By: Richard John Hazeley
When calls for the then newly elected President Bio to appoint the young and highly accomplished Lawyer Francis Ben Kaifala as Commissioner of the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) began to gather serious momentum among young people on social media in June, 2018; my long dead hope in the future of this country was resurrected—especially after the vicissitudes of the last decade which finally saw the previous party rejected at the polls by the electorates for a new direction for our country. The move alone by President Bio in adhering to the calls of the people to later appoint the young trailblazer as ACC Boss was in itself an act of bravery; a signal of genuine intent; a novelty and an act pretty unlikely; considering our history of past Presidents appointing their cronies to the position to later protect their excesses. We have even seen in this country former ACC Commissioners serving as lead defendants in a COI for a President whose financial excesses they were supposed to checkmate.
Lawyer Ben Kaifala was unanimously approved by Parliament at his first appearance and ultimately took the oath of Office at State House in the presence of President Bio; where he made a commitment to launder the country’s international image which had become replete with tales of rampant corruption. He promised to be “The People’s Commissioner” and launched his “Radical Transparency Drive” which began creating real impact, instantly.
Three years after shouldering on this monumental national responsibility as ACC Boss, the young Francis has proven through sheer courage and purpose, even to the admiration of his initial doubters that all those who trusted his youthful promise and rallied behind President Bio for his appointment were on the right side of history. He has demonstrated a leadership that shares a common aspiration and dream with the people. His remarkable successes has attracted enormous international attention to the country for all the right reasons; inspired an entire nation to an unprecedented poise to annihilate corruption with a certain relentless spirit; positioned the country on a pathway to sustainably control corruption; and inspired great HOPE that better is possible, with a sense of common purpose.
His many exploits within the last three years are no small feats. They are historic, monumental, unprecedented and even peculiar. For example, for the first time in our history in the fight against corruption, the ACC has been able to recover back from the corrupt over 30 Billion Leones of stolen monies, all of which have been committed by President Bio to building the country’s first modern diagnostic centre. Work has commenced on that project which will serve as a “National Edifice” in our fight against corruption when completed. I also recently learnt that the aforementioned amount recovered under Francis’ tenure alone is even more than half of all what has been recovered by all previous Commissioners since the establishment of the ACC 20 years ago. For the first time in our history in the fight against corruption, the ACC under the leadership of Ben Kaifala has broken the glass ceiling on democratic accountability in our country, by instituting an investigation against a former President for allegations of corruption and other illicit financial crimes— which has set a benchmark for democratic accountability in our governance trajectory. His investigative drive was extended to the State Chief of Protocol in the Office of the current President on allegations of Unexplained Wealth. That was also followed by a probe into the Office of the First Lady following the Auditor General’s Report 2019 which captured the attention of some media houses like the Africanist Press’ publications which falsely accused the Government of illegal allocation of public funds to that office. Allegations that were later proven to be false as all allocations to the office were done in line with stipulated rules in the Public Financial Management Act of 2016 as clarified by ACC at the end of their probe.
To even have the wife of an incumbent President in Sierra Leone subjected to a formal corruption probe by ACC is a complete novelty. It has never happened before. It is a giant step in the right direction to killing the culture of unaccountability. Few days ago, I read a press release on the ACC’s website informing about the indictment of the Executive Director of Maritime Administration, Paul Sobba Massaquoi who we all know is a close ally to the First Family, having served as Head of the Maada and Fatima Bio Foundation when living here in U.K. This was followed by another indictment of over 7 staff of the Electricity Distribution and Supply Authority (EDSA) unravelling a criminal syndicate which has seen over Six Billion Leones stolen within two years alone. From education to energy, Ben Kaifala’s fight against corruption has targeted every societal anomaly that has served as a clog in the wheel of our nation’s journey to sustainable progress and better standard of living for our people. The ACC currently has over 95% conviction rate in all matters charged to court. There has been massive prevention effort across the public service to minimize corruption opportunities; maximize efficiency and overall productivity.
In a country bereft of people regarded as “true heroes” emanating from public service, there is no story like Francis’ over the last three (3) years especially among appointees of President Bio, that has received such recognition and reach so far into the hearts of our people. Footages shared on his social media handles of his “Meet the People Tour” across various districts and hard to reach communities tell the story for itself. Women and men and girls and boys dancing and jubilating his visits, singing across various languages. We see many awards flooding his office on a weekly basis by different organizations/institutions recognizing his work. That is not an everyday occurrence in our body politic.
It was the Lord Speaker Hayman of British Parliament who in his introduction of Barack Obama for his famous address to both houses of the British Parliament, gathered at London’s Westminster Hall that stated, “History is not a burden of one man alone; but some are called to bear a special share of its challenges. And it is a duty that one must discharge with a dignity, determination and distinction that are widely admired”. The Control of Corruption is central to our aspiration to place Sierra Leone on the most competitive stage on the comity of nations through a New Direction Agenda. Francis has remarkably delivered with ‘dignity’, ‘determination’ and ‘distinction’ in achieving that aspiration through a robust and sustainable fight against corruption. The country just recently became eligible for the MCC Compact grant of $400 to $600 Million Dollars, after scoring 81% out of 100% in the Control of Corruption Indictor (Sierra Leone failed the control of corruption scorecard in 2017 scoring 49% prior to Ben Kaifala becoming Commissioner); moved 13 places upwards (130-117) in the Global Transparency International Corruption Perception Index, ranking above countries like Nigeria and Kenya etc. There are other plethora of personal international recognitions and responsibilities deservedly received by the Commissioner over the last three years as a result of his excellent stewardship. For example, at the Extraordinary Congress of State Parties in Lomé, Togo, in 2019, he was unanimously elected as President of Network of Anti-Corruption Institutions in West Africa (NACIWA) by his colleagues. He was also overwhelmingly elected to the African Union Advisory Board on Corruption in February, 2021, by the Council of Ministers and Heads of Governments of Africa. And quite recently, Francis Ben Kaifala was distinctively honored as an International Anti-Corruption Champion by the United States Government’s Department of State.
All of these are not strange to me or many who witness his formative years in school where he took first position in every class, before going to Fourah Bay College to end up graduating with a First Class Law Degree. He went to Law School and graduated as Star Pupil, in the process making a grade point cumulative that took a decade after he left the school to match by any other pupil. At Fourah Bay College, he continued to make a name for himself as a famous student advocate. He ended up becoming President of the Bai Bureh Hall. As a young Lawyer, Francis later founded the Renaissance Movement with other young Sierra Leoneans to channel their grievances to tangible actions for a better Sierra Leone.
Even at an early age in our Murray Town Community, Francis was known among his friends and even elders for his meticulous caution. Every move he made was intentional. His choice of Secondary School and course of study were very deliberate and well-thought out. He had a powerful admiration for the law; and its power to foster human progress and cohesion. On both occasions when departing to study for his two Master Degrees in the United Kingdom and United States of America respectively, he always contacted me, as I had just migrated to U.S to further my theological studies. He also met me in the United Kingdom when pursuing his first Masters at the Queen Mary University. In those early conversations, he would even give me sound reasons for his decision to choose the Universities and courses and how important they were to his future career aspirations. I asked why he decided to venture to pay for his own Masters programme at Queen Mary and not look for a scholarship instead. He told me that an investment in further education was the best option for him at that stage of his career. That the houses and cars will come later. Francis has always been a man on a mission. A mission deeply rooted in the quest to change the story of our country and its people who have been subjected to misery as a result of bad governance. In the past one year, we have seen him embark on massive public lectures across tertiary institutions across the country, eloquently articulating the challenges facing the country especially in the fight against corruption; but also inspiring his audiences to come together to face those challenges with common principles and shared purpose that completely abhors corruption.
ACC's Leadership is Exemplary
In December 2020, I paid a visit to Sierra Leone and went to see Francis at his ACC office. Unlike the many bureaucracies that characterize big offices, I was easily ushered into his office after one or two questions. In our conversation I asked him what is responsible for the rapid rise in the fortunes of the Commission which has seen it register such outstanding successes. His response was simple. That everyone now feels part of the team. That nobody feels threatened or intimidated due to any petty considerations. According to him, all promotions are done on merit and ascendancy up the ladder are purely based on the existing organogram he inherited. What blew my mind was when I came to realize that even his Confidential Secretary he met at the Commissioner’s office was never replaced. Still the same individual. At this revelation I became concerned and asked if he wasn’t worried about moles being part of the team, more so, considering the sensitivity of his job. His response was glorious. And further reinforced my perception of the man. His class and grace. It was a confirmation of the Francis Ben Kaifala I have come to know for over 20 years; who now as Commissioner has even grown greatly in leaps and bounds. His response was that leadership is about building trust and confidence in those you lead, by inspiring the best in them to achieve set goals. You don’t do that by ostracizing them. I instantly agreed with him, having in mind the popular saying that, “A genuine leader is a builder of consensus”. He further informed me that even women empowerment has been greatly improved with two women now serving as Regional Managers in Makeni and Kono, in addition to over 15 positions done quietly recently all involving women (some to senior and top managerial positions). And when he informed me of the ridiculous government allocation of funds made to the ACC per year (which is below 10 billion Leones) considering all the work the institution is doing, I told him thanks on behalf of the nation. It is criminal that such an institution is starved of funds while several hundreds of billions of Leones are given to other ad-hoc entities. This institution is the lifeblood of Government and more investment should be made into it.
On the whole, I left ACC that day with enough facts which are not known to the public that reinvigorated my trust and belief in the man leading the fight against corruption in Sierra Leone. The ACC is mostly preoccupied with informing the public about the outcomes or updates on investigations which is a fundamental part of their work that needs trumpeting. But the camaraderie, sense of purpose, professionalism and nationalism with which the fight against corruption is being undertaken that gives me great hope for both the present and future. That is what prompted me to write this piece in celebration of Francis' Third Anniversary, but to also inspire other's. A lot of other heads of institution can learn a thing or two at how the ACC is professionally run.
Few days ago I heard the Commissioner Francis Ben Kaifala on an extensive media tour in commemoration of his third anniversary as ACC Commissioner, which even prompted me to write this piece. He gave updates on the status of the fight against corruption and what to look forward to in the future. I was particularly interested in his recommendation for Government to now start heavily investing in prevention mechanisms in the fight against corruption. And that is the way to go. We have done enough sensitization around corruption that it is now part of our daily national conversations. ACC has made several arrests (some top profile) but that will not deter other men from attempting to open the “cookie jar” (as the Commissioner rightly put it on AYV) if it is not clearly guarded against such people. We need to kill the opportunities that allow corruption to thrive, for the nation to grow.
A friend of mine who is currently in Freetown on a business trip informed me via WhatsApp of the restriction placed on accessing some government offices pending vaccination, which was affecting his business since he was seeking a government contract. He decided to go get the jab in Freetown. Upon getting to the vaccine centre, a staff at the centre informed him that if he paid a certain amount, the card to show vaccination will be given to him without taking the jab. The card will then grant him access to government buildings. That is how corruption undermines a nation’s effort no matter how genuine. But there is very little ACC or Ben Kaifala can do than to possibly arrest, investigate and convict. But can that provide solution to the problem? NO! The cycle will continue. The next person who replaces the nurse will also be inclined to do the same act because the opportunity exists. If we had invested heavily in our healthcare system to ensure simple things like who gets vaccinated or who has done his asset recovery in migrated to a computer-based system, we can easily trace those who comply or default; and not have a certain nurse sacrificing our wellbeing by selling vaccine cards just for a few thousand leones to fake vaccination for those who pay. So when Ben Kaifala spoke about corruption prevention, he was actually saying the correct thing. Bad/corrupt individuals will always exist irrespective of who is in governance. That is why systems are created to limit their schemes. So our anti-corruption efforts should now focus on prevention. And the tone has to be set at the top of the Governance pyramid. We have approached a critical phase where there is clearly a limit to what Francis Ben Kaifala and his team at ACC can do.
In all, one cannot argue that irrespective of the challenges, the last three years with Francis Ben Kaifala as Commissioner of the ACC, Sierra Leone has seen our country make its most remarkable progress in the fight against corruption. We are not completely out of the woods yet, but light is now clearly in sight, than ever before. Like John the Baptist in the Bible who came before Christ to pave the way for the latter’s redemptive mission, Francis Ben Kaifala has laid a clear pathway for our country’s redemptive journey from the woods of corruption. We should not allow these gains to go down the drains.