By Chernoh Alpha M. Bah
This year – 2022 – marks 20 years since the launch of the Africanist Press as an independent media organization providing a platform for free speech, democracy, and accountable leadership in Africa. Africanist Press journalists have campaigned against corruption and graft across three successive regimes in Sierra Leone. As an editor, I have founded and led organizations that publicize injustice and bad governance in many West African countries. As my work, and the work of Africanist Press, against corruption and bad governance intensifies, so the threats to my life have increased.
Since March 2020, I have been the overt target of death threats and other vitriolic attacks on social media by known supporters of Sierra Leonean president, Julius Maada Bio. Other leading opposition politicians in the Sierra Leonean Parliament have joined this campaign of harassment, which has escalated since April 2021 to include calls for my extradition from the United States for prosecution in Sierra Leone. These politicians and their allies have gone so far as to independently orchestrate violence, and to use such acts to convince foreign governments – falsely – that Africanist Press is an agent of instability and insurrection in Sierra Leone.
So then, what crimes did we commit to attracting these acts of overt state repression and the covert operations initiated by opposition politicians against my life and my safety?
In June 2023, President Bio will seek re-election for another five-year term of office. If he wins, Bio is expected to embark on new constitutional reforms and legal amendments that will significantly affect multiparty politics and participatory democracy in Sierra Leone. Through its campaigning journalism, Africanist Press has exposed not only the ruling party, but also the economic and political interests of the elite groups and social networks – academics, lawyers, bankers, teachers, and other professionals – that have held Sierra Leone hostage for the last 60 years.
The very opposition of these groups, amplified by their extreme modes of operation, fully demonstrates the importance of the work of Africanist Press.
Political Promise: A Façade
Julius Maada Bio was elected President of Sierra Leone in April 2018 on a platform to fight corruption, and introduce fiscal discipline in government. On assuming office, Bio told representatives of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in Freetown, that his government had inherited the worst economic situation in the country since independence in 1961. He announced a range of economic measures including the introduction of a Treasury Single Account (TSA), centralizing government expenditure.
A governance transition committee established on 6th April 2018, just two days after Bio was sworn into office, reported that the outgoing administration of Ernest Koroma had led Sierra Leone to the brink of economic collapse. It identified a huge external and domestic debt burden driven mostly by an “exploded payroll” to the tune of US$263 million or 14.4% of the GDP.
President Bio responded by launching multiple audits into the past activities of the Koroma regime, examining issues of political and financial corruption, nepotism, and widespread economic graft that permeated governance during the ten years that the All Peoples Congress (APC) was in power. These investigations concluded by accusing officials of the Koroma regime of corruption and the acquisition of unexplained wealth. Bio imposed a travel ban on several of Koroma’s former ministers.
President Bio’s “corruption war” against his predecessor was and remains a façade. Africanist Press has determined that corruption increased significantly after Bio took power.
Travel: Another Façade
In the six months after election, cash amounting to more than US$2.4 million was directly withdrawn from the Bank of Sierra Leone (BSL) for supposed personal use by President Bio and First Lady Fatima Bio. Large daily cash withdrawals of both foreign and local currencies were regularly carried out directly by the president and his wife, or by close aides of the president who acted on instructions from the president.
Within the same six months, a combined total of over US$3.1 million was withdrawn and jointly spent by Bio and his wife as travel per diems. Expenditure records show that such large cash withdrawals are now regular financial practice; there is no documentation whatsoever to show how these monies were spent. In fact, misspending of travel funds has become normalized.
Concerning travel, President Bio, his wife, and senior officials close to the president, have conducted nearly 150 overseas trips to Europe and Asia; a record that exceeds that of any sitting president of Sierra Leone since the end of the country’s civil war in 2002. These trips have left the country devoid of leadership for weeks at a time. Evidence published by Africanist Press reveals the ongoing use of international travel by the President and his senior officials to move millions of dollars out of Sierra Leone to foreign countries. For example, evidence exists of withdrawals from BSL totaling more than US$1 million by the Office of the President, for a trip to Lebanon in September 2020.
The Finance Amendment Act of 2020 called for an amendment to Section 65 of the 2016 Public Financial Management Act, which is the law that regulates government travel expenditure. Section 42 of the proposed Act requested Parliament to approve a new legislative provision for non-accountable use of travel funds by the President and two of his top officials – the Vice President and the Speaker of Parliament – for all international travel. The amendment substituted the existing law with a new provision that allowed Bio unregulated access to travel money. Parliament initially passed the proposed legislation into law in late November 2019, but in early December 2019, as a result of public pressure, legislators voted to repeal Section 42.
The proposed amendment to the legal restrictions on presidential travel expenditure was intended to legalize the ongoing official use of travel to divert public funds. By April 2021, Africanist Press had shown overwhelming evidence that the president and other senior government officials were moving foreign currencies amounting to millions of dollars to Europe, the United States, and increasingly, to the Middle East. In 2020, for example, we highlighted that the president and his wife collectively withdrew over US$3 million from BSL for alleged travel expenses despite bans on international travel due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Financial documents published by Africanist Press in February 2021 show how approximately US$330,000 was spent by the Chief Minister’s Office on alleged travel per diems between August and December 2018. By the time Finance Ministry officials proposed the above legislation on unregulated imprest in late 2019, senior government officials who travelled on overseas trips, including the President, the First Lady (a non-government position), the Chief Minister, and the Director of Science and Innovation, had already taken out millions of dollars as travel imprest from BSL.
The transportation of large amounts of foreign currency overseas through travel by Sierra Leonean government officials meets the definition of illicit financial flows organized under the guise of diplomatic travel. Analysis of trade-related financial flows in 148 developing countries over a 10-year period by Transparency International discovered that an average of 27% were potentially related to illegal activity, and 45% of those financial flows ended up in offshore financial centers.
The Institute of International Finance estimates the value of global illicit financial flows to be around 2% to 5% of global GDP annually. Global Financial Integrity found that the Coronavirus pandemic resulted in an increase in the levels of illicit financial flows from developing countries undetected by the global financial system due to the pandemic.
Illegal Public Spending
In the four years to date of the regime of President Bio, Africanist Press has run an ongoing series of reports detailing various cases of high-profile corruption in the Sierra Leonean government. These reports focused in particular on the Offices of the President, the First Lady, and the Chief Minister.
In the case of the First Lady, Sierra Leone’s finance laws preclude the spouse of any sitting president from receiving direct public funds to undertake any campaigns or public activities whilst in office. Documentary evidence published by Africanist Press showed that Fatima Bio, on the contrary, received at least US$5 million in combined government funds transferred directly from the Consolidated Revenue Fund (CRF) into her BSL Account.
Documents on expenditure details of the First Lady’s Office showed that a total of about US$2.2 million was withdrawn and spent by Fatima Bio from June 2018 to December 2020.
Although no receipts exist justifying the expenditure, as required by procurement laws, withdrawal statements indicate that 85% of the disbursed funds were spent on furniture, events planning, hotel accommodation, and travel.
These records do not include other government funds received directly from the Ministry of Finance, those deposited by telecommunications operators, or by other non-corporate institutions – NGOs and donor agencies – into the organization’s bank account held at the Rokel Commercial Bank (RCB) in Sierra Leone. The combined totals of these diverse deposits are even greater than the total amount held by the First Lady at the BSL.
The Office of the Chief Minister likewise spent more than US$3.4 million, in violation of procurement laws. Wire transfers totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars were made to foreign media agencies and to technology companies in Europe, China, and the United States. These transfers were purportedly for consultancy services, public relations operations, and information technology products. None of these services or products were ever advertised or put to open bid, in violation of Sierra Leone’s public finance laws and the public procurement regulations.
Reports in Africanist Press covered NASSIT, Sierra Leone’s social security agency. Officials in charge of managing retirement pensions and issuing social security benefits to workers and their dependents failed to account for over US$6 million in pension and retirement funds in 2019 alone.
Nearly US$2 million raised domestically through services related to COVID-19 operations, such as testing, was found by Africanist Press to have been secretly kept in a private bank account for almost a year instead of being transferred into the TSA, as mandated by the finance laws.
Further reporting by Africanist Press discovered that, in the four years of the Bio administration, Chief Justice Desmond Babatunde Edwards and 60 other political appointees to the Sierra Leone judiciary did not pay withholding taxes to the tune of US$2.6 million on rent allowances paid to them.
By the end of December 2020, the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) claimed that it had recovered, via non-conviction settlements with officials of the previous regime between 2015 and early 2018, a total of approximately US$2.6 million. In a delicious irony, Africanist Press aggregated expenditures covering the first two years of the Bio administration; cash withdrawn by the President and his wife alone exceeded the total amount of alleged recoveries announced by the ACC.
Harassment of Civil Servants
President Bio and his officials initially reacted to these revelations by Africanist Press by secretly sacking and suspending scores of civil servants in the Ministry of Finance and other agencies, on suspicion of leaking information. In October 2021, for example, 27 senior internal auditors in the Finance Ministry were summarily suspended on the suspicion that they provided information on salary disparities in the civil service, as reported in September 2021 by Africanist Press.
In November 2021, the President suspended the head of the Sierra Leone Audit Service after the agency highlighted financial and procurement irregularities in the President’s and the First Lady’s records for FY2020. Audit officials reportedly discovered that the President’s Office had submitted forged documents, including fake hotel receipts and invoices.
By December 2021, Africanist Press learned that over 170 civil servants, mostly internal auditors in the Finance Ministry and Office of the President, had been indefinitely suspended or dismissed on the suspicion that they were informants for Africanist Press.
Attacks on Africanist Press
In spite of these widespread and secret purges in the civil service, we have continued to report on the pervasive nature of corruption in the Bio administration. Our reports generate serious conversations both in Sierra Leone and internationally. As a result of this, Africanist Press and myself personally have suffered constant harassment.
Leaked documents from the government of Sierra Leone provided detailed evidence of official meetings by Sierra Leonean politicians, held between 15th April 2021 and 28th April 2022, to plan official action against Africanist Press. High-level officials from the Law Officers Department, the Office of the President, the Central Bank of Sierra Leone (BSL), the Office of National Security (ONS), and the Sierra Leone Parliament attended these meetings. Minutes of one meeting showed that officials were unable to ascertain how Africanist Press obtained access to the financial records of the government.
In these meetings, officials expressed concerns that Africanist Press publications affect “the nation and its relationship with international partners.” They noted in a briefing document (Criminal Complaint Against Chernoh A. M. Bah and Africanist Press), that reports by Africanist Press have the “dangerous knock-on effect of undermining the sacred trust which the Bank holds in the economy, which could in itself lead to economic and political instability.” Bank Governor Kelfala Kallon formally requested that a “criminal complaint should be filed against Africanist Press for unlawful possession of information belonging to BSL.”
In June 2021, the government passed new cybercrimes legislation containing wide ranging powers, including a provision for the extradition of government opponents for prosecution in Sierra Leone. Evidence now shows that the new cyber law was designed in response to the Africanist Press reports. An investigation by Africanist Press later uncovered that Sierra Leonean officials paid at least US$5 million to cyber intelligence groups, including the Israeli-based Cognyte Technologies Limited, for cyber intelligence services and tools that were mostly used to target political opponents of the Bio administration.
Funds were directly transferred between July 2021 and October 2022 to Cognyte Technologies Limited as payment for cyber intelligence solutions. Evidence shows that Sierra Leonean security agencies, including the ONS and Sierra Leone Police, targeted journalists employing these cyber services. We discovered, in particular, that cyber surveillance operations had been initiated as early as April 2022 against Africanist Press, and continued into late September 2022. The operations targeted primarily telephone communication, websites, and social media pages of Africanist Press and its journalists. Our investigation identified repeated malicious attacks on the Africanist Press website initiated from locations in central and western Freetown via proxy IP addresses in eastern Europe.
Conclusion: A Free Press
In the past two years, Africanist Press has experienced renewed attacks, including death threats directed at me through social media and through direct phone calls from known agents of the Sierra Leone government. These have included extradition requests by the government on charges of treason as a consequence of reports recently published in Africanist Press. In August 2022, we discovered that some opposition politicians had collaborated with ruling party officials to wage an anti-free speech campaign targeting Africanist Press. They initiated disinformation campaigns, including state orchestrated public protests, aimed at crowding out Africanist Press publications from public debates. They tried to attribute this state-orchestrated violence in Freetown to the work of Africanist Press in order to convince foreign governments that Africanist Press exists as a front for “dissident elements”.
In May 2022, we filed reports to various international organizations responsible for the protection of journalists, highlighting these threatening developments to our work and our safety. On 31st May 2022, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) in New York issued a statement calling on the government of Sierra Leone to stop harassing Africanist Press, and for authorities to investigate the death threats against myself.
In the 20 years since its inauguration, Africanist Press has covered a wide range of issues across Africa and beyond. We have highlighted and documented human rights violations in Cameroon, we have reported on electoral violence in Kenya, protests in Guinea, grand corruption in Sierra Leone, and multinational exploitation in Nigeria. In these 20 years, we have relentlessly engaged different kinds of dictatorial regimes across the African continent. We continue to highlight the various manipulations and operational dynamics of rogue politicians and political groups. In the process, we have incurred the anger of diverse interest groups: from politicians to lawyers, academics, and journalists.
But we also continue to enjoy growing support among ordinary suffering African people. To many in Sierra Leone and much of West Africa, Africanist Press has come to represent more than simply a credible information platform, but the last line of resistance against the rogue politicians and rank opportunists who now populate the governance landscape of Africa. The current harassment of Africanist Press by the government of Sierra Leone and its various political allies represents a new threat to democracy in the country.
As we march toward 2023, our call is simple: we must pay attention to the erosion of democratic values and the ongoing violation of civil liberties in Sierra Leone. We must continue to impress upon the government of Sierra Leone the need to respect press freedom and to safeguard the right of journalists, and of all citizens, to enjoy free expression without harassment and death threats.
For more information see the Africanist Press website: https://africanistpress.com/2022/12/29/africanist-press-two-decades-promoting-democracy-and-resisting-corruption-in-africa/