By Chernoh Alpha M. Bah, Matthew Anderson, and Mark Feldman
The Africanist Press has received a press release from Sierra Leone’s Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) that is supposedly responding to our October 15 publication on a Le3.2 billion missing foreign travel tax revenues for the fiscal year 2019 that were paid by Air Peace into the accounts of the Sierra Leone Civil Aviation Authority (SLCAA), as documented by an internal government audit.
In its response to the Africanist Press publication, the ACC claimed that it had investigated these allegations and accordingly instituted appropriate actions. In particular, the ACC claims that between March 2018 and September 2019 three revenue officers, Abubakarr Kamara, Mariama Ballah Conteh, and Jeneba Sesay – who were processing and returning payments for the department of the National Revenue Authority (NRA) — had misappropriated a sum of Le5,382,944,605 of public revenue in Foreign Travel Tax (FTT) paid by the Air Maroc and Euro World airlines. The ACC also stated that the three NRA officers have since been charged with eight counts of misappropriation of public funds and are currently on trial in a Freetown court presided over by one Justice Cosmotina Jarett.
Strangely, the Africanist’s Press publication on October 15th is about an entirely different corruption matter than the one outlined in the ACC press release. The ACC press release is an interesting piece of information in that it only further corroborates the initial Africanist Press report in demonstrating a pattern of theft of Foreign Travel Tax revenues. That being said, even a cursory reading of our October 15th article and the ACC release reveals that they are about two completely different cases of theft of FTT funds, perpetrated by different actors, and taking place in different time periods. Mariama Ballah Conteh mentioned in the ACC release, for instance, reportedly embezzled 1,723,859,600 between March and May 2018, under the previous Koroma regime. However, the Africanist Press report pertains to missing FTT revenues under the present Bio regime, as the reporting is based upon an advanced copy of an internal governmental investigation, which primarily pertains to 2019, the first full year of the Bio administration.
Indeed, the Africanist Press publication is also about the Sierra Leone Civil Aviation Authority (SLCAA) and not the NRA. The fraud investigation mentioned in our publication was instituted by the NRA on the SLCAA. In fact, Sierra Leone’s aviation authority chief, Moses Tiffa Baio, did confirm that a fraud investigation was conducted in 2019 by the NRA and that the SLCAA collaborated with the NRA in the said investigation. “The investigation was conducted last year but I can’t recall the exact date and month the SLCAA was visited by the auditors. We did collaborate with the NRA on this fraud investigation and many other things that deal with the airlines,” he confirmed to the Africanist Press.
Additionally, there is nowhere in the Africanist Press publication where an amount of a missing Le5.3 billion is mentioned as the subject of our investigation. The subject of the Africanist Press article is that in fiscal year 2019 revenues totaling Le3.2 billion in foreign travel taxes were not paid into the relevant bank account at the Bank of Sierra Leone.
Further, the subjects of the ACC’s investigation were revenue officers of the NRA in charge of processing and returning payments, positions which were also not the subject of our investigation. The subject and central focus of our investigation is the fact that some foreign airlines operating in Sierra Leone and their agents paid FTT funds into commercial banks rather than the designated FTT account at the Bank of Sierra Leone, and as a result, in 2019, a total of Le3,208,245,094.20 purported to have been paid into the Zenith Bank and Standard Chartered Bank cannot be accounted for. These FTT payments are from companies such as Turkish Airlines, Brussels Airlines, Royal Air Maroc, Air Peace, and Euro World, and were paid largely between September and December of 2019, not between March 2018 and September 2019 as in the case cited in the ACC press release.
The Africanist Press also uncovered, citing the NRA fraud investigation and an internal government audit, details that confirm that penalties totaling Le3,601,203,494 were levied on FTT taxpayers who failed to make payments on their tax liabilities on or before their due date. Even though letters were written to these taxpayers or their agents for 2018 and 2019, no evidence of payment or responses were seen in their respective files. We also highlighted that FTT revenues totaling Le13,842,773,928.66 were found in the accounts of the Bank of Sierra Leone for which no supporting documentation was submitted to ascertain the accuracy of the amount in the account.
Most importantly, we reported that in fiscal year 2019 the SLCAA, which is not authorized to assess and collect taxes in the country, collected and issued receipts to Air Peace and Royal Air Maroc, funds which could not also be traced into the respective bank account at the Bank of Sierra Leone. In the case of Air Peace, the missing funds, totaling Le997,803,438 and paid to SLCAA, could not be traced to accounts held at the Bank of Sierra Leone.
These instances show clearly that the ACC press release was addressing a different case of stolen tax revenues whose timeframe, subject matter, and focus are completely different than those reported in Africanist Press‘s October 15th story.
Such a blatantly misleading press release is likely meant to muddy the waters while offering the mere appearance of accountability at the ACC. The notion that the ACC had investigated and acted on the specific issues relating to the several and many instances of the missing billions of FTT revenues reported by the Africanist Press can reasonably be assumed to be deliberately false. The aim of such deflection is to deceive the public and cover-up a failure and unwillingness to investigate misappropriation of public funds under the current Bio administration.
As a matter of fact, aviation authority chief Baio denies the reports that FTT funds were missing altogether. He said categorically that the issue of Air Peace was the result of a mistake in a wire transfer in which the total of Le1.3 billion that is in dispute was “mistakenly lodged into the CAA Operating Account instead of the FTT Account at the Bank of Sierra Leone.” He claimed that the error was corrected and the funds were supposedly reversed from the SLCAA Operating Account and re-lodged into the FTT Account on April 2, 2019. “Air Peace mistakenly transferred Le1.3 billion into the CAA Operating Account instead of the FTT Account. Both accounts are held at the Bank of Sierra Leone but the said transaction was reversed and the money was transferred from the CAA Operating Account into the FTT Account,” he stated.
This statement directly counters the claims advanced by the ACC that the individuals responsible for the missing revenues reported by the Africanist Press are already on trial before a Freetown judge. The ACC claims on the one hand that Le1.7 billion of the missing funds had already been recovered by the ACC from a travel agency, while Baio claims the said funds were not misappropriated but wired wrongly by an airline into a different account of the SLCAA. This not only points to an effort to cover-up corrupt activities of current public officials, but it clearly shows the strategies used by officials of the current regime to misappropriate public funds. Namely, the notion that a major international airline might accidently pay taxes to a government entity not legally authorized to collect taxes, and that those funds might be mistakenly transferred to the wrong bank account despite the recent establishment of a single treasury account by the Bio administration, is an absurd proposition.
In short, there appears to be a deliberate institutional effort by the ACC to shield officials of the current administration from being investigated for obvious cases of misappropriation of public funds even when the evidence is brought to their attention. This effort by the ACC to heckle independent public probe into such graft operations of key officials of the Bio administration is becoming a familiar pattern. The ACC came to the defense of the Chief Minister when a newspaper editor in Freetown contacted the said official to cross-check an allegation of a US$1.5 million bribe.
We are publishing with this article, on the Africanist Press, bank statements, correspondences, and excerpts from the government fraud investigation and the internal audit report as evidence to illustrate the differences between what the ACC is claiming to have resolved and what recent corruption the Africanist Press has uncovered. Our earlier publication, with its attached evidence, on the Le3.2 billion missing foreign travel tax revenues can also be read on our website.