Is Sierra Leone’s Bio Going After Corruption or His Adversaries?

As 2018 came to a close, police cracked down on supporters of the All People's Congress (APC), Sierra Leone's main opposition party. The skirmishes in Freetown, Sierra Leone's capital, come as political tensions mount with pro-government commentators invoking ethnic loyalties in their portrayal of the main opposition APC as a "party of thieves" and former cabinet ministers who served in the last administration are locked up. 

Earlier in December, Jamie Hitchen, an independent researcher who studies politics in East and West Africa, published commentary on what he thought was driving the ruling party's agenda. Hitchen's article "Is Sierra Leone’s Bio Going After Corruption or His Adversaries?" was first published in World Politics Review. 

In late October, a corruption inquiry into the activities of Sierra Leone’s former ruling party, the All People’s Congress, or APC, came closer to reality when a procedural vote in the APC-dominated parliament failed to block three proposed “constitutional instruments” establishing an investigative commission. The measures—all backed by new President Julius Maada Bio, who was elected after a closely contested two-round poll in March 2018—pave the way to investigate corruption by former President Ernest Bai Koroma and the APC, which had held power since 2007.

Despite the APC-led majority opposing the measures, the “no” vote on a procedural motion failed to clear the two-thirds majority that under Sierra Leone law is required to stop constitutional instruments from coming into effect. With those legal obstacles overcome, and with rumors that a Nigerian judge has already been chosen to lead the inquiry, investigations into alleged graft are set to dominate political debate in Sierra Leone as Bio approaches the end of his first year in office.

Tackling corruption was a key tenet of the election manifesto of Bio’s Sierra Leone People’s Party, or SLPP, and Bio’s administration took little time before launching its own investigation into the self-enriching activities of the outgoing APC regime. A report commissioned by Bio and published in June painted a picture of rampant corruption and malpractice from the very top of the Koroma administration. Bio described corruption as a threat “that can destroy this nation” and said he considered the level of corruption in the country “a national security issue.”

The APC’s secretary-general, Osman Foday Yansaneh, vehemently rejected the report as “a political fishing expedition” and a “tribunal to defame and make specious claims against the APC.” Substantiating some of the report’s accusations may prove difficult in a formal judicial process, but it would seem unlikely that the entire report has been fabricated, even if there are concerns about the one-sided nature of its allegations. Bio has insisted that the standards set by the upcoming commission of inquiry will be applicable to elected officials from all political parties, but the stark political divide in Sierra Leone means much of the population will remain skeptical until they see the commission in action.

Bio’s anti-corruption zeal upon assuming office follows a pattern set by his predecessor. After his election in 2007, Koroma amended the law that had established the Anti-Corruption Commission, or ACC, in 2000 to grant the commission prosecutorial powers, and gave its chair, Abdul Tejan-Cole, the independence to prosecute as he saw fit.* But after growing political interference in the commission, Tejan-Cole stepped down in 2011, and during Koroma’s second term the ACC was rendered almost totally ineffectual, with its few successful prosecutions limited mainly to low-level figures. Bio has sought to re-empower the anti-corruption body by firing its appointed chair, Ade Macauley, in June and replacing him with 36-year-old lawyer Francis Ben-Kaifala. Ben-Kaifala wasted no time in issuing indictments against two senior former government officials: former Vice President Victor Bockarie Foh and Minkailu Mansaray, the former minister of mines and the deputy leader of the APC. Foh has agreed to pay over $68,000 to the ACC in an effort to have his case settled out of court.

Macaulay’s departure might provide the impetus for renewed efforts to tackle corruption, but his sacking didn’t follow normal legal procedures since he was not offered recourse to appeal the decision. Macauley is not the only government appointee that Bio has dismissed in such a way. The Central Bank governor was replaced in August before the end of his tenure and several stalwarts within the SLPP have been appointed to head commissions focused on the privatization of state assets and telecommunications for which they lack the qualifications.

Those moves are reflective of the willingness Bio has demonstrated, particularly in his first 100 days in office but also since then, to circumvent due process and rely on executive orders and presidential powers to govern.

But in other areas, especially external ties, Bio is maintaining a promised commitment to transparency and accountability. In April, his government suspended all timber exports in order to allow a review of logging contracts and prevent illegal logging. Sierra Leone has “less than 5 percent of original forest cover remaining,” according to Sonkita Conteh, the director for Namati Sierra Leone, a grassroots legal advocacy group. The majority of wood, in recent years, has been exported to China.

Bio has demonstrated a willingness to circumvent due process and rely on executive orders and presidential powers.
Sierra Leone’s ties with Beijing more generally have come under increasing scrutiny since Bio took office as well. In late October, his government announced the cancellation of a new, China-funded international airport outside Freetown, which was expected to cost in excess of $300 million. The APC government signed the loan agreement with China’s Exim Bank earlier this year, before the election. The International Monetary Fund first expressed its opposition to the new airport, a signature project of the previous government that had been mulled for years, in 2015, questioning its economic viability and the high risk of debt distress of what it described it as a “vanity project.”

But Bio’s administration remains interested in other Chinese-backed infrastructure projects. After attending the Forum on Chinese-African Cooperation summit in Beijing in August, his government appeared to have agreed to discuss an upgrading project for the existing Lungi International Airport, combined with a bridge across the Tagrin Bay to connect the airport with Freetown. That project would cost in excess of $1 billion, much more than the axed airport deal. PowerChina International, already a major player in east and southern Africa, has been identified as the contractor.

In September, Sierra Leone’s chief minister—a position created by Bio to oversee the functions of government—told journalists that the bridge was a central part of both the government’s drive to improve services at Lungi and its as yet unpublished National Development Plan. The government has since exercised caution in its public comments, concerned about a backlash from citizens and international actors alike about the project’s justification and high price. In private, officials continue to talk up its merits.

Another major tenet of Bio and his party’s election manifesto was free primary and secondary education. The passing of an appropriation bill in July—in which Finance Minister Jacob Jusu Saffa set aside over 20 percent of the budget for free education, almost double the 11 percent that had previously been allocated under the APC—was a sign of the new government’s commitment. In September, the free education program launched to much enthusiasm, exceeding its target of 1.5 million pupils in just the first few weeks. But a shortage of adequate facilities and teachers, among other early problems, will hinder implementation if left unaddressed.

Sustaining financial commitments will be key to improved social services at a time of economic strain. This week, the IMF approved a new $172 million loan to Sierra Leone, after funding was suspended in the run-up to the election. This follows several rounds of talks and the removal of fuel subsidies in July 2018, a reform which the IMF had long advocated for but which has left poorer residents of cities like Freetown protesting rising costs.

A longer-term solution identified by the government is to raise internal revenue. Progress has been slow, but under newly elected Mayor Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr, Freetown City Council has increased tax collection by 300 percent in just four months, compared to all of last year, by improving efficiency and widening coverage through the use of a mobile money payments system. Nationwide progress on a similar scale is needed—not just to address the funding shortfall, but to re-establish a social contract between the state and its citizens. It is these kinds of quieter moves, in addition to tackling corruption and reducing inequalities, that will determine the effectiveness of Bio’s presidency in the long run.

 You can follow him on Twitter @jchitchen.


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