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18th November, 2011 - Volume 53 Number 23

Sierra Leone

Ferry fiasco dents Koroma’s standing

Anti-corruption momentum is slackening as the President gauges a growing political threat from the opposition

On taking office in 2007, President Ernest Bai Koroma vowed to run the country as a ‘business venture’. What he did not intend was the state social security and pension fund, the National Social Security and Insurance Trust (Nassit), losing US$20 million of its $100 mn. assets on the markets over the last two years. To many Sierra Leoneans, Nassit’s management woes typify business and government under Koroma. The fund’s former Director General, presidential cousin Edmund Koroma, had in 2008 commissioned two refurbished ferryboats from the Netherlands. They were meant to ply between Freetown and Lungi international airport on the other side of the bay but not only did they need repair, bringing the total cost to just under 3 mn. euros ($4.06 mn.), after arriving, they remained idle for over a year. Rather than prosecuting Nassit leaders for wasting state funds, however, the Anti-Corruption Commission’s new Commissioner, Joseph Fitzgerald Kamara, has sought only to recover money through a settlement. Edmund Koroma and three other Nassit officials have agreed to return 2 billion leones ($450,000) to the state. Kamara replaced the dynamic Abdul Tejan-Cole, who resigned in May 2010 after receiving death threats amid obstruction of efforts to prosecute individuals close to the President.

The ACC had sufficient evidence to charge four or five ministers for corruption when he left office, a source said, but nothing has been heard of the cases since. Kamara boasts that corruption is on the decrease thanks to the ACC. He cites Transparency International’s ranking of the country this year above
Cameroon, Kenya, Guinea and Congo-Brazzaville. His first act, however, was to secure a massive pay increase for himself and his deputy. Kamara had been an acting Prosecutor for the Special Court for Sierra Leone, a United Nations-funded court paying salaries similar to those top lawyers earn in the United States and Europe. Koroma’s government agreed to increase Kamara’s ACC salary from $5,000 to $12,000 a month and his deputy Morlai Buya-Kamara’s from $3,000 to $8,000. Both men hail from Bombali district, home of the President. Complaints about the increasing ‘northernisation’ of the ACC are, as in many public bodies, growing. Britain’s Department for International Development, a key bilateral donor and a major supporter of the ACC, was unhappy with its new direction, we hear. When DfID officials pushed to have Allieu Sesay, the suspended Commissioner General of the National Revenue Authority, prosecuted for misuse of donor funds, Freetown complained to London.

Although a set of strong charges against Sesay was ready for presentation when Kamara took over, those he presented were a lot weaker and a judge dismissed them in June. Shortly after, DfID’s Sierra Leone head, Dominic O’Neill, moved to Nepal and DfID announced cuts in funding to the ACC.When some magistrates learned of Kamara’s huge salary rise, they vowed to embarrass him by denying him victory in the often minor cases he brings to court, Africa Confidential hears. The ACC boasts of having 64 cases before the courts, but the majority are petty corruption cases, including those of teachers who took $100 to improve a student’s grades. Only a few are like that of the nine officials indicted for misappropriation of funds meant for the country’s 50th Independence anniversary (AC Vol 52 No 10).

Opposition opportunity

The opposition Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) is anxious to exploit public disaffection over corruption and has a strong presidential candidate, Brigadier (Retired) Julius Maada Bio, to face Koroma in the election late next year. In early September, Bio went on a ‘thank you’ visit to Bo, the second largest city, and was hurt by a stone thrown from an office of the governing All People’s Congress. Thousands of his young supporters rampaged through Bo, burning down the APC offices and the homes of two leading APC figures. Armed police of the Operational Services Division (OSD) opened fire, apparently at random, killing a motorcyclist and seriously wounding about two dozen people.Bio is wildly popular in the SLPP’s southern and eastern strongholds as well as parts of Freetown. He was one of the officers who overthrew the last APC government of Major General Joseph Saidu Momoh in 1992 and later staged a palace coup against Captain Valentine Strasser of the National Provisional Ruling Council, which ruled in 1992-1996. Bio then led an interim regime and handed over power to civilians in 1996.

The President set up an Investigative Panel under the respected journalist Kelvin Lewis. It blamed APC youths for starting the violence, the SLPP for the arson attacks and the OSD for indiscriminate shooting. Unusually, Koroma promptly had the Attorney General and Justice Minister, Frank Kargbo, order the arrest of most of the 33 people named by the Panel, including SLPP member of parliament Foday Rado Yokie. Neither the key APC activist believed to be behind the stone-throwing, ex-combatant Mohamed Conteh aka ‘Bomblast’, nor the three OSD men named were detained. The OSD has a growing role and reputation for violence. As part of the UK-funded Security Sector Reform after the civil war ended in 2002, it was showered with equipment and resources, despite a record of aggression against civilians. By the time the British trainers left in 2005, it had gone from one-fifth of Sierra Leone’s police force of about 10,000 to one-third. The number has increased since 2007 but many new recruits are hastily trained and then hired out to mining companies. The SLPP condemned Koroma for failing to arrest the OSD officers and pointed to the lack of government action on another commission report produced by retired Judge EEC Sheas-Moses in 2009. That report recommended the sacking and prosecution of the APC’s Musa Tarawalie and Herbert A. George-Williams and a presidential guard for leading attacks on SLPP headquarters in 2009 that resulted in the rape of several women.

Tarawalie is still Internal Affairs Minister and George-Williams is Mayor of Freetown. Bio is tempering his strongman image by choosing as his vice-presidential running mate Kadiatu Sesay, former university lecturer and Trade and Industry Minister in President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah’s government. A northerner, Sesay is the first woman to be a vice-presidential candidate on a major party slate. Koroma is playing international statesman. After addressing the United Nations in September, he met supporters in London this month. His officials circulated a photo of him sitting next to US President Barack Obama at a UN lunch. When he rang the closing bell at the Nasdaq Stock Exchange for a charity, the press at home called it ‘an auspicious and historic event that will have dramatic effects on the investment climate in Sierra Leone’.Allegations that the country’s meagre resources are being misused are rarely followed up. The government appoints journalists as press attachés at missions abroad. Under the last government, there was only one such post – based at the London High Commission. There are now over a dozen and ambitious journalists in Freetown take such incentives into consideration when filing their copy.

Yearning for the mother country?

The right choice is Kevin McPhilips Travel

©Sierra Herald 2002