By Amin Kef Sesay
There is an uproar at the Sierra Leone Maritime Administration that has spilled over into the public discourse with regards the tenancy of the current Executive Director, Phillip Sondai that many people believe deserve the urgent attention of his Excellency the President, Dr. Julius Maada Bio, who has the ultimate prerogative as head of state to hire and fire senior public administrative officials.
SLMA came to the fore when the Minister of Transport and Aviation, Kabineh Kallon recently unilaterally, without consultation with the SLMA Board, suspended indefinitely Phillip Sondai.
The opinion of many people on the matter is that, whilst the minister is the political head of any ministry, when it comes to administration, it is the Human Resources Management Office that should take administrative disciplinary action against public officials.
The matter seems to have reached a stalemate, with the Chairman of the SLMA board maintaining that the minister alone cannot take disciplinary action against Phillip Sondai.
Generally, it is understood that before any disciplinary action is taken against a public official, an inquiry should be set up. In the normal instance, a memo is sent to the erring officer asking him/her to explain his conduct.
Clearly, in the case of Phillip Sondai, the minister acted ultra vires of the public service code of conduct.
According to Administrative principles, the suspension or termination of a public official is a serious disciplinary action that should be carefully considered. As such, a minister or an employer must conduct formal inquiry before taking any disciplinary action.
In the case of Phillip Sondai, it is alleged that the minister charged him with insubordination and poor performance.
In which case, administratively, it was proper that the minister inform Phillip Sondai in an official letter about his misconduct and conduct an inquiry before deciding whether to dismiss him or to take other forms of disciplinary action.
A general guide to taking disciplinary action against a public official includes:
- The officer being told of the alleged misconduct; In the case of a delegated officer, this should be done through the Permanent Secretary of the ministry
- He/she should be given the opportunity to present his/her case
- The person hearing the enquiry should not be in a position that may suggest bias
Only when an independent inquiry has been conducted, and in the case of Phillip Sondai, the report forwarded to the SLMA Board for approval, can the minister be said to have the right to order his suspension.
Thus, whilst Minister Kabineh Kallon has stoutly refused to give his own side of the story, the public is of the opinion that Minister Kallon is in violation of the rights of Phillip Sondai, and therefore, the matter should be of interest to His Excellency President Bio who hired Phillip Sondai and the Parliamentary Appointments Committee who approved his appointment.
From a thorough and in-depth investigation conducted by this medium, what came out glaringly from facts so far gathered was that there is currently a disturbing impasse at the Sierra Leone Maritime Administration (SLMA), a parastatal which is under the direct supervision of the Ministry of Transport and Aviation. From what this medium learnt, the tense impasse emanated from the unilateral decision by the Minister of the Ministry of Transport and Aviation, Kabineh Kallon, to indefinitely suspend the Executive Director of the institution, Ken Philip Sondai, who was duly appointed by President Julius Maada Bio and approved by Parliament.
In terms of good practice, individuals are appointed to occupy certain key positions based on their qualifications, experience and competencies to perform and execute assigned tasks.
Since appointed as Executive Director of the Sierra Leone Maritime Administration (SLMA), Philip Sondai, from what most of his colleagues divulged, has admirably proven his mettle to the commendation of many. It was further understood that he has so far excellently injected certain sound initiatives into that institution to such an extent that SLMA has been vibrantly functioning in standardized ways.
Surprisingly, it came as a big surprise to learn that the current Minister of Transport and Aviation, Kabineh Kallon, allegedly single-handedly took upon himself to indefinitely suspend Philip Sondai for no justifiable reason, save only the purported allegation of him committing insubordination and displaying poor management style.
As this intriguing drama keeps unfolding, another interesting episode emerged in which the Board Chairman of the Sierra Leone Maritime Administration, Alhaji Umaru Dumbuya, wrote a letter addressed to all the Directors and Staff of that institution informing them that by the powers vested in him, Mr. Ken Philip Sondai is still the substantive Executive Director of SLMA, furthering that if there will be future changes then he, as Board Chairman, will duly inform them.
From what was also understood, the stance of the SLMA Board Chairman is dictated by the Sierra Leone Maritime Administration Act of 2000 Part 11 Section 4. The Act (Section 4:1) clearly states, “The Governing Body of the Administration shall be a Board which shall, subject to this Act, have the control and supervision of the Administration.”
Engaging a senior Civil Servant, who has been in public service for over twenty years, he succinctly stated that even though the Ministry of Transport and Aviation is the supervisory institution under which the SLMA falls, the fact still remains that the constituted Board has its own mandate, powers and the Minister cannot just ride roughshod by taking unilateral decisions that could likely be influenced by personal vendetta.
“I am not insinuating that the Minister may have any ulterior motive but the crux of the matter is that laid down procedures were not followed in ordering the indefinite suspension of the Executive Director,” he dilated further, adding that since Philip Sondai was appointed by President Bio, it should be the sole prerogative of the First Gentleman to either suspend or relieve him from that position and not the Minister.
He continued to argue that even if Philip Sondai may have acted untowardly, there should have been other disciplinary measures that could have been instituted against him rather than suspending him indefinitely.
When this medium tried on several instances to get the reaction or side of Minister Kabineh Kallon on the said issue, for proper clarification, he refused to respond to our calls and text messages. An excerpt of one of the text messages sent to the Minister reads:
“Good afternoon Sir. I am the Publisher of The Calabash Newspaper. We are investigating the indefinite suspension of the Executive Director of the Sierra Leone Maritime Administration, Ken Philip Sondai. From what I learnt, his suspension is illegal in the sense that it runs contrary to SLMA Act 2000 (Part 11 Section 4), which gives the Board of that institution the mandate to hire and fire personnel. I thought it fit to contact you in order to get your view or reaction to the aforementioned subject matter. I shall be grateful if you could assist in that direction. Thanks.”
As the situation now stands, it is not really certain what the future holds. However, what is clear is that it is presently a precarious situation which needs free and fair mediation.
It must be noted that the object for which the Administration was established is to regulate and develop improved standards of performance, practice and safety in the shipping industry in Sierra Leone, including the coastal and inland water transport system, and in the maritime environment.
The other functions of SLMA include, but not limited to ensure the safety of navigation in the territorial sea; to fulfil flag state and port state responsibilities in an effective manner, having regard to the relevant international maritime conventions, codes and other instruments.
It also has the power to deal with maritime search and rescue matters, including the coordination of the search and rescue operations of the Armed Forces of Sierra Leone, the Ports Authority, and the Department of Fisheries and Marine Resources.
Also, to regulate shipping in inland waterways, including the safety of Navigation therein, as well as to investigate any incident of maritime casualty and taking such action thereon as may be appropriate.