By Daniel Finnan
Pressure is mounting on Sierra Leone’s President, Julius Maada Bio, following a series of corruption allegations in the media against the First Lady and a top government minister, undermining the president’s own vow to fight corruption in the West African country.
Reports from the Africanist Press claim that First Lady Fatima Bio spent more than $US780,000 of public funds for personal shopping, as well as travel and accommodation for foreign guests during the launch of her Hands Off Our Girls campaign in mid-2018.
The cash was allegedly spent between June and December 2018 on furniture, electrical equipment, fuel, and travel and hotels, with the media outlet publishing accounts for the campaign.
Fatima Bio supposedly received almost $US3 million in government funding since her husband came to power. Payments from the finance ministry to the First Lady were allegedly outside the budget, not approved by parliament, not supported by any documentation and in violation of Sierra Leonean law.
The First Lady’s campaign aims to reduce child marriage and rape, but US-based Africanist Press alleges that 85 percent of the funding did not go to the campaign or to any communities.
Sierra Leone’s Anti-Corruption Commission said it has opened an investigation into the use and management of funds by the First Lady’s office, but this follows the release of the Auditor-General‘s 2019 report and not over allegations made by Africanist Press.
“That caught our attention and then we decided that we could commence an investigation,” Patrick Sandi, head of public outreach and education at the Anti-Corruption Commission, told RFI.
Sandi pointed out that the probe is looking at the legal and regulatory framework in which the First Lady’s office was allocated funds, saying that allegations about particular expenditure did not necessarily amount to corruption.
The investigation has prompted Sierra Leone‘s corruption watchdog to go back further and examine the past 14 years of first ladies and their offices receiving funds, according to Sandi.
‘Irregular’ cash withdrawals
Claims against Sierra Leone’s chief minister, David Francis, suggest equally damning graft. His office allegedly received more than $US3.4 million in payments over less than three years, and did not follow the law for disbursements.
Africanist Press details a number of payments and cash withdrawals that follow “irregular” patterns of financial activity, with some 60 percent of the minister’s expenditure in 2018 made up of cash withdrawals, and unclear reasons for expenditure.
The allegations describe financial transactions by the top minister as part of bigger “frivolous public spending” with no proper paper trail and unusual activity, such as 80 cash withdrawals in the last quarter of 2018, with sometimes multiple withdrawals on the same day. The website published lists of cash withdrawals purportedly for Francis’s office.
Sierra Leone’s Anti-Corruption Commission has not yet established that there is a case against Chief Minister Francis, and it says fuel expenses, per diems and sole sourcing are usual practice and not necessarily corrupt.
Fight against corruption
Both First Lady Fatima Bio and Chief Minister David Francis have denied the corruption allegations. Francis told local media the allegations were unsubstantiated, while the First Lady acknowledged spending the money, but denied that it was misused.
In 2019, Bio also started a corruption investigation into his predecessor Ernest Bai Koroma, who was last year forbidden from leaving the country after a report detailed evidence of corruption and abuse of office for a number of former government officials.