Workplace injustice in Sierra Leone: Unlawful dismissals at the Bank of Sierra Leone
June 4, 2020
By Chernoh Alpha M. Bah, Matthew Anderson, and Mark Feldman
In March of this year, Africanist Press published three articles in our Sierra Leone investigation series, which highlighted the existing disparities in the national salary structure and how the payroll has widened since Maada Bio assumed power two years ago. We pointed out an explosive increase of almost 45% in the wage bill in the last two years, from less than Le170 billion when Koroma left power to a whopping Le235.2 billion today. We observed that this astronomical increase is triggered largely by the overflowing appointment of leading SLPP party loyalists into high paying administrative positions in the civil and public service workforce. We also showed how expenditures related to salaries of partisan compensation jobs accounted for the majority of the wage bill increase.
As part of our wider investigation series into the Bio administration, we examined issues of workplace violence and administrative injustices prevalent in government institutions across the country. We observed in particular that workers’ rights to employment and job security in the civil and public service workforce are becoming increasingly affected by the politics of employment compensation and the increasing national political divisions. Several civil and public sector workers we interviewed complained of workplace harassment and administrative injustices ranging from unjustified sackings, bureaucratic persecution, and arrests due to their rumored or perceived support or membership of opposition political groups. Other civil servants noted how numerous government workers, perceived or suspected of not supporting a given ruling party, were hounded and unlawfully dismissed with the use of trumped-up corruption allegations in order to make room for party loyalists to be hired in their place.
We investigated these claims of politically motivated sacking of employees in the public and civil service workforce and found numerous instances of deliberate purging of perceived supporters and sympathizers of opposition groups from the national workforce in the last two to three years. Our investigation noted a rising trend of targeted dismissals done either to protect high placed officials in administrative institutions who were themselves suspected of corruption, or, in other instances, to weed-out suspected or perceived non-ruling party sympathizers and supporters from crucial government institutions to open up employment opportunities for loyalists. These selective and politically motivated “anti-corruption” efforts offer the false appearance of serious anti-graft campaigns, thereby essentially masking the deliberate and calculated use of law enforcement to remove perceived non-ruling party supporters from the civil service. We uncovered that lower and middle ranking employees in the public and civil service workforce now constitute the largest number of victims in this deep-seated political practice.
Thus, we start this new series on workplace violence and administrative injustice across national institutions in Sierra Leone with the case of two employees of the Bank of Sierra Leone, the country’s central bank, who have been tried and exonerated numerous times for the same alleged offense over the last two years. We commence our series with this particular case because it highlights the corrupt and crooked use of law enforcement to scapegoat hardworking government workers in order to protect powerful politicians and administrative heads of key strategic institutions. In the course of our investigation, Africanist Press discovered that the case of these two employees, in particular, mirrors the profound mistreatment and powerlessness of workers in the public and civil services in the country. Since they were first unlawfully arrested, investigated, incarcerated, and subsequently released without being found guilty on any of the charges brought against them, Yayah H. G. Kamara and Komba Gbolie, the employees of the Bank of Sierra Leone in question, have struggled for three years to clear their names without success. Tossed around from one investigating agency to another in a chain of institutions that included the Sierra Leone Police’s Criminal Investigations Department (CID), the Financial Intelligence Unit (FIU), the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC), and the Parliamentary Committee on Human Rights, officials of the country’s central bank have refused to reinstate them and have instead finally discharged them unlawfully from the bank. Their case has spanned two administrations and has been prosecuted by two successive bank governors: the erstwhile governor Patrick Saidu Conteh, and his immediate successor Professor Kelfala Kallon, the current governor of the Bank of Sierra Leone. The case of the two employees epitomize what other victims of similar injustices now describe as a prevailing norm of institutional violence and workplace injustice that characterize most government ministries, departments, and agencies in Sierra Leone in recent years. Kamara was a senior banking officer, and Gbolie was a manager of the banking department at the Bank of Sierra Leone. Our investigation into workplace injustice and administrative mistreatment in Sierra Leone reveal that both employees had spent over fifteen years with the Bank of Sierra Leone. They were arrested on allegations of trading in foreign currencies within the premises of the Bank of Sierra Leone. The allegation was based on accusations by one Ibrahim Bah, a business associate of the former Bank Governor Patrick Conteh.
Patrick Conteh ordered the arrest and detention of Kamara and Gbolie on August 8, 2017, after lawyers from Halloway and Partners, acting on behalf of Ibrahim Bah (the Bank Governor’s business associate), reported that four central bank staff had collected the sum of Le407,805,000 (four hundred and seven million eight hundred and five thousand Leones) from their client for the purchase of GBP46,500 which they allegedly failed to deliver and refused to refund its Leone equivalence. Our investigation, however, found that police investigators tasked with the matter later discovered that both accused persons, Kamara and Gbolie, never met Bah and they had no prior business relationship with him in the past. Despite this discovery and the lack of evidence, police nonetheless brought charges against them regardless of the obvious lack of proof. The trail of documentary evidence now in possession of the Africanist Press shows that the Bank of Sierra Leone financially induced the police investigators to charge and prosecute the matter against the accused persons even though the investigation discovered no evidence that the two accused persons were involved in trading foreign exchange (forex) at the bank. A copy of the bank’s statement of transactions obtained by Africanist Press show that the sum of Le20,000,000 (twenty million Leones) was withdrawn by the Governor’s Personal Assistant, one Hilton O Jarret on August 10, 2017 – two days after the arrest and detention of Kamara and Gbolie – to provide what the bank referred to as “financial logistics” for the police to prosecute the matter.
After the receipt of the Le20 million from the Bank of Sierra Leone, the police charged Kamara and Gbolie to court; the two were held for 17 days in detention at the CID headquarters in Freetown. Kamara and Gbolie then appeared before Magistrate A. J Moody at a Freetown Magistrate Court before being taken to Freetown’s Maximum Central Prison where they were detained for another 13 days before being granted bail on September 7, 2017. Their case would eventually be discharged by Magistrate Moody a week later on September 13, 2017 for lack of evidence. Both the Bank of Sierra Leone and the prosecution failed to prove the case against the two-banking staff. In spite of their proven innocence in court, however, Bank of Sierra Leone officials proceeded to place Kamara and Gbolie on indefinite suspension after they were re-arrested by the country’s Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) on the same allegation from the bank. Documentary evidence, including internal bank correspondences seen by Africanist Press, shows that Bank of Sierra Leone officials were determined not to reinstate the two accused staff. Even though no evidence of wrongdoing was found against the said individuals by both the ACC and the Financial Intelligence Unit (FIU), the Bank of Sierra Leone still instituted its own internal administrative investigation. The Bank’s internal investigation equally found no evidence against Kamara and Gbolie, yet banking officials showed no interest in reinstating the two or addressing the obvious violation of their employment rights. Our investigation, in fact, uncovered that the Bank was not only privy to the innocence of the two employees, but that the Bank knowingly used the two to coverup the Bank’s failure to initially uncover that a junior bank employee Fatola Ben-Carew had been the frontrunner of a then-existing dubious forex business syndicate that had duped several local forex dealers. She had been the actual transaction partner of Ibrahim Bah. The Bank failed in its due diligence and instead railroaded the wrong employees. A letter dated September 26, 2019 from the Financial Intelligence Unit (FIU) that absolved both Kamara and Gbolie named Fotola Ben-Carew as the actual suspect in the said fraudulent transaction. In spite of all these valid acquittals, Kamara and Gbolie have endured the troubling efforts by the Bank to investigate them multiple times on the same charges for more than two years; all with egregious efforts to procure guilt with the calculated use of diverse law enforcement agencies and procedures. Their case illustrates the troubling and unlawful crack down on genuinely hardworking employees in government service by highly powerful political appointees placed in senior management positions across ministries, departments, and agencies.
Frustrated by this situation, on August 8, 2019 – the second anniversary of their initial arrest – the two aggrieved staff posted messages on the internal Bank of Sierra Leone Staff WhatsApp Group in which they complained about the enduring harassment they faced from key banking officials. In the said WhatsApp messages, Kamara and Gbolie reminded their colleagues at the bank how they were persecuted by senior ranking officials of the bank for a matter they had no knowledge about. Kamara’s message noted, in particular, how multiple investigations, including a forensic audit by the government of Sierra Leone and another separate audit from KPMG, found no adverse evidence against them. He underlined that despite being exonerated by seven internal and external investigations, the bank refused to admit their innocence and instead continued to deny them their right to be reinstated.
“On the second anniversary of our illegal, unwarranted and unnecessary arrest and detention by the Bank of Sierra Leone, I am still waiting to hear from the Bank the basis for such inhuman act. Patrick Saidu Conteh [the bank governor] either because of ineptitude, malice, or clear lack of administrative skills orchestrated the first of many mishaps that exposed the central bank to reputational risk,” Komba Gbolie stated in his WhatsApp message to the group. He equally emphasized the Bank has spent resources and time on a matter they cannot explain.
“Indeed, if you ask anyone that was involved in the investigation what exactly they were or are investigating, they will definitely be unable to say. That is why it has become extremely difficult for the Bank, even under a new Boss, to adequately address this situation,” Gbolie stated.
Bank officials used these WhatsApp messages as cause to finally discharge the two from the bank. A letter from the bank signed on October 9, 2019 by Jenneh Jabati, the director of the Bank’s human resources department, stated that the WhatsApp messages breached the staff rules and regulations of the Bank.
“You made accusations of connivance, incompetence, and other shameful behavior against the erstwhile governor and very senior members of the Bank’s leadership,” she wrote, stating that the messages contain “incendiary language that was calculatedly aimed at stoking discontent amongst the staff of the Bank.” The letters informed both Kamara and Gbolie separately that their services had been terminated. The two employees appealed against the summary dismissal. The Bank rejected their appeal in a letter dated April 16, 2020. Africanist Press, however, uncovered that the bank’s decision to summarily dismiss the two employees despite their proven innocence on the initial charges appears to have been motivated by a desire to deny the duo their demand for compensation for the loss and humiliation they suffered as a consequence of the bank’s unfair treatment. A day before their summary dismissal, a lawyer representing the two aggrieved employees had written to the Bank demanding their immediate reinstatement and a compensation of Le500 million each.
“You will agree with me that my clients have similarly suffered stress and trauma during the past two years. The Bank on different occasions invited them to various administrative inquiries, with no adverse findings against them. In light of the above, my further instruction is to request for appreciable compensation in the sum of five hundred million for each of them (over and above their emolument arrears) from your bank in order to ameliorate their pain and suffering,” Mohamed Pa-Momo Fofanah, the lawyer representing the employees, wrote to the Bank of Sierra Leone on October 8, 2019.
To this day, justice has not been done and Kamara and Gbolie remain unable to find employment in their fields due to the stigma of being accused of fraud when working in the financial sector. Inversely, all the individuals named in the trail of documents relating to their mistreatment have all been recently promoted to various senior positions in the Bank. They include Hawa Kallon, former acting director of the human resources department now promoted to the position of acting director of the Board Secretariat Department; Hilton O Jarret, the former Personal Assistant to the previous governor and now promoted to the position of Acting Director of the Banking Supervision Department; and Marie Karim, currently serving as Deputy Director of the Human Resources Department. Africanist Press is yet to receive a response from the Bank of Sierra Leone to its email correspondence requesting additional clarification on the issues and details raised in the numerous correspondences and documents relating to this case. The email correspondence was sent after the Bank’s public relations officer, Beresford Taylor, who wouldn’t comment on the matter following a telephone call from Africanist Press. We conclude that the multiple exonerations, subsequent re-accusation, and ultimate summary dismissal of Kamara and Gbolie highlight the current crisis of mistreatment of government workers across several agencies, departments, and ministries across the country. We underline that while workers in the public and civil services continue to endure lower wages and appalling conditions of service, civil servants and public sector workers have also increasingly become the targets and victims of the ongoing crackdown on free speech and the right to association. In subsequent editions of this investigation series on workplace violence and administrative injustice, we aim to highlight the worsening trend of politically motivated illegal dismissals and job severances across various departments and government agencies in the country with the advent of the Maada Bio administration.
A sample of the documentary evidence on which this article is based can be found on the Africanist Press website: