Corruption, Accountablity and Politics in Sierra Leone

 – Friday 22 June 2007.

“70% of Sierra Leoneans are poor mainly due to corruption. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission report squarely pinned the primary cause of the brutal rebel war on corruption, bad governance, and flagrant human rights abuses. The Director of the British Department for International Development (DFID), Dr. Richard Hogg, speaking at the opening ceremony of a strategic planning meeting of Orphans and Vulnerable Children in Africa (OVC), according to an October 9, 2005 report, “identified corruption as one of the principal features that continue to undermine the proper management of Sierra Leone`s natural resources”.”

By Edie Vandy, USA.

The Sierra Leone government continues to highlight its commitment to ridding the country of poverty while pursuing sustainable economic growth with support from the international community. On print, it seems just perfect as recently in January 28, 2007, the country was a beneficiary of multilateral debt relief in excess of US$ 1.6 billion (and an additional US$ 218 million from the Paris Club, and US$ 58.3 million from the US), delivering an estimated US$ 90 million annual extra funds in the pocket of this administration to invest in their people to enable them live decent lives. To date some 90% of the country’s debt has been cancelled, leaving a remaining US$ 110 million owed to commercial and private lenders.

In the light of these recent developments, this administration is hailed around the world on their attainment of the completion point that qualified Sierra Leone for debt relief; coming at the expense of some huge sacrifices by the people, against very stringent conditionalities imposed by the G8 countries.

Timothy Armitate, an economic consultant with the London-based group Global Insight, says “the fact that the Sierra Leone government earned debt relief proves it has some commitment to transparency and reform”. Similar sentiments were echoed by the IMF’s most senior official in Sierra Leone – Norbert To, who said that “Sierra Leone has made good progress toward securing macroeconomic stability and established a good track record of policy implementation in 2005 and the first half of 2006″ .

The World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz (prior to his ethics fall-out) in a recent visit to Sierra Leone in 2007, lauded the country’s post-conflict recovery as the ‘most successful in Africa’. Tony Blair also weighed in on the progress made so far, in the light of what has been attained to date coming from the ashes of one of Africa’s horrendous wars. The United States Ambassador to Sierra Leone, Thomas N. Hull at the signing of a bilateral debt relief agreement on 7 June, 2007, stated that this administration under its program of economic reform overseen by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) “made excellent progress in reducing poverty and enhancing macroeconomic stability”.

While the Kabbah-led administration is being pampered by Tony Blair, Wolfowitz, the US government, IMF and Global Insight; the UN and DFID are not mincing words but are vehement in their criticism of government overall progress recorded to date. The British Department of International Development (DFID), in their latest score card of 18 April, 2007 damns the Administration for lack of leadership in the war on corruption. The UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon was equally harsh in his comments about the government, and was quoted to have said on Thursday May 10, 2007 that ‘the government’s efforts to combat corruption and promote accountability have been painfully slow to yield results’.

Interestingly, these mixed messages and rhetoric in stark reality mean nothing to the ordinary man and woman, for they fully understand what poverty is all about and can tell whether in fact the much talked about progress has been attained or not, as they are the ones that are confronted with extreme hardship and suffering whilst struggling to make ends meet. These jargons from the donors will become meaningful only when their lives improve in real tangible ways, when they would be opportuned to provide food on the table for themselves and their family.

Poverty and Corruption
70% of Sierra Leoneans are poor mainly due to corruption. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission report squarely pinned the primary cause of the brutal rebel war on corruption, bad governance, and flagrant human rights abuses. The Director of the British Department for International Development (DFID), Dr. Richard Hogg, speaking at the opening ceremony of a strategic planning meeting of Orphans and Vulnerable Children in Africa (OVC), according to an October 9, 2005 report, “identified corruption as one of the principal features that continue to undermine the proper management of Sierra Leone`s natural resources”. Sierra Leone is ranked 142 (out 163 most corrupt nations) according to the Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index in 2006.

Corruption breeds poverty when it permeates at all levels of society, as resources are diverted from their intended purpose into unscrupulous hands. The statistics put around the nation’s poor are not just numbers on some inanimate objects, as perceived by those who have never experienced poverty. These numbers represents compatriots struggling to survive on less than a $ 1/ day or can’t afford a day’s meal. They are representative of the nation’s population particularly women and children who cannot afford the inflated health care costs, and as a result die of malaria, TB and HIV Aids. Electricity is now ‘epileptic’, replaced by stand-by generators and access to pipe-borne water is still an illusion for many. Roads, the main engines of development in many parts of the country are impassable.

There is not a single day, week, month or year that a corruption case s not highlighted in the media. High profiled officials to ever get probed by the ACC include but not limited to Sierra Leone’s former Agriculture Minister Dr. Harry Will who got nailed for embezzling US$1.5 million from the World Bank in March 9, 2001. The former Transport Minister Momoh Pujeh was also axed and sent to jail in 2003 for illegal diamond possession.

This list will not be complete without mentioning the former permanent secretary at the Ministry of Education – Soluku Bockarie – convicted for misappropriating some US$1 billion from salaries of 26,000 teachers, and the one time Marine Minster Lawrence Kamara who was ordered to pay US$ 45,000, in June 2000. The former managing director of SLPA – Captain Patrick Kemokai (now deceased), former World Bank Technical Consultant at the Transport and Communications Ministry – Shamsu Mustapha, Dr. Mohamed Daboh, Martin Katta and Foday S. Kallon were all tried for misuse of US$66,000 to purchase a malfunctioning container handler (forklift). They were later freed for lack of sufficient evidence by the Freetown High Court on Thursday 24th August, 2006.

There has been convictions involving a hospital payroll officer, to the headmaster of a primary school and the accounts officer of a library; all very ‘small timers’ when compared to very high level ‘fraudsters’ who got off the hook and were never prosecuted at all. The church too has not been spared from this menace as was seen in the recent brouhaha at the Flaming Bible Church, with Tommy Massaquoi implicated in stealing a large chunk of church money, meant for the erection of two houses at Hill Station in Freetown.

The culture of corruption within law enforcement agencies and the civil service is not a new phenomenon, but has been ingrained within this noble institution since the APC era. As recent as May 21, 2007, the Inspector General of Police, Brima Acha-Kamara was man enough to admit police force corruption, chronic particularly in the traffic division, whilst the former British-born Inspector General of Police Keith Biddle on Sept. 8, 2001, ordered the suspension and arrest of 41 police officers for accepting bribes from motorists and diamond smugglers. Quite recently, the ACC found wanting the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Youth and Sports Mr. Parker Huggins, and a second grade clerk Mr. Samuel Kinday, for alleged misappropriation of Le 99,618 million.

The arrest of Mr. Justin Musa – the former Managing Director of the Sierra Leone Water Company ( SALWACO), was national drama that played out in in the mass media, as he attempted to dodge punishment for allegedly misappropriating of US$ 114, 000 earmarked for revamping the crippling Freetown water systems.

In the just concluded Independence celebration hosted by outgoing Pres. Kabbah, one of the award recipients, former Prisons Director – Foday Soko Conteh, was reported to have been sent on indefinite leave in Aug 14, 2006, on allegations of financial impropriety and mismanagement of prisons funds. If this report was anything to go by, then the nation’s credibility is seriously undermined when the likes of FS Conteh, stamped with corruption, are hailed by the Presidency and glorified by some section of the press as role models and nation builders.

There is the international scandal of a greater proportion that has brewed up involving three high profiled personalities in the person of Dr. Prince Alex Harding – Minister of Transport and Communications, the Permanent Secretary Ahmed Wurie, the Director of Civil Aviation and his deputy Messrs Gbongor and Tarawalie respectively in the aftermath of the helicopter crash that took the lives of 21 persons including Togolese soccer fans and the country’s sports minister Richard Attipoe. These four are definitely in for a long haul, in the light of surfacing allegations of illegal bribery.

The spate of corruption has gone largely unchecked, and is ruining our reputation and clouding earlier gains made since 2001. Mike McGovern – former West Africa director for the International Crisis Group think-tank, has been quoted to have said in Jun 1, 2007 that – Sierra Leone is making little progress in tackling corruption and is squandering foreign aid, leaving its most vulnerable citizens as destitute as they were before its civil war ended five years ago? “Things are as bad, if not worse, than they were when the war started in 1991. And Tony Blair’s government bears a lot of responsibility for facilitating this state of affairs, precisely because they did not hold the government to account”.

Political will and Accountability
Accountability and Poverty advocacy groups whilst lauding receipt of the more than US$ 90M freed in multilateral debt relief for investment in poverty related programs, are asking the vexing question of accountability and whether in fact the funds will be used judiciously as committed. The fear is that this administration has not demonstrated enough political will in the past to honor major commitments, taken the cue from the government’s lack of action or inactivity to implement the TRC recommendations. The Kabbah-led administration has been faulted to renege on policies that directly benefit the poor. It took the administration some eight months to make a public statement on the TRCs final report in Oct. 2004, and when the did, recommendations contained in that report has either been ignored, delayed or are not being implemented at all. Both the Human Rights commissions and Special Fund for War Victims, even though established, are two years behind schedule. The National Youth Commission and the freedom of information act are yet to be set-up or initiated.

Ethical Behavior
Morality is at the heart of fighting corruption. Until and unless those aspiring for leadership are sincere and honest at the deepest bottom of their hearts, the trauma of corruption will continue to be felt. Winning the war on corruption is an integrity issue. It entails getting on board the men and women who have proven records of excellence and have core principles that will not be trashed for a few dollars. Sierra Leone is not deficient or lacking such a pool of talents whose characters are untainted with scandals, fraudulence, bribery and ethical problems. These people should be courted and given the opportunity to serve unfettered, and you will be surprised how things will turn around quickly. Public officials have to lead by example to create a whole new meaning to the Sierra Leonean psyche of doing things.

Corruption would have been relegated to history or at least diminished to a minimal, had President Kabbah stood on high moral grounds and resisted temptation from cronies. He failed to exhibit strong leadership in the fight against corruption, making those around him thrive and prosper. Though the President himself has not been linked to any acts of corruption (at least through hard evidence) that does not mean he is not corrupt. President Kabbah’s indictment is his lack of action to give the ACC political independence and vigilance to wage a full scale war on corruption. Having the ACC as an institution of course is an accomplishment, but making it efficient is critically part of the nation’s war on corruption and poverty, and the two are mutually inclusive.

Elections 2007
As the count down to the landmark August 11, 2007 ticks, politicians are weighing in on the eradication of corruption and the reversal of poverty when in office as a pact for solicitation the peoples vote. The question becomes, can they deliver on their promise, and do they have what it takes to perfect this change? It depends on who you talk to: APC supporters think their leader and their party has what it takes to fight poverty and curb corruption, whilst the PMDC will mirror in ‘zero tolerance’ and a new outlook through ‘positive change’.

Skepticism is growing over the APC’s moral authority to wage a decent fight against corruption: a menace that they perfected during their misrule. The perception is out there that the much talked about ‘new APC’, is hype, as the party continues to be a clone of the ‘old’, and has not demonstrated a policy shift in governance. People are calling on the APC to start talking about ideas, and how they will be doing things differently, instead of bashing the ruling party on their corruption merit. The APC knows that this strategy will not resonate with well-meaning compatriots, and are banking on their loyal base, to roller coaster them to victory. The APC party is ‘sleep walking’ in a crisis of credibility, and their campaign stands on corruption is being challenged, and frowned upon as ‘deeply hypocritical’.

Will the PMDC provides that alternative? The greater thinking is that, they are not the third force many had hoped for to carry on their hopes and aspirations. How could a party groomed to lead a change process, be drawing its pool of supporters from the same political outcasts of the past? Should Berewa emerge victorious in the August 11, 2007 polls, it will be due to the electorate’s underpinning more trust in him and the SLPP, than the others.

The way Forward
Holding public officials accountable is a powerful tool that must be embraced by the citizenry through their network of civil societies, and advocacy representatives, whom themselves must stay above the tenets of corruption. Public accountability should be a must for all and sundry, regardless of status, if the war on corruption and poverty should in fact bear any meaning in the lives of millions of poor Sierra Leoneans yearning for a better life.

The international community have invested so much money towards the country’s recovery effort in excess of US$ 1 billion and they should now follow their money, exert greater pressure on the government to step up in the key area of governance and accountability, and to take much tougher stands on corruption. The donors should match their words with deeds, by making sure agreed benchmarks are met before releasing funds to the institutions and programs that constantly default on their core missions.

And of course the role of an effective and impartial press, law enforcement and justice system, cannot be over emphasized, as they are key in bringing this monster to a grinding halt. Accountability Alert, the nation’s newest initiative formed to promote the tenets of accountability will work alongside other advocacy organizations for a better Sierra Leone.

About the author: Edie Vandy(photo) is a senior member of Accountablity Alert, which has offices in Sierra Leone and abroad.

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