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AUDITOR GENERAL UNDER SIEGE: DON’T SHOOT THE MESSENGER!

January 11, 2021

BY Andrew Keili

It would seem that the latest reports from Audit Service Sierra Leone (ASSL) have sparked a considerable amount of controversy. Simply put, people are split along two lines. Those who are not fans of the current government remark that with such incriminating reports, they do not have the moral high ground to indict members of the previous regime for corruption.  Some supporters of the government say accountability has improved and dispute many aspects of the audit findings. Some go so far as to infer the Auditor General (AG) has a hidden motive to disparage the present regime. Not surprisingly, this has been laced with ad hominem attacks on her, with some calling for her sacking. Some are also drawing wrong inferences from the ACC’s investigations into some of the NaCOVERC related audit findings to say her work was “much ado about nothing”. After all, they claim, “the “missing computers” were not missing and the generator, the ACC claims was missing was in place at Zimmi”, they claim.

This is rather unfortunate and it would seem the real reasons for the various audits are properly understood as we will learn later. I would however first like to dispel the misconceptions on both audits.

It now seems the ACC is claiming the “missing” 50KVA Generator donated by the Chinese Embassy should really have been the 65KVA one found in Zimmi Makpele. But why did it not go through the storekeeper at the Medical stores to be kept in inventory before sending to Zimmi? Did anyone in the logistics team bother to look at the details on the nameplate and record them when keeping the register of assets? Even when the ASSL noted they found a 65KVA generator there instead, could someone at NaCOVERC or MOH not have picked up the ”mistake” when alerted by the auditors? The sceptic may ask-“Is it the same generator?”

On the purchase of the laptop computers, where were the computers in the first place when the auditors asked for them? Why did they have to be produced only after being cited in the Audit report? We now learn from the ACC Commissioner that most of the computers are of inferior quality in terms of specifications and that those involved in the procurement have refunded Le220m to make amends for overcharging.

The timber saga has become the subject of a post audit speculation by some that US$5.48 billion was missing. If anything, the government must thank the audit team for pointing them to an error that had been perpetuated for quite a while. Instead of using cubic meters as required by law, 20-feet shipping containers were used as unit of measurement. Revenue of US$25.7 million was recorded in the GPFS, thereby leaving a difference of US$5.48 billion. According to the Ministry of Finance, the discrepancy is due to an error in the drafting of the Finance Act (Amended) of 2018, but the necessary correction will be done in the Finance Act of 2021. It did take an inordinate long time to discover this error! The question then arises -How was sales of timber being monitored by all the parties and why had they not picked up this glaring error?

In all of these cases, it was the ASSL that alerted the government to cases of gross ineptitude in keeping track of our assets.

The 2019 audit reports should actually be beneficial to government in helping them manage our resources. The following are particularly worthy of note:

  1. Nothing seems to have changed. The report states: “Very little had been done to ensuring that MDAs act on our audit recommendations. We still continue to observe the same recurring issues in our audit of MDAs during 2019. Our review revealed that total cash losses amounted to Le65.5 billion. These cash losses which cut across MDAs were mainly attributable to the following:

▪ Payroll irregularities

▪ Payments without supporting documents

▪ Unapproved payments

▪ Unrecovered funds

▪ Imprest not retired

▪ Irregularities in accounting for revenue

▪ Stores and assets management irregularities

▪ Withholding taxes not paid over to the National Revenue Authority

▪ Fuel not brought to account

▪ Irregularities in procurement activities leading to losses

We additionally continue to observe material breach in the procurement laws and regulations. Of grave concern is the aspect of procurement splitting.”

  • It is disconcerting to learn that government revenue can be used for funeral expenses with no guidelines, Le3.1 billion can be spent on top-up allowances without regulation or authorisation and that allowances amounting to Le3.77 billion can be paid to employees without adequate supporting documents.
  • There were gross irregularities with the Procurement of Goods and Services. Procurement activities totalling Le21 billion were not captured in the procurement plans of two major Ministries.
  • Differences were observed between the National Revenue Authority (NRA) records and the records maintained by the Lands Ministry in respect of freeholds amounting to as much as Le3,799,700,000. Were monies collected and not paid to NRA?
  • A case involving the Law Officers’ Department in which contract items were delivered before the award of contract for stationery costing Le68 million was mentioned in the report. Notification of award was sent on 22nd November 2019, whilst the delivery was done on 13th November, 2019. Talk about putting the cart before the horse!
  •  The case of the Fire force would have been comical, were it not so impactful on our collective safety. The audit report states: “We observed that there were only 11 fire engines in the Western Area. Of the 298 hydrants that were available some ten years back in the city of Freetown, only three are working. There was no very high frequency (VHF) radio communication equipment for easy transmission of vital information during fire operations; no rescue equipment such as breathing apparatus (BA set) to prevent fire fighters against hazardous smokes and to breath out oxygen during firefighting operations”

The National Fire Force retorted: “The National Fire Force is not the Fire Authority. The Fire Authority is the Government of Sierra Leone, of which the Ministry of Internal Affairs is part and our supervising Ministry. The Government of Sierra Leone through the Ministry of Internal Affairs has engaged the Guma Valley Water Company on several occasions on the issue of hydrants.”

  • There were several cases of procurement regarding NaCOVERC in which middlemen with little or no idea about the products were given contracts for products when one could easily go to the supplier locally or abroad with considerable cost savings. These included: a) Procurement of 30 Motorbikes for the ONS, for Le651 Million resulting in the loss of public funds of Le276,060,000. b) Procurement of 100 Motorbikes and 30 Vehicles by the MTA resulting in a possible loss of Le3,241,774,484, 60 Motorbikes for RSLAF resulting in the possible loss of Le552,120,000 of public funds, 40 Motorbikes for the SLP resulting in the possible loss of public funds of Le368,080,000.

These are just a few examples which indicate a near total absence of processes and procedures and wanton misuse of government resources. These audits are not just about “missing” computers, generators and wrongly priced timber. There is a lot more wrong. President Bio should in fact be happy that such issues are pointed out with a view to correcting them.

In actual fact, Sierra Leone has made efforts to open the budget and financial management for public scrutiny. However, the weak capacity of oversight institutions and limited compliance with their recommendations continue to limit Sierra Leone from rooting out corruption and making service delivery to its citizens more effective and efficient.

Tensions exist between supreme audit institutions and governments across the world. The recent media threats to the AG have however been worrisome. There are now allegations from high circles impugning that the AG’s Office may not be accountable and is corrupt. They ask “Who audits the Auditor” and accuse ASSL of not putting its funds into the Single Treasury Account. All of these appear like a ruse to keep non discerning people up the wrong path. The AG and her team at ASSL have clarified all of these and alluded to the need for the independence of the institution. The government should step in and embrace the report to engender change, rather than turn a blind eye to the gross misrepresentation of what is in the reports, misrepresentation of her motives and threats against a hardworking public servant.

By providing unbiased, objective assessments of whether public resources are responsibly and effectively managed to achieve the intended results, such reports can actually help President Bio’s government in its drive to achieve accountability and integrity, improve operations and instil confidence amongst citizens. The AG’s role supports the governance responsibilities of oversight, insight and foresight. Oversight addresses whether MDAs and other government entities are doing what they are supposed to do and serves to detect and deter public corruption. Insight assists decision-makers by providing an independent assessment of government programmes, policies, operations and results. Foresight identifies trends and emerging challenges.

The AG has done a lot to make this office more visible since her appointment in 2011. Concerted efforts have been made to raise levels of citizen awareness about the contents of audit reports and a much wider range of audit services including performance audits are being carried out by a large capable staff, to cover considerably more areas of work than before. Sierra Leoneans must be pleased about this. Little wonder that Lara Taylor-Pearce is chair of the African Region of Supreme Auditing Institutions in English Speaking Africa (AFROSAI-E), the first woman and first West African to hold that position.

It behoves the ACC and the Attorney General’s office to follow through on issues of malfeasance discovered and bring wrongdoers to book. The ACC to its credit has started following up, but we look forward to its pursuit of many other issues beyond “missing” generators and computers.

The AG is serving as a messenger to bring not so good news to President Bio’s government that all may not be well on the accountability front. Meanwhile, a warning to detractors -Don’t make the audit reports an SLPP vs APC thing and don’t shoot the messenger!

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