The Great Liberian Bank Robbery is a Real-Life Heist Mystery

Now here’s an elevator pitch for an Elmore Leonard novel: $104 million in newly printed bank notes gone into thin air, a former president and Noebl Prize winner’s son at the center of the investigation…Liberia.


It’s not often that news stories conjure the sort of plot you might find in a great heist movie or work of whodunit?-type fiction, but the story of a missing stack of cash equivalent to 5% of the tiny African nation’s GDP, intended for the central bank but never reaching its destination, is the sort of true crime story you don’t read every day.

We begin the story with the where. Liberia, a Virginia-sized nation nestled on the Western African coast, is buttressed by Guinea and Sierra Leone to the north and west, and the Ivory Coast to the east. Africa’s first republic founded in 1822, it was initially settled by the American Colonization Society, and former slaves were emigrated from the States as a resolution to the issue of slavery and seeming lack of racial cohesiveness. Roughly 12,000 slaves would be resettled in Liberia over the course of four decades. Early governments were resembling the American system, but in 1980, a bloody coup would set the stage for years of turmoil and bloodshed.

In 1980, President William Tolbert was overthrown when Master Sgt. Samuel K. Doe, with the backing of the U.S. government, emerged through a military coup. In 1990, Doe would be assassinated, the result of a rebellion led by Charles Taylor, a former Doe aide, and the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) the year prior. A Civil War between Doe and Taylor’s supporters would rage until 1997, but by that time Liberian society had been torn apart, its national psyche inflicted with lasting scars. This is the history of Liberia that informs its modern reality as a nation rich in diamonds, oil, and timber but perpetually addled by corruption and, recently, Ebola, which has claimed more Liberians than any other African nation.

 We now move onto the what.

The story doesn’t exist without 16 billion Liberian dollars, ordered by the Virginia-sized nation’s central bank, printed abroad, and shipped back to the Western African capital of Monrovia for safe storage. The money made it through customs, but that’s where the canvas bags of cash, stowed and sealed in containers reaching 20-feet high when stacked, seemingly disappeared into thin air.

But nobody, not even the government of a war-torn African nation which ranks 122nd out of 180 nations on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, would let such a massive shipment of cash walk away ‘unnoticed’. In a nation with GDP per capita of $729, that sort of money doesn’t up and walk away.

Which brings us the who in this crime thriller. When it comes to the cast of characters in the Great Liberian Bank Robbery, we must begin with Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the former president of Liberia who is going to turn 80 years old on October 29th and who, by the way, received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 for her efforts advancing women’s right on the continent. The first woman ever to be elected head of state in Africa, Sirleaf – known to Liberians as Ma Ellen – is an essential character in the narrative, if only for the fact that her son is a person of interest in the case of the missing cash.

If there was any gripe that Liberians had with Ma Ellen it was a penchant for nepotism, especially after she installed two of her sons in significant positions of power within the government. In fact, it is her son Charles that is at the center of the investigation, though he has not commented on the affair.

Also in question are Justice Minister Frank Musa, who deflected any implications of involvement by stating that the money had been ordered by the Johnson administration, which was succeeded – peacefully, for the first time in decades – by former soccer star George Weah in December of last year. Former central bank governor Frank Weeks left his position in March, and is also considered a possible person of interest, though he says he is “not aware” of any money which may be missing.

As of now, we don’t know who took the money, though it would appear most likely an officer of the outgoing Johnson administration, whether it is Johnson’s son, George, former central bank governor Frank Weeks, or any of the 15 other government officials currently under investigation.

What we do know is that only the central bank has the power to order money in Liberia, and that the money was cleared through customs, yet never made it to the bank.

My guess as to whodunnit? The former central bank director, in the night, with plenty of assistance from outgoing officials of the Liberian government.

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