The 2020 Audit Report: Travelgate, Embassygate, Fiscal Indiscipline and the Known Unknowns
By Hon. Kandeh K. Yumkella, Ph.D.
Freetown, Sierra Leone.
“They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship...I have fought the good fight, I have finished my race, I have kept the faith”. (2 Timothy 4:7).
On 14 December 2021, Parliament received the Auditor-General's report on the accounts of Sierra Leone 2020 and a report titled “Auditor-General’s Report on the Audit of the Sierra Leone Embassies and High Commissions in Africa for the period 2011-2020.”
The next day, Hon Hassan Sesay (Constituency 050) and I gave notice of motion for a debate of the report and hopefully all the other reports that have never been debated in Parliament. As happened with the 2018 and 2019 audits, we may never be allowed to debate the 2020 audit in clear breach of the provisions of subsection 5 of section 119 of the Constitution of Sierra Leone, which states that “Parliament shall debate the report of the Auditor-General and appoint where necessary in the public interest a committee to deal with any matters arising thereform.” There are many reasons why we must debate the 2020 audit report.
Which Audit Report?
The findings in the current 2020 reports are appalling and demonstrate systematic, crude and flagrant thievery. It also shows poor compliance with established laws, rules and practices, as well as a lack of accountability and transparency and questionable use of taxpayer monies. A few days later, we read in the Africanist Press (AP) that critical information in the report received in Parliament was missing. This raises some immediate concerns.
First, who prepared the report we received? The best practice in auditing is that the auditor(s) who prepared a report should sign it so that they are accountable for the veracity and integrity of the information presented.
Second, if alterations were made, who made the alterations and why? Our current Fifth Parliament must investigate any allegation of modifications to the document and take appropriate action if this is the case.
Last week, instead of shinning the light on the latter, some in Parliament called for the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) to investigate Audit Service Sierra Leone. Let me be clear – such a request is an insult to the collective intelligence of all Sierra Leoneans. We deserve to know the truth about the stewardship of our resources. We need to know the truth to get to the bottom of the decadence, charade, and blatant irresponsibility that is pervasive.
The Fox and Chickens:
Most pundits have missed the point that some of the most blatant abuses of the Public Financial Management (PFM) Act 2016 were committed by the Ministry of Finance. A close examination of pages 262 to 271 of the 2020 audit report provides a litany of evidence of the lack of fiscal transparency, prudence, and the total absence of a sense of responsibility. This includes spending billions above what Parliament approved, non-substantiated procurement processes, lack of receipts, ghost workers, among others. This is like asking the fox to watch over the chickens, or do-as-I-say, not-as-I-do. One colleague said to me, “unless the President acts fast, this government will be remembered as “Talk and Chop.”
Here are some examples from only the Ministry of Finance.
• The Ministry of Finance spent almost double the amount approved/appropriated by Parliament for its operations. The amount budgeted for the recurrent and capital expenditure for the Ministry for FY2020 was Le 164 billion and the amount spent was Le 271 billion. Is it not against the provisions of section 112-114 of the Constitution? Is it legal for anyone/institution to spend funds from the Consolidated Revenue Fund without Parliament’s approval? If any institution can spend double its approved allocation, then what is the use of a parliamentary appropriations process.
• Paragraphs 3.1.1 to 3.1.4 lists several withdrawals from the Ministry’s Imprest Account without internal payment vouchers and supporting documents of almost Le 10 billion.
• 3.1.6 limitless petty cash where an aggregate of Le 4.1 billion was spent from a petty cash account that is supposed to have a limit of Le100 million. The Ministry insists that there is no limit to their use of petty cash.
• Payment splitting of cheques paid to the same institution on the same day for the same services.
• 3.1.8 sole-sourcing of hundreds of millions without minutes of negotiations or report of the procurement committee.
• 3.1.10 Budget overrun of Le106 billion in the Ministry of Finance.
A review of the report on Travelgate will leave you in disbelief. Hundreds of thousands of US dollars were physically airlifted to ostensibly pay bills (which were allegedly never paid). Then there is what I call an innovation - falsification of hotel receipts by the Office of the President for the President’s hotel stay.
Take a minute to wrap your head or mind around what you have just read. We know the President does not book tickets or pay hotels bills. To demonstrate a zero-tolerance policy on corruption on these specific issues related to Travelgate, the President should immediately suspend the officers concerned while ACC investigates. In fact, it has been alleged that several other hotel bills were falsified. Mr. President must immediately clean house; heads should roll. People should resign now.
Responsibility of Parliament
It is already bad enough that for four years, we have not debated the Auditor General’s reports in contravention of section 119(5) of the 1991 constitution. It is terrible that the Auditor General is unceremoniously suspended ultra vires and we did not ask questions. Concerning the latter, we expect Parliament will conduct an independent investigation because ultimately, only Parliament can remove the Auditor General by a two-thirds majority of Parliament.
On the broader issue of holding the government accountable and supporting the fight against corruption, the ball is now in our court. Through its oversight responsibilities, Parliament can help stop these continuous malpractices and abuses by organized syndicates in MDAs and subvented agencies.
The report has been laid in Parliament, so what? Will we examine it? Will we openly and adequately debate the report and subpoena witnesses and documents with the powers and authority of a high court bestowed on us by subsection 6 of section 93? There are known facts in the report.
The Known Unknowns:
But there are many things we know we do not know yet. Some critical known-unknowns people have sent me include the following:
1. Who manages the President's travel, the Chief Minister, or the Secretary to President? Who knows what and when did they know it?
2. Who cleared the fake receipts for submission to an official audit?
3. How long has this been going on? How many of the 60-80 trip receipts were falsified?
4. How much money may have disappeared in the past four years? If the average falsification is $150-200 thousand per trip (based on this case study of the Lebanon trip), then for 60-80 trips, the range is $6 million to $16 million may have been embezzled.
5. Who directly managed this egregious corruption Travelgate account for the four years between 2018-2020?
6. When will the President make a statement to the public given that this is his flagship fight against corruption or suspend the offenders until investigations are done as he has done with the Auditors?
7. Will the tribunal set up to investigate the Auditor-General and one of her deputies be a Kangaroo Court? Who ascertains their neutrality, impartiality, and credibility to deliver justice?
8. What did the President know and when did he know it?
We, the political leaders, must not renege on our responsibilities to hold the government accountable. If we do, the citizens will not forget or forgive how we aided and abetted corruption by deliberate negligence. May the Almighty save us from their wrath.