will not take any part with something that I do not know. It’s better to have China on your side and be constant. With regard to sensitive questions that will arise at the UN or other places, you have to abstain. Abstain and it will keep you out of trouble.”

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