Sierra Leone Telegraph: 9 February 2021:
After growing calls for Sierra Leone’s Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) to investigate serious allegations of corruption involving the wife of the President of Sierra Leone – Mrs Fatima Bio, running into millions of dollars, today the ACC has issued a statement saying it has commenced an investigation.
But there is consternation in many quarters over the ACC’s decision to widen its terms of reference to include all former First Ladies, including the wife of former President Koroma.
There are also concerns the investigation may not personally include the holders of the Office of the First Lady but its administrative organ.
Some of the allegations against Mrs Bio, include claims that she received nearly Le30 billion Leones (almost US$3 million) of government funds in less than three years after the inauguration of her husband, Julius Maada Bio as president of Sierra Leone in May 2018.
“We revealed, in particular, that a total of Le7,890,755,000 (over US$789,000) that was disbursed from the country’s Consolidated Revenue Fund (CRF) to the organization Hands Off Our Girls during the first six months of the Bio administration were instead all spent between June and December 2018, allegedly on office furniture, electronic equipment, fuel, travel tickets, and hotel accommodation costs for the First Lady’s foreign guests,” says the Africanist Press, who have collected and published a litany of documentary evidence to support their claims.
In a video broadcast issued on Monday January 18, 2021, First Lady Fatima Bio admitted to receiving state funds. However, she argued that the funds allocated to her organization Hands Off Our Girls, a program she says is intended to end child rape and gender-based violence in Sierra Leone, were used for “the intended purpose.”
This is what she said:
But despite her self-defence of allegations of impropriety, “evidence examined by the Africanist Press suggests that the First Lady is trading off young girls’ health and sexual vulnerability for her own profits,” the Africanist Press said.
“In a BBC interview on Thursday February 4, 2021, Madam Bio denied that she received direct public funds, stating that the Office of the President is responsible for the fiscal operations of her organization. But on January 18, 2021, the Africanist Press released bank statements from the Office of the First Lady that show direct disbursements of government funds to the First Lady. The Africanist Press reported that those funds – over US$800,000 – were allegedly used on furniture, event planning, hotel accommodation, and travel-related costs for foreign guests, and not the Hands off our Girls campaign.”
Listen to the BBC Report here:
These are some of the issues being raised by critics of the First Lady – Mrs Bio, which the ACC will also need to investigate and report on:
That the Office of the First Lady is not a properly constituted government agency. And therefore, should not have received direct transfers from the national treasury.
That the First Lady’s Office wilfully circumvented the laws governing the procurement process by making multiple purchases to specific businesses like AA Enterprises for furniture repeatedly. And as the Africanist Press has alleged, the office does the same in three consecutive years.
That while the office of the First Lady receives illegal monies to the tune that their closing balance was almost three-quarters of a million dollars ($740,000+), other Ministries like that of Social Welfare, Gender and Children’s Affairs are left in the red without adequate funds.
This is the statement issued today by the ACC:
“The Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) wishes to inform the general public that its attention had been drawn to reports in the Auditor-General’s Report 2019 and various releases on traditional and social media on issues of budgetary allocations and expenditures of funds relating to the Office of the First Lady of Sierra Leone.
“The Commission wishes it to be known that it had commenced full and comprehensive probe into the Office of the First Lady, past and present, dealing with matters of budgetary justifications for allocations and expenditures of State funds to that entity and the legal and regulatory framework, if any, for them.
“Preliminary findings show that the entity known as “Office of First Lady” had been receiving Billions of Leones of State funds yearly, spanning 14 years to date – and most of the payments were either directly made to the holders of that office or channelled, through the Presidency, as normal presidential official expenditure signed-off on by respective Secretaries to the President.
“We are similarly reviewing Section 39 of the Public Financial Management Act, 2016 which gives the State, authority to expend State funds to unallocated Head(s) of expenditure to a certain threshold, to “necessary” public cause(s), and whether such threshold was used and/or breached in making payments such as the ones under review, over the years.
“We are therefore at the stage of collecting and analyzing records of accounts, official approval documents and any legal or regulatory framework around such payments; and the conclusions reached will assist in determining progress on the issue. We will also interview persons of interest in that regard, where necessary. We shall keep the public fully informed on our findings, conclusions and next steps.”
Reactions to the ACC announcement have been quite wide ranging. Many are of the opinion that the ACC is right to commence investigations on all present and former First Ladies of Sierra Leone. But others disagree.
“I have read the ACC Press release which to me is like another defence strategy to exonerate the First Lady. ACC in it’s press release stated that they have gathered evidence spanning 14 years about the office of the First Lady. ACC is only coming up with this at a time when the current First Lady has been brought to public scrutiny. So ACC is now trying to tell us that the Office of First Lady had been receiving monies from the CRF for the past 14 years.
“Why is the ACC shifting the goal post? If the ACC had got wind of this before, why didn’t they do an investigation before this time? Could this be a strategy to build defence on behalf of the current First Lady or what? I thought issues of corruption concerning the previous government had been dealt with by this current government.
“Why open another issue just because this current government is under scrutiny? What about the issue of the Stolen Chinese rice which the ACC discontinued on flimsy excuse? Does the ACC Boss want us to believe that his release only came out because of the statement made by the US Ambassador? Is this not the same thing the US Ambassador said during her interview with 98.1 that the ACC is only targeting members of the previous government? ACC needs to go back to the drawing board.
“And the ACC is talking of 14 years investigation. Why not do an investigation for the past 30 years about the said office, if they want to be seen doing an independent job?”
Nigerian media have responded to claims by Mrs Bio that the wife of the Nigerian President is receiving tens of millions of dollars from the public purse every year. This is what one of Nigeria’s satirical presenter said: