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LRA Is Dangerously Crumbling
-Is Anyone Watching And Listening?

By Dempster Tawutama Kollie

Passing into law a national budget close to US$800 million with the entity statutorily responsible to collect the revenue at war with itself could be one of the most bizarre decisions the National Legislature could make in Liberia’s history.

The House of Representatives on Tuesday (Feb 21) passed a national budget of US$794.5 million, pending a concurrence by their counterparts in the Senate. If the Senate concurs, which is unquestionably possible, it means Liberia will for the first time be hitting close to US$800 million in revenue. In the midst of a shaky economy, poor foreign direct and scrawny private sector investments, exacerbated by the crippling Covid-19 pandemic, it would require extra concerted efforts, proper planning and a cohesive administering and implementation of the revenue laws in meeting the revenue collection target.

This responsibility squarely rests not on the shoulders of those who sit in airconditioned offices to pass or sign the budget into law. Rather, it’s become the sole responsibility of the Liberia Revenue Authority (LRA) – the only government entity responsible to access, collect and account for revenue in Liberia – to produce the money. This has to be done through the proper and sagacious implementation of the Liberia Revenue Code – driven by those appointed by President George M. Weah to lead the national initiative.

However, latest reports from the LRA speaks of a serious leadership crisis embedded with pride, disrespect, ego and pomposity. The situation is said to be having a devastating impact on revenue collection. If it continues, without early resolution, one of Liberia’s best, professional, proficient, and integrous entities will crumble, leaving an upsetting effect on the country’s economy and development trajectory.

Multiple media reports – for example on major talks shows like Okay Morning Rush, Prime Morning Drive and Freedom FM, as well as, in major newspapers, have confirmed credible inside sources that Commissioner General Thomas Doe Nah and his deputies are at war.

The information is that the crisis erupted recently when the newly appointed Deputy Commission for Administration, Samuel Bennett, Jr., allegedly wrongly effected multiple changes and employed up to 20 new staff, most of whom are professedly partisans of the ruling Coalition for Democratic Change (CDC) without the knowledge and/or consent of the Commissioner General. It happened when the CG was on an official duty out of the country. Commissioner General Nah rejected the decisions carried out by Bennett and Gabriel Montgomery, Deputy for Technical Affairs – and reversed their actions. However, Bennett insisted and ordered the recruited and transferred staffs to stay in their positions.

Such reported defiance and arrogance by Bennett have since drawn the battle line between the two top officials. This situation has further sent shockwaves of fear and instability among employees who are being branded either as “CG’s people” or “Bennett’s people”. It is reported that cohesiveness is broken, trust is dissipating as nobody knows who to trust and who not. The workforce is becoming fragmented and factionalized – and team spirit, one of the core values of the LRA, is threatened.

Bennett has refused, according to insiders, to recognize the CG as his boss, claiming the CG has disrespected him and his authority, while the CG has claimed that he is the actual head of the LRA and his decisions must be respected by his deputies.

Without taking any side in this matter, it is safe to say that the CG is right, when one reads the Act creating the LRA. For example, Section 21 of the LRA Act says the Commissioner General, among other things, “is responsible for the administration and supervision of the execution of the Liberia Revenue Code, the direction and day-to-day management and administration of the Authority, the supervision of officers, managerial staff, and other employees of the Authority, as well as other matters of the Authority.” Section 17(1) of the Act further specify that “the Commissioner General shall be the Chief Executive Officer of the Authority.” Further, Section 17(4) states that “The Deputy Commissioners General shall assist the Commissioner General in the execution of his/her functions and shall be primarily responsible for functions as contained in the HRMP as approved by the Board,” and that “The Commissioner General may assign additional responsibilities as may be required to accomplish the objectives of the Authority.”

Bennett’s reported failure to adhere to these laws, and the CG’s unwillingness to give in to Bennett’s is the crust of the conflict which could cripple the LRA.

Bennett argues that at no time did he attempt to assume the role or functions of his boss, Commissioner General Thomas Doe Nah, but has the right, as per Human Resource manual to rotate staff and employ. He refers to Section 7.17 of the LRA Act which he claims states that, “On job rotation policy, the authority shall take the general rotation of certain categories of staff from one permanent place of work to another.”

Additionally, he argues, the Act states: the rotation shall take place within 24 months. Notwithstanding, the authority reserves the right to rotate in any category it deems necessary to obtain its objective. The department head is responsible for preparing the rotation schedule within two months prior to the end of the authority’s fiscal year. Bennett may be right with all these arguments, but at the end of the day, he needs to share the decision with the CG as provided for in Sections 21 and 17 of the LRA ACT. And that is reportedly the Commissioner General’s point of contention. The struggle is paralyzing the vibrant LRA.

This rift is undermining revenue collection. As reported in the media, documents originating from both offices are not being signed at the two extremes. The two are A and B signatures. Operations are slowed. Checks are not being signed. Employees are worried they will not get paid on time. Revenue collection is falling drastically. One source said the LRA is supposed to collect US$50.4 million for February. Collection target as at February 21 was US$37.2 million, but the Actual collected is US$21.8. With less than a week to go to March, the LRA has collected just 43 percent of its February target. The gap is so huge.

During the recent state of the nation address, President Weah hailed the unprecedented transformation of the LRA under Commissioner General Nah. Domestic revenue collection has been rising and has jumped from US$400 million to US$700 million in the last four years – which is the highest in the country’s history. Extending that to nearly US$800 million in the just passed budget would be the biggest fantasy ever, with the current situation at the LRA.

The LRA needs to get back on track and become stable more than ever before. Thomas Doe Nah has changed the story of the LRA and is now working out modalities to take the revenue to one billion in the next few years of his tenure. It is possible, but not with the current power struggle, greed for power and flagrant disrespect by deputies.

What’s happening at the LRA should not be happening at a time when Liberians are preparing to go to the polls. Right now, the entire country depends on the LRA to fund the election. How will this ever happen when they are at war, when most LRA staff are in a state of confusion as most of their works cut across the three Presidential appointees. One can agree that things have fallen apart at the cherished and professionally respected LRA, and stakeholders must hear this and do something before it’s too late. The Joint Committees on Budget at the Legislature must not just concentrate on passing a budget close to US$800 million, but must intervene in a crippling infighting at the LRA.

President Weah must not sleep on this. He should realize that if this situation is not resolved speedily, the National Elections Commission will not be able to freely and fairly conduct these elections if they lack the required funding. The sweat from the people’s anger will wet him. He might be accused of orchestrating the fracas to benefit from the spoils of the democratic process. The LRA and Liberia are crumbling and nobody seems to care. This is dangerous in an election year as the government might be slowly shooting itself in the leg.

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