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SIERRA LEONE: Anti-Corruption Campaign Nabs Top Officials

Lansana Fofana

FREETOWN, Apr 17 2010 (IPS) - The crusade against corruption seems to be gathering momentum in this West African country, with the arrest and prosecution of senior government officials, including cabinet ministers.

The latest to be roped in by the country’s Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC), is Afsatu Kabba, the then-Minister of Fisheries and Marine Resources, who is currently facing a 17-count indictment for graft and abuse of office. Kabba was sacked immediately the indictment was announced.

She was charged shortly after the conviction, in March, of another cabinet minister, Sheku Tejan Kamara, who was heading the Health and Sanitation ministry. Koroma was found guilty of awarding contracts to his cronies without opening them up to public tender. He was sentenced to five years imprisonment, but avoided jail by paying the alternative fine of $40,000.

At his inauguration in September 2007, President Ernest Bai Koroma announced a zero tolerance approach to corruption and vowed that public officials who engaged in graft would be arrested and prosecuted.

“No one, not even members of my family, will be spared (in this fight against corruption). There will be no sacred cows in my administration,” the president announced at the national stadium, in front of a crowd of more than 25,000, including foreign diplomats and donor representatives.

Within a year, he had strengthened the ACC, enabling it to take on cases without waiting from approval from the attorney-general or the justice ministry. The ACC also now has its own court and judges, separate from the normal judicial set-up. Before Koroma took office, prosecution of cases of corruption depended wholely on the whim of the attorney-general and there was seen to be major political interference in the operations of the ACC.

In March 2009, senior officials of the National Revenue Authority (NRA), who had allegedly colluded with Lebanese importers to under-value goods, were arrested and charged. The president personally ordered these arrests; along with officials from the country’s immigration department, who are accused of selling Sierra Leonean passports to foreign nationals, they are awaiting trial for corruption and attempting to defraud the state.

At the start of 2010, President Koroma summoned cabinet ministers, heads of parastatals and other government agencies to State House to warn them about endemic corruption in the public sector.

The president threatened to sack and prosecute anyone found wanting; this public warning seems to have emboldened the ACC’s head, Abdul Tejan-Cole, to address corruption without fear or favour.

Festus Minah, head of the Civil Society Movement of Sierra Leone, is pleased by the new vigour with which corruption is being routed out. He finds the ACC is now more receptive to partnership with civil society, including gathering cases of suspected graft.

“It is only now that we are seeing cabinet ministers and high profile public officials arrested and prosecuted. What was lacking before was the political will and so the fight against graft was jettisoned by interference from the executive arm of government.”

This view is widely shared. Retired civil servant Mary Johnson says, “The prosecution of senior government officials and public workers on corruption charges send out the right signal, that the president is determined to rout out this cancer from our society. He must be supported by all Sierra Leoneans.”

The ACC, which was set up in 2000, is partly funded by the British Department for International Development. DFID has often insisted on the independence of the anti-graft body. DFID has a staff member attached to the ACC and Commonwealth judges and investigators help run the affairs of the commission.

“No one tells me what to do, who to arrest and prosecute or how to conduct my investigations. The ACC is totally independent and we are guided by our mandate, which is to expose and fight corruption in whatever form,” ACC head Tejan-Cole told IPS.

The ACC boss adds that his commission has introduced new strategies in the fight against corruption. These include the setting up of Integrity Clubs in schools, publicly recognising Sierra Leoneans who are deemed to have demonstrated the highest integrity, radio and TV jingles, as well as rewarding individuals who report suspected cases of public graft to the Commission.

“These strategies are proving very rewarding because there is now more public awareness about the fight against corruption in the country,” Tejan-Cole maintains.

Notwithstanding this success story, the country’s opposition claims the president’s anti-corruption crusade is been exaggerated and that the Chief Executive is practicing what it brands as “selective justice.”

The secretary general of the main opposition Sierra Leone Peoples Party (SLPP), Jacob Jusu-Saffa, rants: “Our party raised key issues to the president, bordering on governance and these include members of the president’s family been protected from prosecution. The president’s sister has been benefiting from untendered contracts and his brother getting duty waivers, of goods imported, running into hundreds of thousands of US dollars.

“We see this as corruption. Period.”

The SLPP wrote an open letter to Koroma in November 2009, just ahead of a donor’s conference on Sierra Leone, held in London. The letter is thought to have harmed the Sierra Leoneans government’s efforts to secure pledges of aid.

The president dismissed the opposition’s charges as “cheap politics” and the recent clampdown on government ministers and key political allies seems to support his point.

“This government has made a difference in the fight against corruption. The president has empowered the ACC, making it more independent and several high profile prosecutions have been made. I believe the president must be commended,” says Ibrahim Ben Kargbo, the minister of information and communication, who also doubles as the official government spokesperson.

Having presented documentary evidence supporting its claims, the SLPP insists there is more to be done. “Why has the ACC not gone after members of the president’s family that we have exposed as been involved in corruption? Are they sacred cows?” Jusu-Saffa questions.

Corruption has been a hallmark of Sierra Leonean politics since at least the era of Siaka Stevens, when massive spending to host a summit of the Organisation of African Unity engendered matching levels of financial misconduct. It continued under his successor, Joseph Momoh, becoming so bad that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission regarded it as one of the factors that ignited the 1991-2002 civil war.

At the end of the conflict, in 2002, one recommendation of the truth commission was that corruption be tackled by the government head-on if the country is not slip back into war and anarchy.

And, president Koroma has made this campaign his priority, something that – if he is seen to be succeeding – could earn him a second consecutive term, come elections in 2012.

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