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Commissions of Inquiry: For whom the bell tolls?

17 February 2019 at 18:12 | 2422 views

Ponder My Thoughts

By Andrew Keili, Freetown

Commissions of Inquiry: For Whom the Bell Tolls?

Corruption: “As it was in the beginning, so it is now and forever shall be”. Please don’t say “Amen!”. It has to stop, or rather it has to markedly be on the wane if we are to progress as a country. Sierra Leone is a country of incessant commissions. Indeed, they have been the order of the day whenever you have had a change of government. The new political masters, after taking over the reins of power parade those who in their view had prevented us from being a land of “milk and honey” and several perpetrators of corruption are hung out to dry.

Let me digress and tell you a story, the moral of which you may be able to appreciate at the end of this article. While I was at Sierra Rutile, I had a worker in my Department who was very good at castigating his colleagues to me about theft of drawing office equipment. He cast aspersions on everyone but himself and was loathed by his colleagues. One day, he also gave information to the new Chief Security Officer about a co-worker, who he claimed had stolen company property. His advice was that they should go to the last house on the right in a neighbouring village to retrieve the items. An overzealous security man mistakenly went to the last house on the left (thankfully he did not know his left from his right-typical Bo school boy!). Lo and behold they found some company items-the ones missing from my office. And whose house was it?-The informant-my worker! For some reason he was not sacked but this shame stayed with him for a long time.

Back to my topic. There were several high-profile embezzlement scandals in the 1980s, such as ‘vouchergate’, ‘squandergate’ and ‘milliongate’. Several government investigations shed light on the economic exploitation of the state by individuals who are well-positioned within the political system and bureaucratic apparatus. Some of these investigations include the Foster Commission established by Siaka Stevens, the Tucker Commission set up by President Momoh, the Beccles-Davies, Marcus-Jones and Nylander commissions of inquiry formed by Captain Strasser, and the Sanenga commission formed by President Koroma. One writer notes- “While government investiŹgations tend to be marred by political witch-hunt, populist rhetoric and superficiality, these invesŹtigations shed light on the economic exploitation of the state. In particular, the reports of the Beccles-Davies and the Marcus-Jones commissions have emerged as a reputable documentation of high-level corruption.”

Well, the current SLPP Government has made it abundantly clear that it considers the past regime as one that practised egregious acts to fleece this country, leaving its coffers dry. The current Commission of Inquiry (COI) has evoked a considerable amount of emotion from all sides of the political divide. One would be tempted to generalize that avid government supporters are for the commission and avid APC opposition people against it. Thanks to the results of a survey carried out by the respected Institute for Governance Reform (IGR), we now learn that the views expressed have not been that simplistic. IGR in fact indicates that there is considerable support for the commission to investigate actions by people that may have caused economic harm to the country. Their findings indicate the following:
• Considerably more people in Bo-99% (stronghold of the SLPP) and Makeni -90% (stronghold of the APC) have heard about the commission as compared to Freetown -69% (swing area).
• 92% of SLPP voters believe the COI will help fight against corruption compared to 69% of APC voters
• Over 75% of people believe COI will be fair-85% in Bo, 82% in Makeni and 76% in Freetown.
• On the question of the COI targeting specific tribes/regions, only 6 percent believe that their ethnic group is being targeted, while 84 percent believe that their ethnic groups are not targeted by the COI. Ethnic groups in ruling party areas in Bo feel less threatened than communities in the northern city of Makeni.

In general, the COI, according to IGC “faces great expectations to recover stolen monies, recommend punishment for abuse of office and introduce safeguards “.

Simply put, Sierra Leone seems to have an appetite for commissions. Judging from past commissions, graft of all kinds has been exposed, people asked to pay back monies stolen and properties seized. That was then, but wither the new commission? Already we have started witnessing some sabre rattling in the various commission sittings. This was preceded by several disagreements by the opposition APC and a host of organisations on the modus operandi.

But we have to pause and ask ourselves a few questions. Are commissions really necessary? Should we not as a country be trying to “close the stable door before the horse bolts”. The fact that money was being frittered has always been a very open secret. All one has to do is read past audit reports. The real problem throughout all these regimes has been that fiscal accountability has been thrown out the window.

Would all of this be necessary if government were paying heed to the Auditor General’s reports and the Public Accounts committee (PAC) of Parliament taking its duties seriously?

Various reports by the Auditor General indicate huge cash losses to the public purse-In 2013, Le 110,914,263,391 was lost after ASSL’s audit of 39 ministries and departments, 19 local councils, 149 chiefdom authorities, 64 statutory bodies and donor funded projects. I stated thus in this column at that time-“The issues cited in the Auditor General’s report were way too numerous, the funds so huge and the trail so labyrinthian that considerably more work needs to be done by various bodies. The Anti-Corruption Commission and Civil Society should also be in the avant garde of this fight. Truth be told, the PAC’s capacity for investigation is limited. The committee has very little support staff with the requisite experience to assist them.”
In the same article I cited the Auditor General when she stated:
"I am intent and hope that the government and all public officials will address the profound need to implement the very basics of internal control and to address the public financial management “

The Auditor General’s annual report makes one wonder whether Government is serious about fiscal transparency. What is disconcerting is not so much what goes wrong but what goes wrong year in year out and is ignored. The AG even has a section on ”Follow-up on Recommendations”. In one such report the Auditor General opined:

“Almost without exception our observations and recommendations are not being given the attention they deserve or that Parliament, citizens and international donors have a right to expect…..Overall only 19% (of the recommendations) have been implemented. “
It is particularly disconcerting that despite many flaws highlighted over the years little consideration seems to be paid to the fact that over 65% of the government budget is related to procurement.

Where does all of this leave us? Some official described corruption as “a crime against development, democracy, education, prosperity, public health and justice - what many would consider the pillars of social well-being." How right!

Meanwhile the show goes on. People will be investigated. Some will, be found guilty and some not. Money and properties may be retrieved. Reputations may be tarnished. Only time will tell what will happen.

IGR makes some sensible recommendations however about the current commission:

“The administration must ensure that these fears are allayed through guaranteeing that all those suspected of corruption are investigated irrespective of ethnic group and/or party and that those found guilty are held accountable without favouritism to anyone. The process must also be seen as inclusive and fair, drawing on collaboratively agreed on rules, with COI members that are perceived as legitimate and above board. This will help all parties have collective ownership of the process and accept the results………Given the efforts required to look into these issues in sufficient depth, we note that the coverage is still broad and call for a restriction of the COI to arguably the most strategic issues such as the response to the Ebola outbreak, Census, Mudslide, central bank, telecoms and road contracts.”

Many present-day politicians and their supporters may quite rightly want perpetrators punished. We should however ask ourselves whether things will be done quite differently from now on. IGR attempts to paint an optimistic picture based on their key informant interviews in some key MDAs accounting for the bulk of our national revenue. One must however caution that it is early days yet and one has to see the full effect of actions being taken now over a sustained period in other areas like procurement which accounts for some 65 % of government expenditure.
One also has to be mindful of the consistency of government actions to find out whether or not it will be business as usual. Cognoscenti of the political scene will not necessarily rush to judgment but adopt a wait and see attitude-We have seen that movie before!

The question we may want to ask is whether the bell that is ringing now is only for the past government. Will a future government not make the same observations as every government since independence seems to have made about its predecessor? All of these remind me of the Poem “For whom the bell tolls”. The title "For Whom the Bell Tolls" comes from this statement written by John Donne in his book "Devotions upon Emergent Occasions":
No man is an island,
Entire of itself………………….
Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee

It basically talks about how the entire human race is one entity and how we all are responsible for each other. The phrase "For whom the bell tolls" refers to the church bells that are rung when a person dies. Hence, the author is suggesting that we should not be curious as to for whom the church bell is tolling for. It is for all of us.
I very much associate myself with President Bio’s corruption drive and hope that commissions of inquiry will be things of the past. I would however have to realistically come back to those in governance now and ask the following questions:
1. Are the measures being undertaken now to ensure fiscal accountability in MDAs enough to markedly reduce corrupt acts with concomitant reduction of losses to the state?
2. Are the governance structures and procedures and processes that have been put in place for our various MDAs, especially for our Boards and senior management, many of whom have been appointed by the current government robust enough to provide for good performance and fiscal management of these institutions? Have the people that have been put in place there only because of political patronage or are they competent?
3. Will the ACC be as tough with new offenders, irrespective of their political stripe as they have been with offenders of yore?
4. Will the Auditor Generals’ office be given unalloyed support by the government and will Parliament ensure the PAC and oversight committees perform their oversight functions well?
5. Will members of the public who now rejoice because other brethren are being hung out to dry in the “corruption den” change their ways in terms of doing what is right in their own little corners?

I am asking my readership to ponder over these issues and answer honestly if the corruption bell being rung now at the commission is not also tolling for them. If our answers are not in the affirmative, future commissions may make us answerable again.