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Allegations of Corrupt Ministers in Sierra Leone Continues to Reverberate at Westminster

Abdul R Thomas
Editor - The Sierra Leone Telegraph

17 March 2010

Monday's proceedings in the British Houses of Parliament (15 March 2010), have once again brought into sharp focus, questions as to the management and administration of British aid to Sierra Leone.

With continued claims and counter claims being made in the House of Commons, regarding the allegations of South Yorkshire British MP – Denis MacShane last week, this saga is beginning to have a life of its own. But this is British democracy at work.

The MP had accused ministers in Sierra Leone of pocketing British funds meant to tackle poverty. He made this accusation during question time in the House of Commons on the 11 March 2010.

In his statement to the Sierra Leone Telegraph on the 13 March 2010, to clarify his motivation behind the allegations, the former Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman – Denis MacShane MP, said;

“Had Mr. Edward Leigh said that the National Audit Office had visited Sierra Leone and carried out an audit, I would not have made my intervention. If DfID is now saying that the National Audit Office did visit Sierra Leone this year and carried out an independent audit, then clearly the statement made by the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee – which did not mention Sierra Leone, needs to be corrected. That is a matter for DfID and the National Audit Office.”

It is therefore obvious from Denis MacShane’s statement that there was no malicious intent on his part against the people of Sierra Leone; and had the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee been informed of the Audit Office’s recent work in Sierra Leone, the allegations perhaps would not have been made.

But it would appear that Hon. MacShane’s statement published in the Sierra Leone Telegraph last week was not enough to placate some of his colleagues in Westminster. The genie was already out of the bottle it seems.

In Parliament on Monday 15 march, the Member of Parliament for the Crosby constituency, Claire Curtis-Thomas, who is no stranger to Sierra Leone, used the Points of Order Debate in the House of Commons, to seek clarification from the Speaker of the House as to the procedure for members to correct what she considered as ‘wholly inaccurate statements’ made in the House.

At the floor of the House of Commons, the Honourable lady said: “On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Last Thursday, Mr. MacShane came to the House and informed all Members of "alarming stories" of the diversion of aid from the Department for International Development into the pockets of Ministers in Sierra Leone.”

“That hugely damaging statement was totally inaccurate and, moreover, the DFID office has just been subjected to a rigorous National Audit Office audit, which went very well. Will you advise me, Mr. Speaker, what means exist to enable Members to correct wholly inaccurate statements in the House, particularly that statement, which has unnecessarily damaged reputations and undermined the good work and offices of the presidential and DFID offices in Sierra Leone?” - asked the Honourable lady for Crosby.

But in his reply to Hon. Curtis-Thomas, the Speaker of the House – John Bercow, said: “Order. I am genuinely sorry to have to say to the Hon. Lady, having heard her remarks, that that is not a point of order. It is a very real expression of concern, but what she is considering and commenting on is ultimately a matter of debate. She has, however, very clearly put her thoughts and concerns on the record, which will be there for everyone to see.”

The Speaker then proceeded to inform the House; “……If the enthusiasm for points of order has been exhausted, we shall proceed to the main business, which is a general debate on Defence in the world.”

It must be emphasised here, that the Hon. Claire Curtis-Thomas did not call upon Denis MacShane MP to apologise publicly for his allegations, as erroneously reported in some of the local press in Sierra Leone yesterday.

But it was during a separate Parliamentary debate on ‘Defence in the world’ that the Hon. Denis MacShane took the opportunity, to once again express his concern regarding the disjointed approach of British foreign policy, towards countries such as Sierra Leone.

Denis MacShane said; “I am also very concerned that, under this Government and without any clear thinking from the opposition Parties, we do not have a holistic approach to bring together all our foreign policy players - the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Department for International Development, the different Departments that spend money overseas and, of course, the Ministry of Defence.”

He further went on to say that; “Our soldiers very bravely stopped the most awful butchery in Sierra Leone some 11 years ago, and today that country is the biggest per capita recipient of DFID aid.”

“I am sure that the DFID people down there work very well, but why, after 11 years, is Sierra Leone the poorest country in Africa, despite the huge DFID and modest military presence? We have to ask much harder questions about our overseas aid. I say that to my Honourable Friends, too, who to some extent just bow before the contemporary political god of foreign aid and do not ask searching and hard enough questions about whether it delivers what we desire - not simply the alleviation of poverty, which in many Sub-Saharan countries has not happened - but better governance and more stability.” – Said MacShane in his contribution to the debate.

When asked by the Sierra Leone Telegraph to comment on the Honourable Curtis-Thomas’ statement made in the House of Commons on Monday 15 March; Denis MacShane MP today, told the Sierra Leone Telegraph:

"I have nothing but admiration for Claire Curtis-Thomas who is a good friend. She is a marvellous champion of Sierra Leone. I have a wider concern about DfID money over the years in a number of African countries. When the poor get poorer despite hundreds of millions flowing in aid then questions have to be asked.”

“The best way is complete transparency and full publication of where the nation's wealth is located and full accounting of where every penny of DfID aid has gone, who controls DfID money once it has been handed over, and what the demonstrable outcomes are from DfID aid" - Said the Honourable Member for the Rotherham constituency.

Sierra Leone receives over £47 Million in aid annually from Britain. With this huge spending comes responsibility on both donor and recipient; to ensure proper accountability, probity and transparency, as to how and what this money is spent on.

The Honourable members of the British Parliament - Denis MacShane and Claire Curtis-Thomas, are elected by their respective constituencies to, amongst other responsibilities, monitor the work of DFID and other UK international agencies. While they may have differences of opinion as to the accuracy of events, make no mistake - they are singing from the same hymn sheet - that calls for the utmost protection of public funds.

What may appear to be a political row in the British Parliament over the allegations of corruption amongst ministers in Sierra Leone, must be seen in the context of a liberal parliamentary democracy at work.

The elected Honourable Members sitting in the wells of the Parliament of Sierra Leone can learn a great deal from this episode being played out on the floors of the British Parliament. They need to be much more proactive and forthright in holding their government to account.

In the meantime, we’ll all have to wait for the conclusions of the comprehensive investigations, proposed by Denis MacShane MP, into the management and administration of British aid to Sierra Leone.

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