Corruption in Sierra Leone

Who Will Guard the Guards?

In the first of a monthly series of columns on the issues facing Sierra Leone today, David Tam-Baryoh—founder of independent Freetown newspaper Punch, Director of the Center for Media Education and Technology, and 2000 recipient of World Press Review's International Editor of the Year Award—reports on the corruption that poisons every level of Sierra Leonean society.

After 11 years of civil war and carnage, Sierra Leone, which the United Nations Development Program ranked the least developed country in the world in 2000, now appears to be ready for peace. With 14,500 U.N. peacekeepers—the largest U.N. force in action today—deployed in each of the country's 12 districts, and with 38,000 of the estimated 45,000 combatants already disarmed, many Sierra Leoneans feel that peace is here at last.

According to President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah, Sierra Leoneans must now wage a new war against corruption. Inaugurating the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) on Feb. 6, 2000, the president told the country, "My government and the ordinary people of Sierra Leone now have a new war to wage. This is the war against corruption. And in this fight, nobody will be above the law, including myself."

In the two years since, the cases investigated by the ACC paint a picture of a country rotten with corruption. In 24 months, the ACC has investigated 500 cases and submitted its findings to the Justice Ministry with recommendations that it follow up. The snag here is that only the justice minister can charge cases of corruption. By force of the constitution, only he can decide whether to prosecute or not to prosecute. The Justice Minister also retains the unquestionable right to release any suspect for any reason. So the effectiveness of the ACC and the government's fight against corruption in Sierra Leone depends on the cooperation of the Justice Minister. Now that fingers are pointing at the minister himself, many here are convinced that he might be more concerned with battling to save his own image than with battling corruption.

Some Sierra Leonean journalists and politicians claim the ACC is nothing but a political tool used to hunt opponents of the government. Victor Foh, party secretary for the opposition party the All Peoples Congress, says, "The ACC is an albatross and a tool to grab those who do not see things the way the government sees them."

ACC Chairman Valentine Collier, former cabinet secretary to President Kabbah, insists that his commission "is free, independent, and cannot be used by anybody whatsoever, the president inclusive."

Since its founding, the ACC has fingered officials throughout the government for corruption. The list of cases reads like an almanac entry on Sierra Leonean government officials. On June 9, 2000, Sierra Leone's Marine Resources Minister Lawrence Kamara was accused of embezzling US$45,000 in government funds. Though he was forced to resign and to write the government a check for the missing US$45,000, he has not yet been charged.

On March 9, 2001, Sierra Leone's Agriculture Minister Dr. Harry Will was convicted of embezzling US$1.5m from World Bank development funds meant to buy rice seed from Ghana for struggling Sierra Leonean Farmers. Justice Mohamed Taju Deen, who fined Will a mere Le 500,000 (US$250), was in turn convicted of having accepted bribes in exchange for the light sentence.

On March 16, a week after Will's conviction, a court convicted Soluku Bockarie, permanent secretary at the Ministry of Education, for misappropriating roughly US$1 billion from funds meant to pay the salaries of Sierra Leone's 26,000 teachers. Over the course of the trial, Bockarie also fingered his boss, Education Minister Dr. Alpha Wurie, but the court threw the testimony out, claiming Bockarie was a doomed man desperate to drag everyone down with him.

On Nov. 6, 2001, President Kabbah indefinitely suspended Sierra Leone's transport and communication minister, Momoh Pujeh, for illicit diamond mining and alleged diamond smuggling. The ACC has been authorized to investigate him and to send him to trial if necessary.

On Oct. 8 and 10, 2001, independent Freetown tabloids Democrat and For di People, which is edited by Paul Kamara, a recipient of WPR's 2000 International Editor of the Year Award, accused Justice Minister Solomon Berewa of accepting bribes in exchange for arranging the release of an Israeli and a Russian held in Sierra Leone, pending extradition to Colombia on drug charges. Though Berewa has sued the papers for libel, the papers have stuck by their claims, and have reported the legal proceedings in detail.

On Sept. 8, 2001, British-born Inspector General of Police Keith Biddle ordered the suspension and arrest of 41 police officers for accepting bribes from motorists, including diamond smugglers.

On Nov. 2, 2001, acting on direct orders from the president, the ACC began investigating For di People editor Paul Kamara for tax evasion. Kamara, who has been an outspoken critic of Sierra Leone's government, was eventually cleared of the charges, but the investigation sent a clear message.

And though President Tejan Kabbah has not yet been directly accused of corruption, he has been slow to order investigations of his political protégés, as in the case of Education Minister Alpha Wurie and Justice Minister Solomon Berewa. Moreover, there are indications that the ACC may be deteriorating into a political tool to track down the president's detractors.

According to James Taiwo Cullen, a broadcast journalist for FM 96.2, an independent Freetown radio station, the greed and selfishness of government officials is to blame for high-level corruption in Sierra Leone. But meager salaries within the civil service—which can be as low as US$1 a day—may have as much to do with the problem.

Sierra Leone still has a long way to go in its battle against corruption. That officials from the government waging the battle against corruption are themselves corrupt compounds the problem for the ACC investigators, who must depend on the government's good graces to continue their work. As a senior British diplomat stationed in Sierra Leone put it, "A greater percentage of the president's men are from the old block, and this is where corruption breeds in this country. In order for government to win the uphill battle against corruption," he says, "The president must continue to distance himself from the older politicians who have had their hands in every political pile since Sierra Leone gained independence in 1961."