I Will Leave “No Sacred Cows” In the Fight Against Corruption ...Ernest Bai Koroma
FT (Financial Times of London) Interview: Ernest Koroma
Published: September 14 2007 19:53 | Last updated: September 14 2007 19:53
Ernest Bai Koroma is leading the race for Sierra Leone’s presidency, with more than two thirds of results counted. Beaten at the last polls in 2002, the flag bearer of the opposition All People’s Congress says he will leave “no sacred cows” in the fight against corruption should he emerge as winner of last Saturday’s run-off. Public anger over misuse of aid money by the ruling Sierra Leone People’s Party has eroded support for Mr Koroma’s rival, Solomon Berewa, the vice-president.
The lack of accountability has raised concerns abroad. Britain, the biggest bilateral donor, delayed disbursing budget support earlier this year after the government failed to produce audited accounts. Mr Koroma also had news for mining investors keen on the country’s deposits of ores and diamonds, saying he will revise the mining code.
West Africa correspondent Matthew Green spoke to Mr Koroma in his party headquarters in Freetown, the capital, about what he planned to do if elected.
FT: There’s been a lot of bad press about aid money being diverted, about a lack of transparency in government accounts. Assuming that you’re elected, what are young going to do about that?
KOROMA: I have campaigned on the platform of putting up a very robust fight against corruption. We believe that has been a key problem of the past administration. I am going to immediately do a few things that will help in our fight against corruption. In the first place I will ensure that the ACC, the Anti-Corruption Commission, is revitalised and strengthened. I am going to ensure that we pass a legislation that will give an amendment to the act that establishes the Anti-Corruption Commission, and specifically the authority that is given to the attorney-general to determine who should be prosecuted after the investigations have been done by the ACC.
That authority will be removed and will be restored to the ACC, so that the ACC will have the power to investigate and at the same time prosecute…This will give them independence. I say so, because when that power is vested in the attorney-general, who is the minister of justice, he is a key political figure, and at times very close to the heart of government, and normally will be influenced. African politics, knowing what it is, he will be influenced to maybe protect certain people against the others.
Now for us, to send a clear signal that there will be no sacred cow, I have made a point that nobody can be protected. We can only effect that when the Anti-Corruption Commission has complete independence, it works on its own…We will establish a court that will be charged with responsibility of addressing principally all matters from the Anti-Corruption…When I do effect those changes, it will immediately send the signal that it is not business as usual. Nobody will be protected. Anybody that is found guilty will be treated with expedition.
FT: Is that to say that you will be keen to see the ACC investigating members of the former government who have been involved in corruption?
KOROMA: If there are any issues that have to do with corruption, with the present government or former government, they are at liberty. I will not determine who they should investigate or who they should not investigate, they have a free hand, and they will be given that free hand.
FT: Would you anticipate though that they will be probing the actions of the last government?
KOROMA: I believe that a few things are to be investigated. I think Sierra Leoneans will want an answer to a few issues, and if in the process they have to do with members of the past government, then so be it. But I think the circle of impunity should be checked and we should put an end to it. If not put an end in its entirety we must minimise it. The Anti-Corruption will be there…if anything it will serve as a deterrent.
FT: When you say there are few things that Sierra Leoneans want answers about, what do you mean?
KOROMA: There are issues of support by the international community that has not been translated to reduce poverty, there are targeted expenditures that have not gone to the target…I don’t want it to appear like a witch-hunt…The Anti-Corruption will determine what to do, they will have a mandate that will be given by an act of parliament.…What I will bring in that is new is to give them greater authority and greater independence.
FT: Britain has delayed budget support this year. There’s a growing perception that a lot of the money is either not being accounted for or stolen by government officials. Do you think the previous government betrayed the trust the international community put in them after the war?
KOROMA: I would say so, because a lot of issues were delayed after the war…There was a lot of goodwill, Britain came with a memorandum of understanding supporting Sierra Leone, with meeting their MDGs (Millennium Development Goals)…Our only responsibility is to meet certain benchmarks. From 2003, the benchmarks were not met, and it was rolled over to 2004, 2005. In fact, the meeting of the donors that was set for June had to be postponed…There has been a delayed action, a delayed implementation in some of the additional support that should have come in. The people out there have nothing to show even for the support that was coming in from the international community. It was not only a betrayal of the trust that was put into them by the international community, but also the Sierra Leonean public who voted for the government with the hope that things would get better for them. Sadly it has not happened. I believe principal cause for it is lack of political will to handle corruption.
FT: Were donors too soft on Sierra Leone?
KOROMA: I believe so. I had had meetings with them. There was a time when we wanted to object to putting in a statutory instrument that will establish a committee of three that should determine who should be prosecuted and who should not be prosecuted. This is a result of the insistence of the donors that something should be done to strengthen the independence of the ACC. My argument then was that when in 2003, 2004, the government did not meet the benchmarks, instead of being hard on them, excuses were accepted…
The government did not treat the issue of meeting benchmarks with the seriousness it deserves. They now know that they have been through one or two years without meeting the benchmarks and nothing was done. It is part of the responsibility of the donors as well, they must take a share of responsibility. Even when they were trying to put together the donors’ conference, it was done to save the situation, it was done to save Sierra Leone as a project, but effectively certain things were not met. It’s only now that we’ve really taken the kind of action of suspending all the activities until after the elections.
FT: Do you think it was a case of turning a blind eye to the problems that were taking place?
KOROMA: I believe so, they had all the facts, all the evidences, they had intelligence all over, they knew what was going on, they knew what was going on was wrong. They knew contracts were not awarded properly…there was no value for money. They knew that most of what was happening was just a political action, rather than really running the state with the efficiency that is required of a country that is coming from war. There has to be a hard look at that. And I think it has not helped the government, because at the end of the day they are now saddled with all these problems.
FT: Will you reinvent Sierra Leone’s relationship with the donors?
KOROMA: I will try to do so, I will ensure that it becomes more of a business-like relationship, and we become partners in development, I will ensure them of greater transparency, greater accountability, and I look forward a greater participation of the private sector, institutional investment. For us to get there, there are certain things that need to be done in terms of creating the enabling environment, cleaning up our bureaucratic hold-ups, making the judiciary to become more dependable than it is now…Certainly I have to rescue it, in the first place by giving them the confidence that it is not going to be business as usual, it’s not going to be money down the drain, the accountability process will be strengthened, our capacity to implement donor funds will be improved upon.
FT: When do you expect to deliver an Auditor-General’s report?
KOROMA: I am told that we have a few outstanding Auditor-General’s reports, and even the audited accounts of the government are still outstanding, and these are issues that will be given priority by the next government, because we believe that until that happens I think the relationship will not be viewed with seriousness…We will ensure that the outstanding issues will be addressed as quickly as possible. If there is a need to use emergency powers, that will be given to the president, I really want to bring everything up to speed so that we can take-off at a point wherein everybody will be happy…
Normally, there is a certificate of emergency that could be signed by the president when you want parliament to fast-track certain bills, the consideration of certain issues…Or you have a special meeting with parliament urging them to address specific issues. The issues of the accounts, and the reports that have not been addressed, should be addressed as quickly as possible, but it can only be addressed when parliament is open. Parliament is yet to reconvene, the session is yet to start, the parliamentary committees are yet to be put in place.
FT: So you are saying you want to adopt emergency powers to speed up the movement of anti-corruption legislation?
KOROMA: When you say emergency powers, it’s not a state of emergency. It’s just using the authority given to the president to ask parliament to speed up consideration of a particular issue.
FT: And you will do that?
KOROMA: Yes, certainly, that way we can fast track the process…It means it (legislation) goes in (to parliament) in the morning and it’s concluded during the course of the day. That is was I intend to use.
FT: When we will see it?
KOROMA: I can give myself between now and December. Most of the outstanding issues will have been addressed….There’s normally a budget in between the end of the year, and the consideration of the budget is normally the priority over all other issues of government. On that understanding, we’re looking at now until December.
FT: Do you have any special plans for the mining sector?
KOROMA: We need to revisit the policy of government, we have to put in place more realistic and practical policies that will improve on the benefits the nation derives from our natural resources, and also ensure that where it is possible to add value to our minerals we add value to them before they are exported….We will not only add value to the product but it will create employment.
FT: What kind of changes are you looking at?
KOROMA: We going to look at the revenue that comes to government, the social responsibility of the companies, taking care of the land in which they operate.
FT: Are you going to drive a harder bargain?
KOROMA: I’m not going to kill the hen that will lay the golden egg, but where we see there is a need for improvements we will bargain for that improvement.
FT: Will you revise the mining code?
KOROMA: The mining code will be revised….There’s a need for us to involve the international community to revise the mining code for the country. There seems to be different policies for different sectors, the investor should be given the opportunity to have a one-stop shop, where they can go and have all that it is required to know about a particular opportunity.