Sierra Leone corruption probe takes off in a cloud of controversy
Sierra Leone’s President Maada Bio has set up three commissions of inquiry to probe the previous administration and corruption in the public sector, but there has been controversy among stakeholders about the government’s motive and the legality of the procedure. The perception that the process will not be fair and credible, mars the probe, even if Maada Bio is well-intentioned. In these circumstances and without due process, there is little prospect for public sector reform.
Sierra Leone is ranked 129 out of 180 countries by Transparency International on public sector corruption. Given that record, President Bio took office in April 2018 and his Governance Transition Team (GTT) began investigating contracts and appointments made under his predecessor Ernest Koroma. His team found that importers bribed senior civil servants and government officials to get duty waivers, infrastructure contract costs were inflated, civil service appointments were made along ethnic lines and other forms of corruption occurred. Commissions of inquiry have now been set up to prosecute the suspects.
The Bio government appears to have taken steps to minimize political interference over the commissions of inquiry. For instance, two of the three superintending judges have been appointed from Nigeria and Ghana, and the president has said members of his administration will not be shielded from investigation. But, invariably, some stakeholders question the legality of the procedure.
The Sierra Leone Bar Association and the opposition All People’s Congress (APC) say the rules guiding the commissions’ work have not been clarified and the government has not followed the constitutional requirement that an independent judicial body must set the rules. The lawyers’ association is challenging the government at the supreme court, while the opposition says it will not cooperate with the commissions unless the due process is followed.
Chief Justice Babatunde Edwards has, in fact, approved the commissions, but even the nature of his own appointment impinges on his impartiality. His predecessor resigned in December 2018 amid local media reports about disagreements with President Bio. That resignation allowed the president to appoint the current chief justice.
There has certainly been significant anti-corruption activity since President Bio took charge, and establishing the new commissions sustains that momentum. Even so, there is as yet little evidence to expect that this will translate to public sector restructuring or visibly minimize corruption in the country.
The president has put himself at the center of activities and his commitment to due process is in question. For instance, he unilaterally sacked and replaced the Anti-Corruption Commission chairman in June 2018. There are also claims that the ongoing probe is being carried out selectively e.g. Bio’s cabinet member Sahr Jusu, who was on the president’s GTT transition team, served under the last government and has been linked to certain corruption cases described in the GTT findings but is not named in the findings.
In all, the government’s anti-corruption efforts have so far been mostly retrospective, rather than forward-looking to clean up the system and forestall repeats in future.
We have also observed dealings similar to those practiced under the last administration. For example, the Bio government canceled a USD400 million Chinese loan deal made by the last government for the construction of a new airport, saying it was ‘uneconomical’. It then opened talks with another Chinese contractor for an airport bridge that would cost three times the amount for the new airport, raising significant questions over the contracting process.
Finally, the legal controversy and key stakeholder disapproval against the commissions will detract from their legitimacy and cast doubts over any results they produce. In these circumstances, there is little prospect for reform in a way that will have a sustained impact on the business environment.
The three judges are Justices Biobele Georgewill (Nigeria), William Annan Atuguba (Ghana) and Bankole Thompson.