MONROVIA (Reuters) - Police shuttered the offices of the Liberian branch of the Red Cross on Thursday, days after the president dismissed its board of directors amid an investigation into the use of funds destined for the fight against recently ended Ebola outbreak.
Some 11,300 people died during the two-year epidemic, the worst on record, in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea.
Over 4,800 of them died in Liberia, which was declared free of active transmission of the virus in January but only after a massive influx of foreign assistance including the deployment of U.S. soldiers to the West African nation.
While President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s office gave no reason for the decision announced on Tuesday to dismiss the Red Cross’s board, the organization has faced a string of graft accusations in the local press.
The board rejected the decision claiming that the president had overstepped her authority, and senior managers were holding a meeting at the main office in the capital Monrovia when police arrived on Thursday.
“The human resource managers told us to leave the building with our belongings because the president had sent police officers to lock it ... They locked the building and left with the keys,” said one employee present at the offices.
The Liberian Red Cross’s secretary general and head of programs were both suspended in November, accused of misusing $1.8 million in donor funds. Neither they nor the board members suspended this week have responded publicly to graft charges.
“The president (Johnson Sirleaf) is saying that there is a problem,” Liberian Red Cross president Emmanuel Kparh told reporters on Thursday. “If there was a problem, what do you do? Do you condemn before you solve or look into the problem?”
The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) carried out an audit of its member organization in Liberia last year.
“We found some irregularities and that led to an investigation,” said Benoit Matsha-Carpentier, a Geneva-based spokesman for the IFRC. He said that donors had given money to the IFRC that it had in turn redistributed to the Liberian Red Cross.
The irregularities revealed by the audit concerned the use of funds intended for the Ebola response, he said, but declined to give further details. The results of the investigation have not yet been made public.
“We have noted the decision of the president and next week a team of officials from Geneva is going to Monrovia,” he said.
The closure of the offices will have no effect on the operations of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which also operates in Liberia but is a separate organization.
Writing by Joe Bavier; Editing by Dominic Evans