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FREETOWN, Oct 26 2004 (IPS) - Corruption. The word has a particular resonance in Sierra Leone, where endemic graft helped lay the ground for a brutal civil war that raged for much of the 1990s.
Last week, Transparency International – the Berlin-based corruption watchdog – ranked Sierra Leone 118th out of 146 countries surveyed for its annual ‘Corruption Perceptions Index’.
While a number of other African nations scored worse on the index (Nigeria came in at 144th place), graft clearly remains a problem of alarming proportions in Sierra Leone.
This fact was underscored earlier this month by the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) when it presented its final report to the public after two years of work.
"We recommend that all those in the public sector practice a new culture of ethics and services as part of the fight against the scourge of corruption which saps the life-force out of Sierra Leone," the TRC noted.
The commission was set up in terms of the 1999 peace accord signed in the Togolese capital, Lome, between President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah’s government and the rebel Revolutionary United Front (RUF). Inaugurated in 2002, the TRC documented the causes of Sierra Leone’s civil war and the human rights violations that occurred during this conflict.
But, is government taking warnings from the commission and civil society about the dangers of graft seriously?
Four years ago, authorities set up an Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) with funding from the British government. Its mandate is to "investigate instances of alleged and suspected corruption referred to it by any person or authority or which has come to its attention, whether by complaint or otherwise."
The ACC’s mandate covers both the public and private sectors. Where allegations of graft are borne out by investigations these cases are referred to the Attorney General and Minister of Justice, who decide whether there are sufficient grounds for prosecution.
But, this strategy has proved problematic.
"Political considerations greatly influence which ACC cases the government chooses to prosecute," says publisher Richie Gordon, who has turned his tabloid newspaper – ‘Peep’ – into a platform for battling graft.
"In its present form the ACC simply cannot eliminate corruption.It is ‘tele-guided’ and controlled by those in government who have a vested interest in allowing corruption to flourish," he told IPS.
At the very least, the current system of prosecuting graft has allowed a substantial backlog of cases to accumulate.
"By the end of 2002 the investigations department submitted over 40 cases to be prosecuted and up to a year later, only two cases were prosecuted," says James Kanyako, director of investigations at the ACC.
In addition, the commission itself has not escaped criticism – with some claiming that it is used by government to silence opponents.
The ACC has denied these claims. Instead, ACC head Valentine Collier accuses senior public officials of "apathy and indolence," claiming many do not cooperate with the commission to achieve its objectives.
Since October last year, three judges from Commonwealth countries have been attached to Sierra Leone’s High Court to hear cases involving corruption – an initiative funded by Britain’s Department for International Development and the Commonwealth Fund for Technical Co-operation.
The Commonwealth is an association of 53 states that are former British colonies, or which have historic ties to Britain.
"The establishment of a bench within the High Court to deal with cases of corruption has been a significant move towards mitigating the lukewarm attitude of the judiciary that had hitherto manifested itself," says Collier, noting that a special prosecutor is also needed to expedite corruption cases.
Gordon condemns the hiring of expatriate judges as "a waste of resources", and says that some of the funds given to the ACC would be better spent on strengthening the ability of the independent media and civil society to report on and otherwise expose corruption.
Scepticism about the effectiveness of the commission has also prompted a group of civil society activists to set up a parallel anti-corruption body known as the National Accountability Group (NAG).
"Our work is designed to complement that of the ACC. We don’t see the ACC as totally independent of governmental influence and so we come in as watchdogs," spokesman David Tam-Baryoh told IPS.
He argues that the current procedure of sending cases to the office of the Attorney-General for prosecution should be done away with.
"There should be an independent investigator and an independent prosecutor. As long as there is political interference, then corruption cannot be dealt with dispassionately," says Tam-Baryoh.
Even President Kabbah acknowledges that some reforms are necessary to streamline the fight against graft in Sierra Leone.
"The problems faced by the Anti-Corruption Commission are many and varied. I expect that the commission would be the first to accept that there are still shortcomings to be addressed," he said recently.
While Sierra Leone is richly endowed with diamonds, bauxite and other resources, it is amongst the poorest countries in the world. According to the 2004 Human Development Report, published by the United Nations Development Programme, about 57 percent of the country’s population lives below the poverty line of a dollar a day.
The civil war, precipitated by bad governance, was also fought over control of Sierra Leone’s diamond deposits. In the process, widespread human rights violations occurred – with the RUF gaining infamy for its willingness to amputate the limbs of civilians.
A UN-backed court has been established in Freetown to try those accused of bearing the greatest responsibility for war crimes committed during the conflict.
The court alleges that former Liberian President Charles Taylor is the pre-eminent suspect in this regard, for the role he played in arming the RUF in exchange for diamonds.
Court officials have asked for Taylor’s extradition from Nigeria where he was exiled in August last year after talks to end Liberia’s own civil war. Their request has been denied.
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