By: Moris Ibrahim Kanteh
Salone Outlook; Former Spokesperson/Asst. Public Relations Officer,
Anti-Corruption Commission of Sierra Leone
In his address on the occasion of the State Opening of the First Session of the Fifth Parliament of the Republic of Sierra Leone in May 2018, the then newly elected President Brig. (Rtd.) Dr. Julius Maada Bio read a promissory note to the people of Sierra Leone in which he stated; “My Government will treat corruption not only as a governance issue but also as a national security threat. It will therefore leave no stone unturned in its fight against corruption.’’ He furthered that; “we will seek to review the relevant provisions of the ACC Act of 2008 to strengthen the ACC’s investigative, prosecutorial and preventive mandates; strengthen monitoring of public funds; and establish a special Anti-Corruption Division in the High Court to promote judicial specialization and expeditious trial of corruption cases.” Same promises entailed in his “New Direction Manifesto”.
In a country where corruption had become a clog in the wheel of progress, as well as a malaise that inflicts every strata of the society and has incessantly frustrated the realization of noble national goals and ridiculed the country and made nonsense of our national character despite our enormous natural and human resources, the citizenry were hopeful that the election of the former Military Head of State—who had gained a reputation for discipline and unequivocal abhorrence for corruption, coupled with his promise in his “New Direction” manifesto to provide efficient, sound fiscal and political leadership in the management of the resources of the State— would herald an end to the unbridled profligacy and unaccountability of past regimes; and roll back the specter of transparent and accountable leadership. The actualization of this bold vision in a society accustomed to the bondage of myth and half-truths that nothing could ever be done about widespread and endemic corruption that characterized the public service of successive governments; required a new leadership at the helm of the country’s Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) that was in consonance with the aspiration and vison of the President, committed to the common good, but also capable of engineering such a monumental governance and development architecture. There was a campaign on social media from young people for the President to appoint one of the country’s towering and erudite young legal luminaries in the person of Francis Ben Kaifala as Commissioner of the ACC. Thus, on June 20, 2018, President Bio appointed Francis Ben Kaifala as Commissioner of the Anti-Corruption Commission.
Assessing Sierra Leone’s Global Reputation and Citizen’s Perception on President Bio’s Corruption fight:
Four (4) years after President Julius Maada Bio launched his war against corruption, the country has made groundbreaking progress which has captured unprecedented international approval ratings. For example, in the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) Scorecard for the Control of Corruption indicator-brainchild of the United State Government, the country went from a failing position of 49% in 2017, prior to the New Direction Government of President Bio, to a distinction score of 71 % in 2018 scorecard; 79% in the 2019 scorecard; and a whooping 81% in MCC Scorecard of 2020, becoming the best rated country in the entire Mano-River sub-region, and also scoring higher than countries like Nigeria and Ghana- which made Sierra Leone compact eligible and set to benefit over $400 million in grant- which President Bio has committed to his ongoing Energy Revolution. The MCC and the Government of Sierra Leone have already partnered to implement a $44.4 million threshold program to improve access to clean water and reliable electricity, and to support reforms designed to limit opportunities for corruption in government. In the Transparency International Afro Barometer Perception Survey, the country has registered it highest ever scores over the last four years since the ratings began. In the Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index (CPI), Sierra Leone has jumped an amazing 20 places from 129 in 2018 to 110 in 2022 (According to the recent rankings released January 31, 2023).
The country’s stellar progress made in the fight against corruption over the last four (4) years has left even initial doubters spellbound; and created a huge perceptional shift amongst Sierra Leoneans who now have a positive perception that with the requisite presidential and political will, coupled with a focus-driven leadership at the ACC that always sides with the people and the law and carry both with him along, corruption can be adequately controlled. This has positioned Sierra Leone as a model-nation for fighting corruption in Africa- as evident from the many other neighboring countries that are constantly making working visits to the Anti-Corruption Commission in Freetown to tap from its vast reservoir of excellence. For example, The Republic of Guinea is currently on the verge of establishing its own Anti-Corruption outfit, and is modelling the Sierra Leone architecture. Both Anti-Corruption institutions in Liberia and Gambia have also made working visits to the ACC over the past four years, to learn from its systems and processes that have engineered such a remarkable success story for the country in the fight against corruption under the New Direction leadership of President Julius Maada Bio, which has captured International admiration.
In a country where emotional discussions often replace objective analysis, people tend to oppose the fight against corruption where it goes against their whims and caprices; mostly casting aspersions of political witch-hunt as the object of the fight. Whilst this might have been predominant in previous administrations, justifying corrupt practices, based on petty considerations, it undermined the very fight. Instead of focusing on “who” is involved, we should focus on “what” is involved- which is always the people’s money. In a bid to address this huge perceptional gap, the Anti-Corruption Commission under the leadership of Francis Ben Kaifala has embarked on an aggressive public education drive over the last four years to educate the public on the benefits of a corrupt-free society. To this end, the globally renowned Kenyan anti-graft crusader, Prof. P.L.O Lumumba was brought into the country in 2018, who delivered a resounding public lecture at the hallowed grounds of the Amphi-theatre at Fourah Bay College, on the topic; “Retracing the Athens of West Africa”. A new Public Relations Unit has been created within the Public Education and Outreach Department of the Commission to increase the level of interaction with the public. There has been a huge success in this drive as issues around corruption have now taking a Centre stage in national conversations. Greater portion of the public now feel confident to report corrupt acts to the ACC knowing that adequate and sufficient steps will be taken. According to a very recent report published from a study conducted by the Centre for Accountability and Rule of Law with funding from DFID and support from Christian Aid, titled: “Actions, Hopes and Impediments in the fight against corruption in Sierra Leone”, which examines perceptions about the fight against corruption; about the delivery of public service from April 2018 to December 2019, focusing on the administration of President Julius Maada Bio and Francis Ben Kaifala Esq. as Head of the Anti-Corruption Commission, and their own roles and actions in relation to the fight; 73% of respondents said corruption is still a serious problem in Sierra Leone; however, a whopping 91% of respondents believes the ACC is currently creating the greatest positive impact in the fight against corruption since the establishment of the institution 20 years ago.
My Personal Impression of President Bio:
My early encounters with President Bio while at the Anti-Corruption Commission, gave me great Hope in the possibility of our country to adequately control corruption under his Presidency. Lack of Presidential will and the high tendency for leaders to protect some of their family members or friends from criminal investigation is a major impediment to a successful Anti-Corruption campaign, especially in African and developing countries where there is still high prevalence of Corruption. In Sierra Leone, President Bio demonstrated an uncommon resolve to clamp down on graft, when the Anti-Corruption Commission independently instituted investigations into the operations of the Office of the First Lady and successfully came out with its findings, without any political interference. What that demonstrated was the President’s willingness and uncompromising resolve to protect no one who had integrity issues or came in conflict with laid down rules and regulations. Not even the President’s dear wife was spared from his revolutionary Anti-Corruption drive, when allegations of illegal allocations of funds to the office of the First Lady, were made by renowned politicians in the media- allegations that were proven to be false based on the conclusion of the Anti-Corruption investigation into the matter. Even more impressive was the President’s decision to temporarily set his then Minister of Basic and Senior Secondary Education, Hon. Alpha Timbo aside, when the ACC launched the famous Rice investigation. Even though the Anti-Corruption Act only require a public officer to vacate his office temporarily after he has been indicted following a criminal investigation; the President went ahead to set his Minister and close political ally aside even before he was indicted. The President was trying to protect the integrity of the investigation. That was exemplary, and a further unrelenting show of commitment by a President and Commander in Chief, to a war he had launched.
The Francis Ben Kaifala Factor
The Francis Ben Kaifala era as Commissioner of the Anti-Corruption Commission will be remembered as a defining moment in the history against graft- a period when citizens of good conscience united against a common enemy; led by a young general with the required academic sophistication, courage and bravado, patriotism and commitment to the common defense. FBK has written his name in golden letters, and his revolutionary, innovative, and result-oriented approach in the fight against corruption will always be remembered with great aplomb in this country for as long as the cords of memory shall continue to lengthen.
One hallmark of a great leader is laying out a clear vision with a plan, and identifying the right executioner to bring it to life. President Bio demonstrated what a great leader he is by identifying the young legal luminary to the hallowed and delicate position; and his outstanding performance on the job has validated the President’s trust in youth, and made young people particularly proud of their ilk. Commissioner Kaifala will be remembered as the First Commissioner with the temerity and patriotic drive to institute a criminal investigation against a former Head of State- pending further actions; and the First Commissioner to investigate a member of the First Family after false allegations of corruption were made against her.
The U. S State Department in recognition of his outstanding performance in bringing President Bio’s vision to life, named him along only six other distinguished individuals from across the Globe as an International Anti-Corruption Champion. He was also unanimously appointed as President of Network of Anti-Corruption Agencies in West Africa (NACIWA) in 2019 (a position he occupied until recently), and currently serves as an elected Board Member on the African Union Advisory Board on Corruption. This is in addition to countless other national and international endorsements validating his excellent work.
The Anti-Corruption Amendment Act 2019
On 3rd December, 2019, His Excellency President Rtd. Brig. Julius Maada Bio assented to the Anti-Corruption Amendment Act 2019 that had been proposed by the Attorney General and Minister of Justice, and the Anti-Corruption Commission. The new progressive and very strong anti-corruption law provides for, among other things, increased penalties for offences under the Act; strengthens protection for witnesses and whistleblowers; provides the ACC with alternatives to prosecution (non-conviction asset based recovery); widens the scope of corruption to include that the accused ‘offered’, ‘solicited’, ‘obtained’ or ‘received’ in addition to ‘gave and accepted’ an advantage; reduces the year-long requirement that persons who cease to be public officers have to file a declaration in respect of their assets; provides for administrative sanctions for public officers who fail to submit their asset declaration forms or knowingly record false, inaccurate or misleading information in the forms; introduces trial of those accused of corruption in absentia; limits the scope of public officer to declare their assets and imposes sanctions for non-compliance; and vests in the ACC Commissioner power to direct that contracts with elements of corruption in their processing may not be proceeded with after agreement with the National Public Procurement Authority. (https://www.anticorruption.gov.sl/blog/anti-corruption-commission-sl-news-room-1/post/president-bio-signs-into-law-the-anti-corruption-amendment-act-2019-236)
In countries like Sierra Leone, where corruption in public service is even considered, fatalistically, as an integral part of our political culture; the political elites who are the major proponents of “state capture” owe their careers and statuses to corruption and few of them, if any, will take a very serious stance against it, either for fear of upsetting their own careers or the political status quo, generally. Therefore, the proposal of stringent and revolutionary, but highly progressive amendments to the existing 2008 Anti-Corruption Act; and the role of the Sierra Leone Parliament in passing the 2019 Anti-Corruption Amendment Act, almost unscathed; coupled with the Presidential Assent given to the Bill by President Julius Maada Bio was a monumental step in the right direction towards corruption control and demonstrated an uncommon display of Presidential and Political Will in the fight against graft.
Creation of a Special Anti-Corruption Court
On Monday 9th December, 2019, the Chief Justice of the Republic of Sierra Leone, Justice Desmond Babatunde Edwards commissioned the Special Anti-Corruption Court with carefully selected and dedicated judges for the purpose of trying cases that are charged to court by the Anti-Corruption Commission following investigations. “The new court is specifically designed with modern technology and equipped with ultra-modern transcribing, recording, audio-visual and other supporting technology and resources to ensure and aid the work of the court. It has its own sub-registry, filing and case management processes, and is managed by a carefully recruited and vetted new staffing to ensure insulated but fair processing of cases with integrity of the court and its outcomes maintained;” a press release from the ACC informed the public. (https://www.anticorruption.gov.sl/blog/anti-corruption-commission-sl-news-room-1/post/chief-justice-commissions-the-anti-corruption-court-234)
One of the persistent criticisms against the fight against corruption is the unnecessary delay in deciding corruption cases in court. The 50th Anniversary case for example, has taken eight (8) years without judgment. The establishment of the Anti-Corruption Court now addresses this anomaly and provides for speedy and expeditious access to justice by the ACC on behalf of the people of this country.
Recovery of Stolen Assets and Monies
Some schools of thought have argued that an anti-corruption effort that goes after the asset and stolen wealth and not the individual is the most effective means of fighting corruption; as corrupt officials guilty of grand corruption don’t mind facing lenient jail terms, come out and later enjoy the stolen wealth with their families. Additionally, the posture of the court with regards meting out custodial sentences was a concern. For example, prior to the passing of the 2019 Amendment Act, restitution was discretionary to Judges. Consequently, judges were fining convicted corrupt officials pittances compared to misappropriated funds for which they were convicted. Mindful of these existential loopholes in the law in accessing justice for the people of Sierra Leone, the Government instituted the innovative Non-Conviction Asset Based Recovery System. Under this system, corrupt officials investigated by the Commission will have the option of an out-of-court settlement where they can firstly, agree to have committed a corrupt offence and, later commit to paying back in full the amount of money misappropriated. Under this regime, the Commission has been able to recover a total of over Forty Billion Old Leones (Le 40bn). The above amount, recovered in the past four years alone, is unprecedented since the Commission’s inception. The monies have all been presented to the President on different occasions on behalf of the people of Sierra Leone, who has committed the use of same for the construction of the country’s first ever diagnostic center.
The Commission has also recovered several assets over the last four years. For example, a three story building was ceded to the State, after a criminal investigation of a former Deputy Minister under the previous administration, for unexplained wealth. Two Government SUVs initially declared missing, were later retrieved and handed back to the State, through the Ministry of Transport and Aviation.
The National Anti-Corruption Strategy (NACS)
Vice President of the Republic of Sierra Leone, Hon. Dr. Mohamed Juldeh Jalloh on Tuesday 13th August 2019, officially launched the National Anti- Corruption Strategy (NACS) 2019-2023 which is the blueprint for the nation’s fight against corruption. After a national consultative exercise by a body of experts in the Anti-Corruption space, the citizens requested for tougher anti-corruption measures in tackling the scourge. Consequently, the country has placed “Enforcement” of the country’s anti-corruption laws—which prior to the 2019 Amendment was among the strongest in the World- as its chief strategy. This strategy also mandates the establishment of Integrity Management Committees (IMCs) across Government Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs). The presence of these IMCs across MDAs will mainstream anti-corruption efforts and improve higher levels of transparency and accountability. As a major deliverable of the current leadership of the Commission, the Government of Sierra Leone funded the establishment of a new North-West Regional Office of the Anti-Corruption Commission in Port Loko City. The office was formally opened on Thursday 17th October 2019, under the distinguished Grand Chief Patronage of the then Resident Minister of the North-West Region, Hon. Haja Isata Abdulai Kamara. The establishment of the North-West regional office sealed the establishment of the ACC all over the country.
Investigation and Convictions
Despite tremendous progress made in other areas like public education and prevention, the Commission continues to vigorously pursue matters in court. Impressively, there has been over 90% convictions rate in all matters sent to court by the ACC since Francis Ben Kaifala took over as Commissioner, depicting a thorough, efficient and highly professional investigative process at the Commission that ensures that any matter sent to court meets a certain evidential threshold that guarantees success in court.
Additionally, a new Preventions Department has been created within the Commission, to ensure a proactive, rather than reactive approach to the fight against corruption. Within the last four years, the Anti-Corruption Commission, through the Prevention Department, has carried out over 50 reviews of the systems and processes of several Government Ministries, Departments and Agencies, with a view of identifying corruption vulnerabilities, and deploying best practices to curtail or prevent them from reoccurring.
In a study conducted by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development Centre (OECDC) and the UN Development Programme, “the level of corruption prevalent in any country, and steps taken to address the anomaly is closely linked to the type of Government involved.” Thus, the country’s groundbreaking progress made in the fight against corruption, as evident from both national and international indices, is a testament to the remarkable degree of both Presidential and Political Will dissipated to tackling the scourge.
Challenges facing the fight against Corruption in Sierra Leone:
Despite President Brig. (Rtd.) Dr. Julius Maada Bio fulfilling almost every campaign promise stated in the New Direction Manifesto with regards the fight against corruption over the last four years, there still remain challenges confronting the fight. If Sierra Leone is going to be firmly and permanently positioned as the shining beacon of light of consensus anti-corruption efforts in Africa, the New Direction Government of President Bio must seek to pay public servants fair, realistic and harmonized wages benchmarked to private sector earnings and, in return, demand the highest standards of integrity and performance; the Anti-corruption Commission should be well resourced and autonomous enough to continue to investigate any and all persons, institute preventive control systems across MDAs, and widen the scope of public education to raise public awareness and shape social norms; the leadership of the judiciary should warrant anti-corruption judges to institute custodial sentences for public sector corruption where the evidence so glaringly suggests and not look for the slightest legal technicalities is determining the outcomes of corruption cases; the entire citizenry must strive to develop a society and culture that eschews corruption and condemns it unequivocally, that do not condone giving or accepting bribes to get things done and readily report and assist the ACC in unearthing corrupt acts when they encounter them; finally, the government must continue to maintain an unwavering commitment to the fight against corruption by equipping the Anti-Corruption Commission with more support to meet the growing demands of their work.
In all, one can come to a logical conclusion that Sierra Leone under the New Direction leadership of President Bio is now firmly placed on an irreversible path towards sustainable progress; and the fight against corruption is at the Centre of that wonderful transformation.