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Tackling Corruption is not a Game of Poker

Abdul R Thomas
Editor - The Sierra Leone Telegraph

26 February 2010

Fighting corruption in Sierra Leone is everybody’s business, because for every $1 that is stolen from the public purse, approximately $10 is lost to the economy, as the country’s circular flow of income is asphyxiated by greedy, selfish and rogue individuals in society.

In a country where one in seven children dies before they reach their fifth birthday and one in eight expectant mothers also die, because of the lack of appropriate maternal care; coupled with a very low literacy rate – one of the lowest in the world; and joblessness topping 70% amongst the youths; little wonder the ordinary citizens of Sierra Leone have become extremely cynical as regards the commitment and seriousness of successive governments, in tackling corruption.

This cynicism is of course, presently being compounded by intense media speculation, intrigue and suspicion of selective justice. But what many people now find surprising, is the rather poor timing of the unprecedented series of Presidential decrees, pronouncements and orders, concerning the naming and arrest of suspected corrupt individuals.

In the last month, President Koroma has seen it necessary to twice take over – de-facto - the functions of the Chairman of the Anti-corruption Commission and the Inspector of Police; to name, accuse and order the arrest of suspected corrupt government officials. Some might say he is the Commander-in-Chief, after all.

But, if it is true, as reported in an article published in the Sierra Express Media (‘When Ernest Gets Tough’ – 23 February 2010); that “the president is not leaving the job to the ACC alone but is boosting their effort through other intelligence mechanism that report directly to him”; would it be wrong to conclude that the President is seriously usurping the role of the ACC and the chain of command of the Police?

While this may be regarded as laudable in some quarters, there are many progressive democrats in Sierra Leone who disapprove of the President’s action, which is reminiscent of the APC government of old.

“The President, Dr. Ernest Bai Koroma should do more to save his name and the image of his APC government…. What the president did in the past days should have been done by the heads of those departments in saving the president any further embarrassment.” – (Concord Times; 24 February 2010).

Indeed, there are also those that question the legality of the President’s public disclosure of the names of suspected corrupt individuals, whom the Anti-Corruption Commission and the Police may wish to invite or arrest for further investigations.

Notwithstanding the President’s good intentions, it is absolutely important that his public utterances are not perceived by the general public, as prejudicial to any current and, or future investigations, including the right to fair trial of those accused.

Speaking to a retired Appeals Court Judge; “this action by the President could easily bring the due process of justice and the Anti-Corruption Laws into disrepute” – he said.

But according to the Editorial of Cocorioko News (24 February 2010);”Mr. Koroma promised to launch a determined battle against corruption. Today, Sierra Leoneans are living in the reality of the fulfillment of this promise. Today, clairvoyant corrupt officials who used to walk with a swagger are beginning to tremble in their boots.”

This perhaps may well be the justification for the President’s unique, but questionable style of single-handed war on corruption. While this strategy may improve the President’s popularity rating, is it really sustainable?

In view of the fact that the former Commissioner of the NRA and indeed the NRA itself have been, and are still under the investigative gaze of the Anti-Corruption Commission, should this not have signaled to all and sundry that; all public discussion of NRA corruption cases, is sub-judice and prejudicial to those suspected and accused of corruption by the ACC?

Is it not also logical to assume that any information in the President’s domain, which may assist the Anti-corruption Commision in pursuing their investigations, must be turned over to the Commission, without any public disclosure of the said information?

Section 74(1) (b) of the Anti-corruption Act has been hotly debated of late. It states that:

“Any person who knowing or being likely to know that an investigation for an offence under this Act is taking place, without lawful authority or reasonable excuse, discloses to any other person the identity of the person under investigation or the fact that such person is being investigated or the details of the investigation, including the identity of any informer in the investigation, commits an offence.”

Are there extenuating circumstances on this occasion that gave cause to the President’s unprecedented ‘suspected breach’ of section 74 of the Anti-Corruption Laws?

Has the principle of ‘innocence until proven guilty’ been seriously tarnished by this Executive action?

In the normal scheme of political governance, there is very little that is wrong with the President’s direct hands-on approach. But unfortunately, Sierra Leone is not yet a normal democratic society, where the rule of law at all times takes precedence above all other interests.

Civil society and democratic institutions are relatively new, and are still trying quite gingerly, to find their feet on what can be described as a slippery political landscape, strewn with banana skins.

The ever looming climate of fear of political repression and the curtailing of civil liberties is as chilling as the country’s hamattan wind. The recent outbreak of violence at the Tongo bye-elections is a reminder of how fragile the foundation upon which the country’s democratic experiment is built.

Is it not ironic and eerily suspicious that, on both occasions when the President had found it necessary to name, shame and, or ordered the arrest of individuals suspected of corruption, major foreign dignitaries are expected to visit the country?

For example; on the 26 January 2010, the eve of the President’s meeting with the Chief of the World Bank, the President convened a meeting of ministers and heads of government departments, to name and shame those found wanting of corruption.

Similarly, just few days ago - on the eve of ex-British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s visit to Sierra Leone, 22 February 2010, President Koroma called a meeting of ministers, heads of government departments and the Security Service, where he revealed information that he had, of suspected corrupt Officers of the National Revenue Authority and Customs.

Tony Blair was in Sierra Leone to support President Koroma’s Agenda for Change and to help attract sustainable private investment into the country. The two leaders also met to review progress following the Investors conference in London last November, and no doubt, talked about government’s effort in clamping down on corruption. Was Tony Blair impressed?

The invitation of the Fisheries and Marine Resources Minister for questioning by the ACC appeared to have been perfectly timed to coincide with Tony Blair’s visit. This really smells fishy – no pun meant towards the Ministry of Fisheries of course.

But, was this a coincidence, or a genuine attempt to respond to accusations of ‘sacred cows’ grazing in the President’s backyard?

Similarly, was the President’s decision to ‘name and shame’ ministers and heads of institutions as corrupt, on the eve of the World Bank’s visit, aimed at receiving brownie points from the Chief of the World Bank?

Was the President’s decision to name and order the immediate arrest of National Revenue Authority Officers, suspected of corruption, also designed to earn golden stars from Tony Blair?

The fight against corruption in Sierra Leone must never become a political tool for waging vendetta, nor should it be used as a public relations game; otherwise the cynicism with which ordinary citizens regard government’s actions in tackling corruption, will deepen further and may prove impossible to change.

Whether coincidental or not, the suspicion surrounding the rather apt timing of the Presidential decree – a few days ago, to name, shame and arrest public officials; and fallouts from the previous State House naming and shaming meeting that took place in January, have called into question the motive, integrity, and independence of the ACC itself.

What remains now, is for the President to change his strategy and allow the ACC, the Police and the Judiciary to carry on with their work unfettered, and without fear or favour.

Why can’t the President sit down with both the Chairman of the ACC and the Inspector General of Police at least once a week, if necessary, to review progress, share and exchange information, and discuss strategies?

Or, as Regina Pratt suggested in the Concord Times (24 February 2010); “The president should have confidence in those that are in authority, who should be sending him reports of their daily engagements.”

This approach is by far better, than the President’s de-facto micro management of the process of fighting corruption - no matter how innovative, unprecedented and laudable it may appear.

The public’s trust and confidence in the ACC and the police need to be restored – and fast. The media too, must create some space for this to take place, in their understandable eagerness to see that justice prevail.

Tackling corruption is not a game of poker, but a highly significant pre-requisite for good governance, that must not be politicised.

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