CORRUPTION IN SIERRA LEONE
WE HAVE frequently alluded to the salutary fact that one of the catalysts for the dampening of the enthusiasm of many who want to help Sierra Leone is the rampant corruption that is taking place in the country.  We know for a fact that Lomé has not attracted the funds it justly merits simply because of the perception in many quarters that dishonesty abounds in our midst but especially also among the people who make the key decisions of life, death and well-being in the country - the Government.

Ministers and senior officials, fully aware of the terrible and often terrifying suffering, poverty and deprivation of the overwhelming majority of their compatriots and the scale of destruction everywhere as a direct consequence of the civil war, still have the nerve to steal resources and money meant to help alleviate these terrible conditions. 

If we are prepared to treat our own poor people in this cavalier fashion and with mindless disregard for their plight, what right have we to solicit any help including financial aid, in their name, to deal with this country's myriad of serious economic ills?

A nation of callous and indifferent officials
Please bear with us if we appear to lose our cool for once… for we dare to ask what kind of person is it that:

Seeing

  • thousands of mutilated compatriots who can no longer fend for themselves;  (Over two hundred of them recently protested to the Commission for the Rehabilitation, Resettlement and Reconstruction about lack of interest in their welfare.)
  • once healthy and strong men and women, now emaciated and reduced to walking skeletal frames;
  • thousands of widowed citizens and many more thousands of orphaned children who no longer have a breadwinner in their families;
  • the mass of destitute and homeless people who lie daily outside ministerial offices and on the edges of pavements plied by ministerial cars;
  • so many people dying of avoidable hunger and curable diseases; and so forth, and so on; 
And who, enjoying
  • all the privileges that this poor country can bestow on any of its citizens; and
  • the responsibility and trust reposed in them by their own people;
then deliberately and calculatedly connives with others to misappropriate resources that have been put at their disposal for the purpose of helping the citizens of this country out of their miserable existence?

Only a bunch of callous and indifferent officials can resort to such behaviour.

In any normal democratic society, these are legitimate questions that must be asked and to which we must get answers. Since ours is held out as one such society, we do ask these questions and we will continue to demand answers even if we are perceived as a source of discomfort by some. It was in the same spirit of national concern that we asked similar questions just over a week ago about transactions relating to the former premises of the Sierra Leone High Commission in London, to which we have had as yet no official response.

The truth is that there are ministers and top officials working for and with President Kabbah's government who are incapable of distinguishing between the inner linings of their back pockets and the vaults of the National Treasury that hold the public purse. Allegations of corruption by ministers and of senior civil servants diverting money to their personal use have been flying all over the place. But as far as one can tell the vast majority - the worst cases - have not been investigated and the individuals concerned have held on to their posts at the pleasure of the President. 

A disgraceful catalogue of pilfering
There are currently compelling claims of massive corruption at the following ministries:

  • Trade and Industry - where in addition to 1,389 bags of Italian Aid rice already gone missing, an expected new consignment of 34,451 bags of rice arrived with 11,840 of the bags missing
  • Education, Youth and Sports - with the disclosure of the embezzlement of 1 billion Leones ($500,000) of teachers' salaries by senior ministry officials in collusion with police officers; and 
  • Health - where only two weeks ago the main medical store in Freetown which had just taken delivery of a fresh consignment of medical supplies was burnt down (allegedly) to destroy evidence of pilfering by officials).  This has left the whole city dangerously low on vital drugs.
  • The incident involving the sacking of the Minister of Agriculture, Dr Harry Will, and his Director of Agriculture who have both been arraigned on charges of defrauding the government of $900,000 and for causing the World Bank to pay out $1,350,000 for "ostensibly'" supplying 1,000 metric tons of seed rice "imported from Ghana" to the Sierra Leone government. As the case is sub judice and pending in the courts we cannot therefore comment on it. But we can say that he is not the only minister who has allegedly been caught with his hands in the public coffers. We can also say that we find his case exceptional, indeed very odd, that a sectoral ministry like his could have had direct access to funds from the World Bank or the IMF. We always thought that, as a rule, such monies are usually paid or transferred through the instrumentality of the Ministries of Finance and Economic Development, which serve as the go-between for all such transactions.  Thus, that Will's ministry would have been allowed physical access to such huge sums of money without the minister of finance, or dare we say the President (in view of the amounts involved), knowing about it leaves certain room for suspicion and doubt.
The sequel to this particular case has been the further arrest of seven more workers at the same ministry, but this time in the Accounts section, who are suspected of living off the salaries of  'ghost workers'. A case of creative accounting, you might say!

Similar allegations have been made relating to parastatals such as State Lottery, Sierratel (now being belatedly investigated by Justice Cowan), the Management of Brookfields Hotel (where some senior government officials are staying and, despite being paid huge dollar/sterling salaries, have not been paying rent for their accommodation), and many more.

There is also the barely reported but persistent case of the missing $3 million dollars that disappeared in the custody of a contracted government arms purchasing emissary, which to this day remains a kind of State secret. The money was meant for the purchase of arms and ammunition for the war effort. In the absence of credible explanations as to the fate of the money and the courier, the current rumour that it was a stage-managed affair and that the money was subsequently split among a group of rogue officials, will continue to ring true in the ears on many Sierra Leoneans. It is reminiscent of the officially staged airport heist of the 'Star of Sierra Leone' diamond, masterminded by Siaka Stevens and his APC government in 1971.

But perhaps the most sickening of the corruption stories is the one being alleged that that some inmates at Pademba Road Prisons who were originally charged with treason and other 'offences' relating to the AFRC coup were able to escape prison and/or the death penalty because their families paid bribes to officials to secure leniency or total exoneration for them.  Yet, all that time the State kept arguing ''that all these people should pay (with their lives) for what they did to the people of this country''! 

Put yourselves in the position of those whose relatives were executed by the State in September last year. What comfort do you get from knowing now that if only you had had the physical resources with which to bribe some unscrupulous decision makers in Sierra Leone, your son, daughter, mother, father, brother, sister or friend would have been saved from execution by a Nigerian firing squad? Especially, also, if you believe as we have always held that the condemned did not deserve to die?

Focus on Sierra Leone of course does not believe in the death penalty but if ever a case can be made for its application, then no doubt the prime candidates would be those who pervert the cause of justice and who cheat on their compatriots by diverting to their private use scarce public resources meant for the alleviation of poverty, ignorance and disease among their own people. Nothing could be more treasonable than action that guarantees life-long deprivation and impoverishment for the ordinary masses of one's own country. 

This present generation of corrupt men and women has been allowed to get away with their filthy lucre without giving account and they display their ill-gotten wealth to destitute Sierra Leoneans disdainfully. But even so many of these people are cowards and spineless societal malfeasants. In recent times a significant number of them have taken temporary refuge here in the UK whenever their names have been mentioned in connection with some alleged financial scandal at their ministries. The British authorities are partly to blame for allowing them to come in and go out as they please, especially also since we hear they continue to pay a large part of their salaries. But it may be that it serves the British economy well if the proceeds of these corrupt ministerial dealings are deposited in the vaults of British Banks.

Think about this folks!  If foreign governments see us a country whose rulers are as light fingered as are many of the present and former ministers of government, do you think that they would they be inclined to give their taxpayers money to us? 

Sierra Leone has become just one big den of thieves. The theft of public funds that we thought was so rampant and institutionalised under (and because of) the APC has continued to flourish under the SLPP government of President Kabbah.

It's time for Executive action
But it is not as if there are no solutions to the level of corruption in the country.  Of course there are! Action has not been forthcoming only because there is no political will to stamp the practice out of the system. This is so partly because the political system itself thrives on it and partly because some of the chief culprits are themselves part of the decision making process. Hence corruption is at the core of our society.  For, what else can explain this perverse reluctance to take the necessary action to stop it or, at least, stem its incidence?

Your guess is as good as ours but logic dictates that on the simple basis that there is no smoke without fire, our chief executive - the President of the Republic - should at least put himself on notice, without any prompting, that things have gone seriously amiss in the country and try to do something drastic about it.  Where the evidence, or let's even say the rumour, of corruption is so strong, it is his duty to invite his chief law enforcer to take action to investigate, call to account and book the individuals concerned. If the latter is incapable of doing the job he should be fired.

Kabbah can act now if he wants
We have a solution to offer President Kabbah which he can apply this very moment if he wishes to distance himself from some of the glaring cases that one has heard of since before and after his restoration. If he is really and truly serious about stopping the thefts and corrupt practices among his ministers and officials:

1.   He can sack them now. That is why he is the Executive President. We believe that he should know who the worst offenders are. If he does not, then it is a serious failing on his part, bearing in mind he has all the apparatuses of the state at his disposal, including the intelligence network that enables him to operate a government.

2.   If he feels that he cannot sack them right away, let him now invite all of his ministers without exception and the heads of parastatals:

  • to declare their assets; and
  • explain how (in the most obvious cases) they have come by some of their seemingly disproportionate material and financial acquisitions; many of these can easily be identified. (Incidentally, the Swiss and some governments are quite helpful these days and have tended to ease off on their secrecy laws to help trace and repatriate some of these stolen monies. We are reliably informed that just one contrite appeal to them can sometimes do the trick!)
    3.   If he intends to (as he surely will soon) appoint new ministers, let him first invite them - RUF and all - to declare their assets then.

    4.   If he decides to sack anybody now, he must equally first invite him or her to disclose their asset.

    5.   If he himself wishes to be taken seriously, he might be wise to first declare his own assets to the nation. After all what's his' is his own and does not cease to be so simply by telling the nation.

    6.   He should ask and check the people who work closely with him what resources they control? Considering most have no other means of earning money other than the jobs that he has given to them, he should be curious to know why they are enjoying such tremendous control over resources.

    7.   He can also appeal to us in the Diaspora to watch out for these people on their regular trips abroad. They have their friends in whose names, we suspect, they open proxy accounts.  Some are quite reckless and often brag about their wealth and power whenever they are around.

    8.   If as he has demonstrated he is prepared to act and has got Harry Will to court, he must not be seen to be selective. He must remove and charge all the other ministers and officials whose alleged corrupt practices have long been the subject of debate and speculation. 

The special case of Harry Will
We only refer to Will's case because some people are saying that he was busted simply because he had dared to challenge President Kabbah's chairmanship of the ruling SLPP and that this was a way of getting rid of an awkward political opponent. We do not want to buy that story but here again the swiftness of the action against Will (who was not fore-warned at least out of courtesy by virtue of his position as a senior cabinet minister but was surprised and literally pounced upon in his office) compared with the patent refusal to act in the other cases lends credence to allegations of selectivity, favouritism and a presidential palace plot against this particular Minister.

If in fact Mr Will is a suspect thief, then he ought to be treated as a suspect thief. Whether he is a Mende, Sherbro, Creole or other, his tribe or constituency is completely irrelevant to the case. So with due respect to that section of the Kamajoh militia which has been reported as agitating against the arrest of "their own man", they should be made to understand that it is simply not their business to interfere with the due process of the law.  Many of their comrades will have died in vain if their aim in taking up arms against the RUF had been to keep in place the dilapidated edifice of a government steeped in corrupt practices. It is criminal to steal, more so from the public purse, and whoever is caught or found guilty of doing so should become liable to all the rigours of the law. If Will did nothing like what he has been arraigned for, then he and his kamajoh supporters should have nothing to fear…except from the judicial process, unless it, too, has been drastically reformed and rehabilitated from its own long-established reputation for corruption and malpractice by some key members of the Bench and Bar.

One final thought.

If this habitual misapplication, misappropriation and diversion of public funds continues unabated, would you blame another generation of malcontents who feel anger at these cruel deprivations and resort to undemocratic means to redress their grievances? What do you think will be their reaction especially when they see that their much-vaunted democracy is more concerned with protecting those who are depriving them of their entitlements? What if, because of the powerlessness that they are made to feel, they decide to take up arms in the mistaken view that it is the solution to their years at the bottom of the heap or as their means of getting back get whatever they consider rightly as their own?

Do you know something? That's exactly how a group of once normal, some very well educated, men and women wrenched themselves from our communities eight years ago and went into the bush to wage war on the rest of us in this country. They were the RUF.  Do you see what price we have all had to pay? If you think deeply about it, you will agree that it's all down to the politicians' selfishness, greed and lack of consideration for the interest of the common man and woman of Sierra Leone.  Will we learn from the events of our recent past? We doubt very much that we ever will.