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Give them prosecutorial powers

Sierra Leone anti-corruption chief says local bodies need strengthening to curb wrongdoing

BY KIMONE THOMPSON Associate editor — features thompsonk@jamaicaobserver.com

Thursday, January 31, 2013    

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IF Jamaica is to make any headway in stamping out corruption in the society, not only will it have to consolidate anti-corruption roles into a single entity, but it might have to grant that body prosecutorial powers as well.

This is the suggestion from head of the Anti-Corruption Commission in Sierra Leone Joseph Kamara, who is on a one-week visit to the island, at the invitation of National Integrity Action (NIA).

Jamaica currently ranks 83 out of 176 countries on the Corruption Perception Index. It has three anti-corruption agencies -- the Office of the Contractor General, the Parliamentary Integrity Commission, and the Corruption Prevention Commission. But in his Throne Speech to Parliament last May, Governor General Sir Patrick Allen said Government was committed to having them merged into one entity by March this year, which is the end of financial year 2012/2013.

Addressing members of the media at Mona Visitors' Lodge at the University of the West Indies on Tuesday, Kamara stressed that he was not here to dictate to Jamaica, but rather to share Sierra Leone's experiences with a view to learning from each other. He gave examples of corrupt activities in his country and detailed steps stakeholders there took to improve its standing on the Global Corruption Perception Index.

Sierra Leone now ranks 123rd of the 176 countries featured on the index, and is 30th of 58 in Africa. But things weren't always that good. Up to 2005 the country was not ranked and never made it on the list. In 2005, it was second to last, and by 2007, it had jumped 12 places.

Kamara explained how they accomplished the feat.

"We created an anti-corruption agency in 2000 [because] we realised that corruption was endemic in the society -- you pay for a driver's licence, you pay for medical treatment, you bribe your way through traffic, you pay for classes, you bribe lecturers to pass exams," he said to knowing smiles and nods in the audience.

"Even when we set up the commission, which was one agency bringing together all the others in the fight, we still were unable to make progress because most of the cases had to go to the Attorney General's Department before they could be prosecuted and, regrettably, in Sierra Leone that office is matched with the Ministry of Justice," he explained.

In 2008, the country made legislative changes which gave the commission the power to prosecute and freeze assets. Since then, according to Kamara, there has been a "tremendous increase in the number of cases before the courts".

"It was as if we were sleeping for seven years," he told journalists Tuesday. "We woke up overnight [and there were] so many cases before the courts... It was not only the (number) of cases but the quality of cases because then it came to be realised that no man is above the law.

"From 2008 until now we've witnessed the top most officials being taken to court... Fifteen government ministers were tried and convicted by the court," he added, listing the ministers of finance, foreign resources and health among them.

Kamara, who is also president of the Sierra Leone B ar Association and vice-president of the West African Bar Association, also pointed to convictions of a sitting high court judge and a sitting mayor of the capital city of Freetown among the commission's successes. The mayor, he said, was convicted for misappropriation of funds said to have been paid over to a reggae group as payment for performing at a concert in Freetown. The commission's investigations proved that the group did not receive the amounts the mayor claimed they did, the lawyer said yesterday.

"The important thing is that no matter how high you are, you are within the confines and the ambit of the law," the commissioner said.

Another strategy the commission undertook was to carry out reviews of government ministries, agencies and departments with a view to making them more efficient and accountable for resources.

"This is why we are moving towards automation. A good example of this is customs... We automated the process wherein you don't even have to go; you pay to the bank the custom dues. You come back, present your receipt, you reduce the level of discretion that is going to be exercised by the human factor.

"There are only now two stages where you go: The first stage is assessment and valuation, the second stage is payment. You bring your receipt and clear your goods. [The result is] increased generation of revenue to the extent that today, the government of Sierra Leone can carry out its own road construction without foreign aid," said Kamara.

"Before, where was the money? It wasn't there. Now it is there."

Previously, he explained, clearing goods in the West African country involved 17 steps.

To ensure buy-in from the public in the fight against corruption, the commission signed a memorandum of understanding with journalists to disseminate information on anti-corruption and to offer training on reporting on anti-corruption activities.

"The fight against corruption is not a stand-alone fight. It is not the fight of the NIA, it is not the fight of the DPP; it is not the fight of the Government of the day, it is the people's fight. Each and every one of us have a stake and we have to buy into those messages," the commissioner said, even while stressing that without the political will, efforts at fighting corruption will fail.

In response, NIA head Dr Trevor Munroe said that though the process of rationalising Jamaica's three agencies has been advanced during course of the year. "We are very concerned to hold the government to account to fulfil that commitment and ensure that what was promised is kept," he remarked.

"We do not intend, of course, to copy Sierra Leone or anywhere else," Munroe said. "We intend to learn from the experience and to customise our single anti-corruption commission to suit Jamaica's needs and circumstances while benefiting from the lessons to be learnt."

The Republic of Sierra Leone has an estimated six million people. It has a wealth of natural resources, including diamonds, titanium, bauxite, and is a major producer of gold. The country is also rich in rutile (a type of mineral), but estimates are that 70 per cent of the population lives in poverty.

CAPTIONS: (PICS# 5838 & 5829)

KAMARA... no matter how high you are, you ware within the confines and the ambit of the law.

Commissioner of Sierra Leone's Anti-Corruption Commission Joseph Kamara addresses journalists at the Mona Visitor's Lodge, University of the West Indies, on Tuesday at a forum hosted by the National Integrity Action. Also pictured is NIA head Dr Trevor Munroe. Kamara is on a one-week visit to Jamaica to share his country's experiences in the fight against corruption. He has already met with the Governor General and the Leader of the Opposition and is set to meet with other members of government and civil society. (Photos: Bryan Cummings)

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