President Bio’s Governance Transition Report – an opportunity for real change

Muktar Usman: Sierra Leone Telegraph: 18 July 2018:

On April 6, 2018, just two days after his swearing in, President Julius Maada Bio followed in the footsteps of his predecessor and established a Governance Transition Team (GTT) with a four-pronged mandate to “serve as focal point for the interface with the out-going APC government”; “conduct an immediate stock-taking exercise”; “submit an overview of the current state of affairs”; and “submit a comprehensive report” on the GTT’s findings.

On Wednesday, July 4, the Bio administration released its eagerly awaited GTT report. The explosive catalogue of corruption it details rewards the anticipation that preceded it.

The GTT report pulled no punches. It dismissed former President Koroma’s claims that Ebola and the collapse of iron ore prices caused the country’s economic woes.

Instead, the report argues that his administration’s “astonishing level of fiscal indiscipline”, “frantic looting”, “politically organised racketeering”, and mismanagement are responsible for the economy’s “near collapse”.

Before delving into the details of the GTT report, let’s first briefly compare President Bio’s GTT with former President Koroma’s Presidential Transition Team (PTT) which he established on September 19, 2007 – two days after his inauguration.

(Photo: Sierra Leone’s Chief Minister and Chairman of the Governance Transition Team Professor David Francis formally hands the GTT report over to President Maada Bio on the 4th of July).

Comparisons

Like the GTT, the PTT also had a four-pronged mandate to “work with the out-going government to ensure a smooth transition”; “assess the current state of Government Institutions”; “take stock” of government affairs; and “make recommendations” to improve governance. However, there are differences between the two bodies.

Firstly, the PTT had 60 members. The 13-member GTT, by contrast, was a much leaner body. For partisans of the new SLPP administration, the discrepancy reflects President Bio’s “New Direction” governance agenda – anchored on discipline and efficiency.

APC stalwarts, however, argue that the much more extensive PTT report – 85 pages of executive summary and thousand of pages of technical data, compared to the 136-page GTT report – vindicates the PTT’s larger size.

Secondly, the subtle name change, from ‘Presidential’ to ‘Governance Transition Team’, and the choice of the respected scholar Professor David J. Francis as chair  -unlike the PTT which was led by Koroma’s Vice President Sam Sumana (Photo above), was meant to convey the message that the GTT was a technocratic initiative aimed at broader governance reforms. The presence of many SLPP members in the GTT, however, somewhat dents the message of a purely technocratic exercise.

A third difference is that with the PTT, “few specific instances of corruption were alleged” notes the International Crisis Group. The GTT report, in contrast, named names, including former President Koroma who it directly implicates in unethically acquiring government properties at “giveaway prices” and allegedly pocketing $113m from the controversial sale of Sierra Rutile.

A final difference is in the timing of the release of both the PTT and GTT reports. Much like President Bio’s New Direction mantra, former President Koroma’s 2007 campaign theme was “Attitudinal Change”. In fact, early in his first term he launched the Attitudinal and Behavioural Change Secretariat to give institutional expression to this desire.

Therefore, the PTT report, which was slated for completion by October 2007 and for release to the public shortly thereafter, was expected to embody Attitudinal Change.

Unfortunately, that opportunity was wasted. Though a preliminary report was submitted to the government in October and a final report in December 2007, the report was only finally made public on 3 July 2008 following repeated calls from civil society.

The long delay robbed the report of its potency as a catalyst for public debate on governance reform and deepened public scepticism about Koroma’s motives. The timing of the PTT report’s publication, two days before local elections, was not lost on anyone as it “suggested that the APC government was trying to extract as much party-political capital from the PTT exercise as possible”, notes an International Crisis Group analysis.

In this regard, President Bio has thus far started on a positive note. He inaugurated the GTT on 6 April 2018. The body completed and submitted its report on the 25th of June, which was then released to the public on the 4th of July.

On the 6th of July, he convened an emergency cabinet meeting which adopted the GTT report and outlined in five steps, his government’s commitment to substantially implement its recommendations – including the all-important special audit of all State institutions, establishing a Commission of Inquiry, and recovering stolen assets and unpaid loans from former government officials.

These early moves have been useful in dissipating initial scepticisms and sparking a vigorous public debate on accountability and reforms. Nevertheless, at this juncture, some circumspection is still warranted.

“It is important to remember”, writes Dr. Lansana Gberie in a Sierra Leone Telegraph op-ed in support of the GTT report, “that President Koroma did bring in the renowned firm, KPMG – one of the four leading global audit firms – to carry out forensic audits of the operations of several key agencies during Kabbah’s administration. Koroma also brought in a senior judge from the Gambia to head an inquiry into supposed looting by the government of his predecessor”. These encouraging steps, however, proved a false dawn.

In the end, the crowning achievement of the GTT will not be its well-received report, but the broader governance reforms that emanate from its recommendations.

Allegations

The GTT report’s allegations against the out-gone Koroma administration broadly fall into four categories: systemic corruption, economic mismanagement, ethno-regional favouritism, and weakening of institutions.

On systemic corruption, as noted above, the GTT report described the Koroma administration as characterised by “reckless spending” and “rampant corruption” and blames this for the “financially broke and almost bankrupt” economy Bio inherited. It listed specific financial transactions it says require investigation and implicated by name several prominent businessmen and senior government officials from the out-gone APC administration – including the former President.

On economic mismanagement, the GTT report said the Koroma administration left behind liabilities of $3.7bn; a total debt of $2.26bn (both external and domestic); a payroll of $263m, swelled by “the appointment of hundreds of APC partisans, many of them unqualified”; a bill of $1.4bn owed to local vendors of “murky background” and “ownership links to top-level officials and family relations” of the former President; and a revenue stream marked by “excessive leakages” and “rampant under-invoicing”.

On ethno-regional favouritism, the GTT report alleged that “roughly 71 percent” of all senior and mid-level appointments and ambassadorial postings made by the Koroma government were “ethnically favoured appointments”.

It further alleged that “ethnic favouritism” determined the award of government contracts, scholarships, commercial loans, and development projects.

On weakening of State institutions, the GTT report had this to say: “Almost all state-created Commissions … were politicized and reduced to irrelevance”.

The Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC), for example, under the leadership of Ady Macauley – described as an “overpaid political lackey” with the professional competence of a “provincial state counsel” – became an “ineffective and very politicised institution”. Similarly, the leadership of Statistics Sierra Leone (SSL) allegedly “systematically looted” the institution, leaving behind only “the equivalent of about $50 in its account”. Finally, the Ministry of Youth Affairs is alleged to have become “an extension of the APC Youth Wing”.

This dark portrait notwithstanding, there are a few bright spots from the Koroma administration that the report noted.

Bright Spots

On infrastructure, the GTT report acknowledged that “to its credit, the former APC Government embarked on a large infrastructural programme, with the construction or rehabilitation of several important road networks”. On the Legal Aid Board, one of Koroma’s flagship initiatives, the report similarly acknowledged that “its impact in providing justice and legal aid to members of the public has been enormous”.

More consequentially, given its expected leading role in Bio’s anti-corruption campaign, is the GTT report’s effusive praise for the Audit Service Sierra Leone (ASSL) – described as “probably Sierra Leone’s most effective institution” – and its “dynamic” head, Lara Taylor Pearce (Photo).

Scattered across the report are hints of the ASSL’s rear-guard actions against corruption. It notes that over the years the ASSL prepared detailed reports which “repeatedly highlighted” corruption, with “cogent recommendations” on curbing it, only to be “flagrantly ignored” by the Koroma administration.

The Environment Protection Agency (EPA) is another bright spot from the Koroma administration, although its case introduces an interesting dilemma.

The GTT report’s analysis charged that 72% of the EPA’s “top management” are from the Northern province and therefore recommends a “review … in relation to regional balance”.

The report, however, also positively noted that the EPA “has not been found guilty, for the last 4 years either by the Auditor General or any other oversight agency for any mismanagement or financial discrepancies” – implying a competent management.

If this is the case, then it’s arguably better to let the management team complete their term and make the necessary changes after that. Changing an apparently competent management solely to restore “regional balance” risks paradoxically reinforcing the problem the recommendation intends to address: that ethno-regional considerations trump performance in appointments for high office.

Blocks of Granite

Napoleon Bonaparte is a military genius and a law-giver of historical consequence. Rising to power amid the chaos that followed the French Revolution, he understood the urgency of stabilising France and consolidating the gains of the revolution.

“The Revolution had turned the French into so many grains of sand”, he declared in his first Council of State session. Therefore, the task was now to “throw upon the soil of France a few blocks of granite to give a direction to the public spirit”.

One such granite block – and arguably his most enduring legacy – is the Napoleonic Code, which to this day is the foundation for the legal systems of France and much of Western Europe. (Photo: President Julius Maada Bio).

For President Julius Maada Bio, whose inaugural address spoke so eloquently of the urgency of setting a new course for the country, the GTT report is an important block of granite which, if implemented, will contribute to the further development and maturation of Sierra Leone’s political life.

The authors of the report speak to this potential when they note that the “overarching aim of the [GTT’s] recommendations is to set a standard for democratic accountability”.

Marcella Samba, Director of Programmes  at the Campaign for Good Governance, speaking on AYV TV a few days after the release of the GTT report, captures the urgency of the moment with her observation that “this particular government has a unique opportunity in the sense that a number of Sierra Leoneans – a critical mass – have reached the crunch to say ‘We are tired. Enough is enough, we need to make a change’. And when you have that critical mass, as a Governor, you are able to institute rapid reforms to transform the State”.

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