By Chernoh Alpha M. Bah, Matthew Anderson, & Mark Feldman
On March 1 of this year, Africanist Press released the first article in our ongoing investigative series on corruption within the government of Sierra Leone in the two years since Julius Maada Bio assumed power. The first and second installments of our investigation series highlighted disparities in the national salary structure and the ballooning of national payroll expenses by nearly 45% due to the appointment of SLPP party loyalists to lucrative government positions under Bio, and all this in a time of major economic crisis in the country.
We also highlighted the frivolous use of public funds for an unprecedented number of international trips undertaken by the president and SLPP elites in senior government positions. Following aggressive pushback and threats from the government, including arrests of innocent civil servants assumed to have been whistleblowers, we persisted with the release of the third part of our series on March 15, 2020. There, we highlighted how the Bio regime’s 2018 executive order on revenue mobilization, which centralized all revenue generation and expenditure in the hands of Bio’s Finance Minister Jacob Jusu Saffa, created an opaque and unaccountable means by which the administration can spend public funds with little to no oversight. We noted, specifically, how public funds had been funneled to non-budgetary activities, including to the Office of the First Lady on direct instruction from the President’s Office, despite repeated claims that the Office of the First Lady was not using any public funds.
Shortly after the publication of this third article, the Coronavirus outbreak reached global pandemic proportions. Given this, we put the publication of further installments of our Sierra Leone investigative series on hold, recognizing the need for collective reflection on issues of care and safety in the face of a raging global health crisis.
Over the last couple of weeks, Africanist Press has been monitoring African governments responses to the COVID 19 crisis, noting the implementation of diverse population containment measures and restrictions on individual freedoms across the continent. African governments have seized on the global health crisis as an opportunity to unleash police and military powers for the purpose of consolidating unpopular regimes. In Congo, South Africa, Liberia, Nigeria, and Guinea draconian regime tactics have been unleashed by unpopular governments in the name of fighting a global health crisis. In places like Sierra Leone, we have witnessed the cascading of multiple lockdown measures and state overreach following the declaration of a yearlong state of emergency.
Rather than using this outbreak as an opportunity to unite the country, protect its people, and collectively fight the Coronavirus pandemic, Africanist Press notes that the Bio regime has exploited the crisis to attack democracy, to implement draconian measures meant to silence criticism, to distract from ongoing corruption scandals, and to violently control a population already suffering from hunger and other economic difficulties.
Since its assumption of office, the Bio administration has escalated the harassment, arrest, and detention of opposition politicians and journalists in the country. In his first two years, Bio has conducted two treasons trials. The first trial involved guard troops of the former president; the lead accused in the trial reportedly escaped from detention, with no reports of his whereabouts since the alleged escape. The second is the recent trial of former defense minister Paolo Conteh who was charged and arrested under suspicious circumstances. These shady events, and the ongoing controversial trial of Paolo Conteh, are illustrative of the recent climate of political terror and state repression that has evolved in the country under the Bio regime.
It is within this context of repression and state sponsored anti-democratic aggression that today’s suspicious and fatal fire outbreak at Pademba Road Prison and the aggressive police and military response must be understood. While full details of what actually triggered the Pademba Road Prison incident are being pieced together by the Africanist Press, such tragic events and the subsequent state overreach are in line with the climate of creeping authoritarianism and repression that now pervades the country.
Thus, given the nature of the Bio regime’s recent actions amid the pandemic, we publish this editorial recommitting ourselves to defending free speech and democracy in Sierra Leone, including holding public officials accountable to basic standards of good governance. We are more committed than ever to continuing our investigation series and we call on all activists, journalists, and citizens of Sierra Leone to continuously monitor the evolving situation in the country to ensure the protection of democratic rights in these troubling times.