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‘EBOLAGATE’ AUDIT Report: Reactions

February 25, 2015 Abu-Bakarr Sheriff

 Audit Service Sierra Leone (ASSL), under the astute leadership of Auditor General Mrs. Lara Taylor Peace, on February 12, 2015 released a report titled: “Audit of the Management of the Ebola Funds”, which covers only the period between May (when the outbreak started) and October 2014.

By their own admission, the audit “was undertaken to ascertain whether allocations and donations received directly by the GoSL in the fight against the Ebola Virus Disease were utilized with due regard to economy and efficiency and that internal controls were observed accordingly.”

Billions of Leones have been donated to both the government and non-governmental organizations to stop the virulent virus, which has killed close to 3,000, in its track. In the process, public suspicion was rife that monies have been misappropriated and badly dispensed as some people were more interested in amassing fortunes than battling the disease.

That suspicion was not farfetched as the audit report highlighted “inadequate controls over the disbursement of funds”, such as payments in excess of Le14 billion paid by the former Emergency Health Response without supporting documents to substantiate how the mindboggling monies were expended.

The report notes that the Government of Sierra Leone spent “in excess of Le84 billion…donated by institutions and individuals mostly within Sierra Leone and from tax revenues” and that “it is clear from our audit conducted that there continues to be lapses in the financial management system in Sierra Leone and these have ultimately resulted in the loss of funds and a reduction in the quality of service delivery in the health sector”. The report further claims that this anomaly may have also led to the death of hundreds of our compatriots.

In essence, the auditors may have opened a Pandora’s box of grand scale corruption by an unholy alliance of individuals, public and private sector actors, including some lawmakers and civil society activists, who up to the time the report was written, had failed to submit documents to support various activities, including sensitization – a mantra to justify the use and misuse of public funds at the beginning of the outbreak – towards ending the deadly outbreak.

Once the report was laid before Parliament on February 12, and then posted on the ASSL website, the response from Sierra Leoneans at home and broad was spontaneous: revulsion, anger and a feeling of betrayal on February 13 – a Black Friday for the country and people!

Granted that the inimitable Lara Taylor-Pearce had released a couple of audit reports in the past, but this by far has irked many. And justifiably so. The public feels immensely betrayed that government had failed to do enough to nip the outbreak in the bud, and as a result having a telling socio-economic impact on an already impoverished nation. Hence the audit report came as a double loss to Sierra Leoneans – loss of monies allegedly misappropriated by a parasitic cabal, and loss of lives and livelihoods.

As the anger boiled over, social media and the traditional media have been awash with sentiments by Sierra Leoneans calling for strong action this time around. The annual audit report of 2013, meanwhile, is still gathering dust in Parliament, while no reports are available to the public or the anti-graft body on previous audit reports tabled in Parliament.

First to go, by way of reaction, was State House. A terse release from government states that “…those who are found guilty of misusing Ebola funds will face the full force of the law” as they pleaded patience to allow due process until Parliament and the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) embark on performing their respective statutory duties.

But the public was not going to be easily pacified. There were calls for swift and stern action against those rightly or wrongly perceived to have chopped “blood Ebola money”, echoing President Ernest Koroma.

As expected, though a surprise, judging from their political comatose for many months, the opposition Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) timely entered the fray. While expressing shock “by the level of unruliness and sleaze that has pervaded the management of the nation’s fight against the Ebola scourge”, a release by the former ruling party contended that, “The Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) believes that conduct of misappropriation of the Ebola funds feeds into a pattern of shoddy financial management and lack of accountability that is characteristic of the All Peoples Congress (APC) Government. Even when the scale of corruption around the fight against the scourge became apparent to Government, no meaningful action was taken to arrest the situation.”

They then went on to accuse the government of being partisan in its prosecution of the Ebola war as, according to them, contracts went to party apparatchiks and selected civil society groups already compromised by government. It recommended a public inquiry in the audit report, urged that government ensured that tax owed by suppliers and contractors are paid with interest, and full restitution of monies that may have been siphoned, among other recommendations.

Not wanting to be undone by the opposition who as expected would want to gain political capital over the embarrassing “Ebolagate”, the ruling All Peoples Congress (APC) came guns blazing. With patent political slant, the APC said they “see this [audit report] as part of the transparency and accountability posture of the government which has given a free hand to the work of the Auditor General’s office.”

Perhaps wanting to prove a point, the APC statement added that, “Even as we applaud government’s efforts, the All Peoples Congress wishes to urge further that a travel ban be slammed on all those named in the audit report, either as individuals or civil society or MDAs, until a logical conclusion is reached into the matter…. Furthermore, all signatories to Ebola accounts must not be allowed to travel.”

The ACC, armed with prosecutorial powers, came out with a list of 40 names, later slashed to 39 names, it said should report to them for questioning. The ‘list of shame’ includes senior officials at the Ministry of Health and Sanitation, private businessmen, entertainers and civil society activists.

But more drama was in the offing. Hon. Ibrahim Bundu, Majority Leader of Parliament, apparently acting on his whim, threatened the media and indeed the public with “contravention of…contempt of Parliament” if they openly and publicly discuss the report. He infamously said that, “any attempt to discuss the Auditor General’s Report on the management of the Ebola Fund in any media will be tantamount to undermining the relevant provisions of the constitution and those of the Standing Order.”

Seen by many as a naked attempt to gag free speech and subvert the wishes of the masses as they seek justice in arguably the most scandalous corruption saga in the history of the country, Hon. Bundu cited section 119 of the 1991 Constitution and Standing Order 75 as the basis for his whimsical attempts to gag free expression.

In a public outburst over Radio Democracy, he told those invited by the ACC not go. ACC Commissioner Joseph F. Kamara challenged the senior lawmaker on that, as in his opinion the mandate of the ACC and Parliament in so far as the real time audit report is concerned is concurrent.

Besides, it must be noted that Hon. Bundu’s action was grossly out of character and in contravention of ACC laws, not least for a senior lawmaker, to incite people to act in breach of the law!

The duo, Kamara and Hon. Bundu, soon mended fences. In a joint statement they said they had agreed to “collaborate” in their respective mandate to investigate and bring to book anyone found wanting to have siphoned the Ebola funds. How they would “collaborate” was not stated, and some curious minds have pointed to the fact that the release should have been signed by the Speaker of the House, or by both the Majority and Minority Leaders.

Accordingly, the SLPP has denied being party of the hasty entente between the two men. “As SLPP MPs, we want the general public to note that we were neither informed, nor consulted or otherwise involved in the said positions. We view the ACC as an independent institution capable of executing its functions without external dictates. We therefore unequivocally dissociate ourselves from the said statement\press release issued by Hon Ibrahim Bundu.”

The opposition lawmakers added without mincing their words that, “As a democratic party, we frown at any attempt to silence or restrict the general public and the press from discussing matters of importance affecting the lives and welfare of the people of Sierra Leone, especially one of such urgent nature. In any case, Standing Order 75 on which the Majority Leader relied, only deals or relates to “evidence given before” a Select Committee in Parliament. Therefore, Hon. Bundu’s dependence on Standing Order 75 to silence the media is a virtual contravention of the fundamental rights provision in section 25 of the Constitution of Sierra Leone, which guarantees freedom of expression and the press.”

Clearly now on the back foot, the Majority Leader belated retracted his controversial statement on state broadcaster, to the effect that that journalists and indeed the public can discuss the audit report, although he urged fairness  and respect for due process.

However, not until the Sierra Leone Bar Association (SLBA), Sierra Leone Journalists Association (SLAJ) and legal luminary-cum-politician, Charles F. Margai, have all told the ruling party lawmaker that his view on the issue was fundamentally flawed.

“The SLBA expresses its disagreement with the views of the majority leader. Section 25 of the Constitution of Sierra Leone (Act No.6) 1991 provides for the freedom of expression and of the press. This right is protected in the Constitution as a fundamental human right and freedom of the individual. Limitations on this right are provided for in the said section 25 of the Constitution, but the provisions of the Constitution and standing orders relied upon by the majority leader, do not serve as a limitation on this fundamental right,” said a release by the Bar Association on February 19, 2015.

Also, on February 19, SLAJ stated that, “The opinion expressed by the Majority Leader outrightly conflicts with the spirit and letter of Section 11 of the 1991 constitution, which provides that ‘the press, radio and television and other agencies of the mass media shall at all times be free to uphold the fundamental objectives contained in this constitution,” and quoting SLAJ President Kelvin Lewis, the release concludes that, “Public discussion on the issues highlighted in the Report will in no way hinder parliamentary debate on these issues. In fact, it will possibly provide more insights for parliamentarians on these issues, thus enriching the debate in Parliament.”

As both pressure groups brought sound constitutional interpretation to bear on the under fire Majority Leader, veteran politician Charles Margai waded into the debate. He urged the lawmaker to “stop misleading the public”.

“It is Act No 6 of the 1991 Constitution and the Standing Orders (SO) that regulate their activities. Section 119 of the Constitution which the Honourable has been relying on that once the Audit Report has been tabled in Parliament, no one should discuss and not even the ACC does not have the right to investigate until Parliament has finished with the debate – that is not true – as there is nothing in that section that supports that contention,” Margai is quoted by Awoke newspaper to have said. He further opined that the lawmaker was clearly in breach of sections 127 and 130 of the Anti Corruption Act for having being obstructive to the work of the Commission, clearing alluding to the controversial call by Hon. Bundu that nobody should answer to the ACC invite.

Meanwhile, as the saga rages on, previously tried out methods of discrediting reports critical to government or certain individuals have been employed as some have called the intent and integrity of the authors into question.

But for the majority of the public, what is important is justice for thousands who have died during the Ebola outbreak, and an end to impunity so that those who have lost livelihoods and academic progress while the virus rampages will feel a sense of retribution.