MONROVIA, 11 Jul 2005 (IRIN) - Liberia's interim government, under fire from international donors for corruption, diverted US $2 million that had been earmarked to pay salary arrears to civil servants and instead bought jeeps for politicians, Budget Director David Zarlee said on Monday.
The government allocated nine million dollars in Liberia's 2004-5 budget to pay 18 months of salary arrears to government employees who have been waiting for wage packets from as far back as 2002 and 2003 when former president Charles Taylor was in power.
But only US $1.5 million was actually handed over, so civil servants went on strike last week to demand all their back pay.
Zarlee told reporters that: "US $2 million... was used to procure Grand Cherokee jeeps for members of the National Transitional Legislative Assembly."
"Another $5.5 million was also used to cover the demobilisation cost of members of the Armed Forces of Liberia that is under reconstruction," he added.
Jefferson Elliot, the president of a trade union representing 50,000 government employees, expressed outrage.
"The government using our money to buy expensive cars is an insult to us. And we are very angry about it," he told IRIN.
"This means we, the civil servants, are not important to the government," Elliot said. "We are firm in our stance to continue the strike action."
Last month soldiers from Liberia's old army, which is being disbanded, went on the rampage in Monrovia and looted a barracks in the city centre to protests about unpaid severance and retirement dues.
Shortly afterwards the transitional government announced it had found the necessary money and the demobilisation of former soldiers began.
The current government and parliament were put in place to shepherd Liberia back to democracy after a peace deal in August 2003 ended 14 years of civil war.
Presidential and parliamentary elections to complete this process are due on 11 October.
But the transitional government and its leader, Gyude Bryant, have come under increasing fire for rampant corruption.
International donors have warned that funding for reconstruction will be withheld if politicians continue to squander the cash or pocket resources designed to help the country's estimated three million population.
The donors have drafted a hard-hitting anti-corruption plan that would limit the government's authority to grant contracts, ring-fence key sources of revenue, place international supervisors in key ministries with veto powers, and bring in judges from abroad.
But the government has reacted angrily to what it deems a form of trusteeship and other governments in West Africa have signalled their concern at the stringent external controls that have been proposed. Diplomats said the anti-corruption plan is therefore likely to be watered down.
Trade union leader Elliot said he had met Bryant at the weekend to discuss the civil servants' salary arrears, but there was no progress towards ending the dispute.
"He admitted to us in a meeting.. that the money was spent on other emergency purposes and we are not going to accept," Elliot said. "There was deadlock."
Junior government employees earn between 500 and 700 Liberian dollars (US $9 and $13) per month and since the strike began last week, most civil servants have stayed at home, forcing several government departments including the tax offices to remain closed.
Officers from Liberia's new police force, decked out in riot gear, were guarding key public buildings on Monday to prevent striking workers interfering with those senior officials who reported for duty.
Elliot warned that Tuesday would be the last day of the official strike, and if the strikers' demands were not met, their protest action would step up a gear.
"No one whomsoever, can control us, because we will be uncontrollable. We are demanding our rights and need our pay," he said.
A source close to the union told IRIN that workers would start seizing the vehicles used by senior officials on Wednesday.
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