We are into the fourth week since President Ernest Bai Koroma and the Attorney General assured us one thing this country needs the most. That the fight against corruption would be taken to another level. A level it needs to blossom so as to dim out graft deemed to be the biggest and worst enemy our country faces.
Launching the new strategy in the fight against graft last month, the two promised us that the bill to give the Anti Corruption Commission (ACC) badly-needed powers would be tabled in Parliament “in the next two weeks”.
No honest person needs telling that the 8-year-old Anti Corruption Act has been overtaken by time by events and yes, by corruption. Allowing more time will allow for more corruption hence make the Act ineffectual and the fight against corruption ineffective.
The ever-smiling President Ernest Bai Koroma was poker-faced at best or even NOT smiling at all, when he gave a ringing endorsement to the tabling of the bill in Parliament. This, from a president who has spoken about the fight against corruption as the cornerstone of his administration. He renewed his promise to declare his assets, which he had made immediately following his election victory in September last year. Once parliament passed the new ACC bill into law, the president assured, he would declare his assets. And so will other members of his cabinet.
Well, we still await the bill to be tabled in Parliament. True to the words of the president and his Attorney General, I understand the bill has been dispatched, but it is locked at the pre-legislative stage for the second week now. And the MPs are not keeping us well informed of its progress. This is not just any bill, and we cannot afford to see it saunter through the stages. It must be allowed to trot. For obvious reasons, I would rather the President had given it a certificate of urgency. I don’t know if that is too late now. Reason: The asset declaration for all government officials. If any one of them was busy acquiring wealth illegally, their strategy would be to accumulate as much and as fast as possible so that by the time asset declaration became binding, they would have acquired indeed.
But I am probably comforted by Section 27, Sub Section 1 of the bill which reads: “Any person who, being or having been a public officer – (a) maintains a standard of living above that which is commensurate with his [or her] present or past official emolument; …unless he [she] gives a satisfactory explanation to the Court as to how he [she] was able to maintain such a standard of living or how such pecuniary resources or property came under his [her] control, commits an offence”. Emphases are all mine.
What’s more, upon conviction, they are liable to a fine not less than Le 30 million or a prison term not less than three years or both.
I take it that, and this is where the Bar Association should join the struggle against graft – to interpret the bill before it is passed, that even if for some reason parliament delays the bill, the law will be implemented retroactively. So a government official or minister who busies themselves stealing while the bill delays, will have a deeper hole waiting for them.
And to those members of the public who fancy inducing or attempting to induce public officers, especially senior civil servants, ministers and even the president or those close to him, they stand roped into the corruption net. This is Section 29, “Any person who, whether in Sierra Leone or elsewhere, gives or agrees to give or offers an advantage to a public officer as an inducement or reward for or on account of such public officer giving assistance or using influence whether real or fictitious…in – (a) the promotion, execution, or procurement [of] any contract or subcontract with a public body for the provision of any service, the doing of anything or the supplying of any article, material or substance; … (c) obtaining for that person or for any other person, an advantage under any contract or sub-contract referred to in paragraph (a) commits an offence”. Emphasis is mine.
And here is a catch which should wake up especially but not limited to those journalists guilty of taking money or other favours from (unscrupulous) companies and writing or broadcasting to blackmail government ministers or other officials to award them contracts. Section 31 of the Anti Corruption Bill reads thus: “Any person who gives or agrees to give or offers an advantage to another person, to cause a public officer to use his [her] influence, real or fictitious, to obtain any work, employment, contract or other benefit from a public body, commits an offence”. For this, the same penalty as stated earlier applies.
Another proposal in the proposed legislation is the misuse and abuse of power especially by government officials against people whose interest they should be seeking. This is a corruption offence we needed since yesterday. Those employers especially in public offices who compromise women or even girls who come for jobs are a bane on our society that makes some men dissuade their partners from applying for jobs.
Equally serious are those senior government officials who use the police to settle scores against ordinary and hapless and hopeless citizens. How about a senior government official who orders the police to arrest his mother’s neighbours simply for an ordinary altercation which the mother could have triggered herself? Or even a police officer whose girlfriend complains someone to him and he pounces on unjustly?
Prosecutorial powers given to the ACC is the only way to assure the full dispensation of justice. Even if the ACC were given all the powers, they would be toothless if they cannot prosecute themselves. That being one of the requests of the bill makes it complete and maps out a heavenly outlook for this God-blessed-but-man-cursed country of ours.
If our MPs are worth their salt and are true representatives of the people they should be representing, they’d better not sleep on this bill. And I want them to read it very well. Often, at least in the past, laws were promulgated by MPs some of whom would admit they’d not noticed certain aspects were missing. I vividly remember researching on citizenship and speaking to an MP at the time, on why they retained the race-phrase “negro-Africa decent” in the Citizenship Act amended in October of 2006. Looking shocked and surprised, she admitted she did not know the race phrase had been retained. She was either lying, or admitting to inertia. Either way, it proved one thing – incompetence.
More often than not, we are in the habit of only waiting for an Act to be promulgated before we open it for a debate. This bill must be different. We have to be kept informed about it all the way and we must debate it. “Corruption business na all man business”.
Civil society, the media, the Bar Association, everybody must be onboard. Otherwise we will continue groaning in our corners that ministers are corrupt. If we want the antidote, it is now. [email protected] By Umaru Fofana