MONROVIA, Liberia (AP) — The speaker rose before the members of parliament, whose West African country has a nascent oil industry, to give advice on how profits from production should be managed.
But to the dismay of some in the audience, the speaker was just 17 years old, is a high school student from Alaska and is the grandnephew of Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who has been dogged by accusations of nepotism.
The appearance outraged some, rekindled those accusations of favoritism, and even caused friction between Sirleaf and a fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureate. R. Matenokay Tingban, an independent member of parliament who attended Estrada Bernard III's presentation at Monrovia City Hall, said he was shocked and disappointed that a high school student had been chosen to address the lawmakers. The boy read well, Tingban said, but that was all.
"I know him to be a perfect reader, but he was not presenting because you present to explain," Tingban said, adding that he didn't clap when the teen finished. The youth's appearance got the attention of Leymah Gbowee, a Liberian women's rights activist who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 along with Sirleaf and Yemeni activist Tawakkul Karman. The three women were awarded the coveted prize for "their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women's rights to full participation in peace-building work."
But Gbowee has since become critical of the way the 75-year-old Sirleaf governs Liberia, accusing her of nepotism in a country struggling with poverty and the legacy of years of ruinous civil war that ended a decade ago.
In a scathing letter to Sirleaf, Gbowee said she had found little evidence to suggest that Bernard had the "requisite expertise" to make a presentation on behalf of the National Oil Company of Liberia.
"My concern is that the inclusion of Mr. Bernard without further clarity on his expertise undermines your stated efforts to build a transparent process to developing the oil and gas industry," Gbowee wrote.
Sirleaf's office acknowledged receiving the letter from Gbowee but said it would not be commenting on the matter. Sirleaf had already been criticized for naming her son chairman of the board of the National Oil Company of Liberia. Robert Sirleaf stepped down last September just days after lawmakers suspended debate on new oil laws amid complaints from non-governmental organizations about a lack of public consultation. He also resigned his position as senior adviser to the president.
In February, the country's anti-corruption commission said it was investigating claims that the oil company bribed lawmakers to ensure passage of oil legislation, which is still pending. There are concerns oil profits will go to corrupt politicians instead of bettering the lives of ordinary Liberians, at least two-thirds of whom live below the poverty line in this country that was created in 1847 to settle freed American slaves.
Sirleaf has two other sons in top government positions — one at the National Security Agency and another at the Central Bank. Despite claims these appointments undermine her anti-corruption message, Sirleaf has defended her sons as qualified public servants.
Thomas Doe-Nah, an activist who runs the Center for Transparency and Accountability in Liberia, criticized the move "to bring in a 17-year-old from Alaska to make (an) oil presentation when we have thousands of 17-year-olds in Liberia who could have done the same thing."
Reached by phone in Anchorage, Alaska, a woman who identified herself as Bernard's mother said he would not be commenting. Bernard is the grandson of Jennie Bernard, a sister of President Sirleaf. According to slides from the on March 14 presentation, Bernard talked about how natural resources can be managed so their exploitation benefits ordinary people and profits are not siphoned off by corrupt individuals. He described Alaska's oil savings account, which pays yearly dividends to most Alaskans, offering it as a model for Liberia and others.
National Oil Company of Liberia spokesman Cyrus Badio said a teenager and relative of the president making a presentation to members of parliament was nothing to make a fuss over. "We were looking at the message, not the messenger," he said. "The topic he was called to speak on did not require expertise in the area of oil."
The oil company said it paid travel and accommodation costs for all foreign invited guests, and nothing more. Badio would not say if that included Bernard. Malcolm B. Roberts, a mentor of Bernard and a senior fellow at the Institute of the North, a think tank on Alaska public policy, said Bernard's trip was paid for by his parents who were visiting the country at the same time and travel to Liberia every year.
While officials have tried to downplay the controversy, oil company board director Jacqueline Khoury drew further ire when she suggested in an interview with the Daily Observer newspaper that it would have been impossible to find a 17-year-old in Liberia to give the same talk.
"We didn't want to grab a kid in Liberia and have to school him on making a presentation," she was quoted as saying.
D'Oro reported from Anchorage, Alaska.