Policymakers in Sierra Leone get new strategy for curbing corruption
Sierra Leone’s latest anti-corruption plan indicates continued appreciation for long-term planning (this is the fourth edition in 19 years) and the principles of rule of law, institutional independence and stakeholder consensus. However, its impact has been limited and further impact will depend on the willingness of policymakers and their political leaders to align current steps with those prescribed by their external strategists.
Sierra Leone is ranked 129 out of 180 countries on corruption perception by Transparency International in 2018. In contrast with international viewpoints of corruption, the 2018 Afrobarometer survey suggests that the perception of corruption among Sierra Leoneans has improved: 43% think corruption has increased, compared to 70% in 2015. Yet visibly, the government recognizes that there is still much work to do and this month the Anti-Corruption Commission launched a National Anti-Corruption Strategy (NACS) for 2019 to 2023.
The NACS was written by a team of Sierra Leonean experts whose backgrounds include business and activism. They were commissioned by the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) to write the plan, and this is the fourth edition of the NACS since the ACC was formed in 2000.
The ACC itself is independent by law, but it has rarely made high-profile convictions and it is vulnerable to political interference. For example, in 2018 President Bio (a former army chief who came to power promising to be tough on corruption) replaced the ACC head without parliamentary approval as stipulated by law.
The ACC has demonstrated little interest in pursuing justice through judicial channels or supporting public sector reform in concert with the judiciary. Rather, it has shown the tendency to act both as the accuser and the judge when dealing with alleged corruption, and while this contradicts the objectives of NACS, the ACC has the backing of the president.
Proposals in the current NACS are similar in clarity and in content to those in previous editions. They include 1) reforms to the anti-corruption law specifically for the private sector (2) autonomy of the judiciary (3) open bidding for public procurement and (4) less political control over appointments to the judiciary and regulatory agencies.
The NACS’ main strength is that on paper at least, it aims to close the door on bribery, nepotism, influence peddling and patronage, inter alia. Yet, it is obstructed by the vagueness of some of its provisions. For instance, the strategists do not express the exact changes they propose to make to the anti-corruption law to tackle private sector corruption. They also write that appointment to regulatory agencies “should be free from the patronage system” but do not articulate how to achieve this.
There also appears to be a disconnect between what these external strategists propose and ongoing steps by the Maada Bio administration and the ACC. For instance, in the NACS, there is no mention of the commissions of inquiry that were set up by President Bio in February 2018 (see our analysis of his anti-corruption drive upon taking office) to probe officials in the last government who are accused of corruption. The commissions are presently still investigating the cases and there is no timeline yet for reaching a conclusion.
The NACS’ authors also disapprove of pending amendments to the law that the ACC proposed in March. By those amendments, the ACC wanted to grant itself broad powers, including the power to suspend contracts on suspicion of corruption or of being “against the interest of the people of Sierra Leone”. But the NACS’ authors write, “While these proposals are welcoming, they are not the sort of comprehensive amendments that are needed to elevate the law governing corruption to meet with the growing need to thoroughly minimize or eradicate corruption in Sierra Leone.”
In addition to being exposed to political influence, the ACC does not appear balanced. There is an ongoing ACC crackdown on corruption where most targets have been opposition figures linked to the last government. Properties belonging to these suspects have been seized without a court process, in what the ACC head Francis Kaifala has described as a “non-conviction-based asset forfeiture drive”. A crackdown of this nature is not prescribed in the NACS.
The head of a local media association involved in preparing the NACS, recognised this contrast, telling us: “The process for coming up with the strategy was more inclusive than ever. There were wide consultations and a lot of media coverage. But there is concern about credibility when the ACC talks about fighting corruption, especially when it seizes assets or demands restitution from suspects, mainly opposition officials, without the courts. It just doesn’t seem to have faith in the judiciary’s ability to act promptly and impartially.”
Governance risk remains high in spite of improvements in the local view of corruption. Meanwhile, producing the latest NACS edition indicates continued appreciation for long-term planning and we expect that the routine will be maintained in future.
The impact of the NACS impact will depend on the willingness of policymakers and their political leaders to align current steps with those prescribed in the NACS, even if weakly expressed. However, the ACC and Bio government appear to be working in tandem, which we anticipate will be sustained for the rest of Bio’s tenure, and so the NACS will likely be minimally implemented in that time. For now, we cannot infer that the current ACC leadership intends to implement the NACS as it is only obliged to produce a new edition as custom (rather than a sign of an intent to follow its recommendations).
We project that any immediate gains in tackling corruption will be short-lived and without depth because activities have mostly been outside standard judicial processes. Concerned stakeholders will likely continue to react with a mix of caution and optimism but may become increasingly skeptical should investigations continue to be extrajudicial, inclined to target opposition figures and unsupported by measures to strengthen public institutions.
Sierra Leone’s score on this index has remained relatively stable in recent years, rating between 29 and 31 since 2012 on a scale of 0 to 100 (with 0 being highly corrupt and 100 very clean), scoring 30 on this Index in 2018.
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