Andrew Keili: Sierra Leone Telegraph: 29 November 2019:
Honourable Ibrahim Tawa Conteh is fast living up to his “Tawa” name, taking up issues that may be anathema to most of his colleagues. It would seem that more lately, he has been on a personal “Jihad” against what he considers poor financial accountability of Parliament in its own internal matters and in addressing issues brought before the house.
And so his ”Jihad” led to a public spat with the Clerk of Parliament, Honourable Paran Tarawalli over the airwaves. Parliament could be a rowdy place as has been experienced more lately, with disagreements resulting in angry outbursts and walk-outs.
In this case however, the outbursts extended to the airwaves. Well, not everybody likes to be accused in public of embezzling funds and certainly Honourable Paran Tarawally (Photo), did not take kindly to Honourable Tawa’s accusations.
Radio Democracy, living up to its reputation of impartiality got both gentlemen to discuss the issues. Let us just say it was a most unfriendly encounter, with accusations and counter accusations of misappropriation of funds.
The issue of poor accountability for funds allocated to Parliament and the proposal for the non- accountable travel imprest for the President, proposed by the Finance Minister in the Finance Act, 2020 and its extension to the Vice President and Speaker suggested by MPs, also opposed by Tawa has come under scrutiny.
The argument has played out in public and the Parliamentary Leadership and the government have not come out of this smelling rosy. The public outcry against what they consider condoning of poor accountability practices by Parliament and government have been unprecedented.
Many Civil Society groups have come out swinging. Center for Accountability and the Rule of Law (CARL) hit the nail on the head. Their press release stated : “It is about time that the fight against corruption was taken to our elected representatives in parliament. It is commendable that the ACC felt that it was not enough to investigate only the two officials who traded the accusations on public radio, but has chosen to look into the financial management practices of all MPs and the parliamentary administration”.
Other Civil society groups like CHRDI and CGG echoed similar sentiments. Members of the public have made particularly scathing remarks and it would seem that the thinking that Parliament and the government are turning a blind eye to accountability seems to be gaining currency.
Not surprisingly some ardent supporters of the ruling party have come out swinging against the “messenger” – Tawa, who is generally regarded as a good MP by his constituents in Constituency 132 in Lumley.
One press release titled “No 9 community constituency 132 speaks for leadership transparency and accountability” starts by lamenting the state of the Number 9 Community in Tawa’s constituency starting with the statement “No. 9 ……..ohh our lovely No.9!!! Indigenes of No.9 community by extension constituency 132 feels rubbed off on a broad daylight and are desperately in search of “Leadership transparency and accountability”.
The release continues: “Amongst many other things but with particular reference to Hon. Tawa Conteh “if ar tok den go chase u wit cutlass na u constituency (statement attributed to Hon Paran)”, in concert with the principles of participatory democracy, No.9 community feels deeply rubbed of well over six hundred million Leones (Le 600,000,000) school project, as the current structure could not reflect the money in question.” The press release accuses Tawa of stealing “a whooping 600 m on behalf of the people of NO 9”. And who is the writer of the Press release? It was “Faithfully submitted by iron lady of No 9”.
Well its seems the constituents of No. 9 and of constituency 132 do not agree with the “Iron Lady of No. 9”. A “vox pop” done by Radio Democracy and many statements in the media paint Tawa in a good light, referring to several development projects he has undertaken in his constituency including the No 9 school and several others. The Deputy Minister of Defence, whose ready supply of petrol to put out fires is always on hand has said Hon Tawa could be accused of “anti-party activities“
Whilst some rabble rousers have accused Tawa of treachery and even mooted the ideas of expelling him from the party, or refusing him the party symbol at the next election and accusing him of being APC, most have been more circumspect, acknowledging his contributions as a popular MP to the party.
Well, this seems to have caught the ruling party napping especially about the issue of the unbridled non accountable imprest for the President, Vice President and Speaker. There were attempts initially to defend this, especially for the President. But when it appeared that there was a public outcry in favour of accountability, the government relented as reflected in the Press release from State House.
The well written press release did not make it appear like a mea culpa, Titled “President Julius Maada Bio Returns the Finance Bill, 2020 Unsigned”, it went on to say:
“ The Secretary to the President stated the reason for the refusal of the signature of the President: “His Excellency the President has perused the document and has expressed grave concern over the open-endedness of the ‘non-accountable imprest’, as provided for in the said Act. He is of the view that this is prone to improper use of public funds”. Therefore, to address the carte blanche provision of Section 42, His Excellency the President has proposed to Parliament that Section 42(6) be amended so that it makes provision for a ceiling for the non-accountable imprest. Unlike the past, the fact that Parliament and members of the public are now discussing Presidential imprest demonstrates the President’s avowed stance on transparency. “
The positive spin has been well taken by many observers who praise the President for being a “listening President”, mindful of the views of the Sierra Leone populace. It would seem Parliament and The Finance Minister have been hung out to dry for being “so insensitive to the needs of the populace”.
Attempts by the Presidential Spokesman on Radio Democracy to answer so many questions were hollow. The combative presenters asked the following salient questions: “Was the Finance Bill reviewed by the President and Cabinet before being presented to Parliament; and if so, did they approve it? If it met with their approval, why is the President distancing himself from these provisions? If the issue is real accountability, why merely call for a ceiling and not for accountability of the funds? As these relate mainly to travel, why does the government not make public members of teams travelling with the President so that the public may be aware that attempts are being made to cut down on costs? “
There were also questions for Members of Parliament: “Why extend the provision to the Vice President and Speaker? Why has Parliament not made any attempts to know who goes on overseas trips with the President? Why extend the non-accountable provision to the Vice President and Speaker? Does the fact that the Speaker himself (Photo) or the Parliamentary Leadership of the SLPP not come out against these provisions signify their acquiescence?”
Tough questions indeed! The hapless Presidential Spokesman tried to do a good job of answering these questions, but realizing they were tough questions, invoked the oft repeated “ legacy refrain: “The past government never referred to this issue. Our President is a listening President”.
On further reflection there are many positive sides to this public debate, and I will attempt to list a few:
The President is a listening President
Whatever the criticisms and thoughts about the government spin going on overdrive, the President has indicated he listens to public opinion. Mistakes are inevitably made and it takes courage to backtrack and accept your initial reaction may have been wrong. Though the spin machine does not accept mistakes were made, it is good that he has given the nod to the situation being revisited. A listening President is a good thing.
Sierra Leoneans are very mindful about accountability
The outcry from all angles – Civil society, the public etc. indicates that Sierra Leoneans are mindful about accountability and won’t accept washy answers from those in authority. Politicians will now acknowledge that the public will hold their hands to the fire.
Tawa has shown that politicians can break out of the pack
For an SLPP MP to bring up the issue of accountability of the SLPP Leadership in Parliament, indeed takes courage. Tawa could have easily acquiesced to the whims of the Leadership and asked for small favours for his personal benefit but chose to challenge the status quo. Paran claims the accusations are misguided and they are each going all out to prove their point. Let the ACC and Audit authorities be the judge.
On hindsight – the Parliamentary leadership should not have been politicised
The previous government politicised the issue of Speaker, causing the criteria for elections to this position to be overtly political. This government perfected it by politicizing the appointment of the Clerk of Parliament which had hitherto been held by seasoned Administrators. No doubt we are seeing the negative outcomes of these decisions play out in public.
Serve your people to the best of your ability
Tawa has shown that with his current stellar service to his constituents “no weapon fashioned against him will prosper”. It may be foolhardy for his party to attempt to ditch him. This may be an own goal.
The cost of Presidential trips has appeared on the public radar
Criticisms have been made of the costs of Presidential trips abroad and their frequency. The government has retorted that all trips have been for a good purpose. It is becoming increasingly obvious that the public wants to see evidence of more tangible benefits of these trips and an indication of the composition and cost of the accompanying entourages.
It is obvious that the functions of Parliamentarians are grossly misunderstood
Thanks to the CGG head – Marcella Samba Sesay, and others the public has been made more aware of the fact that the primary function of Parliamentarians is making laws and not initiating development projects. Unfortunately such a misunderstanding will continue as people wanting to get rid of Parliamentarians, including potential aspirants will always tout their poor performance in initiating and implementing development projects in their area.
Little wonder that some 75 percent of Parliamentarians did not return to Parliament after the last two General Elections.
One only hopes that these lessons will not be lost on our current crop of Parliamentarians as they perform their five central roles in national governance, namely: making legislation, budgetary allocations, oversight, representation of constituents and making and unmaking of government (executive) with seriousness.
For now, kudos to Honourable Tawa as he “tawas” against poor accountability. Undoubtedly towering figures will be forced to cower as the public joins the clarion call for accountability.
Ponder my thoughts.