I almost changed this topic to reflect the incident of Wednesday that led to the attack on the office and radio station of the opposition SLPP party, the attack itself and the ramifications thereof including the beating of some journalists allegedly by police. Shame! But while I will deal with that next week, hopefully, I think there is no disconnect between that and the fight against corruption and impunity in a country that has no business being poor, yet has occupied the bottom of the UN’s development index for more than five times in the last decade. Corruption is one of them. Abuse of power is another. All addressed by the new Anti Corruption Act 2008.
It has been an interesting few months in the campaign to have Parliament pass the bill into law. Definitely due to President Ernest Bai Koroma’s avowed commitment to stamp out corruption, but apparently also because donors had threatened to withhold aid to the country if the bill had not been shown the light of day. These, despite the bad-mouthing of the bill by people whose intents were as clear as their fears were unfounded. I know for a fact that it was not easy for some MPs who wanted the bill passed. But it was also tough for those who wanted it killed. Some parliamentarians and ministers wanted it business as usual.
I am yet to have access to the Act in its final form since it is still with the printers, but some MPs have told me of how much butchery it was subjected to. The MPs chose to narrow down the net on corrupt public officials by expunging the provision that stretches the trail for stolen money to include concubines and relations outside the nuclear family. We all know that some public officials, when they steal public money, siphon it to bank accounts bearing the names of their paramours and such relations as nephews and nieces whom, I am told have been expunged.
The new act and the amendment made to the constitution to give prosecutorial powers to the ACC may be a very laudable step, but the power left with the Attorney General to nullify the prosecution of corruption cases as he deems fit is a terrible step backward. If the lawmakers actually believe in the ceding of prosecutorial powers to the ACC and the Attorney General so much espouses the spirit of fighting graft, I wonder why he had to seek for the retention of that power.
Having said, the passing of the law is a very giant leap forward which the former SLPP government did not want to countenance at all. Some former ministers even likened it, even if off the records, to wanting to bite the feeding fingers. To all intents and purposes, it is testament to the apparently genuine commitment of a president who wants to set precedents that go to make his country better.
To encapsulate that, the asset declaration by public servants made mandatory by the new law should be speeded up. I hear President Ernest Bai Koroma has already filled out his asset declaration form. If my source is correct, it tells of a president determined to lead by example. But as the team captain, I reckon he should take the rest of his squad along by ensuring that he makes his asset declaration public alongside his vice president. He should also set a reasonable timeline for asset declaration by his ministers, preferably not beyond the first anniversary which is next month.
I have not yet seen the asset declaration form, but I hope it makes provision for when the declared assets were acquired. I hope so because with one year in office shortly, some members of government may have acquired so much that they should not regard them as assets owned before becoming public officials. The new law says assets should be declared before taking up office, and upon leaving. The rationale is to keep track of wealth acquisition.
It should also be pointed out that giving false information is fraud and criminal. So a public official, who gives wrong information about their wealth or asset, commits a crime of its own. Banks may be operating under some secrecy law but the public has ways of knowing the correct bank details when they are falsified. The ACC can also request for information from banks, you know. So it is a catch 22 situation for corrupt public officials. They also have contacts with foreign governments.
If you know about the former Nigerian transport minister Umaru Dikko who made away with huge cash of his people’s money and sought asylum in the UK, well you’d better be told that the new ACC law establishes agreements with some countries for the extradition of any corruption suspects. In case you don’t know or need to be refreshed, here is a quick one.
In the 1980s, corruption took a tap root level in Nigeria. President Sheku Shagari was said to have pleaded with his ministers to eschew graft but was reportedly ignored. He then gave up and allowed a free for all. Umaru Dikko was said to be the name most synonymous with financial impropriety. So when he made away with a huge chunk of the country’s wealth in a way typical of a Hollywood heist, he got away with it. Britain and Nigeria apparently did not have an extradition treaty, so he gained asylum.
Since the Nigerian government could not get Dikko back to cough up the stolen money, they embarked on unorthodox means to get him back. In July 1984, he was drugged and placed into a crate labelled Diplomatic Baggage that should not be searched. Apparently ready to be flown back home. British airport security could not let them take him back as they detected the “cargo”.
With the new ACC Act London and Washington, two of the favourite destinations of corrupt Sierra Leonean politicians, will turn over corruption suspects. So whoever is planning something funny, had better think again. Backhander givers and takers, well…
But I also have a suggestion. Since former president Ahmad Tejan Kabbah was the instrument that established the Anti Corruption Commission even if some of his appointees were irredeemably corrupt, it would be a good idea if he were to volunteer to declare his assets as at the time he left office. What magnanimity that will be! By Umaru Fofana