UN and regional leaders appealed for calm as Liberia’s transitional parliament on Thursday took a firm stand against graft by electing a new speaker following a US $92,000 corruption scandal.
Former incumbent George Dweh, a key rebel fighter in Liberia’s recently-ended civil war, was suspended indefinitely on Monday along with his deputy and two other members of the house for spending government money without authorisation.
The money had been intended as resettlement allowances for members of the parliament, which was set up with representatives from Liberia's three former armed groups, political parties and civil society under a 2003 peace deal that ended 14 years of civil war.
But the corruption row whipped up fears of new unrest in the country, which is still struggling to rebuild as it prepares for elections in October.
The UN’s 15,000 peacekeepers were placed on alert and security tightened at the parliament building as the 76-member chamber voted to replace Dweh, who has protested against his removal.
Last week as parliamentarians debated whether to suspend the speaker, two men, apparently his bodyguards, broke into the building and tried to grab papers relating to the graft probe. They were hauled away after a scuffle with UN peacekeepers and police.
Dweh, a founder of the former main rebel group, Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD), was replaced on Thursday by George Koukou, once a member of the regime led by exiled leader Charles Taylor. Civilian representative and lawyer David Gbala was chosen as his deputy.
The assembly brushed aside Dweh’s protests, saying his removal would not be overturned.
"We have to set a precedent in this country against corrupt officials, and there is no turning back,” said member Mohammed Sheriff.
But a spokesman for Dweh, Chris Kroteh, blasted the election as unlawful.
“The decision to have the election now is illegal and we are not going to accept the results".
But Kroteh promised peace would remain and said the ousted speaker would appeal to the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the 15-nation bloc which brokered the Liberian peace deal and which is sending a delegation to Monrovia on Friday to study the corruption claims.
"ECOWAS has informed us to remain calm as it is sending a delegation,” Kroteh said. “We are not going to do anything out of the way, we will await the ECOWAS decision.”
On Tuesday, the UN Special Representative to Liberia, Jacques Paul Klein, said he had learned of a letter sent to international mediators which contained apparent threats in reaction to Dweh's suspension.
He promised that UN peacekeepers would "deal firmly and decisively with any attempt to derail the peace process” arising from the parliamentary row.
The letter, a copy of which was obtained by IRIN, was addressed to the International Contact Group on Liberia (ICGL). It protests against Dweh’s ouster and is signed by four former commanders of the two rebel factions-LURD and the Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL).
But Klein said that the UN Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) “is closely monitoring these developments and has in place the necessary contingency plans to contain any untoward security incidents."
In a statement issued in the Nigerian capital Abuja, ECOWAS called on all Liberians " to desist from taking the law into their own hands" and said a team of its investigators and auditors would look into corruption claims.
"At the end of their work, those who are found culpable will be sanctioned without fear or favour," it said. ECOWAS officials declined comment on the nature of the sanctions.
ECOWAS also said the ICGL, made up of Western and African diplomats, would meet in the Swedish capital, Stockholm, on Monday to discuss the graft crisis.
This week's suspensions came almost a month after a World Bank team visited the timber-rich West African country and told the transitional leadership to crack down harder on corruption and make its books more transparent if it wanted to secure funding from international donors.