Sierra Leone government officials and their unexplained wealth

Eddie Vandy

Sierra Leone Telegraph: 28 September 2015

Acc boss - Joseph kamaraSierra Leone’s Anti-Corruption Czar – Mr. Joseph Kamara (Photo) has recently had his $11,200 monthly salaried contract renewed for another five years; and in his own words: to ‘continue the path to rid the country of corruption.’

But how effective is he, in holding government officials to account for their unexplained wealth?

And more importantly, how successfully has he been in getting public officials – including the president, to annually declare their assets in accordance with the law?

This new mandate for the head of the Anti- Corruption Commission (ACC), comes in the wake of some difficult corruption scandals, such as the ‘EbolaGate’ and ‘BusGate’. The public and international partners have strongly shown their vested interests, by demanding tough action from the commissioner.

But most Sierra Leoneans are reluctant to give a passing mark to the Anti-graft commission’s handling of the investigation into the reportedly missing USD$14 million Ebola funds, due to lack of supporting documentation as seen through the lens of the Auditor General – Lara Taylor-Pearce, who blew the whistle on the mismanagement of the Ebola funds.

Sierra Leoneans were and continue to show frustration with the ACC’s mishandling of the ‘BusGate’ scandal, which saw USD$12 million of public money spent on the purchase of 100 buses, without following due procurement policies.

The ‘EbolaGate’ and ‘BusGate’ scandals and several more high profile corruption allegations, demonstrate the extent to which public accountability has been squashed in Sierra Leone. This has contributed to the impunity surrounding public officials’ unexplained wealth.

FIGHT CORRUPTION SVAE SIERRA LEONEUnexplained Wealth

The core issue of ‘unexplained wealth,’ with many senior government officials in possession of huge wealth and assets – in stark contrast to their income, is a serious concern that must now be dealt with by the ACC. This issue has ‘morphed’ into what is now at the heart of corruption in Sierra Leone.

The idea that a small section of the population could wake up one morning and find themselves in possession of expensive mansions, luxurious and highly priced SUVs, and living in obscene opulence, is morally unacceptable.

All efforts should be made to stop such wholesale ‘thievery’ in the face of unparalleled poverty and deprivation.

Majority of the most expensive properties in Sierra Leone are owned by folks who cannot provide honest answers as to how they came about the ownership of such properties, let alone account for the source of their income.

This is grossly unfair on the rest of society, especially the millions of hard working men and women who, no matter how hard they toil – will remain in abject poverty for the rest of their lives.

Asset Declaration

Sierra Leone joins some 34 African countries that have put in place an asset disclosure clause in their Anti-Corruption laws.

But unlike neighboring Liberia, Sierra Leone’s Asset Declaration Clause restricts public access to the documentation, as these are kept secret and open only to top level ACC officials.

The Asset Declaration form is a 3 page form (reduced from 11-pages), that has a photo ID, and deemed completed when notarized by a Commissioner of Oath.

The Asset Declaration Act of 2008 was meant to be a tool aimed at preventing corruption in Sierra Leone, in particular, to discourage public officials from the acquisition of unexplained wealth.

The Act empowers the ACC to ensure that public officials who are in receipt of salary from the country’s consolidated funds, register with the ACC a signed and notarized asset form, providing full disclosure of wealth upon assumption of office. This must be renewed annually and after exit from the public service.

The ACC as Asset Declaration custodian, has authority to provide oversight, look through the data, provide analysis, observe trends, carry out source verification and follow-up when red-flags are raised.

But sadly, that has not been the case since the Act came into force in 2009. And in the court of public opinion, the process of asset declaration has been poorly managed. A good tool designed for tackling corruption, has not served its true purpose.

corruption2ACC Weakness

The Asset Declaration process has largely been ignored by some 22,000 (or 44 % of the 50,000 civil servants) defaulting public officials, including government ministers. And the Asset forms already collected have not been verified for accuracy.

The ACC defends their lack of verification as due mainly to the lack of resources and manpower. But this is no excuse for abdication of such an important duty.

In the absence of credible verification in the last six years the 2008 Act has been in existence, bad data is being collected and archived.

This inaction by the ACC to accurately determine and account for the validity of declared assets, has done irreparable damage to the country’s economy and development.

State funds that should have been used for providing good standard of public services, have gone into the bank accounts of corrupt officials – especially in foreign bank accounts.

The ACC’s failure to deliver value for money for the tax payer, is certainly symptomatic of the massive unexplained wealth of a handful of senior government officials in the country. This has emboldened the privileged few to constantly play the system, and under-declare their assets with gross impunity.

Public accountability has been shredded, and officials have not felt the urgency of any wrong doing on their part, for lack of compliance. Sierra Leone is being robbed in broad daylight of much needed resources, with the Anti-Corruption watching – but rather blindly.

Every year, the ACC incurs  massive cost of printing about 57,000 asset declaration forms, and then manually handing them over to public officials at respective ministries and institutions for completion.

Even the most reasonably performed institutions like NASSIT, EPA, and NRA are not 100% compliant. Several government institutions and officials have never declared any asset since 2009.

There are no defined standards of the process which ought to guide institutions in achieving full compliance. The Police for instance have tied its compliance to receipt of monthly rice quota.

It is public knowledge as well that ill-gotten wealth never makes the list of declared assets. Corrupt public officials are aware of the broken system, hence they are systematically manipulating the asset declaration process to their own advantage.

Rather than declare ill-gotten wealth, most corrupt officials will either deny owning any assets, undervalue assets owned, or handover assets ownership to families, friends or other entities so as to hide their true worth.

For now the Justices of the Peace (JPs) whose services are sought for a Le 5,000 notarization per declared form, are having a field day until the corrupt system is fixed.

TOGETHER WE CAN FIGHT CORRUPTIONACC’s Promise of Fixing the Problem

The ACC boss, Joseph Kamara in an interview in May 2015 accepts responsibility for the commission’s failure in getting the job done. Similar sentiments have been expressed by other officials, including the ACC’s asset document specialist, Brima Thullah on national radio on the 1st September 2015.

But the ACC has now echoed a renewed commitment to change things, and has embarked on a national awareness raising campaign and compliance training on Asset Declaration, with one held as recently as May 27, 2015, in Makeni .

The commission has also vouched to do a better job, and would be going online with the asset declaration form.

ACC’s Brima Thullah hinted on radio that the ACC may recruit a consultant to set-up the online portal, with a draft form already submitted to a committee for review. The commission, being an accountable institution should now be asked to publish the public procurement details for the online development work.

It is understood that the online asset declaration tool could go live by the first half of 2016, with a verification process that will be random, without bias and targeted at the ‘financially exposed’ like those in key institutions that are making ‘big bucks.’

Good News from Africa and around the World

One of the best online asset declaration systems is that of Bihar – a state in East India, with an online declaration portal for public scrutiny and access, organized by department and district.

In Nigeria, President Buhari and his vice Professor Yemi Osinbajo were sued for secretly declaring their assets and not keeping to campaign promise on public asset disclosure by erudite lawyer, Kabir Akingbolu .

Sierra Leone is yet to indict any official on asset declaration breaches. Neighboring Liberia is far ahead of Sierra Leone in verification and punishment. In 2003, Front Page Africa (FPA) reported the Liberia Anti-Corruption Commission (LACC) indictment of three officials, having ‘unexplained’ wealth and omission, including former Deputy Minister for Administration, Ministry of Public Works, Stephen Yekeson, with an uncovered income of US$303,590.00, but earning an official monthly salary of L$14,137.50.

Turning a New Page with Big Data

Some questions need to be asked and some assumptions are to be made in order to break from the past and turn over a new page in Sierra Leone.

What is absolutely correct is the fact that there are some Sierra Leoneans who’ve become filthy rich from ‘unexplained wealth.’ This is definitely a case for serious investigations.

By any stretch of the imagination, this does not take away from the hard working men and women who have become middle-class through honest hard work, commitment and being paid very decent wages working abroad, in the global systems and at home.

But the vicious cycle of bribery and state corruption in Sierra Leone has to stop.

Big data and analytics will serve as useful tool in the determination of ‘unexplained wealth’ and whether crime has been committed. Information on social media (like twitter, Facebook), news media and cell phone activity, are additional data points for mining to bring out corruption trends.

There is growing research in data mining for red flags underpinning corruption. Ernst & Young, World assurance consulting firm, for instance have used text mining , vendor and procurement-related data in one target country, with an outcome that “revealed unusual terms (or phrases) related to facilitation payments and payments to government officials from the accounts payable system.”

The ‘BusGate’ corruption scandal provided a test case for use of big data. The ACC could have looked deeper into the USD$12 million loan acquisition of 100 buses, even where they were on record to have said “the procurement processes cannot be said to be beyond censure and that the use of ‘no objection letters’ to waive procurement rules and regulations, under the guise of emergency, was reproachable.”

Probing questions continue to linger, as to whether the anti-crime prevention agency, the ACC may have been too quick in dismissing these investigations because of so called ‘powers from above’.

Conclusion

Research findings have revealed linkage between ‘lower perceived levels of corruption and that of wealth disclosure and content verification.’ Malawian Garvey Karvei is definitive about weak Asset laws in Malawi.

The late President Bingu wa Mutharika’s enrichment from a mini-bus entrepreneur to multi-billionaire status was the result of an asset declaration law that ‘lacked public access and content verification’.

Sierra Leone got it wrong when an asset law was enacted without public wealth disclosure and clear follow-up mechanisms.

President Koroma at malabo ebola conferencePresident Ernest Koroma on September 1, 2008, told the BBC that his asset content included ‘properties, vehicles, and interest on shares’. But when pressed to provide $ value of his assets, he couldn’t do so and merely indicated his assets to be in “hundreds of thousands of dollars – not millions, with no huge asset base.”

Five years into the President’s tenure, the New People Online published in Nov. 2012, a report (with photos) captioned: “Ernest Koroma now 4th richest President in Africa”.

This was the same New People online that had published an earlier investigative (leaked) report in 2008 pointing to the President’s initial declared assets to include; USD$ 125,000 income, a house in Freetown valued at US$50,000, another property unfinished at Makeni, and some shares.

So how is it possible, one may be tempted to ask, for a senior public official to become so rich within a short period of time?

One would have assumed that the ACC would have had a good lead, after news organizations and whistle blowers had published their investigations and  reports on alleged acquisition of ‘unexplained wealth’ by public officials including the President.

As wrong as the report and allegation by the Online Newspaper may have been, the right thing to have been done was, for the ACC to have dug deeper and pursue the evidence where they lead; or did the ACC simply turn a blind eye on such piece of vital whistle blowing because it was the President and he had to be protected at all cost?

Malawi, unlike Sierra Leone, did not wait for adequate manpower to do their leg work. They went ahead and released information about the assets of President Mutharika, and placed faith on their citizens to blow the whistle where they found corruption and discrepancy in published assets.

And the people did. In Malawi, the President was forced to correct his declared asset. It is open knowledge in Malawi that the president tops their list for assets declaration and verification. This could not be said for Sierra Leone, not at the moment.

The ACC has to frame a new approach for public disclosure of declared assets to put a closure to ‘unexplained wealth’ and public corruption.

Article References:

[1] Why Pay ACC Commissioner USD$ 16500 salary?

[1] Sierra Leone Probes into Ebola Funding

[1] Sierra Leone BusGate Scandal: Government in clear breach of procurement laws

[1] Asset Declarations

[1] Concord Times – 18May2015

[1] Asset document specialist, Brima Thullah on commission’s challenges on radio September 01, 2015.

[1] ACC Asset Declaration Training

[1] Bihar Asset Declaration

[1] Asset Declaration: Lawyer Sues Buhari, Osinbajo

[1] Liberia: Assets Trail – LACC Exposes Unexplained Wealth – Officials Refusal to Declare in Latest Report

[1]How has big data helped in fighting corruption?

[1] Anti-Bribery Corruption Analytics

[1] Researchers trawl public data for signs of corruption

[1] Data mining for red flags indicating corruption

[1] Malawi’s Asset Declaration: A study in how to sustain presidential larceny and a license to loot

[1] Sierra Leone president declares assets

[1] Ernest Koroma now 4th richest President in Africa

 

1 Comment

  1. The extent of corruption by senior government officials in the face of acute poverty and deprivation of Sierra Leoneans is something I find difficult to comprehend.

    Am sure Sierra Leone is among countries with highest inequality in the world. While the ACC staff continue to receive huge salary from the tax payers, the institution maintain its silence over the inhumane corrupt activities by the most senior government officials.

    How can someone become the forth richest president in Africa in a twinkle of an eye with no solid investment before coming to power, and the ACC could not make any move to investigate such. Let ACC boss and staff realise that they owe Sierra Leoneans a lot. Let them aware that a lot of deaths would have been averted if only they had done their job well.

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