It had been long in coming. Come it kind of did this week, yawning. Reach it probably didn’t. In its wake it has left a negative dint. Four of a number of people believed to have had their hands on the till, and even the tiller, in the NASSIT ferry scandal or Ferrygate, this week had their matter settled out of court in what is a PR disaster for the Anti Corruption Commission.
I consider this resolution as a complete sell-out, betrayal and double-speak by the ACC. It is something which, in my view, has dented their credibility, recovery from which will take more time and effort than the ACC would want us to believe. Time and efforts far more than the seeming dramatic action of yesterday that bore the hallmarks of a charade and impressionism, which saw two officials of the Attitudinal and Behavioural Change (ABC) arrested on corruption allegations. A damn squib it all seems to play out to be. I will get to the ABC of the ABC arrests shortly.
By the admission of the ACC’s own investigation, the purchase in 2008 of two boats by the top echelons of the National Social Security and Insurance Trust (NASSIT) was as non-procedural as their costs could have been hugely inflated. The report, dated 10 May 2010 lays bare the apparent shenanigans that characterised, marred if you prefer, the purchase of especially one of the ferries which was nothing but a scrap. Both the cost and the so-called repairs of the ferry exceeded more than $ 3 million. Add to that the fact that if they had been working since their purchase nearly three years ago they would have brought in hundreds of thousands of dollars. Hence the question, on what basis did the ACC settle for four of the ostensible fraudsters to pay $ 500,000 among them.
In fact, websites that I have browsed show clearly that for less than $ 500,000 a shipyard in Australia can provide a much better ferry than the one that we have spent over $ 1,500 on and has still not worked. Why is NASSIT not even telling us how much it cost them to toe one of the ferries to Dakar? And no-one is telling the people or the contributors anything, and then they will be quiet over it until another fraud is probably committed and the culprits are asked again to pay far less than they stole and then keep the balance. Simple logic, isn’t it? Steal Le 1 billion, and when you are caught you will be asked to pay back Le 1 million. You keep the rest without a criminal conviction hanging over you, nothing! Use the money to campaign and get elected to parliament or be appointed a minister and steal even bigger. That is what this action by the ACC encourages people to do.
And why was the Chairman of the NASSIT Board, Jacob Kanu let off the hook. I am not asking, I am stating a fact that the same report and investigations that pointed accusing fingers at the four men on the block pointed fingers at the board chairman. Or is it the case of George Orwell’s Animal Farm?
What is even more incomprehensible in this ACC settlement of the Ferrygate is that its commissioner, Joseph Kamara is on record as saying that the idea of court fines in corruption matters was up to his neck. He even stated recently that his commission would rather an amendment was made to the already tough ACC Act to compel custodial sentence as opposed to monetary fines. So for him and his commission to come several meters down the ladder in this farcical action of an out-of-court settlement in this case leaves a bitter taste.
I have to state that the ACC under the current political dispensation is far more effective than in the era leading up to it. But it would seem the commission itself is on a downward spiral. I have also heard the argument being put forward by the commission that retrieval of money “for government” is far more important than punishing criminals. While I agree that there had been such settlements in the past, they were small time cases compared to this one. Although I have to admit that corruption, however small on the scale, is still corruption and should be considered serious. Also, those cases in the past were those of a direct taking of money or evading the payment of taxes or customs duties and the ACC compelled payment or payback. And a child born yesterday does not need to be told that the issue surrounding the Ferrygate is a world apart from those.
Besides, how could the commission say that they could not have got Le 500 million from each of the four men if they were charged and convicted? In all recent corruption matters, the judges have demanded both fines and restitution. So from where does the ACC come up with that warped argument that they could not have retrieved as much as they now have under the out-of-court settlement? Assuming both ferries had actually cost $ 1 million and the price was inflated to over $ 3 million. That alone brings about a restitution of $ 2 million or Le 8 BILLION. And that does not include fine on each of the number of charges they would have been convicted on.
But leave all of this money, money, money business out of this. How about the punitive action for breach of procurement procedures, for example, something for which the then health and sanitation minister, Sheku Tejan Koroma was indicted, sacked as minister, tried and convicted. Or was this NASSIT out-of-court settlement a gimmick to keep certain individuals in office where their trustworthiness is further buried in doubt? How will donors deal with them? How will donors see us as a people and a nation? Serious?
Who needs telling that there is fury, rage, scepticism and even cynicism among the populace over this apparent ACC deal with these erstwhile NASSIT top bras. It is palpable! And if the ACC cares, there is more to NASSIT than the ferries depict. In 2007, when the SLPP were in power, NASSIT was said to have made a Le 2 billion payment to the National Power Authority. The money was said to have been taken from the Safety Net Funds to which the principal signatory is NASSIT. What happened to that money? Has anyone asked how they acquired their Walpole Street office and whether strict procurement procedures were followed and whether it was actual value for money? Will Government and the ACC stand by and watch people’s pension funds being toyed with and then the very government will be obliged to intervene tomorrow to provide the shock absorber for pensioners at the expense of other social services.
NASSIT is also believed to have gone into a contract with SBTS, an information technology company, for the installation of a biometrics system a couple of years ago for which several billion Leones were believed to have been paid. What has happened to this? What happened to the partnership that was said to have been entered into with an estate developer to set up SN Alliance Company? This project is said to have cost billions of Leones as well. In all this, how about the housing project that was rushed through which has left fallow buildings at Goderich in the west of Freetown. What is the investment pattern of NASSIT and how is it yielding any dividends.
But back to the ABC Secretariat and the two men arrested yesterday, namely its head Philip Conteh and Allieu Kamara and a third official who, up to the time of writing this piece, was still being sought. It is a wonderful move that they have been indicted and are in police net to answer for their alleged deeds. These men, if guilty, will be a huge disappointment to the nation.
The men who were also preaching that we should change our attitudes, in fact needed the sermon the most. Double-speak, dire squeak, indeed! But the question is this: why were they not also asked to settle out of court even though their own alleged misappropriation can be easily quantified. If this is not double-speak, nothing else can be.
And I also wonder why, despite the evidence against the three ABC men having been handy for a while, the ACC only chose to indict them after their foolish NASSIT Ferrygate settlement. This is as diversionary an antic as it is a tactic in futility. Truth is like oil. No matter the amount of water you pour on it, it will still float. We shall know the full and official truth one day. We are not fools. And the fight against graft is not toyed with, for some of us will feel intellectually insulted.
By Umaru Fofana