Corruption may be illegal, but no one’s giving it up yet

On arrival at Lungi international airport in steamy Sierra Leone, visitors are welcomed by a sign-board plea: “If you cannot help us, please do not corrupt us.”

But according to an anti-corruption activist, civil servants running the country in the wake of this week’s departure of the last UN peacekeepers typically expect a 20 percent pay off from organisations awarded a government contract.

And at the department for immigration officials will bump up the official US$ 13 fee for issuing a passport to US $33 in ‘extra’ charges.

As for development money, a good chunk of that is siphoned off into private bank accounts too, Christian Lawrence, the official in charge of corruption at the Freetown-based Campaign for Good Governance (CGG) said.

“Corruption is pervasive in Sierra Leone,” Lawrence told IRIN. “Unfortunately, there is little will to ensure that it is eradicated from this society.”

Sierra Leone ranked as the 124th most corrupt nation in 159 countries listed in the Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index in 2005. Last year, the Sierra Leone Truth and Reconciliation Commission reported “endemic corruption” and “bad governance” as the prime causes of the country’s decade of brutal civil war, along with widespread human rights abuses.

Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels went to war to overthrow the government in March 1991. In the decade that followed -the war was declared over in January 2002- machete and Kalashnikov wielding fighters killed 20,000 people, maimed thousands more and chased half of the country’s population of five million people from their homes, according to government figures.

Calm returned with the help of the largest UN peacekeeping operation in its time, some 17,500 international troops. Now, efforts are slowly turning to cleaning up the scourge of corruption.

Anti corruption poster on a wall at the anti corruption commission

Under heavy pressure from the donors that bank-roll battered Sierra Leone, the government passed an Anti-Corruption law in 2000 paving the way for an Anti-Corruption Commission set up the following year.

The Commission, funded with government and donor money, enforces anti-corruption laws and tries to prevent corrupt practice.

Anyone can report a case of corruption and the special corruption hotline has even been set up.

But Andy Felton, the Deputy Commissioner of the Sierra Leone Anti-Corruption Commission and a former British policeman, complained the agency, which includes a number of non-national staff to bolster its credibility, is hampered by the government’s lack of political will.

“Yes, we’ve got a commission, yes we’ve got legislation -- which in themselves are significant steps forward -- but real commitment to actually change systems is still absent,” Felton told IRIN in his Freetown office.

At first, the commission could not prosecute suspects, as this task had been entrusted to the Attorney General. This resulted in very few suspected cases actually going to court. Out of 22 cases investigated in the first six months of the Commission’s operations, only one conviction was made.

But last year, the power to prosecute a suspect was moved to a three-man team of two foreign prosecutors acting with an official from the Attorney General’s office. Now the Commission has around 50 to 70 live investigations, and 20 before the courts, Felton said.

However, problems remain in preventing corruption, as the Commission is unable to force public bodies to accept their recommendations for revising procedure.

“We have the power to compel people when we are doing our investigations, but we have no power to compel people to comply with the recommendations made from our diagnosis, which is a major omission,” Felton said.

The Commission assisted several ministries in developing their own action plans to target corrupt people and systems, but the government had not allocated any budget to allow them to do that work, complained Felton.

“It is an indication of the superficiality of the whole thing,” he said.

Felton, who previously worked in Eastern Europe on transnational crime and corruption, said Sierra Leone was a much more difficult environment to work in given the “huge tribal or regional allegiances and alliances which are fiercely guarded and protected.”

Andy Felton, Deputy Commissioner, Anti-Corruption Commission

Also, the basic tools for conducting fraud investigations – public and banking records or forensic information – were until last year unavailable in war-ravaged Sierra Leone.

“Public records were largely destroyed during the war, the banking system is controlled by the ruling elite and forensic information is non existent,” Felton said, adding that this accounted for the poor ratio between cases opened and cases ultimately successfully prosecuted.

The Commission’s bid to act independently has ruffled feathers within the government and heads have rolled as a result.

Last month, former Commissioner Val Collier, was sacked after saying most parliamentarians were contractors who put their interests before those of the nation.

Civil society organisations fighting corruption such as CGG or the National Accountability Group, which is affiliated to Berlin-based Transparency International, praise the work of the Commission but deplore its lack of resources.

However, Sierra Leonean citizens are less impressed and most, like Dennis Johnson, a taxi driver in the sea-front capital Freetown, said he would never bother to report any case to the agency.

“A lot of money has been poured in this country, still there is no electricity, no proper water system, no roads,” Johnson told IRIN as he wrestled with the wheel of his battered yellow and grey cab.

“The big men go out crying about the problems of the poor, but when they get money, they keep it for themselves, and the Anti-Corruption Commission does not do anything,” he added, with a shrug.

The Commission’s free telephone line set up to receive corruption reports two month ago receives few calls, according to report centre manager, Keifala Koi.

“Very few people have called the hotline since it was set up,” Koi said, though his office is manned nine hours a day, five days a week. “And most matters reported are not corruption, but rather relate to criminal affairs, labour, land, or civil matters.”

According to Felton it is fear that prevents people picking up the phone and making a report.

“It is alien to the culture of Sierra Leone to whistle-blow. There is great fear of repercussions and victimisation of somebody who reports corruption”.

Corruption affects all levels of society, even health.

One aid worker told IRIN how a colleague had recently lost his wife allegedly due to a doctor’s blunder. Personal enquiries revealed that her death was the fourth death in recent months in the same clinic. But attempts to build a case against the doctor came to nothing after influential members of the doctor’s village came to his defence.

“Sierra Leone is a country of subjects, not citizens,” explained the aid worker, critical of the vast powers retained by traditional chiefs in the country.

But changing that culture will take time in a country where two thirds of people can’t read or write.

In an attempt to get around this, the Commission is paying for radio jingles in local dialects and even sponsoring a popular Sierra Leonean musician, Daddy Saj, to blast out the anti corruption message.

The local legend shot to fame across West Africa in 2003 with his smash hit song “corruption e do so,” Sierra Leonean krio for “Enough is enough!”.

“We embarked on a massive sensitisation to ensure that people change their attitude, saying it is not only for them to point fingers at government officials, but it is also incumbent on their part to ensure that they change their attitude and behave in a responsible manner,” said Lawrence of the CGG.

“But this cannot be done overnight.”

Effectively, when a passenger waiting to fly out of Sierra Leone was told the plane was overbooked and full, a helpful assistant said “Not to worry…There may be a way” and pushed over an empty envelope.

Once on the plane, the passenger who had stumped up the requested bank notes looked around confused at all the empty seats.