Salone News

A compelling case for an audit of the former government of Sierra Leone

14 April 2018 at 17:00 | 3296 views

By Mustapha Wai, USA

Since our publication of a piece suggesting the need for an independent transitional audit a week ago, reactions have been mixed. The referenced piece is considered by many as a compelling argument for the proposed audit. And principal among the reasons cited is the need for accountability and transparency with respect to what the new government is inheriting, so as to avoid debates in the future over what was left in place by the outgoing regime.

Several schools of thought have been provoked by the piece. There are those who argue that it is too early for a transitional audit. They suggest that power must fully transfer first and allow for heads of ministries and departments to take their offices before an audit.

There are also those who believe that a transitional audit will not be entertained because it will be seen as a witch hunt. They also argue that members of the new administration would not want to be audited either when they leave office one day. There is even an extreme angle to this argument in which critics suggest that those who have misappropriated public funds in the last administration, will attempt to share the wealth with vulnerable members of the new administration in exchange for protection from any audits and prosecution for wrongdoing.

This piece will not delve into the merits of any of the arguments, but rather leave them to readers to make their own judgements. What i will do though is cite at least three instances which have already proven that there is a greater need for an independent transitional audit. The first is the recent disclosure of debt burden, which is recorded at over $2 billion. The second is the ongoing government vehicle repossession saga. The third is the report that salaries for government employees may not be paid because there are no monies left in the national coffers.

The magnitude of debt disclosed today by the new administration does not come as a surprise to many. Over the years, the Sierra Leone Auditor General has been publushing audited financial statements. Though two years behind, the statements have consistently showed an exponential growth in debt. As of December 31, 2016, total public debt had crossed the $2 billion mark. The distribution of debt per capital or amount of debt each Sierra Leonean will have to pay back in order for the country to pay down the debt is over $300. While the amount of debt should be no surprise, how the proceeds from the accumulated debt were spent by the previous administration should be subject to scrutiny.

Secondly, the ongoing government vehicle repossession exercise which has, to some extent proven to be controversial, can in fact be augmented by government property audit. Such an audit will start from the accounting records for government vehicle fleet expenditures maintained at the Ministry of Transportation or othe applicable departments. These can be corroborated with government vehicle registration documentation maintained at the Sierra Leone Road Transport Authority. Such exercise will establish among others how many vehicles have been purchased, the source of funding and amount used to purchase the vehicles, and who has custody of each vehicle.

This can then facilitate an effective inventory of vehicle fleet and missing vehicles can be traced to their respective custodians. In cases where ministries and departments other that the designated agency have been found to have purchased vehicles by themselves directly, specific expenditure breakdowns relating to property purchases maintained should be reviewed. Where it becomes evident that a given expenditure relates to a purchase of a vehicle, those expendures can be traced to the physical inventory of the vehicles in question.

The third case in point is the report that there may not be enough money in the reserve to pay government employees this month. A simple audit of cash, including disbursements made from all government accounts in the periods leading to the transition will help establish a basis. Authority and purpose of transfers and disbursements can then be investigated and established. Establishing cash inherited in the reserve by the new administration is more than critical.

So, while the ongoing stock-taking exercise by the transitional team is a step in the right direction and can lay the foundation for a transitional audit, it does not in my view replace it. There is going to be a need to reconcile between what the stock taking exercise is going to conclude and the claims that will be disclosed in any handing over speech that outgoing Presidential Ernest Koroma will be making for the records. Only an "independent transitional audit", conducted by an independent auditing institution such as the Sierra Leone Audit Service, or its designated auditor can lay the foundation for the kind of evidence and underlying conclusions that will stand the test of time.