By Chernoh Alpha M. Bah, Matthew Anderson, and Mark Feldman
Sierra Leone’s Finance Ministry and officials in charge of the country’s COVID-19 response program have been holding billions of Leones (millions of US dollars) in public revenues received from COVID response services in a private bank account in direct violation of the country’s public finance laws and regulations.
The Public Financial Management Act of 2016, the law that governs the use of public funds, mandates Sierra Leone’s Finance Minister to establish a Treasury Single Account (TSA) at the Bank of Sierra Leone (BSL) for the management of all public funds.
“Any bank accounts of budgetary agencies, subvented agencies, or other entities in the central government, whether in Sierra Leone or elsewhere, shall not be opened or closed except under the authority of the Minister signified by the Accountant-General, and no bank may open any such account without such authority,” Section 47(4) of the Act states.
However, financial records of the government of Sierra Leone accessed by the Africanist Press show that over Le18.1 billion (nearly US$2 million) raised domestically through services related to COVID-19 operations, such as testing, have been kept in a private bank account for almost a year instead of being transferred into the Treasury Single Account (TSA), the government’s central account held at the Bank of Sierra Leone (BSL).
On assuming office in early April 2018, President Maada Bio announced the Executive Order on Domestic Revenue Mobilization instructing the establishment of the TSA and the implementation of the 2017 Fiscal Management and Control Act.
“All ministries, departments, and agencies of government that collect and retain government revenues are hereby directed to transfer all such revenues into the consolidated revenue fund with immediate effect consistent with the provisions of the Fiscal Management and Control Act, 2017,” President Bio announced on 9 April 2018. The president’s executive order on domestic revenue also instructed the Accountant General’s Office to close all revenue collection accounts of government agencies held in private commercial banks and to reopen new bank accounts for those agencies at the BSL for the collection of the revenues previously administered by government agencies.
Africanist Press discovered that a total of Le18,133,253,088.50 (almost US$2 million) from COVID lab testing fees paid by individuals in Sierra Leone between 21 July, 2020, and 26 May, 2021, are being held in a private bank account with the Union Trust Bank (UTB), a private bank in Freetown, in violation of both the 2017 Fiscal Management and Control Act and the 2016 Public Financial Management Act, the laws that govern the management and use of public revenues in Sierra Leone.
Section 3 of the 2017 Fiscal Management and Control Act, for instance, directs all Sierra Leone government agencies to transfer revenues and other monies received by any agency into the CRF held at the BSL.
The Act specifically provides in Section 3(2) that “where in any enactment it is provided that revenues or other monies received by an agency of government are to be retained by that agency for any purpose, including defraying the expenses of that agency, such revenues or other monies shall be paid into the Consolidated Fund notwithstanding any provision to the contrary contained in the enactment.”
Africanist Press discovered that Sierra Leone’s Finance Ministry officials and the National Coronavirus Emergency Response Center (NaCOVERC) have been holding over Le18.1 billion in public revenues in a separate bank account opened on 21 July, 2020, with UTB in violation of the public finance laws and the president’s executive order that established the TSA in April 2018.
Our investigation discovered in particular that Finance Ministry officials and NaCOVERC opened a special COVID-19 Lab Account (#00 4001 1064 7412 0138) at the UTB on 21 July 2020, and enstated Sheku A.F. Bangura, the then Deputy Finance Minister II, and Sylvester Johnny, NaCOVERC’s head of Administration and Finance, as principal signatories to the account.
Both Bangura and Johnny are not authorized under Sierra Leone’s finance laws to collect revenues or serve as custodians of public funds. Section 51(1) of the Public Financial Management Act of 2016 provides that persons collecting, receiving, or being in custody of any public money shall promptly deposit the said money into the designated bank account in “such manner and within such period as prescribed by the Accountant-General.”
We discovered that Bangura and Johnny have kept more than Le18 billion (nearly US$2 million) from Coronavirus lab test fees at the UTB for nearly a year without transferring any amounts to the CRF Accounts at the BSL as required by law.
The 2008 Sierra Leone Anti-Corruption Act states in Section 48(2) that “any person whose functions concern the administration, custody, management, receipt or use of any part of public revenues or public property commits offence if he willfully or negligently fails to comply with any law or applicable procedures and guidelines relating to the procurement, allocation, sale or disposal of property, tendering of contracts, management of funds, or incurring of expenditures.”
The COVID 19 Lab Account at the UTB was opened in July 2020 following the Sierra Leone government’s announcement of new travel measures to regulate international travel into the country. The measures, introduced months after a national lockdown, required individuals traveling in and out of Sierra Leone to provide health certificates showing proof of negative COVID-19 test results taken within 72 hours of their arrival or departure.
“All passengers are subjected to a mandatory Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) COVID-19 test with a negative result issued no longer than 72hrs before departure at the Freetown International Airport,” a statement issued on 22 July 2020 by NaCOVERC stated.
In late July 2020, the government established a dedicated travel portal to administer the PCR laboratory COVID-19 test. The travel portal enables travelers to request their pre-departure tests, make payments for the test, and schedule sample collection. The PCR test fees are between Le500,000 (US$50) and Le800,000 (US$80), exempting only children 2 years old and younger.
“Individual travelers are to pay the cost for the PCR COVID-19 test and they are to use the government of Sierra Leone’s Travel Portal to request their test,” NaCOVERC officials said, adding that “passengers with negative PCR results will receive e-confirmation and certificates ahead of travel.”
Africanist Press discovered that between July 21, 2020, and May 26 2021, a total of 12,300 transactions representing payments for coronavirus lab tests, amounting to a total of Le18,133,253,088.50 were made by individuals and groups who mostly traveled out of Sierra Leone between July 2020 and May 2021. These transactions include Le1.2 billion (about US$122,000) as express payments made between 29 July 2020 and 25 May 2021. Express COVID-19 test payments are payments of Le800,000 (US$80) by individuals requesting an expedited test result, a service that requires an additional fee of Le300,000 (US$30) to the normal test fees of Le500,000 (US$50).
We calculated a total of 1,516 of such payments that were made into the UTB Covid-19 Lab Account by individuals as fees for express COVID-19 tests between July 2020 and May 2021 amounting to an aggregate of Le1,212,800,000.00. Aside from the COVID express payments, we also found 6,896 payments amounting to Le3.4 billion (over US$340,000) that were made as regular payments for COVID-19 tests. These transactions are classified as normal payments of Le500,000 (US$50) testing fees. These payments total Le3,448,000,000 (about US$349,000) representing 19% of all fees paid into the COVID-19 Lab Account between July 2020 and May 2021.
We also calculated a total of 2,815 transactions that represented payments of Le700,000, which amounted to Le1,969,800,000.00 (about US$197,000). These were listed as payments made from home by individuals between 22 July 2020, and 26 May, 2021, also for COVID tests. Thus, we discovered that a total of 11,228 individual transactions representing 37% of all COVID test payments were paid into the UTB COVID-19 Lab Account from 22 July 2020 to 26 May 2021. The aggregate total of all individual payments for COVID tests is Le6,630,600,000.00 (about US$663,000).
We also observed the diverse methods of payments, including the various fee payments made by individuals, and we discovered that, for the most part, payments were made electronically through mobile phone operators like Africell and Orange. Total payments that were made through both Africell and Orange transfers amounted to Le11,418,078,000.00 (over US$1 million), representing 63% of all payments into the COVID-19 Lab Account since July 2020. It is, however, doubtful whether the use of telephone companies to collect huge sums of state revenues are in compliance with the public finance laws and regulations. It is also unknown what percentage of testing fees were paid to Africell and Orange.
Africanist Press could not reach Ministry of Finance officials or NaCOVERC for comments regarding the status of the UTB COVID-19 Lab Account and why monies have not been transferred into the CRF. Phone calls to both agencies went unanswered. However, Sheku Bangura, the then Deputy Finance Minister II and principal signatory to the UTB COVID-19 Lab Account, was recently appointed to head NaCOVERC in a mini-cabinet transfer announced by President Bio on 30 April 2021, and Jacob Jusu Saffa, the Finance Minister under whose directive the Account was opened, is now the Chief Minister.