The Willis Knuckles Saga
By Ugochukwu Ejinkeonye
There are quite a number of lessons to be learnt from the scandal which hit the Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf Administration in Liberia recently, and which resulted in the resignation of the highly influential Acting Chief of Staff, Minister Willis D. Knuckles jnr. One of the country's tabloids, The Independent, had published the nude picture of Mr. Knuckles in a revolting threesome sexual act with two women, thus provoking a national outrage and widespread calls for the resignation of Knuckles, whose office was also known as Acting Minister of Presidential Affairs.
At first, Knuckles thought he could manage the crises, by trying to point accusing fingers at different directions. At a hurriedly arranged press briefing at the Conference Room of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Monrovia on February 19, Knuckles declared that "the perpetrators of this act along with a certain female legislator have distributed copies of the photograph with the intent of embarrassing me socially and inflicting political damage to the government given my current political position."
Although Knuckles did not call any names or accuse anyone directly, there were reports that he strongly believed the former Speaker of the House of Representatives, Rep Edwin Melvin Snowe and his wife, Mardea White Snowe, were responsible for his predicament. Moreover, during the press conference, at which he refused to take any questions, he made references to Mr. Snowe and his wife in ways that suggested he strongly suspected them.
A week before Knuckles' travails commenced, Speaker Snowe had been forced to resign from office and he had accused an unnamed "senior minister" of bribing the lawmakers to ease him out. He had given the "senior minister" one week to publicly declare his role in the bribery allegation or he would also deal with him in his own way.
"If he does not make public everything he knows about this alleged bribery at the House of Representatives, I will expose him", Snowes told newsmen some minutes before he handed in his resignation letter.
Despite his refusal to name the "senior minister" in question, FrontPageAfrica (FPA) News reported that Snowe's aides had told it that Knuckles was the "senior minister" their boss was referring to.
On his part, Knuckles stated that Snowe had pleaded with him to stop opposing him, but instead intervene to salvage his sinking political ship. He said Snowes and his wife had him informed about the existence of the nude, obscene photograph and had threatened to make it public if refused to accede to Snowe's request.
"I rejected their overtures and suddenly, since his (Snowe's) resignation as Speaker, copies [of the nude photograph] have appeared everywhereâ€¦Now for whatever political or other ends the perpetrator wishes to achieve, my private life is being drawn into the short and inglorious end of someone else's public life," Knuckles said at the press conference.
The FPA had also reported that Snowe had wanted to use the threats of releasing the indecent photograph to the public to blackmail Knuckles into using his influence with President Johnson-Sirleaf to halt investigations into his tenure at the Liberian Petroleum Refinery Corporation. But Knuckles had told him that the matter was already before the world, and there was nothing he could do at that stage to save him.
But the Chief of Staff to the former Speaker, Darius Dillon, has scoffed at Mr. Knuckles' accusations. "I think the question Mr. Knuckles should be asking is: Is the immoral person in the photo me? â€¦ That is the substance of the matter, it is not who set it up. He went and did his immoral act, now he must bear the consequences," Dillon told FPA.
As the offensive picture began to widely circulate in Liberia and on the internet, calls for Mr. Knuckles' head poured out from embarrassed Liberians within and outside the country. Rufus S. Berry 11, for instance, writing in the February 26 edition of the Atlanta, Georgia-based The Perspective, stated that "As the former President of the Liberian Community Association Of Northern California (LCANC), with more than 5,000 Liberians, a recent unscientific poll showed that the vast majority of the people view Mr. Knuckles' resignation or termination as in the best interest of the country." The article was addressed to President Johnson-Sirleaf. There were more virulent condemnations of Mr. Knuckles' misconduct and calls for his resignation.
For President Johnson-Sirleaf, the scandal represented a very sad setback. She was faced with two unattractive choices, to either sack Knuckles and lose an invaluable hand or retain him and be tarred by his moral problems. In a nationwide broadcast on February 25 however, she said she had "accepted today, with regrets, the resignation" of Knuckles, "which he offered not because of demands from those who sought to use this unfortunate situation for blackmail and who should probably review their own moral probity." Mr. Knuckles, she said, "has been a friend and close associate for many years", but by the unfortunate incident that had occurred, he has brought "to his family and friends much pain, but one which should not be allowed to tarnish his long years and commitment to our beloved country."
On his part Knuckles said: "I must express regrets to my wife of 37 years, my children, my mother, and all my other relatives, my boss, the President, my pastor and my church, my co-workers in government and all my friends, associates and others in the general public to whom this episode has come as a pointless embarrassment."
As I followed the sad story of Mr. Knuckles' downfall, I began ask myself whether he would have bothered to even address the issue, if he was from my own country. In a country like Liberia, described by one of its citizens, Rufus S. Berry 11, as having "a chronic, pervasive problem with sexual immorality", I am amazed that a national outrage could attend the shameful misbehaviour of Mr. Knuckles, although, there were muffled noises here and there about "human rights" like the one contained in the unedifying article by Professor (Ms.) Francien Chenoweth Dorliae, in the March 3 article of The Perspective. A public officer need not be told that there is a minimum standard of conduct expected of him, and that he loses the right to behave anyhow once he is appointed into such an office.
Again, as role models and people that are always in the public eye, public officers should endeavour to conduct themselves in ways and manners that do not constitute damaging examples to society, especially the youth.
Whether done out of contrition or due to unbearable pressure from the public, however, Mr. Knuckles must be saluted for his courage and decision to tread the high ground of standing down from his post, and openly apologizing for his misbehaviour (a quality that is extremely scarce in my own country).
Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf who is pioneering a new Liberia deserves our commendation too. She said in her broadcast that she accepted Knuckles' resignation "because first, I have sworn to uphold high standards in my own behaviour and have made it clear to my staff and others that they will be held accountable for the same standards, and second, because I am in full agreement with those who do speak with moral authority that the behaviour of Minister Knuckles, while not illegal, is improper and inappropriate for a public servant."
In Nigeria, all sorts of verifiable scandalous stories explode daily on the faces of public servants, and they simply shrug it off and move on to more hideous acts. Public officers are openly called thieves today in Nigeria for very clear and justifiable reasons, yet they still shuffle about in the limelight with sickening flamboyance, grinning from ear to ear. Liberia is teaching us with the Knuckles affair that the conscience of its people has not been seared by a terrible war, and that whatever image someone may have had about them before now as a "sex-obsessed" and "horribly corrupt" country is already being put behind them. With this, they do not need a multi-million naira Image Project to whitewash their image abroad!
When will Nigeria commence its own cleansing? When will leaders accused of very horrible crimes (as opposed to Knuckles "legal" misbehaviour) shed their thick skin and bow out? Will Liberia also get there before us?
Only last Sunday (March 4), Senator Iyabo Anisulowo (Ogun West) was reported in the Sunday Sun as saying that the "PDP is full of filthy men who only support women politicians that could offer themselves in illicit sexual affairsâ€¦"
She revealed how a certain powerful national leader of the party had "refused to support me because I refused to offer him my body. The man does not even appeal to meâ€¦ I left the party because of immoral acts and anti-progressive elements in the party. I can't give my body to any idiot, any filthy personâ€¦ it is their stock in trade in PDP. I refused to do what my children would not like to see me do."
Talking about the Ogun State Deputy Governor, Alhaja Salmat Badru, Anisulowo said: "She needed a job very badly, she used whatever she has to get it, and she has gotten it."
Dear reader, I am surprised that all the men and women in high positions in the PDP whose reputations this devastating statement has raised serious doubts about are yet to rush out to distance themselves from the "sex-for-position" racket allegedly thriving in the PDP, and equally dare the Ogun West senator to be more explicit to prove her point convincingly. I am surprised that the national leaders of the PDP, especially, those who share geographical proximity with Senator Anisulowo, and the bevy of "powerful women" in several strategic positions in both the "largest party in Africa" and the "women friendly government" in Abuja, are yet to come out to denounce her statement and even seek to probe the allegation to see whether this kind of repelling practice reigns in the PDP. I wonder! May be, it doesn't matter.
Now, back to Monrovia. The one-year ban clamped on The Independent which had published the former minister's obscene photograph, by the Liberian government has attracted wide international attention, and mostly condemnation. The action is very unpopular and capable of soiling the good image of Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf is trying to cultivate for her country.
But Liberian Information Minster, Lawrence Bropleh, is saying the ban "has nothing to do with Minister Knuckles. This has something to do with ethics of journalism. This has to do with understanding that when you're in a civilized society, you do not publish pornography in a regular newspaper."
This is a very familiar line, dredged up by the government's information organ to justify and an unwholesome act. Interestingly, the Liberian government has apologized for the arbitrary closure of the newspaper, when a siege was laid on its premises by security agents, an action that was sternly condemned by the Liberia Press Union (PUL) and several international agencies. Spokesman for the government, Gabriel I.H. Williams, was quoted by the Inquirer (Monrovia) as saying that "such an act will not be repeated. We have learnt our lessonâ€¦ what we are saying is that this government subscribes to the rule of law, democratic governance and free press."
For those of us in Nigeria, it is strange to hear that a government, especially one headed by the "father of modern Nigeria", can bring itself to apologize for its (mis)behaviour. Such an "abnormal" conduct is totally alien to the militarized sensibilities of the grand emperors that rule us from Abuja.
But the Liberian Government can win more friends if it also lifts the ban and restore the operating license of The Independent. If it feels that the paper's conduct had breached any of the Liberian laws, as it is claiming, it should go to court. That is a more civilized and decent option, which we have continued to insist that those that rule in Nigeria adopt too.