Femi Claudius-Cole: Sierra Leone Telegraph: 16 May 2022:
In 2018, Yvonne Aki-Sawyer, a first timer in the murky world of Sierra Leone politics, emerged the winner of the municipality elections for the Freetown City Council. She won by a landslide, attracting widespread support from Freetonians who were attracted to her powerful message to transform Freetown.
However, winning the Freetown Mayoralty, which is the second-largest constituency in Sierra Leone, put Mayor Aki-Sawyerr on a collision course with the Bio-led SLPP government, from the onset.
On 11 May 2022, the ACC released a Media Release on its Facebook page, stating that it had concluded its investigations in the Freetown City Council, relating to issues highlighted on the Council in the 2019 Auditor General’s Report, concerning payments of council funds to personal staff to the mayor. Ben Kaifala deliberately describes Ms. Manja Kargbo, as the personal staff of the mayor, in order to delegitimise her vital contribution to the Mayor’s Transform Freetown Agenda.
The irony of this investigation is the selective manner in which Ben Kaifala has attempted to criminalise Mayor Aki-Sawyer alone, when the 2019 Audit Report, highlighted an abundance of fraudulent activities with far-reaching consequences for the people of Sierra Leone, then the legitimate payments made to Manja Kargbo, working tirelessly to support Mayor Aki-Sawyer and the Councillors of the FCC, to deliver the Transform Freetown agenda.
The 2019 Audit Report highlighted on Page 4, that Export Levy on timber revenue was not valued in line with Legislative Directives and that Section 3 of the Finance Act (Amended) of 2018 stipulated that: “An exporter of timber or timber product, shall prior to exportation pay to the National Revenue Authority a timber royalty of US$2,500 on every cubic meter of such timber or part thereof.”
In her report, Lara Taylor-Pearce stated that “We observed that the Leadway Trading Company (SL) Limited used 20-feet containers as a unit of measurement instead of cubic meters as required by Section 3 of the Finance Act (Amended) of 2018. The ASYCUDA data from the Customs Department revealed that a total of 2,201,024.88 cubic meters was exported, which translates to a recomputed revenue of US$5.5 billion. Revenue of US$25.7 million was recorded in the GPFS, resulting in a difference of US$5.48 billion.”
Unconvinced by the sham excuse offered by the Ministry of Finance, the Auditor General went on to state on Page 8 that – “I draw attention to Note 11 in the financial statement, which describes details of revenue received from other departments. The method of valuation for timber products prior to exportation was not in accordance with Section 3 of the Finance (Amended) Act of 2018. Instead of using cubic meters as required by law, 20-feet shipping containers were used as units of measurement. Based on the ASYCUDA data from the Customs Department, a total of 2,201,024.88 cubic meters valued at US$5.5billion was exported. Revenue of US$25.7 million was recorded in the GPFS, thereby leaving a difference of US$5.48 billion.”
In response, the Ministry of Finance stated that the discrepancy is due to an error in the drafting of the Finance Act (Amended) of 2018, but the necessary correction will be done in the Finance Act of 2021. The Auditor-General concluded – My opinion is not modified in respect of this matter.
Ms. Taylor-Pearce’s audit found that revenues of US$25.7m were booked in the GPFS when US$5.5bn should have been and that she was not impressed with the explanation the Ministry of Finance had offered, for what was a breach of the law. This is an eye-watering sum and evidence of industrial-scale fraud, which the ACC has ignored.
The Finance Act 2021 did make an amendment as the Ministry of Finance claimed. The Finance Act 2021 amend Section 25A of the Forestry Act 1988 by repealing and replacing that section with the following new section, which states – “An exporter of timber log, timber and timber products shall pay to the National Revenue Authority a timber royalty of $3,000 per any 33.2 cubic metres before he exports any timber log, timber and timber products excluding furniture, edge glue boards, plywood and wooden transmission poles from planted forests.”
If this amendment was retrospectively applied to the royalties due to the NRA, from the export of 2,201,024.88 cubic meters of timber by Leadway, royalties of US$166,744,309, not US$25.7 million which was paid. Therefore, royalties of US$139,244,309 is outstanding to the NRA.
Page 433 of the 2019 Audit Report, commented on the Office of the President. The report made the following observations on the way in which Special Imprests for Overseas Travel were managed. “We observed during the period under review that special imprest provided for overseas travel, expected to be used to cover the incidental costs of the President, were not retired in accordance with Section 114 of the Public Financial Management Regulations, 2018. The sum of US$160,000 was provided, but not retired in compliance with the Public Financial Management Regulations, 2018.”
Responding to the Auditor General, the Office of the Secretary to the President said that the State Chief of Protocol (SCOP) has now provided documents accounting for the expenditure which are ready for inspection. It goes on to say tips given by the President and the First Lady when departing hotels and airports are difficult to capture for retirement as it is often done in haste. In effect, during their travels, President Bio and Mrs. Fatima Bio used US$160,000 of public funds, to give away as tips to hotel workers in the countries they visited that year.
Pause and think about this for a moment and let it sink in. The President of Sierra Leone, a poor country, which is hugely dependent on external aid, uses US$160,00 of public funds, to tip hotel workers, in economies that fare far better than our own.
Ben Kaifala has not considered this frivolous use of public funds, as something that necessitates a criminal investigation by the ACC.
Furthermore, in the 2020 Audit Report, the Auditor General delivered a bombshell, when it was reported by the Office of the President, that appropriate retirement details were not provided for payments of US$135,000, made for various overseas travels by HE the President, and the First Lady.
The report recommended that the State Chief of Protocol should provide the necessary retirements; otherwise, the said payments will be disallowed and surcharged. It went on to state that following detailed verification, inspection, and other standard audit checks, including checks with third parties where applicable and possible, we concluded that:
- the sum of US$110,000 or Le1,080,504,300 should be refunded by the payees (i.e., the State Chief of Protocol and the Personal Assistant to the First Lady), as the retirement receipts were marred by discrepancies, inaccuracies, and inconsistencies.
- the receipts provided have also been disputed by the concerned third parties. Further investigation to be carried out on the transaction on PV No. 83325 of 10th March 2020 for an amount of $25,000 or Le247,254,500; the retirement receipt is marred by discrepancies, inaccuracies, and inconsistencies.
The 2020 Audit Report also specifically focused on President Bio and Mrs. Fatima Bio’s official visit cum private medical treatment, cum honeymoon, to Lebanon, which many observers believe is what triggered the suspension of Lara Taylor-Pearce. The Auditor General’s comments stated the following:
“• “Original” receipts all with dates in September 2020, to support a total payment of US$352,481.77 for hotel accommodation and medical treatment were presented during the audit verification exercise.
- We however concluded that one of the retirement receipts of US$156,113.73 for hotel accommodation dated 18th September 2021, was marred by discrepancies, inaccuracies, and inconsistencies. It was also disputed by the concerned third party, whose record show that the bill remains outstanding. In view of such discrepancies and disputes, the matter still stands and the amount of US$156,113.73 should be refunded by the payee, the State Chief of Protocol.
- We noted that hospital bills to the value of US$170,489.04 were settled in cash at the hospital in question.”
Against this backdrop of industrial-scale fraud reported in the 2019 and 2020 Audit Reports, Francis Ben Kaifala has found it necessary to focus on the legitimate payments made to Ms. Isatu Manja Kargbo, in her capacity as Head of the Mayor’s Delivery Unit.
Ms. Kargbo in her role, provided additional capacity and capability to support the vision of the Freetown City Council to transform our nation’s capital city to a modern and confident city, which can take its place among other cities in the region and the continent. This is something that all Sierra Leoneans should celebrate. Through her legal team, Mayor Aki-Sawyerr highlighted the following:
- Manja Kargbo has been the Team Lead of the Mayor’s Delivery Unit since 2018
- The travel expenses paid in respect of airfares, hotel, and per diems were done following council procedures and with the signatures of the Chief Administrator (Vote Controller) and the Finance Officer, but only Mayor Aki-Sawyer and Manja Kargbo were investigated.
- That Manja Kargbo’s travel expenses of Le187,904,830 (the equivalent of US$14,500) yielded FCC, investments of over US$4m.
It is now clear that plans are being put in place to formally remove Mayor Aki-Sawyer from her office this week. as per the ACC Act 2008, Section 89, subsection (1) (b), repayment of amounts (as demanded by Francis Ben Kaifala) would automatically result in the payer being barred from public office for a period of at least three years.
It is clear that the ACC’s insistence on repayment of valid and legitimate travel expenses of the MDU Team, led by the mayor, will result in the mayor being barred from holding public office for at least three years.
Rather than allowing the issue of the procedural audit query to be addressed via the parliamentary process, the ACC instead sought criminal prosecution for the exact same issue raised in the same Audit Report in respect of the Office of the First Lady (i.e., the case of Mr. Paul Massaquoi). No action has been taken by the ACC about this audit query.
The 2019 Audit Report observed that a DSA allowance of US$2,160 was paid to Mr. Paul Massaquoi as part of the delegation of the Office of the First Lady during a visit to Niame, Niger to attend the 23rd Oaflad (Office of African First Ladies) Ordinary General Assembly. The Report observed that Mr. Paul Massaquoi was neither a staff nor a consultant in the Offices of the President or the First Lady. As a result, we have considered this expenditure to be ineligible. Unlike Manja Kargbo, the Office of the First Lady has provided no evidence of the benefits that Mr. Massaquoi’s consultancy yielded for Sierra Leone.
The selective manner that Francis Ben Kaifala uses the powers of the ACC to criminalise political opponents while ignoring the high crimes and misdemeanours of those in the SLPP and high-ranking public servants, is a worrying trend.
This pattern of selective justice was also evident in his decision to ignore the evidence of the widespread abuse of fake degrees, by very senior political and public figures, including Ambrose Sovula, Inspector General of Police; Memuna Pratt, Minister of Tourism; and Paran Tarawally, Clerk of Parliament.
Mr. Kaifala dismissed the revelations that IG Sovula was a recipient of a fake PhDs from African Graduates University and Dominion Christian University, saying that, if the fake degree acquired, was not a requirement of the job a person held, there was no case to answer. This was in marked contrast to his swift deployment of the Scorpion Unit to round up, handcuff and parade teachers at Cotton Tree on allegations of accepting bribes for grades at WASSCE exams, without affording them the presumption of innocence, until proven guilty.
Make no mistake, this is a big gamble that the Bio-led government is pursuing, emboldened by the decision of Justice Adrian Fisher, to remove the APC Executive.
Kaifala and Bio seem confident that the ACC’s action to remove Mayor Aki-Sawyer from office and bar her for a period of three years, would be met with no resistance by the public. Their confidence may also be attributed to the muted public response to the suspension of Lara Taylor-Pearce and Tamba Momoh.
It would therefore be interesting to see, if Sierra Leoneans, especially the people of Freetown and women, are going to sit back and allow the ACC to use the appointment of Manja Kargbo to head the Mayor’s MDU, as a justifiable reason to remove her from office, thus preventing her from also contesting elections in 2023.
Western Area, with twenty-eight constituencies and over eight hundred thousand voters, is pivotal to the 2023 Presidential and Parliamentary elections, and it seems as though Bio’s Paopa SLPP would stop at nothing to ensure that they make significant inroads into the Western Area.
This sinister attempt to discredit and bar Mayor Aki-Sawyer from contesting the 2023 elections, is part of the master plan of SLPP hegemony.
About the author
Ms. Femi Claudius-Cole is the Chairperson of the Consortium of Progressive Political Parties (CoPPP) in Sierra Leone.