Sierra Leone's missing Ebola millions

More than half of US$18 million of treasury and public donation funds supposedly spent on fighting Ebola in Sierra Leone, where the disease has claimed 3,764 lives, lacks complete paperwork and almost a third is officially “unaccounted for” according to an audit report.

Anti-corruption and National Ebola Response Centre officials are investigating findings by the Audit Service that around $6 million may have gone to the wages of non-existent or “ghost” workers.

The service found that between May and October 2014, $3.7 million that was disbursed from the Emergency Health Response Account and the Ministry of Health Miscellaneous Account, intended for Ebola response activities, had no supporting documentation to show how the funds were used. 

An additional $2.6 million was taken from the same accounts without “adequate” supporting documentation, such as receipts. The auditors also reported that $3.9 million, which was supposedly used to purchase ambulances and help construct the Port Loko Ebola Treatment Center, is unaccounted for.

“The findings of the report makes a sad rhythm because it alleges that money otherwise meant to provide relief and to rescue lives wasn’t used, for the most part, towards the purpose it was intended,” said Ibrahim Tommy, the coordinator for Sierra Leone’s Centre for Accountability and Rule of Law, an independent organization that advocates for institutional transparency. “And, according to the report, this might have even adversely affected the government response to the crisis.”

Tommy added: “It makes one wonder how a serious humanitarian crisis was used as money-making machine.”

Both the Clerk Office of the Public Accounts Committee and the Audit Service Sierra Leone (ASSL) declined to comment on the report, telling IRIN only that the allegations are currently under review by the Parliament. 

“Probing is still underway, so supporting documentation could still be produced,” said Transparency International’s regional coordinator for West Africa, Samuel Kaninda.  “But this is money that taxpayers contributed, in a country where many people can’t afford their own basic needs, so we need to show them that their money went where it was meant to go and actually helped people.”

“Business as usual”

For years, audit reports in Sierra Leone have highlighted “poor” financial management systems as one of the biggest weaknesses within the public sector, particularly among the government ministries. 

“We are well aware that the management of public funds is a huge challenge in Sierra Leone,” said Lavina Banduah, the executive director of Transparency International Sierra Leone. “And with the unprecedented outpour of funds for anti-Ebola activities, we were concerned that it would end up being utilized in a ‘business as usual’ manner, as has become the trend.”

Banduah said a similar misuse of funds is believed to have happened during the 2012 cholera outbreak, when a state of emergency was declared in Sierra Leone, but few inquiries were made.

“Unfortunately this happens quite a lot,” Kaninda said. “Many of the countries that face such crises are not only highly corrupt, but also underdeveloped, so there are low levels of transparency. Funds often need to be released immediately and they don’t have the time or resources to make sure the money is used as it was intended…So it’s easy to have an abuse of funds.”

However chronic corruption is in Sierra Leone, Freetown businessman Amin Sesay said he was “very disappointed" by the latest audit.

“Our people are suffering, the economy of the country is in dire need of recovery, but selfish people are misusing the money meant to eradicate Ebola. If it weren’t for the international donor response and that of humanitarian NGOs…the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone would have been far worse,” he told IRIN.

Ghost Workers

Tommy lamented the government’s failure to ensure public funds stopped going to “ghost workers.” Public outrage over the phenomenon led the Ministry of Health in February to promise to clean up its payroll.

“I think most public sectors do it on purpose…to basically defraud the state and that is not acceptable,” he said. “It is not helpful to our efforts to overcome development aspirations. There's no way we can be able to deliver basic services to the vast majority of the  people who are poor…if we are not able to…manage those resources in ways that we are minimizing to an absolute minimum waste and fraud in the public sector.”

A need for reform

Sierra Leone’s Anti-Corruption Committee says it is now closely working with the National Audit Service, the Ministry of Health and other government institutions to ensure that the unaccounted for funds are recovered and that all guilty parties are prosecuted.

“The report, [along] with the 2013 report of the account of the Sierra Leone government, clearly shows that the Health Ministry needs massive improvement in terms of the way it manages public funds and resources meant for the delivery of health care services,” Tommy said. 

Last year, the Ministry of Finance and Economic Development along with the Anti-Corruption Commission launched its third National Anti-Corruption Strategy 2014-2018, which aims to become a “corrupt-free society” by 2018.  

Among its key initiatives are plans to strengthen the auditing system by requiring that assets are declared both electronically and on paper, and that random checks are performed by independent bodies.  

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