No Government, not even one headed by Barack Obama, can succeed in turning Sierra Leone around if the fight against corruption is not treated with the seriousness it deserves. That deserving seriousness can never come about if those we expect so much from – namely the judiciary and the media – frown at the struggle against graft either overtly or covertly. Worse still, the worst thing anyone can do to the people of Sierra Leone at this time is to take the wind off the sail in the fight against official corruption. I am sorry but this is exactly what the Sierra Leone Bar Association seems to be attempting to do.
No one, at least not me, expects ministers to be sincere in the fight against sleaze when the generally-held view is that subornment is commonplace among them and it is not their job to stop or deter or highlight it as much as it is the business of the bar, the bench and the media to do. As long as such is not done with any hidden individual agenda but for the good of the public. And there can be no better time to up the stakes in this fight than now. A failure today is a clear and present danger tomorrow. And we must all speak out now no matter the consequences.
“The Future will have no pity for those who possessing exceptional qualities to speak words of truth to the oppressors, engage in acts of passivity, of mute indifference and sometimes of cold complicity”, says Frantz Fanon. The corrupt public officials are our oppressors. And if we don’t speak out for a change now, woe betides this nation.
This is why I cringed when I saw the resolutions by the Sierra Leone Bar Association following their extraordinary meeting on Friday 12 June. Just a little over a week ago, the global corruption watchdog Transparency International gave a hammering to our judiciary in its latest global bribery perception survey. And no-one needed telling that that is exactly what goes on in our justice sector despite the huge amounts of money pumped into that institution by especially the British Government. And that by no means suggests there are no decent members if the bar or the bench. Sure there are.
The core of the bar’s resolutions was the arrest of high court judge, Justice AB Halloway (within the law courts building). I am not in any way suggesting here that the judge is guilty as suspected and it would be good for the media did not be judgemental and prejudicial in such matters. However, I would have expected the bar’s resolutions to have been built on the premise condemning any act of corruption by any of their members. That would have given me a better indication about their seriousness in the fight against graft, even if standing by their colleagues when or if they are unduly targeted.
In the resolution, the bar sought to argue that “…it has long been the practice within the judiciary of Sierra Leone that neither criminal nor civil processes are served and/or executed within the precincts of the law courts building…” Practice/tradition is different from law and I think the bar more than anyone else should know this. I absolutely expect the bar to concentrate their synergy on talking to their members about the dangers that belies them if they compromise their profession not least by way of being indulgent in graft.
And hear the bar saying that arresting a magistrate or judge within the law courts building even if for alleged corruption offences is tantamount to undermining the independence or impartiality of the judiciary. I can’t disagree more. Agreed that such can only be treated as allegation, but when the corruption is alleged to have happened in that law courts building, why not! A Member of Parliament who engages in corruption in his office can also be arrested there.
There is no receipt for bribery, it is said. So the bribe taker has to be caught on the height for a strong case to be advanced against them. Again I repeat that the arrest of Justice Halloway is only an allegation yet until he is charged and convicted in a court of law. But for the bar to say and to sound to be convinced that the whole incident seemed to have been pre-planned and preconceived is not the issue here. Did he or did he not put his hand on the tiller? Let the court be allowed to prove or disprove. It is unfair to incite the bench and the bar against the ACC when the commission depends so much on them to prosecute corruption officials, be they judges, magistrates or journalists.
For the bar to draw parallels to the situation of MPs is somewhat laughable. As cited by the bar, “…No civil or criminal process issuing from any court…shall be served on or executed in relation to the Speaker, or a Member or Clerk of Parliament while he is on his way to attending or returning from…Parliament…” The bar has probably not reminded themselves about the rationale for this provision for MPs. It was habitual in the Siaka Stevens era for outspoken MPs to be framed and arrested if only to stop them from going to oppose a motion in the House. The new look Anti Corruption has clearly demonstrated it has not undue interference from the Office of the President or anywhere else for that matter, so why the jitters? Asking for that immunity is asking for impunity to be corrupt.
Indeed the bar are right to say “…the last bastion of hope for the people of Sierra Leone…” If the citadel of justice is corrupt, what will happen to the body politick, will it not rot and collapse? Writes one Nigeria playwright whose name I can’t remember now.
Perhaps most disgusting of the bar’s resolutions is the portion which emphasises the severity of the bribe giver’s action at the risk of making insignificant the crime of the bribe taker. They are both committing a crime no doubt. But no-one wants to give away their wealth in exchange for favours, never mind entitlements, if they are convinced such will be accorded them anyway. So the emphasis should be on the receiver. If you feel compromised, report them like Osman Kamara did when a Fullah businessman attempted to bribe him. A case that died a natural death.
“The Sierra Leone Bar Association … condemns any and every hint or suspicion of corruption within the hierarchy of the superior courts of judicature whether at the level of judges, magistrates, court clerks, bailiffs, or other judicial officers…” The least said about this the better. Hint or suspicion of corruption is solicited, it just not just come dangling on your reputation.
Like the 3-page document rightly states and quotes from Section 10 (1) of the ACC Act 2008, there is need for cooperation between the commission and other bodies. And this is why I think the bar must not open itself to more attacks by sounding this sheepish under the guise of protecting its members. Like the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ) and many civil society groups that have approached the ACC for areas of collaboration, I expect the bar to make a similar move and sit not until they are approached. This is a fight for all of us to jump into in the interest of the people. That is the difference between a wedding and a funeral. The bar on corruption is too strong and high for the Bar Association to want to stifle it.
By Umaru Fofana