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President Koroma Blows the Whistle on Corruption Once Again: But Whats Different this Time?

Abdul R Thomas
Editor - The Sierra Leone Telegraph

23 February 2010

Yesterday, President Ernest Koroma ordered the immediate arrest of National Revenue Authority and Customs Officers that are suspected of facilitating the defrauding of the State by unscrupulous businessmen.

“I have included in this meeting the Inspector General of Police, the Director of Public Prosecutions, and the Office of National Security to ensure that these instructions are carried out immediately and to the fullest. There should be no compromise and we will accept no apologies” - Said the tough talking President.

But what is so different this time, from the last meeting he had with the top echelons of his government, where many were named and shamed?

The President spoke yesterday, at an unscheduled meeting convened at State House. Speaking to senior government officials, President Koroma said, “Barely a month ago, I addressed a good number of government ministers and institutions about the ineffective manner in which they are implementing the law, and the effects it’s having on the economy and by extension the performance of government.”

It seems now as though the President is at the end of his tether. But his critics would ask whether he has left it too late to now begin to reign in on the culture of rampant corruption that is destroying the very fabric of Sierra Leone’s society. Cynics may also say that this renewed vigour being shown by the President, must also be directed at all those that are dubbed ‘sacred cows’.

However, there is little doubt now that the Anti-corruption Commission is beginning to find its teeth, as the current investigations involving the Minister of Fisheries and Marine Resources demonstrates.

At the State House meeting yesterday, the President was at pains to read out the Riot Act on Senior Officers of the National Revenue Authority and the Customs and Excise Department, who were also present at the previous meeting. “Today, I have clear evidence of false declaration at Customs. For it to go through there must have been connivance between the importers, the shipping company and employees at NRA.”

The President took an unprecedented step of disclosing the name of a Lebanese owned company - Ibrahim Mohsen and Sons, which recently under declared the volume and value of goods imported into the country, in order to evade the full payment of customs duty.

Notwithstanding this unprecedented and courageous action by the President to name and bring Lebanese businesses to account, many Sierra Leoneans speaking to the Sierra Leone Telegraph, are now wondering how long and what it’s going to take, before the Foreign Investment Laws of Sierra Leone are changed, so as to ensure that certain sectors of the economy are closed to foreign investors, such as retail.

There is also call for a threshold to be set on the value of the foreign investment capital allowed in all sectors of the economy, so as not to displace indigenous businesses. This policy is not new in West Africa. Its introduction in Nigeria in the early 1980’s enabled the country to develop its indigenous entrepreneurship.

But these calls must not in any way be regarded as an alternative to the strengthening of measures aimed at enforcing the country’s anti-corruption Laws.

Although the President was also quick to inform the nation that a penalty of Le1.3 Billion had been imposed on the Lebanese importer, his exasperation must have been felt, when he said:

“Can you imagine the amount of money that the government would have lost? Can you imagine the amount of money the government is losing through these malpractices? What is clear is that our people at NRA have not heeded the warning I made on the 26th January, because they have apparently connived with the importers and the shippers. This so-called importer definitely thinks he is above the law or that he could only pay a penalty, get away with it and continue to take the risk."

The President then went on to declare that; in addition to paying the full Le 1.3 Billion penalty, the Lebanese businessman must forfeit all his goods to the State; all government employees involved in the transaction should immediately lose their jobs, arrested and charged to court together with the importers and shipping agency for conspiring to defraud the State.

The President also ordered the immediate arrest and detention of the accused Lebanese businessman - Ibrahim Mohsen; and that the shipping company involved in the transaction to be penalised for providing false declaration, blacklisted, and all its operations stopped until the matter is concluded.

Perhaps the strongest signal to be given to the NRA Officers came at the end of the meeting, when the President said that; “If we have cause to change the entire staff at NRA, then there’s no alternative. The process will continue until we put a stop to this….and that if the Commissioner in charge is found wanting then the law must be applied.”

In order to reassure the public as to the seriousness of yesterday’s meeting, the President did a roll call of Senior State Security and Law Department Officials, present at the meeting: “I have included in this meeting, the Inspector General of Police, the Director of Public Prosecutions, and the Office of National Security to ensure that these instructions are carried out immediately and to the fullest. There should be no compromise and we will accept no apologies.”

This was no lower division meeting of government officials. Present also were, the Minister of Information and Communications - I.B. Kargbo, Minister of Presidential and Public Affairs - Joseph Koroma, Attorney General & Minister of Justice - Abdul Serry-Kamal, Acting NRA Director General - Haja Kallah-Kamara, Deputy Anti Corruption Commissioner - Morlai Buya Kamara, Assistant Inspector General of Police - Francis Munu, and Office of National Security Senior Operatives - Abdulai Mustapha and Christopher John.

World Bank’s Vice President for Africa – Ms. Obiageli Ezekwesili, who was in Freetown in January with Robert Zoellick, urged the Commissioners of the Anti-corruption Commission (ACC) to “go after the sacred cows,” as one way of ensuring the ACC’s credibility with the public. The visit by the World Bank’s Chiefs Zoellick and Ezekwesili must have put a spring on the steps of the ACC, as we have seen in recent days. All eyes are now on the Commission’s Chairman – Abdul Tejan Cole.

So, President Koroma has once again attempted to show the people of Sierra Leone and the international community that he is now going to be tough on corruption. But the question that will pre-occupy the minds of those that want him to do more is this:

Will the President continue to allow the long hands of the Anti-corruption Commission to reach out to the so called sacred cows? The outcome of the current investigations into the affairs of the Fisheries and Natural Resources Minster and others under similar investigations will be a defining moment for the President and his government.

As the President asked his senior government officials present at the meeting yesterday: “Is it clear to everybody?” to which they all answered “Yes Sir”, the hope now is for all those engaged in corrupt practices in Sierra Leone to heed this RED LETTER warning, that could save the nation - Hundreds of Millions of Dollars every year in lost revenue.


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