Sierra Leone Telegraph: 16 March 2020:
Sierra Leone’s First Lady – Mrs Fatima Jabbie Bio, who is the wife of the president, is today making the news for all the wrong reasons, after being accused of usurping the powers and authority of government ministerial departments, including education, health and social welfare.
Her critics are also accusing her of using the powers of the president through her Office of the First Lady, to take over the development and delivery of vital public services that ought to be delivered by ministries that are currently being starved of much needed public funds, running into millions of dollars.
But last weekend in a spectacular and revealing interview held in The Gambia with a local journalist, Fatima Bio said that she does not, and neither does her office receive State funds to carry out her work.
And in another video recorded at an event in The Gambia also, Mrs Bio could be heard making what many in Sierra Leone regard as disparaging and denigrating slurs on the people of Sierra Leone – a country she calls her second home after The Gambia, her paternal country of origin.
In the video, Mrs Bio paid tribute to her beautician for transforming her into a “Cinderella – as it is not unusual for her to return to the Gambia from Sierra Leone always looking rough (scruffy)”. Sierra Leoneans, especially women are taking offence to the slur, and some have taken to social media, accusing her of treachery and betrayal of her Sierra Leonean citizenship.
Last week, the Africanist Press in the USA, published a series of damning reports accusing president Bio of abuse of office, corruption, and the siphoning of public funds to pay for the bloated salary costs of employing his SLPP party loyalists by the state.
The authors of the reports promised to publish another similarly damning report, exposing the president’s use of State funds to bankroll his wife’s Office of First Lady – with budgets running into millions of dollars and larger than some departmental budgets.
Today, the authors have made good on their promise – the report into the ‘inappropriate and profligate’ use of the government’s Single Treasury Account by the president and his minister of finance is out. Its findings are shocking and damning.
Contrary to the denials by Mrs Fatima Bio about her use of State funds, the author of the report says: “Over the course of the investigation, we found evidence of widespread use of unchecked spending and financial allocations to fund non-budgetary and overhead activities, especially those relating to the operations and activities of the First Lady. This situation, we discovered, is made possible by the president’s aforementioned executive order to establish a single treasury account, which removed the previously existing fiscal authority and oversight of government ministries, agencies, and departments.
“Documentary evidence acquired during our investigation clearly illustrate how this single treasury account has not only centralized government revenue collection and dispensation in the hands of the Finance Ministry, but has also facilitated surreptitious disbursements of state revenues and contracts to close relatives of the president and to non-state institutions including, especially, the Office of the First Lady.
“Documents examined by the Africanist Press reveal how the Finance Ministry provided regular funds to the Office of the First Lady, a non-statutory institution, on instructions from the Office of the President. For instance, we discovered that the activities of the First Lady’s “Hands Off Our Girls Campaign” received more than 50% of its operational and overhead budgetary expenditure between December 2018 and December 2019 from the Consolidated Revenue Fund. Our investigation tracked, for example, a total sum of about Le15 billions of direct government funding disbursed from the Ministry of Finance to the Office of the First Lady to meet operational and overhead costs of the First Lady’s Office.”
Is the First Lady telling lies?
This is what the report titled – ‘Concealing Fiscal Costs: How Sierra Leone’s Single Treasury Account leads to Unauthorized Public Spending’ – Authors: Chernoh Alpha M. Bah, Matthew Anderson & Mark Feldman – found out:
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 the 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.
We showed how salaries of partisan compensation jobs across all sectors of government account for the majority of the wage bill increase. We also emphasized another major public expenditure burden: the use of international official travels, especially those associated with presidential delegations, to financially reward SLPP party loyalists and new political appointees with huge per diems and travel opportunities.
In future publications of this series, we will quantify the huge monetary deductions and revenue losses resulting from overhead expenditures and the ways they have added fiscal pressure on the country’s Consolidated Revenue Fund.
In this article, however, we unearth another aspect of corruption in public finance management under the Bio regime, namely off-budget expenditure. We show how off-budgetary expenditure and frivolous public spending have intensified following the president’s April 9, 2018 executive order on revenue mobilization.
We observed that the president’s decision to implement a single treasury account and his order to centralize all government revenue mobilization and expenditure in the hands of his Finance Minister, Jacob Jusu Saffa created a non-transparent and unaccountable mechanism in the management of public finance and national revenue allocations.
Our investigation discovers, in particular, that the creation of a centralized public finance mechanism, revolving around the presidency and the finance ministry, has enabled top finance officials in the Finance Ministry and those in the President’s Office to freely and frivolously disperse, dispense, and utilize national revenue and resources to fund non-budgetary and overhead activities often authorized by the presidency.
Over the course of the investigation, we found evidence of widespread use of unchecked spending and financial allocations to fund non-budgetary and overhead activities, especially those relating to the operations and activities of the First Lady. This situation, we discovered, is made possible by the president’s aforementioned executive order to establish a single treasury account, which removed the previously existing fiscal authority and oversight of government ministries, agencies, and departments.
Documentary evidence acquired during our investigation clearly illustrate how this single treasury account has not only centralized government revenue collection and dispensation in the hands of the Finance Ministry, but has also facilitated surreptitious disbursements of state revenues and contracts to close relatives of the president and to non-state institutions including, especially, the Office of the First Lady.
Documents examined by the Africanist Press reveal how the Finance Ministry provided regular funds to the Office of the First Lady, a non-statutory institution, on instructions from the Office of the President. For instance, we discovered that the activities of the First Lady’s “Hands Off Our Girls Campaign” received more than 50% of its operational and overhead budgetary expenditure between December 2018 and December 2019 from the Consolidated Revenue Fund.
Our investigation tracked, for example, a total sum of about Le15 billion of direct government funding disbursed from the Ministry of Finance to the Office of the First Lady to meet operational and overhead costs of the First Lady’s Office. We examined, in particular, official correspondences between officials of the President’s Office, the Finance Ministry, and the First Lady’s Office regarding requests for funds and the speedy administrative authorizations and disbursements of such funds in ways that are uncharacteristic of the usual bureaucratic timelines associated with government financial processing.
Civil servants we interviewed during our investigation confirm that while Finance Ministry records of these funding requests and disbursements do exist, there is a seeming lack of detailed records and accounting statements in the First Lady’s Office regarding the precise expenditure details on how these allocated state funds have been utilized.
These funds include monies disbursed for the two-day launching ceremony of the “Hands Off Our Girls Campaign”, diverse funds for the erection of hundreds of the campaign’s billboards, funds geared towards meeting costs related to the national tour of the First Lady, and payments for public awareness.
For the launching ceremony of the Hands Off Our Girls Campaign, we collected documents confirming the disbursement of a total sum of Le3,116,755,000 (over $300,000) provided by the Ministry of Finance just for the two-day launching ceremony. Evidence in our possession shows that the said funds were requested by officials of the president’s office, in particular correspondences between Bockarie Momoh Foh, writing on behalf of the president’s secretary, to the Admin and Finance Officer of the First Lady confirming the allocation of the funds.
These repeated requests and disbursements to the First Lady’s Office do not include regular monthly payments to meet operational and other overhead costs, including staff salaries, of the First Lady’s Office. The Office’s staff salaries range between Le50,120,000 and Le54,000,000.
We tabulated the total amounts of government funding – including the more than Le3.1 billion spent on the two-day launching event – and discovered that at least Le5,827,000.000 of government funds were disbursed to the First Lady during the first two months following the campaign’s launch.
The total amount of money allocated to the First Lady for the two-day launching ceremony of the Hands Off Our Girls Campaign alone, for instance, is over four times more than the combined annual salaries of all 40 of the Senior Procurement Officers in the Public Procurement Department assigned across all ministries, agencies, and departments. With monthly salaries between Le1,420,076 and 1,624,763, the total combined salaries of all 40 Senior Procurement Officers in the national workforce is Le56,803,146 monthly.
Our investigation also uncovered that this massive overhead and operational costs of the Office of the First Lady has not only added a fiscal burden on state revenue, but it has negatively impacted the operational relevance and budgetary allocation to the Gender Ministry and other departments and agencies. Civil Servants complain that activities of the First Lady’s Office are crowding out the relevant line ministries, whose sectoral funding appears to be being diverted to fund the campaigns of the First Lady.
These civil servant concerns related to the overshadowing of the Gender Ministry, along with the frivolous nature of spending and budgetary allocations for the “Hands Off Our Girls Campaign”, in particular, highlight the questionable motivations and execution of what, on the surface, appears to be an admirable campaign to promote gender equality.
Apart from the overheads and non-budgetary spending towards the First Lady’s Office, we also discovered that the new centralized fiscal authority accorded to the finance minister equally enables the awarding of untendered government contracts to close friends and relatives of the president. Within three months of the president’s order to centralize government revenue mobilization, for example, a timber export monopoly license was awarded to Leadway Trading Company, making the company the sole agent for all timber exports from Sierra Leone without any tender or bidding.
Our investigation reveals that Leadway Trading Company is in fact managed principally by Babadi Kamara, a business associate of the president. Finance officials we interviewed during our investigation expressed disbelief that Leadway Trading and Babadi Kamara were made sole agents for all timber exports from Sierra Leone without a competitive bidding process. Our investigation discovered that Babadi Kamara helped to raise campaign funds for the election of Maada Bio in 2018.
Quite interestingly, Leadway’s contract assignment was initially granted only temporarily for the shipment of existing timber deposits at the Freetown Port and other depots across the country (an estimated 13,000 containers). Yet, the company’s export contract was renewed by State House in February 2020, eighteen months after it was first granted, without a competitive bidding or tender process.
A State House press statement acknowledged the payment of US$37,140,000 from Leadway Trading but provided no details on how much each exported container were sold, neither has there been a disclosure on Leadway’s total profit from the shipments over the eighteen months.
Thus, contrary to Bio’s pledge to curb financial indiscipline and limit waste in government spending, we note that frivolous public spending and off-budgetary and overhead expenditures have increased over the last two years, with huge amounts being spent on domestic and international travels of the presidency and on funding support for the Office of the First Lady. We also find previous and recent media statements by the First Lady denying receipt of state funding to be undeniably false.
We conclude that the establishment, through executive order, of a largely unchecked public spending account in the hands of the Finance Minister has enabled the opaque disbursement of public funds without the necessary oversight from other government institutions nor the public. The result has been a troubling rise in nepotism and non-scrutinized access to state funding by the First Lady and some business friends of the president. In subsequent articles of this series, we will continue our examination of the diverse ways the centralization of government revenue mobilization and spending masks non-scrutinized spending and financial waste.
We have published on the Africanist Press website sample of correspondences and documents to illustrate the evidence upon which this analysis is based. See additional details here: