Sierra Leone re-opens Ebola funds theft files

Wednesday November 14 2018

Julius Mada Bio

Sierra Leone's Presidential Julius Maada Bio. FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

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The vexing issue of alleged misuse of funds meant to fight the deadly West African Ebola epidemic is back on the spotlight in Sierra Leone.

The Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) says it has re-opened files for an unspecified number of cases that did not get the attention they deserved.

An official said thorough probing into the matters was necessary to ensure proper justice for the taxpayer.

The Ebola epidemic, which erupted in early 2014 in Guinea and spread to Liberia and then Sierra Leone, claimed nearly 12,000 lives, mainly in the three neighbouring countries, among nearly 30,000 cases recorded in the region, and as far as the US and Europe.

Hundreds of millions of US dollars were poured into the fight from both foreign and local sources.

The Sierra Leone government itself put aside $10 million (80 billion leones) for the period.


The mandate

There were reports that much of the money in the three countries was diverted into personal accounts of officials in charge of the battle against the virus.

In Sierra Leone, the issue notably attracted international attention as it became a subject of a row between parliament and ACC, over who had the mandate to investigate it.

Eventually, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) of the House held a public hearing, where officials named in a damning auditor’s report were drilled over their role in the misuse of the funds.

The Auditor General's report found that a third of taxpayers’ money allocated to the fight against the virus in the first six months of the epidemic was not accounted for.

The authors pointed out that payments were made to hospitals without proof that the monies were going to health workers.

The report also noted that the failure to spend the funds appropriately might have slowed Sierra Leone’s response to the epidemic, thereby causing unnecessary loss of life.

The epidemic

About 4,000 people died in Sierra Leone alone due to the epidemic.

About 40 individuals, including high-profile medical officials, were invited to provide documentation to show how the funds were disbursed.

Some of the accused paid back monies they were found guilty of misappropriating.

While parliament, at the time, said it was satisfied with the manner in which it handled the issue, very few people outside the House were impressed by its response.

Mr Emmanuel Amara, the Coordinator of Operations at the anti-graft agency, said ACC was now going after people with outstanding payment with no answers.

“The PAC’s work wasn’t as exhaustive as the scope of the Ebola operations required,” Mr Amara said in a radio interview.

Three projects

He added that there was the possibility of calling in those who have already been heard by PAC if ACC determines that their testimony can help its case.

The re-opening of the Ebola case files is part of fulfilment of a promise by the new head of ACC, Mr Francis Ben Kaifala, to ensure all those suspected of embezzling funds meant to fight the epidemic account fully.

It is also part of President Julius Maada Bio’s ongoing clampdown against graft, a fulfilment of a campaign promise.

ACC, in a statement last week, said three other high profile cases were being reviewed, relating to three projects designed to provide jobs for thousands of youths - a Youth in Drainage project, Youth in Fishing project and a Youth farming scheme.

The Youth In Drainage programme entails cleaning drainages and gutters across strategic streets in Freetown. ACC says it involves close to $300, 000 (Le30 billion). The Commission says the funds were not used for their intended purpose.