Sierra Leone Telegraph: 30 July 2016
Few people in Sierra Leone trust their elected representatives. The reasons – dereliction of duty, corruption, misappropriation of funds and abuse of power. Never before has confidence in the country’s public officials generally dropped so low.
While this view may be one of perception rather than reality, the fact remains that elected politicians in Sierra Leone are failing to project a positive image, based on the principles of transparency, accountability, probity, openness and trustworthiness. Critics are accusing the country’s parliamentarians of putting themselves above the constitution and the laws of the land. Parliamentarians say they are self-regulated.
But how does the process of parliamentary self-regulation and accountability work in Sierra Leone? Who monitors the standards of behaviour of the elected representatives in public life? Who is responsible for policing the law makers?
Many in Sierra Leone would say that the majority of people in the country are far too poor and illiterate to understand, appreciate and prioritise the importance of holding parliamentarians accountable.
While this may partly explain the reasons for parliament’s lack of accountability, perhaps one of the most crucial factors is the relationship between the majority ruling party elected members and their opposition counterparts.
Is there an overt cross-party conspiracy by parliamentarians to hoodwink the electorate, while enriching themselves, rather than work assiduously to improve the well-being and prosperity of the people?
Rights group – Campaign for Human Rights and Development International (CHRDI) is calling on the parliament of Sierra Leone to release documents regarding MPs’ expenses. They are demanding explanation as to how its members (MPs) are spending their allocated community development funds paid by the taxpayer. They want this information to be made public.
Yesterday, CHRDI’s chief executive Abdul Fatoma (Photo) issued this statement:
We at the CHRDI have discovered that over 120 billion Leones was spent on Parliamentarians in the last five years, but there is no supporting evidence to show how these monies were spent. There are clear risks of fraud involving taxpayers’ money.
We know that even the country’s Auditor General’s Office has highlighted in their report on the audit of the management of the Ebola funds in 2015, that during the course of the verification exercise, the audit team confirmed that the payment of Le110, 460,000 by the Ministry of Health to the Honourable Members was indeed on the 22nd of August 2014”.
However, the team further confirmed that the payment of the Constituency Development Fund to Honourable Members by Parliament had already been done on the 18th August 2014 but was later converted for Ebola sensitisation.
We therefore note that the Ministry’s payment was made three days after the payment by Parliament for the same activity. This indicates that due diligence was not conducted by the Ministry before payment was effected.
In addition, the relevant retirement details were not made available for verification and therefore the auditors could not eliminate the possibility of a “double dip” by the Honourable Members. Sadly, the matter remains unresolved.
“Given that approximately Le63 million was earlier paid within the current year to each Member of Parliament for constituency sensitisation on the Ebola outbreak, we noted that an additional amount of Le110, 640,000 was paid to the Honourable Members of Parliament for Constituency 93 on 22nd August 2014, in respect of daily subsistence allowance (DSA) and fuel to facilitate the same community sensitisation in the Goderich area. It was further observed that retirement details for the said amount were not submitted for audit inspection. “
Our researchers have persistently requested for detailed explanation on how the said monies received from Ministry of Finance were spent but they were told that parliament ‘regulates itself’. We have enquired whether Constituency Committees were told about the monies or were involved in any such development but self-regulation was the answer we were again provided with.
We in CHRDI identify as key problems, the inconsistent application of anti-corruption laws and policies, and the weak capacities and lack of independence of the major institutions in charge of fighting corruption.
Therefore we want to remind MPs that parliamentary privilege is not in the law(s) to prevent operation of the criminal law. Our call is to improve and to ensure the effective implementation of an anti-corruption legislation in respect of parliamentarians and other government officials.
We are with the belief that in order for officials of the House of Parliament to carry out public duties without fear or favour, Parliament and its members and officers need certain rights. It’s true that Parliament needs the right to regulate its own affairs, free from intervention of the government.
Members of parliament need to be able to speak freely, uninhibited by possible defamation claims. These rights and immunities, rooted in the country’s constitutional history, are known as ‘parliamentary privilege’ but we at CHRDI believe that our Parliamentarians are bringing their office into disrepute by hiding behind parliamentary privilege.
Parliamentary privilege was never intended to help politicians escape the criminal law. Section 94,1-2 of the Sierra Leone 1991-Constitution on Parliamentary regulations; Section 94, states that: “(1) Subject to the provisions of this Constitution, Parliament may regulate its own procedure, and may in particular make, amend and revoke Standing Orders for the orderly conduct of its own proceedings. (2) Notwithstanding anything to the contrary in this Constitution or in any other law contained, no decision, order or direction of Parliament or any of its Committees or the Speaker, relating to the rules of procedure of Parliament, or to the application or interpretation of such rules, or any act done or purporting to have been done by Parliament or by the Speaker under any rules of procedure, shall be inquired into by any court”.
Parliamentarians in particular need to demonstrate their commitment to addressing matters of ethics and integrity in a more proactive manner. Compliance with rules on conflicts of interest and other rules of conduct need to be properly monitored and action taken when necessary.
PART IV of the Sierra Leone Constitution on RESPONSIBILITIES, PRIVILEGES AND IMMUNITIES, Section 97, Says; “The responsibilities of the Members of Parliament shall include the following: All members of Parliament shall maintain the dignity and image of Parliament both during the sittings in Parliament as well as in their acts and activities outside Parliament:
All Members of Parliament shall regard themselves as representatives of the people of Sierra Leone and desist from any conduct by which they seek improperly to enrich themselves or alienate themselves from the people.”
Despite the efforts of the many institutions responsible in this field, the perceived levels of corruption in Sierra Leone are still above AU and ECOWAS members’ average. Levels of public trust in the parliament and the other public sector workforce are particularly low, even though some studies show a certain improvement in recent years.
Recent public opinion studies have shown that all government departments are corrupt. But the worst of the worst were the Parliament, Police, Judiciary and customs and revenue collection.
An important barometer of the extent of this problem is growing public sector corruption, whereby public funds are being diverted away from the public good towards private interests.
Private sector corruption is also a problem, but until the Sierra Leone government gets a handle on corruption in government, private sector corruption will continue to flourish. In so far as, poverty is more directly affected by bureaucratic corruption in Sierra Leone, this is a good thing for the politicians.
Corruption in the country is to be handled cautiously: acting for the short term only or not acting at all would make the government look like it is unable to act on its own and cannot establish long term goals.
We in CHRDI believe that the main requirements for economic development are social and political stability, a corruption-free business environment, transparent and efficient legislation, trust in the rule of law and excellent education and professional training.
We also stress that the authorities now need to shift their focus to ensuring that norms are well understood and properly enforced in and out of parliament.
They should be made to understand the meaning of an anti-corruption body not being allowed to look into politics, especially in the light of recent corruption scandals that came from both the current government and opposition party members for the misuse of Ebola funds.
We at Campaign for Human Rights and Development International want to strongly remind Sierra Leoneans that MPs are not exempt from criminal law and that we do not think a new law is necessary. If one is necessary, we are hereby asking for a legislation to remove any ambiguity.
In conclusion, CHRDI also calls on all Sierra Leoneans to put pressure on their representatives in parliament to act swiftly to publish their expenses and the community development funds expenditures and to respect the law it passed to tackle corruption in the form of the ACC Act 2000 and the ACC amended Act 2008, to ensure good governance and reduce corruption.
Parliamentarians are servants of the people for whom they make laws. They are not exempt from the laws they pass and Parliamentarians are reminded that they are not above the law but subject equally to the law in similar manner as their constituents.
Campaign for Human Rights and Development International (CHRDI) is a Rights based social-policy advocacy Organisation. We Draw attention to the responsibility of duty-bearers to uphold human rights, and seek to support rights-holders to claim their rights. CHRDI is in Special Consultative Status to the United Nations Economic and Social Council and accredited to many UN Agencies.