Sierra Leone Telegraph: 10 December 2015
The seriousness with which the Anti-Corruption Commission in Sierra Leone addresses rampant corruption in the country without fear or favour, has on many occasions been questioned. Sierra Leone is one of the poorest nations in the world, despite huge natural resources.
Many in the country believe that it is difficult, if not impossible to expect the Anti-Corruption Chief Joseph Kamara to deliver justice, given his relationship with the president and others in high office.
As far back as 2010 and with the rapid rise in corruption in the country, both the UN and the World Bank had respectively called upon the Anti-corruption Chief to tackle corruption in high places, especially among ministers and senior government officials.
But the response from the Anti graft Chief has been more of the same – chasing small fries and political scapegoats, whilst protecting sacred cows that are grazing on state coffers.
Hence it does not come as a surprise that the Anti-Corruption Commission in its latest findings into the investigation, regarding the awarding of a $12 million contract to purchase 50 public buses, has cleared the transport minister and those in power from wrongdoing.
Today, the integrity and respectability of the Commission are once again being called into serious question.
Sierra Leone is still regarded by most international agencies and foreign governments as one of the most corrupt countries in Africa, as corruption in high places continues to sap the life, energy and public investment capital out of the country.
The abuse of power by those governing Sierra Leone, and their failure to comply with their own legislation, rules and regulations have all become far too common, with the Anti-Corruption Commission being accused of either turning a blind eye, or providing the oxygen that feeds corruption in high places.
The $12 million scandal has left a very strong stench in the corridors of State House, which not even the Anti-Corruption Commission itself can succeed in fumigating away.
Central to this case was the selective evidence provided by the minister of transport himself, officers of the procurement committee, and officers at the ministry of finance – whom ironically, have all today been cleared of wrongdoing by the ACC.
This is what we knew about the case:
The Sierra Leone Telegraph had been informed by a senior source at the Anti-Corruption Commission, that they were conducting a thorough investigation into the purchasing of the 100 buses by the ministry of transport; and that; “We are looking into the matter and persons of interest are assisting the ACC.”
In particular, the ACC were interested in finding out whether there was a breach of any of the provisions of the country’s Public Procurement Laws; whether anyone can be charged with abuse of office, misappropriation of public funds, bribery and corruption.
But sceptics suspected that so called ‘powers from above’ – a euphemism for those occupying presidential office, would thwart the ACC investigation, if the ACC Commissioner attempted to expose any wrong doing that may have serious consequences for the minister of transport – Balogun Koroma (Photo).
The transport minister in an attempt to publicly explain how the $12 million was spent, revealed how seriously flawed his sums were.
This is a transcript (in English as the interview was conducted in Krio) of an interview conducted with the transport minister by a local radio station:
Minister Koroma: “The president brought up the suggestion to acquire 100 new buses. So we pursued that relentlessly. It took us a very long time. The buses were manufactured. After the manufacturing then Ebola struck. It took us almost six months to acquire a visa for the inspection team to go and inspect the buses.
“After clearing that hurdle, we had another hurdle of trying to find a ship that was willing to transport the buses to Sierra Leone. We have gone through all that and finally the buses are here.
Radio reporter: “There are reports on social media that the buses are not brand new and that the cost of purchasing the buses is too high”.
Minister: “In regard to whether the buses are new or old journalists can go and inspect the buses, the engines, the manufacturing dates, and the interior, to confirm whether they are new or old buses. As far as I am concerned they are brand new buses.”
Reporter: “What about the costs involved in purchasing the buses?”
Minister: “The money involved was $12 million, of which 30% was spent on machinery and equipment for replacing the old road transport workshop, costing over $3 million; 10% of the $12 million was spent on purchasing three years worth of spare parts – costing about $1,2 million; 10% which is about $1 million spent on training of staff, rebuilding of the training centre, and capacity building; 5% of the $12 million spent on travelling and miscellaneous expenses; and shipping and insurance cost of each bus was $10,000 for each bus.
“Then you have the cost of borrowing the $12 million at 4 years interest, which will cost 50% of the total cost of the 100 buses.”
Did these figures add up? No Mr. Anti-Corruption Commissioner, they did not add up.
And, by failing to publish all of the documents relating to the purchasing of the 100 buses, including the invoicing and bank payment documents, the transport and finance ministers, had exposed the government to ridicule, accusation of the lack of accountability, abuse of office, impropriety and corruption.
Early this year, the ACC commissioner (Photo) took steps to conduct an investigation into the missing $14 million Ebola funds. This was vetoed by president Koroma, who then went on to politicise the investigation, by asking his parliamentary cronies to instead conduct their own investigation.
Since the publication of the parliamentary report, no one has faced justice for their crimes in the missing $14 million Ebola funds, nor has the Anti-Corruption Commission published its own report.
As the international community today contemplates grant-aiding almost $1 billion to help Sierra Leone recover from the impact of the Ebola crisis, questions must be asked as to whether they can trust the Koroma government to manage these funds.
Hence, the expectation of independent observers was that president Koroma ought to have allowed the ACC commissioner to get on with the task of conducting his investigation into the $12 million Busgate scandal, without hindrance, fear or favour.
As we learnt from the minister of transport – Balogun Koroma, the $12 million used for purchasing the buses was a loan provided by the Chinese government, at an interest rate of 50% per annum.
According to the minister, China had insisted that in return for the $12 million loan, the Koroma government must ditch its competitive tendering procurement requirement, so as to award the contract to a Chinese manufacturer.
These are some of the public testimonies made by government officials involved in the scandal, including the transport minister Balogun Koroma, as published in the government’s press – Cokorioko in July this year:
An official in the Ministry of Finance and Economic Development (MoFED) said; “The buses were purchased with funds from China whose lending practice ensures that its selected state – owned companies get the contracts arising from their financing. You cannot use Chinese money to give contracts to European/western companies for instance.” (Photo: Finance Minister Marah).
Minister of Transport and Aviation – Balogun Koroma said; ‘’Under this circumstance, we followed every step set out in the National Public Procurement framework.’’
The Procurement Officer in the Ministry of Transport and Aviation (MTA) – Unisa Dumbuya said; “The contract was drafted and sent to the Law Officers, who vetted it and made recommendations. One of which was that, given the conditions of the financing that the Chinese State Own Company – Poly Group – should be the contractor, the approval of the National Public Procurement Authority (NPPA) should be sought for sole sourcing.”
The Chief Executive Officer of the National Public Procurement Authority (NPPA) – Brima Bangura said; ‘’Under normal circumstances, such a procurement would have attracted international competitive bidding; the bids would have been evaluated and a winner announced. Then a window would be given to allow for any appeals should a bidder feels aggrieved. When all of these steps would have been covered, the contract would then be awarded. However, under the circumstance, we had to give our acquiescence and it is within the law that we do so’’
‘’The draft contract was then resent to the Law Officers who now gave the go – ahead having satisfied that NPPA had been consulted and their queries had been fully answered,’’ explained the Ministry of Transport Procurement Officer. “A Certificate of Approval was now sought from MoFED for the award of the contract which was granted on 8th May 2014.” (Photo: Attorney General Frank Kargbo).
“Following the NPPA’s approval, the Law Officers and the contract negotiations by the Ministry of Finance and Economic Development, an inspection team travelled to China. Led by the Minister of Finance and Economic Development (Dr. Kailfala Marrah), the Minister of Transport and Aviation (Leonard Balagun Koroma), Director of Debts – MoFED (Sahr Jusu), the Permanent Secretary – MTA, (Sahr Kpulum), the General Manager – SLRTC (Bockarie Lewis Kamara), these officials travelled to China to ascertain the products were being manufactured as per specification.”
The Procurement Officer of the Ministry of Transport said; ”I am satisfied with the process, because we worked within the procurement framework.’’
What we do know now from the available evidence is that both the minister of transport and the minister of finance, who head both ministries, had not only failed to ensure that the country’s procurement laws were followed, but more importantly, that parliament was not informed of the decision by both ministries to borrow $12 million.
Both ministers must take full responsibility, along with the Attorney General for the corrupt manner with which the $14 million contract was awarded. And this, the Anti-Corruption Commissioner has failed to do.
As the ACC Chief made it abundantly clear at the time: “The use of ‘no objection letters’ to waive procurement rules and regulations, under the guise of emergency is reproachable.”
So why was the procurement regulation not followed? Whose decision was it to set aside the procurement regulation? Was the president informed, when and by whom? Did president Koroma approve the decision not to go out to competitive tender?
The Sierra Leone Telegraph had called upon the Anti-Corruption Commissioner to remain steadfast in conducting his investigation into the procurement of the 100 buses; in particular to hold those responsible for violating the country’s procurement regulations accountable in court.
The ACC should have brought criminal charges against those suspected of abuse of office, misappropriation of public funds, bribery and corruption.
This was the statement published by the ACC Chief in the wake of the scandal:
“The Anti-Corruption Commission acknowledges with gratitude, government’s acquisition of 100 buses for the use of the general public. However, the public is hereby informed that prior to the arrival of the buses, the ACC had commenced an investigation into the procurement process.
“Though the purchase of the buses ushered in a breath of relief upon the weight of the transportation burden on the people, the procurement process cannot be said to be beyond censure.
“The ACC welcomes the heightened public response and vigilance, consequent upon the “citizens audit”, advocated and promoted by the Commission. Officials of state are now subject to public scrutiny for the discharge of their functions.
“Without prejudice to the ongoing investigation, our experience reveals that mis-procurement continues to be the bane of corruption. The use of “no objection letters” to waive procurement rules and regulations, under the guise of emergency is reproachable.
“The ACC urges the Houses of parliament to pay close heed to the gaps which encourage the circumvention of procurement rules and regulations whilst considering the ongoing amendments of the National Procurement Act of 2004.
“In a related development, the ACC also wishes to confirm to the general public that the procurement for Sierra Leone passports is also under investigation.
“Meanwhile, officials of the ministry of transport and aviation, ministry of finance and economic development, Sierra Leone road transport corporation, ministry of internal affairs and the immigration department, are cooperating and assisting the Commission with the investigations.
“The general public is assured that the fight against corruption is key to good governance and the ACC remains unrelenting in that endeavour.”
Much was therefore expected of the ACC. But to the shock and surprise of many Sierra Leoneans the ACC has once again failed in its duty to uphold its own mandate and justice.
This is what it says in a statement published on Tuesday, 8th December 2015, justifying its decision to exonerate the minister of transport and all those involved:
“The Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) wishes to inform the general public that it has concluded an in-depth and exhaustive investigation into allegations of procurement violations, dealing with, and bordering on, failure to comply with applicable procedures and guidelines relating to the tendering of the contract for the 100 buses, contrary to Section 48 of the Anti-Corruption Act 2008.
“It could be recalled that, the ACC had lauded the heightened public response and vigilance, consequent upon the “citizen’s audit”, in respect of the procurement of the 100 Buses by the Ministry of Transport and Aviation (MTA).
“Upon review of the totality of the evidence before the Commission, our findings reveal failure on the part of the Procurement Committee of the MTA, to adhere to laid down procedures of procurement as stipulated by the National Public Procurement Act, 2004.
“The Minister of MTA, however, is not a Member of the Procurement Committee, nor is there evidence of his participation in the decision making proceedings of the said Committee, leading to the award of the Contract for the purchase of 100 Buses.
“It is the considered opinion of the Commission that Members of the Procurement Committee did not actwillfully or negligently, as required in law.
“The legal authorizations occasioning approvals, such as ‘no legal objection from the Office of the Solicitor-General’ to the contract documentation, negate the favorable exercise of prosecutorial discretion.
“Furthermore, Members of the Procurement Committee, interpreted the Executive Clearance as a certificate to proceed notwithstanding. That in itself, while seriously erroneous, will not meet the threshold for criminal prosecutions under the Anti-Corruption Act 2008.
“However, the Commission draws the attention of officers of the Public Service to note the provisions of Section 40(4) and Section 118 of the Constitution of Sierra Leone, dealing with authorization of any expenditure out of the Consolidated Fund or any other fund of Sierra Leone in the execution of contracts.
“The general public is assured that the fight against corruption is key to good governance and the ACC remains unrelenting in that endeavor.”
This decision by the ACC to exonerate all those involved in the Busgate corruption scandal, has once again called into question – the relevance of the ACC in a country where most of its people have very little faith in those holding public office.
A survey conducted in Sierra Leone by transparency International showed that the majority of Sierra Leoneans perceive almost all of the country’s ministries as corrupt.
And this week’s decision by the ACC has clearly removed all doubts, about its political neutrality and ability to deliver its own mandate, in the fight against rampant corruption in Sierra Leone.