Sierra Leone Telegraph: 13 March 2020:
Abject poverty is rising fast in Sierra Leone, and it seems there is little hope of an economic resurgence anytime soon. When president Bio took office in April 2018, one of his first actions which many Sierra Leoneans applauded, was the investigation into the management of State resources and public finances by the outgoing APC government of president Ernest Bai Koroma.
The investigation report was replete with alleged evidence of massive corruption and abuse of office – running into hundreds of millions of dollars, including huge and explosive salary pay-outs and public contract kick-backs for APC party cronies and supporters.
Today, two years in office, the Bio-led SLPP government is being accused of spectacular abuse of office, mismanagement of public funds and gerrymandering, once again running into millions of dollars and growing, at the expense of a fragile and weak economy.
Like all previous governments of Sierra Leone, president Bio it seems cannot resist the temptation of not only creating jobs for his SLPP party faithful, but has cranked up public spending the nation can ill-afford to pay massive salary pay-outs to his loyal party supporters.
After almost eleven years in power, the APC government of former president Koroma left office with a massive public debt of over $2 Billion, a huge percentage of which many have accused the former government of colossal misappropriation and profligate spending.
President Bio was elected on a clean campaign ticket, promising to ‘drain the swamp’ of corruption – eradicate gerrymandering, stop the abuse of office and close all financial leakages.
But, with an “explosive increase of almost 45% in the government’s wage bill in the last two years – from less than Le170 billion when Koroma left power to a whopping Le235.2 billion today” (Africanist Press), questions must be asked about president Bio’s fitness for presidential office and leadership, desperately needed to steer the country away from economic bankruptcy and restore national cohesion.
Sierra Leone is now heavily dependent on government borrowing and foreign aid, more than ever before. And, there are fears the economy will soon collapse if vital investments in key economic sectors promised by the president do not materialise, and mining contracts of companies are not urgently reinstated.
With rising unemployment, high inflation, falling value of the Leone, declining exports and rising poverty, Sierra Leoneans are now bracing themselves for another global economic downturn caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
The visit to State House by the President of the African Development Bank and the World Bank Country Manager this week, will do very little to calm nerves on the streets of Freetown and the provincial cities and towns, if the president does not take immediate steps to curb his government’s large appetite for unnecessary spending and reduce the massive salary pay-outs and contarct kick-backs to his party cronies and loyalists.
While the government of Sierra Leone continues to deny its reckless handling of the economy, yesterday, the Africanist Press – publishers of the research reports into the Bio-led government’s astronomical increase in salaries of SLPP party supporters and financiers, issued this statement warning the government of further revelations:
“In the first two articles of our Sierra Leone investigation series, we highlighted the existing disparities in the national salary structure and how the payroll has widened since Maada Bio assumed power two years ago. We pointed out explosive increase of almost 45% in the wage bill in the last two years from less than Le170 billion when Koroma left power to a whopping Le235.2 billion today.
“We observed that this astronomical increase is triggered largely by the overflowing appointment of leading SLPP party loyalists into high paying administrative positions in the civil and public service workforce.
“Indeed, we have shown how expenditures related to salaries of partisan compensation jobs, when aggregated across all sectors, accounts for the majority of the wage bill increase, despite government claims. Furthermore, we also briefly mentioned how the current government is elaborately using contractual appointments to pay party loyalists exorbitant salaries under the pretence of hiring consultants and advisers.
“We want to emphasize that while the newly expanded wage bill has increased the financial burden of government, a major public expenditure burden has equally been occasioned by the numerous international travels by public officials, especially those associated with presidential delegations, and the more so by the frivolous, illegitimate funding of the administrative operations of the First Lady’s activities and campaigns.
“In subsequent editions of this investigative series, we will highlight the financial burden caused by the First Lady’s activities and operations. As stated elsewhere, our investigation in Sierra Leone was conducted over the course of a six-month period and covered the activities and operations of a wide range of state institutions, ministries and agencies, particularly the Finance Ministry, the President’s Office, the First Lady’s office, and the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC).
“In the course of our investigation, we acquired strategic documents evidencing financial transactions and institutional operations of key government departments and institutions in the Bio regime. Africanist Press, therefore, commits to the publication of subsequent articles resulting from our investigation into the ongoing economic and political crisis crippling Sierra Leone.”
Since publication of the report by the Africanist Press , several staff working in the ministry of finance have been arrested for questioning by the police into the leaking of payroll records, as the government continues to clamp down on civil liberty in Sierra Leone.
This is the government’s response to the Africanist Press report:
“The attention of the Ministry of Finance has been drawn to an article in the Africanist Press entitled “Payroll Corruption in Sierra Leone: the Ministry of Finance’s Scandalous Wage Bill’ da ed l51 March 2020, written by Chemoh Alpha M. Bah, Matthew Anderson, and Mark Feldman.
“The Ministry of Finance is bemused by the extensive nature of the publication to include the biodata of employees, including their dates of birth, PIN codes etc. We consider such act as not only unethical and unprofessional but pose serious security threat for -public servants who are serving this nation diligently. We also observe that the data published is inaccurate and outdated, as it includes the names of employees who no longer work for the Ministry of Finance and the quoted salaries are way above what they earn.
“In summary, the article purports several claims relating to payroll corruption in the Ministry of Finance by alleging that:
1) “There has been no Government action to harmonize the appalling payroll disparities in the wage structure of public workers across all sectors of the civil and public service” The authors further stated that “the wage disparities have increasingly widened with the overflowing appointment of leading SLPP party loyalists into civil and public service workforce over the last two years ago”; citing the monthly salary of the Financial Secretary, Sahr L. Jusu; and
2) The total monthly wage bill has increased from Le 170 billion since the end of the Koroma Government in 2018 to Le 235.2 billion..
“The Ministry of Finance hereby provides the following clarifications:
1) The gross monthly salary of the current Financial Secretary, Mr. Sahr L. Jusu is Le86.9 million. This is the exact monthly salary that was received by the former Financial Secretary , Mr. Edmond Koroma up to 3l51 March 2018. No increase in salary has thus been awarded to the current Financial Secretary beyond what was received by his predecessor.
“The salaries for other professional staffs in the Ministry that are published in the article are salaries that were approved by the former Government and implemented since 21st August 2017. This salary structure was part of the mainstreaming of project or contract staff into the civil service in order to retain highly trained professionals.
2) The increase in the monthly wage bill of Government is explained as follows:
The recruitment of additional 782 health workers were brought into the payroll between January 2019 and February 2020.
Since January 2019 to date, Government is paying three new allowances to health workers for biohazard, on-call and location. These account for an average increase of Le 8.2 billion per month to the wage bill.
Recruitment of 4,492 out of allocated 5,000 teachers in 2019 to support the implementation of the Free Quality Education Programme.
The Fiscal Year 2018 Supplementary Budget of July 2018 provided for a 10% increase in basic salary for Grades 1-6. This accounted for a monthly increase in the payroll cost of about Le 5.1 billion.
Also the Fiscal Year 2019 Budget awarded the following salary increases- Grades 1-6 (10% increase) and Grades 7 -Grades 14 (5% increase) resulting to an average monthly increase in the payroll cost of Le 10 billion.
Gratuities, end of service benefits and pensions for the former President, Vice President, Ministers, Diplomats and other Political Appointees, as well as ex Contract Officers in Sub-vented Agencies, which were never budget for by the former Government costing over Le65billion continue to have a toll on the wage bill;
Inclusion in the payroll of Colleges and university academic and administrative staff in the computerized payroll system since July 2019 costing on average Le 12 billion monthly.
“In summary, the increase in the wage bill since April 2018 to date has been due to improvement in conditions of service for mostly public sector workers in the social sectors (health and education) and also to support timely payment of salaries to lecturers and administrative staff of tertiary institutions who before April 2018 were paid three to four months in arrears of their monthly salaries. Notwithstanding, it is worthy of note that overall, the 2019 payroll cost of Le 2.6 trillion was at the level of the 2019 payroll budget.
“Regarding the disparity, it is really much ado about nothing. This Government had long recognised this dismal situation as evidenced by the statement of the Minister of Finance in the 2019 Budget Speech as follows: ‘Mr. Speaker, a key concern has been the disparities in pay and remuneration amongst the various public sector payroll categories; in some cases, similar posts in the Civil Service attract different pay scales. There is also wide disparity in pay among Sub-vented Agencies. The situation is compounded by the fact that no single body is charged with the responsibility of developing, coordinating and pursuing reforms that are related to pay and other conditions of service of public sector employees.” (END OF GOVERNMENT STATEMENT).
Defending their research findings and standing by the massive evidence contained in their report in response to the government’s statement, the Africanist Press’ authors of the report said this:
“We write this editorial in response to a press release issued by Sierra Leone’s Ministry of Finance after Africanist Press published an article titled “Payroll Corruption in Sierra Leone: The Ministry of Finance’s Scandalous Wage Bill” on March 1, 2020. The article deals with questions of corruption and wage disparities in the country’s national payroll for civil and public service workers.
“The article – an introduction to a forthcoming series aimed at evaluating the first two years of Julius Maada Bio’s presidency – is part of our newly launched Africa-wide investigative journalism project aimed at interrogating economic development and democratic rights among new and emerging “democratic regimes” on the continent. In the case of Sierra Leone, our investigation aimed to assess the fiscal position of the country two years into Maada Bio’s regime.
“The primary goal of our Sierra Leone investigation was to find out whether the Bio government’s public policy pronouncements reflected actual national development reality on the ground. Our investigation focused, in particular, on tracking public expenditure and graft in the almost two years that Bio has served as president.
“While campaigning for the presidency, Bio promised to limit government spending and fiscal waste and to introduce discipline in public finance management. This included addressing disparities in the national salaries structure and curbing excess payments in the national wage bill.
“As stated elsewhere, our investigation in Sierra Leone was conducted over the course of a six-month period and covered the activities and operations of a wide range of state institutions, ministries and agencies, particularly the Finance Ministry, the President’s Office, the First Lady’s office, and the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC).
“In the course of our investigation, we spoke to a large pool of government workers in the public and civil service. We also acquired strategic documents evidencing financial transactions and institutional operations of key government departments and institutions in the Bio regime.
“The introductory article on our Sierra Leone investigation focused on key issues in the country’s national payroll, revealing in particular the existing disparities in the national salary structure and how the payroll itself has ballooned since Maada Bio assumed power.
“We noted how a drastically enlarged pool of political appointees installed as administrators in the civil and public service are earning monthly salaries often greater than the combined annual salaries of dozens of the subordinate and ancillary regular civil service staff in their respective departments.
“These salary disparities, stemming from the placement of political appointees in administrative positions, have contributed to the increasing wage bill since Bio’s election. We highlighted, in particular, the Office of the Financial Secretary, where we discovered that the Financial Secretary and Senior Deputy Financial Secretary both earn monthly wages the combined total of which is five times more than the aggregate annual gross pay of all five-ancillary staff in their department for a ten year pay period. The Financial Secretary Sahr L Jusu, we revealed, receives a monthly pay of Le86,935,130, whilst all support staff under him earn between 552,000 to 1,420,079, with the exception of the Senior Deputy Financial Secretary who receives a monthly salary of Le32,141,121.
“As a result of the publication of this information, officials from Sierra Leone’s Finance Ministry published a press release on March 4 in which they unsuccessfully attempted to dismiss the validity of the facts we reported in our first article.
“Before we address the lack of substance in the Finance Ministry’s response, we are dismayed that a campaign of administrative reprisals has been orchestrated by senior finance officials against junior and intermediate civil service workers suspected of having participated or assisted with our investigation.
“The Africanist Press has been made aware of acts of political harassment and workplace intimidation undertaken against staff in the payroll departments of the Finance Ministry, the Accountant General’s Office, and the Human Resources Department (HRMO). We have been reliably informed that officials of the Finance Ministry are now threatening to dismiss several workers in key government departments in retaliation to our publication.
“It is also clear that the Finance Ministry’s press release contains veiled and not so veiled threats against the Africanist Press and those involved in the publication of the article.
“Such intimidating actions and harassment of citizens pose serious challenges to fundamental democratic norms of fiscal transparency, political accountability, and freedom of the press. We, therefore, offer this editorial to first reaffirm the validity of our initial report, and to equally call attention to the dangerous implication of official attempts to retaliate against innocent workers perceived to have assisted with our investigation.
“We want to point out that by making payroll data publicly available and accessible to Sierra Leonean tax-payers, Africanist Press is helping to promote government transparency and political accountability. Thus, the Finance Ministry’s retaliatory actions fundamentally undermine freedom of the press and the democratic necessity of fiscal transparency.
“Threats of retaliation against investigative journalism projects risks creating a chilling effect on journalists and civil society activists who will begin to fear the consequences of holding their government accountable to the public. Having said this, we want to make the following clarifications and reaffirmations.
“Firstly, the Ministry asserts that Africanist Press violated ethics and professionalism by publishing names, salary amounts, and other employment details of state employees in the article. In fact, it is an established and fundamental democratic norm that the salaries of public employees be made available to the general public.
“To use one example from the United States, virtually all federal employee salaries, positions, duties, and names are not only publicly available, but are searchable on an online database ran by employees of the United States’ federal government.
“We assert that fiscal transparency, including especially public salaries, is a cornerstone of democracy, of good governance, and of fighting corruption. We express our sincere concern at the Ministry’s attempt to censor the release of such information.
“Secondly, we reaffirm the necessity of the rights of journalists and journalistic outlets to protect their sources, a right explicitly recognized by the United Nations, the African Union and the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights, and the European Court of Human Rights, among others.
“We equally assert that the intimidating threats and other extra-legal persecution of whistle-blowers and journalists who publish pertinently crucial information constitutes an egregious violation of international law and democratic rights. Articles 32 and 33 of the UN’s 2003 Convention Against Corruption explicitly protect whistle-blowers from retaliation. We further assert that the Finance Ministry’s threatening response to the publication of our article is a serious affront to human rights, freedom of the press, and democracy.
“Yet another troubling aspect of the Ministry’s press release is the means by which it was disseminated across the country. It is now evidenced that the Finance Ministry bought one full page advertorials in at least ten of the country’s major newspapers in order to publish their response to a single news article that simply released public salary information which, according to international democratic standards, ought to already be public knowledge.
“It is estimated the government spent over Le15,000,000 to purchase said advertisement space. In other words, in a time of fiscal crisis, the government opted to spend time and money defending salary disparities it readily admits exist rather than simply addressing the problem.
“The uniform willingness of some of the country’s major newspapers to accept money to simultaneously run the government’s response to Africanist Press – without due acknowledgement of the Africanist Press initial publication – further lays bare the troubling power the state continues to wield, through political and monetary influence, over the country’s media landscape.
“The lack of a viable and independent media in the fledging democratic country only further justifies the need for the type of investigative journalism which the Finance Ministry is attempting to discourage.
“Next, we turn to the Ministry’s attacks on the substance of our March 1st article. The Finance Ministry argued that biographical and employment details we published were “inaccurate and outdated.” They also alleged that we included employees who no longer work for the Ministry of Finance and that the quoted salaries are way above what they earn. However, a simple reading of the Africanist Press article along with the content of the press release is enough for us to see the facts as they were reported by us.
“To re-state what the real issues are in this matter, we first must assess the response of the Finance Ministry against the facts reported in our publication. While officials of the ministry aim to dismiss and trivialize the issues we highlighted in the publication, it is interesting to note that the ministry’s press release only validated the facts reported by the Africanist Press regarding salary structures and the apparent increase in the wage bill over the last two years.
“For instance, the ministry did not deny the amount of monthly wage paid to the Financial Secretary, they rather blamed the egregious monthly wage disparities on the previous government of Ernest Bai Koroma. Sahr Jusu, for example, admitted that his salary, the exact amount of over Le86 million reported by the Africanist Press against his name, was inherited from his predecessor in the previous administration. This admission alone illustrates the precise nature of our investigation.
“The most important questions are these: if the current administration is serious about addressing the structural imbalances in the wage bill, why have senior officials become comfortable with the outrageous salary arrangements and wages they inherited from the Koroma regime even as they regularly blame the current crisis state of the economy on the previous regime?
“Why has Sahr Jusu and his colleagues in the Finance Ministry refused to implement reasonable cuts to senior civil servants’ salaries in this period of contracting economic challenges? Most importantly, why have they been unable to address wage disparities among civil and public service workers for the almost two years now that they have been in power?
“Instead of cutting down the wage bill, the current administration has enlarged public expenditure by inundating the public and civil service with new political appointees.
“The Africanist Press, it must be stated, made no mention of salary increases by Finance Ministry officials. What we reported was the nature of the currently outrageous monthly wage amounts paid to individuals on the payroll of the Finance Ministry.
“The ministry’s officials have not denied the existence of these wages and neither have they denied being recipients of such outrageously high salary payments in the last two years of the Bio presidency. In one instance, they only claimed that some of the names mentioned by the Africanist Press are no longer employees of the Ministry.
“If this were the case, then why should the finance ministry actively maintain their employment details on the official payroll record along with names like Sahr Jusu, whose employment details have been found to be accurate? If we have to take this as a line of inquiry, then the probable scenario here would reveal the possible existence of non-existing workers whose salaries are being paid and collected by unknown or anonymous individuals.
“These kinds of indiscretions are some of the tangential issues we encountered in our examination of the national payroll records. We aim to highlight these financial irregularities – ghost salary payments and rampant double dipping – in succeeding publications.
“The ministry’s press release also accepted that the wage bill has increased owing to new recruitments in the health sector and the consolidation of salaries within a single treasury account. This admitted defense runs against the facts and makes no mention of the frivolous spending on travel costs of the presidency and administrative operations of the First Lady nor of salary payments to new political appointees grafted on staff payrolls of ministries, agencies and departments.
“In subsequent publications of our investigation, we plan on revealing the lists of political appointees currently deployed in senior and intermediate administrative position across ministries and departments who have been recently drafted into the civil and public service workforce without the appropriate recruitment procedures and processes. These partisan employment compensations accounts for a greater percentage of the untenable pressure that ballooned the wage bill beyond a 45% increase over the last two years.
“Africanist Press stands by the validity of our article, especially given the lack of demonstrable evidence to support the government’s claims. We call upon the national and international community to condemn the troubling harassment of innocent government employees in retaliation for our article and to closely monitor the Sierra Leone government’s attempts to discourage investigative journalism undertaken in the name of fiscal transparency and press freedom. We commit to the publication of subsequent articles resulting from our investigation into the ongoing economic and political crisis crippling Sierra Leone.
“Again, we call on national and international organizations, and civil society actors to closely monitor the situation to assure the protection of innocent workers and freedom of the press in Sierra Leone. Africanist Press remains dedicated to providing factual and uncompromising journalism and to promoting democracy and civil rights across Africa”. (END OF AFRICANIST PRESS RESPONSE).
YOU CAN READ MORE ON THIS STORY HERE: