Sierra Leone Telegraph: 26 January 2019:
The long-awaited Commission of Inquiry into the governance activities of the former government led by president Koroma is finally here. Dubbed the people’s commission, the judge led commission will be opened at the Special Court Buildings in Freetown, on Tuesday 29th January 2019.
The commission is expected to sit for about six months, but provision has been made for an extension if necessary.
The Judge-led commission will be chaired by the Nigerian Justice Biobele Georgewill. (Photo).
But as preparations are being made for the start of the inquiries, the Sierra Leone Bar Association has filed a petition at the Supreme Court for interpretation of the country’s Constitution, with respect to the rules governing commissions of inquiry.
This is a statement published by the Sierra Leone Bar Association (SLBA) yesterday:
“TAKE NOTICE that solicitors of the Law Officers’ Department have filed a NOTICE OF MOTION, dated 24th day of January 2019, in the Supreme Court of Sierra Leone seeking the below listed relief among many others:
“1. A dismissal of the action/Originating Notice of Motion, Dated 3rd Day of January 2019 by the Sierra Leone Bar Association, more specifically against the 4th and 5th Defendants, Hon Justice Bankole Thompson and Hon Justice William Annan Atuguba, respectively, Commissioners of the Commission of Inquiry.
“It is hoped that with the Association having complied fully by filing a statement of case(summary of our legal arguments) and the subsequent filing of the said Notice of Motion by the Law Officers’ Department against same, the Honourable Chief Justice Will assign the matter to a panel for determination, so soon in contemplation of the Slated date for the commencement of the Commission of Inquiry.
“The SLBA wishes to RE-EMPHASIZE that our action is motivated and guided by respect for the rule of law; an important component of which is fair due process and the protection of the law.
“The SLBA is appreciative of the support it has received from the membership and the general public in its quest to ensure respect for the rule of law. The membership is assured that we shall remain steadfast in the pursuit of the values of democratic good governance and adherence to the rule of law. FIAT JUSTICIA RUAT CAELUM!!!
“Meanwhile, the General membership is hereby informed that His Excellency the President, Julius Maada Bio,has sworn into office the Honourable Chief Justice, Mr. Desmond Babatunde Edwards, the president of the Bar Association, Basita Michael MS. and other members of the Judicial and Legal Service Commission, yesterday, Thursday 24th day of January 2019, at State House, Freetown.
Dated: 25th day of January 2019 – Signed: Ishmael Philip Mammie esq ; General Secretary.”
Serious questions are being raised as to whether the rules of evidence governing High Court proceedings should also be applied to the commissions of inquiry. But the most contentious and controversial issue facing the commission, is whether senior civil servants should also stand before the inquiry to account for their role in the management of state finances.
Proponents of this argument say there is a clear case for calling civil servants to the commission. One of the strongest arguments put forward is that successive Reports of the country’s Auditor General have questioned the financial propriety or otherwise, of senior civil servants.
This is their argument:
The 2017 Audit report on public institutions in Sierra Leone has exposed dubious deals undertaken by the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology (MEST) for the period under review.
According to the report, overpayment of college fees subsidy, non-compliance on withholding taxes, overpayments to consultants and a certain contractor, bank withdrawals without supporting documents, and inadequate control over personnel management, among others, were observed during the course of the audit.
The report revealed that in October 2016, a Memorandum of Agreement between the Government of Sierra Leone and the Limkokwing University of Creative Technology for the payments of fees for 1,200 sponsored students was not submitted for audit inspection.
It notes that the ministry received invoice for fees of Le9,877,400,000 dated 27th October 2016, for the 1st cohort of 1,200 government sponsored students (600 students) studying at the university for the first academic year (2016/2017), but that government paid Le10 billion which resulted in an overpayment of Le122,600,000.
“From the review of the ministry’s payment analysis for the balance 50 percent payments done by the former Acting Principal Accountant, it was observed that the ministry paid Le12,180,110,420 to the university resulting in an overpayment of Le2,632,139,660 (Le12,180,110,420 – Le9,547,970,760),” the report states.
The report recommended that the Ministry of Higher and Technical Education informs the Limkokwing University of that overpayment and take necessary steps to get it refunded, and that evidence of steps taken to get it funded by the University should be submitted for audit inspection.
Also, the report indicates that payment vouchers confirmed that withholding taxes amounting to Le84, 004,791 were not deducted and paid over to the National Revenue Authority (NRA), as required by law.
These taxes relate to activities implemented by various staff in different directorates, programmes and units of the ministry, which were primarily funded by government and donor partners. This was due to non-involvement of staff of the Account Unit at the Ministry.
The report says 10.5% tax, which was supposed to be deducted from payments of non-resident contractors was not made, and further observed that the ministry when making payment to SOGEFEL SARL, a non-resident contractor, deducted only 5% withholding tax, hence, withholding tax of Le346, 253,738 was not deducted from payment to that contractor and paid over to NRA.
The report urged the concerned personnel that failed to deduct the tax to immediately recover and pay the said withholding tax to the NRA and submit the evidence.
Similar overpayment was made to consultants and a contractor for rehabilitation and extension works at Fourah Bay College, totalling Le72,588,682, due to be used by the Bank of Sierra Leone’s (BSL) United States Dollars (USD) selling rate rather than the BSL mid-rate.
The report recommended that the acting Principal Accountant in consultation with the Permanent Secretary should inform the contractor and the consultants of the overpayments and obtain refund.
Meanwhile, the report notes that a total amount of Le3,190,815,029 withdrawn from the Ministry’s imprest account held at the BSL were not supported by payment vouchers and relevant supporting documents such as invoices, signed list of recipients, receipts.
It called on the concerned personnel of the respective directorates and programmes to ensure that the relevant supporting documents are submitted for audit inspection; otherwise, the full amount should be refunded into the Consolidate Revenue Fund.
Another thorny issue observed by the audit report in the ministry has to do with ghost workers. The report says nine staff, who were retired and to whom retirement letters were issued, were still on the Ministry’s payroll vouchers for the period under review, with a total salary of Le84, 678,976 paid to them.
In the same vein, the report says 11 staff that have attained the statutory retirement age of 60 years were not served with letters of retirement and that their names continue to appear on the Ministry’s payroll voucher and they receiving salaries amounting to Le193, 003,944 for the period under review.
This overwhelming evidence suggests that senior civil servants in the previous government, must be called before the commission to either give evidence or give account of their stewardship of public finances so that lessons can be learnt, and those found wanting of serious wrongdoing – including misappropriation of funds should be charged to the High Court.