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PONDER MY THOUGHTS

COMMISSION WHITE PAPER: “FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS”?

October 5, 2020

BY Andrew Keili

“We have had several Commissions of Inquiry in post-independence Sierra Leone. But Sierra Leoneans seem to have learnt little to nothing from those past Commissions of Inquiry. We are determined to make this the last Commissions of Inquiry in this country. This is not the usual charge, convict, levy tepid punishments, and restitute or reinstate as soon as citizens turn the other way. Once and for all, we are determined to draw a line.”

-President Bio’s speech at the launching of the White paper on the Commissions of Inquiry

Bold words by President Bio! But have we indeed learnt from past Commissions? Is this the last?

We are no strangers to high profile embezzlement scandals. There were several in the 1980s, such as ‘vouchergate’, ‘squandergate’ and ‘milliongate’.

Justice Bankole Thompson has provided an interesting narrative in the Introductory part of his commission report. It would seem that President Koroma is not the only Former President accused of corruption. Justice Thompson writes:

“First, the Justice Beccles Davies Report found the following facts as evidence of unjust enrichment on the part of Ex-President Siaka Stevens: (i) that during the aforesaid period, he acquired “an extensive portfolio of real estate holdings consisting of 16 houses including Kabassa Lodge valued at $5,850,000;” (ii) that during the aforesaid period, he held shares in several local companies and cash deposits in several local and overseas banks. In the case of Ex-President Joseph Saidu Momoh, Stevens’ successor, the findings were: (i) that from November 1985 to April 1992, he was found “to have been a millionaire several times over; (ii) that during the period of seven years, he acquired a “sizeable collection of real properties including homes, farms, a fleet of 213 expensive vehicles of various makes and descriptions, Le12,950,000 in Treasury Bills, cash deposits in various banks in Sierra Leone totaling Le45,613,870.22, cash deposits in various banks abroad totaling 128,478.73 pound sterling, US$30,000 and much more.”

Justice Thompson also mentions the “unjust enrichment engaged in by some other high-ranking members of the political elite who served in the Stevens and Momoh administrations”, and about the Report of the Mrs. Justice Laura Marcus-Jones Commission of Inquiry (1993), which highlighted the high level culpability of Ex-Presidents, Ex-Vice-Presidents, Ex-Ministers, Public Officers, Members of Boards and Employees of Parastatals and other state actors of unjust enrichment manifested through corruption, dishonesty, negligence, and abuse of office for private benefits including a Secretary to the President who “acquired 20 properties and substantial amount of investments which ran into “hundreds of millions of Leones”.

Stevens himself had set up the first of such Commissions, the Justice Beoku Betts Commission of Inquiry in 1968 to inquire into the management of the Price Maintenance Fund of the defunct Sierra Leone Produce Marketing Board (SLPMB). Justice Thompson goes further-“ It was for that same reason that, in 1992, the erstwhile National Provisional Ruling Council (NPRC) headed by the then Head of State, Capt. Valentine E. M. Strasser simultaneously set up three Commissions of Inquiry, namely, the Justice Sydney Beccles-Davies Commission, the Justice Lynton Nylander Commission and the Mrs Justice Laura Marcus-Jones Commission, to inquire into issues ranging from the manner in which assets were acquired by public officers to widespread allegations of financial malpractices perpetrated in various Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs) within the period 1st June, 1986 to 22nd September, 1991.”

We have indeed been a country of commissions, trying everyone we remotely think is culpable and thinking that each commission will be the last one that ends it all.

Well the current spate of commissions has ended and we have the reports and white paper. Several people have been found culpable and recommendations which have been accepted almost in their entirety in the White paper have resulted in fines, seizure of properties and further referrals to the Anti-Corruption Commission.

Many well-meaning Sierra Leoneans would want perpetrators to be punished especially for the more egregious cases of corruption. President Bio and his government are glad that this has been concluded with results seemingly bearing out accusations of corruption they had made. This is however not the end and already there have been dissenting voices talking about “the unfairness of the process and the conclusions drawn”. The APC as a party, President Koroma, several political appointees in the previous government and other private individuals roped in have cried foul. The reasons proffered range from “the unfairness of the property valuation process (not taking into consideration the time value of money), poor investigation of cases, unfair apportioning of culpability” and several others.

There is no doubt that we will still be preoccupied with the White Paper for the rest of this year and a good part of the ensuing year as, judging by recent utterances, most of the people found wanting may appeal and even seek further legal remedies if necessary. The Anti-Corruption Commission and the Attorney General and his Law Officers Department will also have their work cut out. It will eventually all come out in the wash and we will see how it ends up. Indeed as much as many feel there are people who deservedly should answer and pay for their misdeeds, there is some head scratching on why some others have been punished. It is hoped that the review and appeal processes will be fair and that whatever actions are taken against perpetrators will be justifiable. Clearly, impunity must stop but it must be ensured that there is fairness in the process.

Meanwhile, many people will be expecting President Bio and his government to focus on the serious task of addressing the day to day problems of the country. Many have said that President Bio is determined to fight corruption headlong.

He said in his speech at the launching of the White Paper:

“So these Commissions of Inquiry should also serve as a strong warning to serving officials that you have a duty of care to make the best decisions and act always in the best interests of citizens of this nation. Citizens are reminded also that they must actively but fairly question errant leaders. It is your civic duty to question unexplained wealth.”

Some skeptical members of the public however say that history is still repeating itself and that right now, there are people in the current administration emulating the examples of old. You be the judge!

But for whom does the bell toll? The title “For Whom the Bell Tolls” comes from this statement written by John Donne in his book “Devotions upon Emergent Occasions”:

…….Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee

The phrase “For whom the bell tolls” refers to the church bells that are rung when a person dies. Hence, the author is suggesting that we should not be curious about who the church bell is tolling for. It is for all of us! We may therefore want to ask whether the corruption bell tolls now only for those associated with the past government.

There is no doubt that corruption poses a great threat to the state. It undermines state institutions and values of democracy, ethical values and justice and jeopardizes sustainable development and the rule of law.

May be our Heads of state and Leadership in Parliament should take a leaf out of the Rotary Club’s Four way test and have their own four way test.

The Four-Way Test is a nonpartisan and non-sectarian ethical guide for Rotarians to use for their personal and professional relationships.

  1. Is it the TRUTH?
  2. Is it FAIR to all concerned?
  1. Will it build GOODWILL and BETTER FRIENDSHIPS?
  2. Will it be BENEFICIAL to all concerned?

Here is a new Four way test suggested for our Heads of State:

  1. Will my appointments engender good performance and fiscal management of the respective institutions and will I practise meritocracy and refrain from making appointments purely because of political patronage?
  2. Will my government give the Auditor Generals’ office our unalloyed support in carrying out its work?
  3. Will I strongly urge my appointees to realise the seriousness of the problems and threats posed by corruption to the stability and security of the country, undermining the institutions and values of democracy, ethical values and justice and jeopardizing sustainable development and the rule of law and will I lead by example on this front?
  4. Will I be brutally strict in dealing with all appointees involved in corrupt practices and have no sacred cows?

And here is a new one for our Leaders in Parliament

  1. Will we ensure that the Public Accounts Committee (especially with their review of the Auditor General’s report) and all oversight bodies carry out their functions diligently, without fear or favour, without taking bribes and doing what is in the best interest of Sierra Leone?
  2. Will Parliament through the Appointments committee primarily and the entire Parliament ensure that Presidential appointees are subject to rigorous scrutiny to ensure that they fit the bill for the particular job and reject them when found wanting?
  3. Will we ensure that Parliament has a bi-partisan approach to issues of corruption?
  4. Will Parliament exhaustively review bills laid before the house to ensure national interests are met?

Well, these are not easy tests but if they are not followed, the bell may already be tolling for them and several of their associates when their term eventually ends.

Ponder my thoughts