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How to fight corruption in Africa: Lessons for Sierra Leone’s Julius Maada Bio

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Adedayo Ademuwagun is a political risk consultant based in Lagos.

The first step to fighting corruption is to strengthen the efficiency and independence of the justice system. So much of this fight depends on the relationship between political leaders and the institutions responsible for enforcing and interpreting the law.

Julius Maada Bio had barely been sworn in as Sierra Leone’s president in 2018 when he began sharpening his knives. He appointed a transition team to probe the last administration and this team claimed to find widespread corruption.

Next, he created three commissions of inquiry to investigate the claims further. He also sacked the head of the anti-corruption agency and appointed his own man. Within two years, opposition figures including the former vice president were arrested, their properties were seized and more than 100 of them were banned from leaving the country.

Meanwhile, very little changed in terms of institutional reform. Government audits and media reports show that Bio’s officials simply continued from where their predecessors stopped. His chief minister David Francis, who was removed on 30 April 2021, was the one who led the transition team that declared the last government corrupt. Yet, a newspaper reported this year that Francis’s close aides had been withdrawing huge amounts of cash from office accounts without appropriation, and the minister himself had been procuring services and claiming travel allowances without accountability.

While that was happening, a businessman associated with Bio had a state-backed monopoly to export timber. The government Auditor-General found that his company was undervaluing the exports and state officials were complicit. Meanwhile, the national social security agency was reportedly donating money to organisations linked to the president, his party and first lady Fatima Bio. The first lady even had an account at the central bank, and government funds disbursed to her office exceeded budgets for the actual government ministries dealing with social welfare, women and young people.

The anti-corruption agency’s response to corruption findings involving the government has been very telling. Rather than investigate the first lady, the agency evasively said it would investigate all first ladies past and present. The agency did not respond to claims against the president and his powerful chief minister. Also, when two of Bio’s Cabinet members were accused of diverting food meant for school children last year, the agency attempted to prosecute them but dropped charges months later. Both ministers have since been reappointed to the Cabinet.

This is not the way to fight corruption.

The thing about corruption in Africa is that the leaders who claim to be fighting it are often as corrupt as the others. This is why one leader comes to power claiming their predecessor was corrupt, and then they simply perpetuate the bad system. We’ve seen this in Uganda moving from Obote to Amin and Museveni. Today, Nigeria’s worse off on Transparency International’s corruption rating under Buhari – such that even his anti-corruption chief was removed for alleged corruption in a turf war with the justice minister.

The first step to fighting corruption is to strengthen the efficiency and independence of the justice system. So much of this fight depends on the relationship between political leaders and the institutions responsible for enforcing and interpreting the law.

A sign that a leader is committed to tackling corruption is that they subject themselves to the rule of law and beef up the justice system. They devote resources to building up the judiciary, police and anti-corruption authorities. They don’t treat the heads of those institutions as their personal staff. They respect the boundaries set by law and allow these institutions to function without political interference.

On the contrary, Sierra Leone’s Chief Justice resigned under pressure eight months after Bio became president.

Another step is to make policies that raise the living standards of the people so that they’re less likely to depend on others for basic needs. African politicians are often under a lot of pressure from their constituents, and this pressure isn’t for better laws or governance. It’s for money to buy food, pay hospital or school fees, or augment a struggling business.

Poverty and unemployment rates are usually so high that many people look to wealthy people as benefactors. Those include a corrupt MP, governor or senior army officer. For example, Nigeria’s ex-governor James Ibori was convicted in the UK in 2012 for pilfering public funds while his people drank oily water. He remains popular among his local constituents today because he distributed the illicit wealth generously. 

A government that truly cares about curbing corruption doesn’t impose policies that make the people poorer and make it harder for them to meet their needs. On this note, what’s happening in Lunsar, a mining town in Sierra Leone, is remarkable.

Last year the government abruptly tried to kick a foreign mining firm out of the place over a royalty dispute. This Marampa mine was the mainstay of the town. Consequently, many locals lost their jobs and the town’s economy was battered. People in such a poor state cannot demand better governance or hold corrupt politicians accountable.

Unenlightened people cannot do so either. Literacy rates are rising in sub-Saharan Africa, but the rates still lag behind those in the rest of the world. Sierra Leone’s literacy rate is only 43%, for instance, and there are gaps in the society’s capacity to challenge authority.

This is why, to deal with corruption, there’s a need to strengthen the education system and promote a free press. People who go through a proper education system are enlightened about their civic responsibilities and can make better sense of the happenings around them. When there is a free press and the majority of citizens are enlightened, it deters politicians who want to take public funds because they know there will be strong civic action – on the streets, at the voting booths – and there will be consequences when they’re exposed.

The fourth step to tackling corruption is to entrench democratic freedoms such that people can convert information to action without fear or intimidation. They can vote in free and fair elections to remove corrupt officeholders – or they can demonstrate to force their resignation.

African leaders who truly want to stamp out corruption must show that they’re willing to do the right thing for their country, even if it’s going to harm their party or their political associates. It’s ridiculous to allow corruption to thrive in their own administration and party while they claim to fight corruption. That won’t root out this problem in Africa. It’s going to take even-handed commitment. This is a lesson for Sierra Leone as the country marks 60 years of independence this year. DM

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