The problem is an open secret in Liberia, where the current justice minister has publicly called the availability of the law a priority, and the minister of labor, who used to work in the Justice Ministry, has often derided the country's lack of access to its own legal code. The U.S. Agency for International Development estimates that $13 million is poured into rule-of-law assistance programs in Liberia each year, even as the law itself is lacking. Several of those programs' personnel have pressed Banks on the issue. When those attempts proved unsuccessful, they've instead worked around his copyright claim. This summer, the United Nations Development Program bought and donated 15 sets of the disputed volumes so that rural county prosecutors could have access to them. Individual volumes from an original run of 100 are scattered across libraries and offices -- or have been lost. No one really knows. Effectively, the volumes are unobtainable.
Banks' group, Liberia Law Experts, is currently negotiating to sell the copyright to the Liberian government. Those involved won't name the asking price, but Varney Sherman, a former presidential candidate who worked on the project with Banks and is party to the negotiations, says the "small fee" is "closer to $100,000" than $360,000. (The entire government's 2007-2008 budget was $207 million, according to the Liberian Finance Ministry.) President Johnson Sirleaf said in an Oct. 12 interview that she is willing to entertain compensation for "whatever they may have spent out of their own resources," but insists, "Rightfully, those copyrights belong to the government." She hopes to have the situation sorted "within a year."
Meanwhile, the dispute slows down legal reform efforts. Judges, law students, and legal scholars make arguments based on old laws, often toting to court 20-year-old tattered law books purchased at a time when you could actually buy law books in Liberia. But a lot has changed in Liberia since those pre-civil war laws were drafted. "We have a lot of laws that are duplicative, that are conflicting, and that has to be sorted out," Johnson Sirleaf acknowledged in her interview with FP.
But sorting out the overlap is difficult to do without access to the law books. In a paper written a year before he became justice minister for the second time, Banks acknowledged that variation in the laws undermined business, development, and human rights in Liberia. The solution? He recommends the government buy the copyright to materials published by "private Liberian initiatives." Banks never acknowledges his financial stake in that recommendation in the 83-page paper, written for the government body that oversees the Law Reform Commission he now chairs.
As the negotiations drag on, the law is disappearing. "We're going to lose legislation, literally," says John Hummel of the Carter Center in Liberia. "When this is all resolved, someone is going to say, 'We passed this one law two years ago about arson; where is it? I don't know.'"