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.
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