By Isaac Massaquoi
As with every other important issue in Sierra Leone, public reaction and media treatment of the Auditor General’s report has followed what I call the established pattern. Once the report was released opposition politicians, including those who lost heavily in the last elections turned their political graves into battle trenches from which they launched attacks against the government.
Civil Society groups, with an eye on their next project proposals jumped on the issue and started pontificating. The media were again divided down the middle with those sympathetic to the government spinning and selectively using the content; the independent and opposition media, smelling blood, pounced on the government, again publishing the report selectively and sometimes completely out of context.
I wasn’t disappointed at all that things turned out this way. The Auditor General’s report is now on the shelves, the politicians in the opposition have returned to their graves, those in government are praising themselves for surviving the onslaught without any significant punches landing on their credibility, at least in the eyes of their supporters. Their media friends are hailing the success of their backroom operation that helped move the Auditor General’s report off public gaze particularly on radio phone-in programs and in newspapers.
My only disappointment was that in trying to spin the government out of the extremely tight corner into which the report locked them, some spin doctors insulted the intelligence of readers like me by some puerile attempt to either give their own meaning to clearly established facts or to introduce extraneous matters into an issue that was open for all to see. They may have received their fees but my view that the nation’s finances have never been properly managed by government’s past and present is unchanged.
The last few weeks have been particularly difficult for this country no matter how much of a brave face we put on what the Auditor General’s report and the Gavi Alliance debacle represent to our collective desire to show off Sierra Leone as a decent democracy. A democracy in which the government was fighting corruption and investing money in the welfare of its people. Let’s be honest, we saw all this coming. The ministry of health was very much under the radar of our anti-corruption long before this report was done.
To its credit the Anti-corruption Commission did what it calls a Systems Review at the ministry of health in 2011. It’s basically in furtherance of their mandate to end corruption in public life. And as we shall see, in some cases corruption is aided by weaknesses in the operational systems in ministries departments and agencies so in ACC belief, correcting those systems would go a long way to plug those leakages. I totally agree with them.
In the case of the ministry of health (and I am not going to get into this arguments about which minster was on seat at the time for now), the ACC found that there was an appalling “lack of control of free health care drugs” and there were “challenges in reconciling store records.” The ACC also noted in its report that of 55 bank accounts operated by the many projects within the ministry, only 23 were presented for auditing and there was hardly any control over those project accounts from which withdrawals were made without supporting documents by medical doctors who now spent less time in hospital wards. They dedicate a lot of time to running those projects sometimes without ministerial supervision.
If I am not mistaken, that was the time the ACC declared the same ministry and the Sierra Leone Police as hotspots of corruption. This was a really loud alarm but in Sierra Leone we just allow things to roll on. We live in a country where people are too scared to stand up even when their children are being sent to their early graves by those alleged to have stolen immunization money.
This is the crucial point is: It was expected that after those findings, the ministry would put the necessary policies in place to ensure that the recommendations presented by the ACC were implemented. I make bold to say that as soon as the ACC left Youyi building, their recommendations were ignored and the result is that it took donors to an immunization project to come out here and discover that one millions United States dollars has been stolen from one of those accounts in the ministry of health.
The Auditor General’s report has basically confirmed what the ACC said about the ministry of health a year prior to their investigation.
I have to now ask the following questions: How come nobody acted on the ACC’s recommendations? How come all the structures, like the internal audit department in that ministry, created and paid for by the people failed to function in the people’s best interest? How many of Sierra Leone’s children have died or will soon die because the Gavi Alliance fund has been blocked? Why does anybody think the Auditor General’s report will make any difference against entrenched corruption?
Some donors have resorted to setting up Project Implementation Unit in agencies they support to professionally execute their projects and to cut out grand corruption on the scale of this Gavi Alliance mess. Such units are usually well resourced with the latest electronic equipment that make work easy and effective. The personnel employed are normally highly-skilled Sierra Leoneans who are very well paid to make them do their best. At the end of the project, the personnel will move to another PIU or travel abroad to work. The equipment will be turned over to the government department concerned.
But there is a problem with PIUs that we must deal with in this country – yes they are effective for short-term projects requiring quick results but as we continue our nation-building drive we must try and take actions that will last beyond the life of a World Bank funded project for example. The environment should be created for those same highly-skilled and professional Sierra Leoneans to take up jobs in the public service under the same conditions in the PIUs. Is that too much to ask?
The continuous use of PIUs affects capacity-building in the public sector. Once the professionals leave, the ordinary civil servants in those ministries, facing the task of improving and consolidating the gains of the PIU finds himself completely unable to even operate the electronic gadgets left over by the PIU. So to me PIUs are short-term initiatives that are very good and one of them may well have prevented this shameful loss of public money in the ministry of health. But we must think long-term.
The biggest problem facing Sierra Leone is that of all what is being said about ending corruption, we have failed to sufficiently reform the public service and open the way for our best brains to go in there and serve their country.
Soon the Auditor General’s report will settle into a familiar pattern so that there will no difference between the report from 2011 and 2015, for example, unless we stop ignoring serious issues like the Systems Review done by the ACC and stop this continuous bleeding of Sierra Leone.
The Auditor’s report should never die and the ACC should increase its national relevance by not only dealing with the Gavi Alliance funds because it deals with donors. The ACC must now stop issuing press releases that they know are largely ignored and move against these MDAs that have very serious questions to answer in the Auditor General’s report just release. It has signalled its intention to do so but this is our country – rhetoric does not always match action on the ground.
The 2012 report will be released soon and I have no doubt the findings will not be substantially different.
I don’t think we should ever reach that stage in Sierra Leone, where people will lose confidence completely in the ability of our government to fight and defeat corruption. I am reading some documents and talking to a few people to find out if ministerial oversight was lacking to the extent that corruption flourished. My documents are coming from inside the ministry. Let’s congratulate ourselves that there are a few people still standing.