SIERRA LEONE’S ANTI CORRUPTION INITIATIVE: POPULAR DISENCHANTMENT VERSUS ELITE ANXIETY

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By Lindsay Barrett in Freetown

Demonstrators outside of the venue during the inauguration.

The inauguration of three Commissions of Inquiry into financial transactions undertaken by the former government of the All Peoples Congress (APC) led by Ernest Bai Koroma in Sierra Leone has provoked conflicting reactions in that nation. It was immediately obvious that the incumbent Government of the Sierra Leone Peoples Party (SLPP) led by former Brigadier Gen. Julius Maada Bio has touched a popular nerve in the community when demonstrators representing various aggrieved interest groups gathered outside the venue to advocate support for the initiative.

Almost as soon as the ceremonies were concluded the APC issued a release challenging the legitimacy of the Commissions and vowing to resist cooperating with them unless certain legal strictures that they wanted were observed. Judging from comments in the local press and social media the issues at stake for most Sierra Leoneans have been distilled into support for calling their leaders to account for their stewardship of the nation’s resources on the one hand and allowing evidence of the looting of government coffers to go unpunished or even unchallenged on the other. This division of viewpoints has become the main talking point in Sierra Leone itself as well as among the country’s vast diaspora ever since the swearing in of the three judges from Ghana, Nigeria and Sierra Leone as chairmen of the three panels.

The Sierra Leone Bar Association has taken issue with the country’s Attorney General Ms. Priscilla Schwartz following her speech at the inauguration in which she appealed to the members of the law profession to desist from litigious challenges to the Commissions’ existence. which she characterised as being against the spirit of the times, The Bar Association’s contention is that there are challenges in Court that might be considered sub judice and therefore not appropriate subject for comment by anyone least of all the Chief Lawyer of the Administration. However some observers have called this response “disingenuous”, saying that there is no evidence that the AG’s appeal referred to any of the cases in court and that she simply sought to encourage the law profession to support the process of free and fair investigations to go ahead without unnecessary obstacles being placed in the way of full disclosure,

The high table at the inauguration, President Bio and wife (4th and 3rd from left) are flanked by Attorney Genersl Schwartz and speaker Abass Bundu (1st and 2nd left) and on the right Chief Justice Babatunde Edwards and the Judges from Nigeria Sierra Leone and Ghana who will Chair the Commissions of Inquiry.

This assumption is based on the basic principles that motivated the government’s decision to establish the Commissions. These were articulated in an earlier statement issued by the Rt, Hon Dr. Abass Bundu Speaker of the Sierra Leone Parliament who is regarded as one of Sierra Leone’s most erudite and knowledgeable legal luminaries. Dr. Bundu who was once the Executive Secretary of ECOWAS is remembered for among other things overseeing the establishment and deployment of ECOMOG, West Africa’s pioneering peace keeping force. His utterances on the conduct of governance in West Africa carry the weight not only of his vast experience but also of his role as one of the most outspoken advocates of the transition from authoritarian governments to democratic administrations in the region. He insisted that the constitutional provisions for parliament to promulgate a law establishing the Commissions of Inquiry would be followed to the letter, The debate and deliberations on the issue were subjected to a tedious process that took well over two months to complete and the eventual vote in favour of government’s resolve was victorious in spite of the fact that APC has more seats in parliament than the SLPP.

In his statement on the main objective of the initiative he asserted that government’s main purpose is to find out the truth about allegations tabled by a high-powered committee that handled the transition but more importantly he insisted they were to set the parameters for honest and dedicated service by public officers, He warned that those who are in office now should take note of the fact that they too could one day be called to account as the process is not meant to be either partisan or biased. Bundu has in fact posited that the successful performance of the Commissions will enhance the nation’s potential as an investment destination.

President Bio’s keynote speech at the inauguration was short and to the point. After reminding the audience of his own inaugural Presidential address in which he promised to wage war on indiscipline corruption and poverty he declared, “Corruption remains the single most critical deterrent to the development of Sierra Leone. It impedes human capital development which is the most critical driver of development in every country.” He followed this categorical declaration by recounting a catalogue of the malpractices of past officials who stole resources meant for the welfare and development of the people and then declared his stand in the following memorable words, “And we must also be very clear that when people who occupy public offices steal public monies or engage in other forms of corruption, they do not do so on behalf of their tribe, their region or their political party. Rather, they do so as individuals or a group of individuals and they must be held accountable. Corruption is a threat to our national development and national security. Corruption is a clear and present danger to the life of every Sierra Leonean and a threat to our existence as a nation. We must confront corruption head on. We must be bold and resolute. We must fight and win this war on corruption.”

After he set the tone with this direct declaration of commitment President Bio’s supporters in the audience and outside among the demonstrators uttered loud approbation and support reflecting a mood that has permeated the public space ever since the initiative was announced by the Government.

The threats uttered by some erstwhile politicians and their supporters to refuse to cooperate with the Commissions of Inquiry have generated much discussion locally and most commentators so far have shown a clear inclination to regard such threats as the product of culpable anxiety meant to delay the presentation of verifiable evidence of irregular conduct on the part of some erstwhile elite beneficiaries of privilege from the past administration. President Bio warned that such obfuscation might very well result in dire legal consequences for the individuals rather than for his government.