Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Arresting the 'Big Fishes': Fighting corruption in Sierra Leone

When Earnest Bai Koroma was elected to govern Sierra Leone, he claimed he would fight corruption, which is seen by locals and the international community of one of the country’s biggest stumbling blocks to better development.

This is what the Index of Economic Freedom has to say about corruption in the country.

Corruption is perceived as pervasive. Sierra Leone ranks 142nd out of 163 countries in Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index for 2006. International companies cite corruption in all branches of government as an obstacle to investment. Official corruption is exacerbated by low civil service salaries and a lack of accountability.

To help fight graft, the president appointed Abdul Tejan-Cole, a lawyer and human rights activist, to lead the country’s Anti-Corruption Commission.

One issue facing the ACC is that in May its leading donor, British Dfid, refused to continue funding after a review found it had achieved little impact fighting corruption. Tejan-Cole claimed ACC’s new administration is speaking with Dfid in hopes to restart funding. “DfID support is absolutely necessary for us -- we require it -- the government of Sierra Leone on its own cannot fund the commission,” he told Inter Press Service.

On other fronts, Tejan-Cole recently admitted to Reuters he has presidential backing to create a separate court to fast-track the prosecution of corruption cases; a constitutional amendment is required to create this new court. He would also like to compel senior politicians and officials to declare their assets, which would be investigated by a 112-person team.

Tejan-Cole recently sat down for a Q & A with Inter Press Service. Here are some highlights.

What specific strategies have your commission put in place to fight corruption?

I think we are taking a three fronts approach. Prevention, Education, and Prosecution. Prevention, by putting in place systems and mechanisms, to be working with Government Ministries, Departments, and Agencies, to ensure that they have proper systems and practices in place. Also prevention includes declaration of assets for key public officials.

Education, I think the emphasis is really on educating the people of Sierra Leone, about the ills and vices of corruption. But also about working with integrity clubs in various schools, to ensure that the next generation of Sierra Leonean leaders live up to the right moral standards expected of them.

Prosecution as a means of setting up a deterrent to committing the act of corruption, and if possible to recover some of the proceeds of corruptions.

The public is often sceptical about the ACC because it always arrests the ordinary man and the big fish gets away?

'Big fishes' have been arrested by the commission, but really I do not think it is for me to look at what happened in the past. I am looking forward and I can assure the public that if any of the so-called 'Big fishes' commit acts of corruption -- and I have the evidence to prove it in the court of law - - action would definitely be taken against them That is why I need the support of the people. We need to get people to report acts of corruption. We need to get people to be engaged with the commission to ensure that we are all in the fight against corruption. If I don't have the necessary evidence and people do not come forward to give the necessary evidence then unfortunately these 'Big Fishes' will have to go scot-free. So the obligation really is also on the people of Sierra Leone, the government and the various key stakeholders to ensure that we have the necessary evidence to prosecute.

Low salaries paid to officials in developing nations are said to be one of the main reasons for public sector corruption. Do you think levels of graft among Sierra Leonean civil servants can largely -- even exclusively -- be attributed to low pay?

I do not think it can exclusively be related to low salaries. I think low salaries can be one factor… there are so many causes of corruption that we can look at in Sierra Leone. I think if we just simply concentrate on low salaries we will not solve the problem of corruption. There are instances where salaries have been increased in certain institutions and where the corruption rate has still remained the same. So, in as much we address the issue of low salaries we need to look at other issues. The general attitudes of people need to change. The whole question of the economic decline, lack of governance structure within the system, the collapse of moral value within the country needs to be revised.

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