Felix Marco Conteh, an independent research consultant based in Sierra Leone, contributes the following guest post:
Sierra Leone has a serious corruption problem. And while the importance of fighting corruption unites Sierra Leoneans—who tend to blame corruption for all the country’s socio-economic and political challenges—the citizens of this intensely polarized country remain divided on how to do so. The country seems to have fallen into a pattern in which each new administration pledges to tackle corruption, but adopts strategies that are aimed more at appealing to domestic and international constituencies in the short-term, rather than lay a foundation for longer-term success. The new administrations’ short-term strategies too often involve criminalizing politics in a way that appears to target the political opposition, contributing to deeper polarization and instability.
This is not to say there has been no progress. Successive administrations have made meaningful contributions to Sierra Leone’s anticorruption framework. Back in 2000, during the administration of then-President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah, an act of parliament established the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC). And once former opposition leader Ernest Bai Koroma was elected to the presidency in 2007, he took practical steps to fight corruption. He appointed one of Africa’s leading human rights lawyers, Abdul Tejan-Cole, to head the ACC, and under the Koroma administration Sierra Leone enacted one of the continent’s strongest anticorruption laws in 2008. This law included, among other things, a provision that granted the ACC the power to prosecute its cases in court, without referring them to the Office of the Attorney General and Minister of Justice. Within two years of the enactment of the law, the ACC secured the convictions of several high-profile public officials, including the Minister of Fisheries and Marine Resources, widely believed to be part of the President’s inner circle.
Yet the momentum was short-lived. Tejan-Cole unexpectedly resigned in May 2010, prompting suspicions that the government was trying to interfere in the ACC’s work, and although his replacement was also a widely respected lawyer, the damage to the public’s perception of the ACC was done. Furthermore, the government consistently ignored the recommendations from the Audit Service of Sierra Leone (ASSL) concerning the establishment and strengthening of financial oversight systems within government departments. Thus, by the time President Koroma left office in 2018, there was widespread public perception of corruption in his government, especially as his departure followed the investigations into the abuse of funds meant to control the Ebola epidemic of 2014-15.
April 2018 marked Sierra Leone’s second post-war peaceful transfer of power—an important democratic milestone—as Julius Maada Bio succeeded President Koroma. Like his predecessor, President Bio has taken some concrete steps to curb graft. Under his leadership, the ACC has recovered over US$ 1.8 Million in stolen assets, more than the cumulative asset recovery of the previous 18 years. The government has also revised the ACC Act to grant the commission new powers, including the authority to stop procurement processes if the ACC deems them not in the “national interest.” It is troubling, however, that many of the Bio administration’s anticorruption initiatives have explicitly targeted his predecessor’s administration: In January 2019, President Bio launched Commissions of Inquiry, led by three judges, to investigate “activities of previous government officials,” including former President Koroma. These commissions recommended that many of these officials, including Koroma, forfeit or return substantial assets. Unsurprisingly, the opposition has challenged the legality of the process and accused the Bio administration of unfairly targeting the officials of the prior administration (now the opposition) for political gain.
Furthermore, while President Bio has exhibited strong resolve to deal with corruption from the past, his commitment to dealing with corruption in his own administration is less certain. In April 2020, former Minister of Basic Education Alpha Timbo and four others were charged with misappropriating rice provided by the Chinese Government as part of a social welfare program. Four months later, the ACC unexpectedly informed the court it had no evidence against the accused persons. The ACC Commissioner defended their action as “a tactical withdrawal,” caused by the Minister of Justice’s refusal to grant them an application for trial by a judge alone. Yet, the commission has still not filed a new application, while Timbo has returned to the cabinet, this time as Minister of Labor and Social Security. Many suspect that the case against Timbo was undermined by government interference in the ACC’s work.
The Bio administration has also attempted several actions that would have weakened the country’s anticorruption and integrity systems, only to reverse course in the face of public backlash: In May 2018, the President directed that the Finance Acts of 2016, 2017 and 2018, be suspended, only for the decision to be rescinded a week later following public outcry. And in May 2020, the government attempted to enact regulations exempting the management of the Coronavirus Disease Emergency Fund from the Public Financial Management Act 2016—though here again, the draft regulation was also withdrawn following criticism from civil society. Nevertheless, the Minister of Justice has cited the State of Emergency declared in March 2020 as a justification for stalling the ASSL’s real-time audit of the Fund. More generally, senior ASSL officials and civil society organizations have raised concerns over the government’s lack of willingness to implement recommendations resulting from audit exercises.
President Bio’s administration, like that of his predecessor, came into office riding a wave of optimism about the prospects for finally getting the country’s endemic corruption under control, and his administration has achieved some early and important successes. But so far, the administration’s most aggressive anticorruption activities have involved defendants affiliated with the previous administration (and current opposition). That’s not unimportant—those who violated the public trust should be held accountable—but the real test of the administration’s commitment to anticorruption will be how it handles cases in which officials of the current government are implicated. Already, there are doubts whether the ACC can meet such a challenge, given the less than convincing manner in which it handled the Timbo case. The government’s lack of enthusiasm for building more robust integrity systems is also troubling. Fighting corruption takes more than well-publicized Commissions of Inquiry into past administrations. Anticorruption strategies that are not supported by political will, an independent judiciary, a public service guided by high standards of integrity, and a strong and impartial anticorruption agency, are unsustainable.