ACC Act-2008 and “Unexplained Wealth”(Part1)

3 September 2009 at 04:46 | 738 views

By Oswald Hanciles, Freetown.

The President of the Republic of Sierra Leone, Ernest Bai Koroma, who recently received a lot of flack from a BBC World Service documentary on Sierra Leone for alleged festering corruption (which raises the specter of Sierra Leone relapsing into its brutish civil war past), has publicly committed himself to excising the malignant corruption tumor from our body politic.

It behooves all the citizenry, the patriots, and, especially the enlightened and courageous few, to not only understand the profundity of corruption, but, to help in communicating the ramification of corruption to the masses. Since we are a nation ruled by laws, I would want to think that the Anti-Corruption Bill-2008 should have been more painstakingly and imaginatively communicated to the public, a dialogue stimulated between the executive/legislative/judiciary branches of government and Civil Society before the ACC-2008 Bill would have been made into the ACC-2008 law. I dare say, though there was much published about the ACC-Bill in especially THE STANDARD TIMES newspaper last year, there was very little public dialogue on it.

On Wednesday, August 18, 2009, while dialoguing with three senior staff of the Anti-Corruption Commission-Sierra Leone, one of them, Koloneh Sankoh, the Ag. Director of Public Education in the ACC, bemoaned the reality that when bills are being discussed in Parliament, very few people show any interest in them, not to talk of people striving to make inputs into these bills, before they become laws. Maybe, the disinterested stance of the public to these bills could be because of the perception the hapless pauperized majority have of not only the political system, but, particularly the judicial system. The public don’t trust the governing elite. They don’t think that laws would make much difference in their lives. As regards corruption, I would try to help by lending appropriate images to aid the public’s understanding of what it is.

Corruption is like cancer in the body. If a cancer in the leg is becoming virulent, there is no option in saving the rest of the body, but to chop off the cancerous leg. Corruption is like tapeworm in the large intestines of the body. The tape worm would keep on imbibing most of the food in the affected person’s stomach – leaving its victim weak, emaciated and, when the tapeworm becomes too bloated, would kill its victim.

Corruption is worse than Foday Sankoh’s Revolutionary United Front (RUF). Yes, pause, and re-read that line. Worse than…!! With all the chopping of the hands and legs of people, with all the throwing of babies into boiling pots of palm oil to ‘baptize’ them, with all the abduction of children, males, who were used as child soldiers, females, who were abused as sex slaves, with all the naked terror which was the principal ideology manifested by the RUF, those who are rampantly corrupt are WORSE OFF than the RUF.

For Corruption is the Mother and Father of nasty wars like the RUF waged on mainly civilians. Whereas you can win military and diplomatic victories over rebel groups like the RUF, and they would disappear for decades, Corruption would always ‘born new pikin’, just like the RUF, or, ‘new pikin way bad pass di RUF’. We should be heartened that in giving more teeth to the Anti-Corruption Act-2008, the APC government of President Koroma is flexing its muscle to annihilate the corruption monster. But, wait, let us examine the details:

In the Anti-Corruption Act-2008, PART IV, under “OFFENCES”; sub section, “Corrupt Acquisition of wealth; Section 26 reads: (1) A public officer commits an offence of corrupt acquisition of wealth if it is found that he is in control or in possession of any resources or property or in receipt of the benefit of any advantage which he may reasonably be suspected of having acquired or received corruptly or in circumstances which amount to an offence under this Act….”

Breathe in and breathe out on that one, before you read the Sections of the law which are related to the above: .” (2) Where during a trial of an offence under subsection (1), the Court is satisfied that there is reason to believe that any person is holding pecuniary resources or property in trust or otherwise on behalf of the accused person or acquired such resources or property as a gift from the accused, such resources or property shall, until the contrary is proved, be presumed to have been in the control of the accused….”

Do you really understand that legalese which is intrinsic in a law that touches us all so gravely? Chances are that you are going to answer “No” to my question. One of the things that has to be changed about the judicial system is not only that our lawyers and judges must stop blindly imitating their former British colonial masters in how they dress (why should they ALWAYS be wearing dark suits, and that ‘baby-looking bib’ that passes for a decent neck tie, plus, horse-hair wigs in the sweltering heat of tropical Sierra Leone?), they should also change the way they write the laws in our law books.

Clearly, the manner in which our laws are written are meant to intimidate non-lawyers, ‘lay persons’, and/or, is a deliberate attempt to obfuscate issues, laws, which are like the skeleton of a human body. The funny thing is that in their legal system, even the former colonial master, Britain, is in the process of “change” (that ‘Obama-istic’ word; or, should we say that Obama borrowed his “Change” mantra from Charles Margai and Ernest Koroma?) from pompous English to simple English, which the majority of educated people would more easily comprehend.

What the legal words above mean in simple terms is this. If you are a public official earning Le1million a month, and you are ‘caught’ owning a One Billion Leones house, you are going to be asked, “Where did you get the money from?”, by the ACC. Now, if you can’t show the ACC a business you are operating to earn the money to build the house with; if you can’t show the ACC that you inherited the wealth, you are going to be prosecuted, and would likely be convicted.

If this section had been fully explained to the masses, there would have been dancing and jubilation on the streets of Freetown. Dancing for the APC!!! Except, of course, the SLPP political opposition would have nudged the masses that that what they would be rejoicing over is probably a ‘ba nya fakie’ provision (a useless provision) in the ACC-2008 Act. Koloneh Sankoh of the ACC explained to me on August 18, 2009 that that provision on “unexplained wealth is not retroactive”. Not retroactive?!!

Well, compatriots, in the presence of other ACC senior management staff that day - ACC’s Acting Director, Public Education & External Outreach, Desmond R. E. Johnson; Acting Head of External Outreach, Adu Amara - I rephrased the words of Koloneh Sankoh as she interpreted the ACC-2008 Act’s section on acquiring “unexplained wealth” to me.

I said: “It means that if you stole millions of dollars of Sierra Leone’s money when the SLPP’s Albert Margai was Prime Minister in the 1960s, or, during the over fifteen years APC’s President Siaka Stevens was in power in the 1970s/1980s; or, when Valentine Strasser’s military NPRC held on to power between 1992 and 1996; or, during the elevens years the SLPP’s President, Alhaji Tejan Kabbah was in power between 1996 and 2007; and you have built many mansions, and siphoned millions of our dollars to banks in the Europe/U.S., you are now FREE to ENJOY your ill-gotten loot….”. Buffin case!

Koloneh, not able to disguise the smile that creased her dainty lips said she would not put it that way; and she pretended to sniff at my vivid language, and stuck to her abstraction of “not retroactive”. In the room of staidly dressed three males that day, Koloneh, discordantly dressed in flowery black, red, green and yellow maxi skirt, tried to harden her soft girlish voice by stressing that after the ACC Act of 2008, all “unexplained wealth” of public officials when identified could be case for prosecution. And what would be the punitive measures against those who are prosecuted under this “unexplained wealth” provision? Don’t laugh now….

Your unexplained wealth could be seized by the Judge who convicts you. You could be fined “not less” than Le30 million. You could be sent to jail for not less than THREE years. Pretty heavy penalties, you may think. But, wait, Sierra Leone has to be dealing there with not only gray-haired old men who could be pretty scared of going to jail for even two months, we have to be dealing with some youth in their 20s who handle billions of Leones of public money. So, what crude and cynical calculations can a chronically corrupt person make in the face of such a law?

If a person steals three billion Leones, he can risk building a house with one billion Leones; and, the other two billion is changed into gold and diamonds and stored in safety deposit boxes where the ACC will never get their hands on it in a thousand years. Such a person knows that if caught, he can bribe a judge hundreds of millions of Leones to get only the minimum sentences. (Who is going to be shameless enough to say that bribing judges in Sierra Leone is uncommon?). The plus and minuses for a person from a poverty stricken background – like most Sierra Leoneans – are stacked towards the person taking the risk to acquire illegal wealth.

If this section of the ACC-2008 bill on unexplained wealth had been fully explained to the masses, if a referendum had been held on the ACC-2008 Bill, I would place my bet on the masses choosing a life sentence, or, even, like in China, where those who are convicted of serious corruption are executed , the groveling masses would have chosen the harshest laws against the corrupt. Extremist views?

Then, why do we still have life sentences for those who commit a single murder? Why did we try in the Special Court of Sierra Leone RUF leader Issa Sesay, and sentenced him to life imprisonment? Why should we joke with this cancer, this tape worm, this "RUFistic rebel" called corruption?

Yes, the last thing on this matter: if we are serious about “rebranding” Sierra Leone, we must be dead serious about waging war on corruption – using imaginative local methods.

(To be continued)