By Foday Moriba Conteh
The Sierra Leone Government has banned former President Ernest Bai Koroma and 120 others from travelling overseas after a report was released indicating economic malfeasance during Koroma’s time in office. The ban was announced after a White Paper laid out detailed evidence of corruption and abuse of office for a number of former government officials.
The document is based on the work of three commissions of inquiry which investigated the assets of vice presidents, ministers and heads of government agencies who served along with Koroma in the administration from 2007 to 2018.
Headed by Justice Bankole Thompson, the commission found that the former president had reported his salaries, pension and income on investments to a total of 389,000 euros (4.48 billion Leones), a sum that “far exceeds his total emoluments and legitimate earnings”.
The Commission also found that one of Koroma’s properties was valued at 4.3 million euros.
However, Koroma released a statement on Wednesday, dismissing the report as a “witch hunt”. He said the allegations “are a politically motivated charade calculated to impugn” his hard-earned reputation, adding that “the government’s relentless heckling…has reached undue and unacceptable levels that amount to political harassment.”
At the release of the White Paper at State House in Freetown, President Julius Maada Bio spoke of abuse of power.“When corrupt leaders build mansions and accumulate huge bank accounts, it is not for their ethnic groups, regions, or political party to live in. It is for themselves and for their immediate families,” said President Bio.
His comments were echoed in the youth league of the ruling Sierra Leone People’s Party, as member Sulaiman Sesay called it a “shocking scale of corruption and abuse of office.” This report on the former two-term president and other officials could discourage Sierra Leoneans from working in politics or governance, and perhaps do greater damage to democracy in Africa, according to the former president.
“It also has the propensity of undermining peaceful democratic transitions on the continent as current leaders following these unfortunate events in Sierra Leone might find it difficult to readily hand over power, especially to opposition political parties,” said Koroma.
After a two-term presidency, Koroma handed the reins over to Samura Kamara as head of the All People’s Congress party. However, Bio defeated Kamara in the 2018 presidential election. During his presidency, Koroma made the fight against corruption a focus, signing the Anti-Corruption Bill into law during his first year in office.
However, his government was also accused of absconding with millions of Euros earmarked for sufferers during the Ebola epidemic. A report from the country’s Auditor General indicated that emergency money was, indeed, missing from the account.
The Commissions of Inquiry made several recommendations, among which were the forfeiture of properties to the state, the refund of monies allegedly misappropriated, while some issues were to be sent to the Anti-Corruption Commission for further investigation. The government accepted most of the recommendations from the commissions of inquiry, except the one to ban suspect officials from public office and political activities.
“It tends to distract from the object of the commissions of inquiry,” according to the government statement, adding that “the focus of government is to recover the people’s money and not to restrain anybody from political participation.”
In following the recommendations, Minister of Justice Anthony Brewah imposed a travel ban on all 120 persons named in the White Paper, including former President Koroma. The Anti-Corruption Commission has confirmed that the questioning of former President Ernest Bai Koroma will no longer happen on Monday 5 October following a letter from the former president’s lawyers requesting a date after Wednesday 7th October.
The commission says it’s reached an agreement, orally, with lawyers representing the former President for the alternative date of Thursday 8 October “following good reasons given” by Mr Koroma’s lawyers for a postponement. The questioning will happen in Makeni. But it’s unclear whether it will take place at his residence or the regional office of the ACC in the city. ACC Boss Francis Ben Kaifala promised that they will accord Koroma all the dignity due him as a former president. Kaifala added that all 120 accused have had their bank accounts frozen, but guaranteed that those affected “will not starve”. It is simply a measure to prevent the flight of capital, or “activities that might have an adverse effect on the economy,” Kaifala added.