Illegal Public Spending: Sierra Leone’s First Lady Received Le29.7 Billion in Government Funds

By Chernoh Alpha M. Bah, Matthew Anderson, and Mark Feldman

Bank statements and other official documents on financial operations of the Government of Sierra Leone obtained by the Africanist Press show precisely how the wife of the president of Sierra Leone, Madam Fatima Jabbe Bio received nearly Le30 billion Leones (almost US$3 million) of government funds in less than three years after the inauguration of her husband, Julius Maada Bio as president of the country in May 2018.

The records on the finances and expenditures of the First Lady’s Office, uncovered by the Africanist Press, revealed that the organization’s operations received regular budgetary allocations from the Consolidated Revenue Fund (CRF) and the Finance Ministry despite the fact that the organization is a non-state institution and, according to the country’s public finance regulations, is not authorized to use state funds in its activities.

Account records held by the Bank of Sierra Leone (BSL), the country’s central banking institution, disclose that a total of Le29,721,905,000.00 (over US$2,972,000) of direct government funds were disbursed from the CRF into the BSL Bank Account of the Office of First Lady between June 2018 and December 2020.

Financial records of the Office of First Lady show detailed evidence of expenses from June 2018 to December 2020 that were charged directly from the country’s CRF to fund activities of a private organization run by the president’s wife. Account records held by the Bank of Sierra Leone (BSL), the country’s central banking institution, disclose that a total of Le29,721,905,000.00 (over US$2,972,000) of direct government funds were disbursed from the CRF into the BSL Bank Account of the Office of First Lady between June 2018 and December 2020.

Sierra Leone’s finance laws precludes the wife of a sitting president from receiving direct public funds to undertake any campaigns or public activities whilst in office. Documentary evidence reviewed by the Africanist Press shows that Fatima Bio, on the contrary, received at least Le49.5 billion (nearly US$5 million) in combined government funds, including Le29.7 billion transferred directly from the CRF into her BSL Account, which was opened in June 2018 by finance officials of the Bio administration. Documents on expenditure details of the First Lady’s Office show that a total of Le22,188,104,986.87 (about US$2.2 million) was withdrawn and spent by Fatima Bio within a 30-month period – from June 2018 to December 2020. Expenditure statements claimed that 85% of the Le27.9 billion disbursed into the BSL Bank Account of the Office of the First Lady were used mostly on furniture, events planning, hotel accommodation, travel-related costs, and staff expenses. Central Bank records and financial correspondence from the Office of the First Lady also state that the Le29.7 billion disbursed into the organization’s BSL Account does not include other government funds received directly from the Ministry of Finance, and those also deposited by telecommunications operators, and 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 from these diverse deposits into the RCB exceeded the total amount held by the First Lady at the BSL during these 30 months of the Bio administration.

We examined the BSL financial records from June 2018 to December 2020 and discovered that total funds received by Fatima Bio were twice the budgetary allocations for many government ministries and departments, making her the first wife of a sitting president of Sierra Leone to ever operate a fully-funded government bank account held by the country’s Central Bank.

Documents on expenditure details of the First Lady’s Office show that a total of Le22,188,104,986.87 (about US$2.2 million) was withdrawn and spent by Fatima Bio within a 30-month period – from June 2018 to December 2020.

The Central Bank’s transaction details show that the First Lady’s BSL Account was opened on June 28, 2018, with a GOSL Cheque No278076 in the amount of Le2.98 billion (about US$293,000). This amount, with transaction ID FT1817950910, was transferred directly from the CRF as the first half budget allocation for the Office of the First Lady in June 2018. This allocation was transferred one month after the inauguration of Maada Bio as president. The BSL’s transaction records further state that two additional transfers of Le874 million (US$187,000) and Le3,116,755,000 (over US$311,600) were also made from the CRF into the First Lady’s Account on November 16, 2018 and November 28, 2018 respectively. These two additional transactions – FT1832067295 and FT1833213220 – paid with GOSL Cheque Numbers 280411 and 280807, increased the total disbursements to the organization of the First Lady to Le7,890,755,000 (over US$789,000), one of the highest budgetary allocations from the CRF in 2018 during the first six months of the Bio administration.

Our investigation discovered that the Le7.89 billion allocated to the First Lady in the first six months of the Bio administration was twice the amount disbursed to the Vice President’s Office, and more than the budgetary allocations to other major government ministries, including Foreign Affairs, and the Social Welfare, Gender and Children’s Affairs Ministry in the second half of 2018. As of 31 December 2020, we discovered that the First Lady’s BSL Account held a closing balance of Le7,533,800,013.13 (about US$740,000); an amount that also exceeded all closing balances of most government ministries, including the remaining balances in the Imprest Accounts of the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Transport and Aviation, and the Social Welfare Ministry. We found, for instance, that the end-of-year balances in the Account of the Chief Minister’s Office was only Le171,121,583.91 (US$13,810), while the Vice President’s Office had Le1,947,936,623.44 (about US$93,000) balance towards the end of December 2020.

As of 31 December 2020, we discovered that the First Lady’s BSL Account held a closing balance of Le7,533,800,013.13 (about US$740,000); an amount that also exceeded all closing balances of most government ministries, including the remaining balances in the Imprest Accounts of the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Transport and Aviation, and the Social Welfare Ministry.

Africanist Press also examined total disbursements to the various CRF  accounts of government ministries, departments, and agencies between June 2018 and December 2020. We found that budgetary allocations to many government ministries and departments fell far below Le4 billion for most of 2018.  For example, from June to December 2018, the total disbursements to the Foreign Affairs Imprest Account was Le8,930,552,753 (about US$877,000). This money came primarily from foreign donors and multilateral agencies, particularly the Chinese Embassy in Freetown.

The aggregate funding from the Chinese Embassy to the Foreign Affairs Ministry’s Imprest Account in the first six months of the Bio administration totaled Le2,261,897,066.95 (about US$222,000) paid in two tranches on May 25, 2018, and June 25, 2018. The Chinese Embassy’s allocation, the largest single multilateral contribution to the Foreign Affairs Account in 2018, appeared to be the main funding source for the Foreign Affairs Imprest Account. However, the Le2.2 billion from the Chinese Embassy exceeded by far the government’s actual budgetary allocation to the Foreign Affairs Ministry of Le999,089,111 (about US$98,000). Actual disbursement from the CRF to the Foreign Affairs Ministry in 2018 was only Le999,089,111 (about US$98,000) paid in three tranches. These amounts included two small transactions (FT1830451671 and FT1830465031) in the amounts of Le39,972,510 (about US$4000) and Le25,667,601 (about US$2500) paid on October 31, 2018, with GOSL cheque numbers 279741 and 279742 respectively. The third CRF transfer (FT1835295859) into the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Imprest Account was conducted on December 18, 2018 with GOSL cheque number 281452 for an amount of Le933,449,000 (about US$92,000). These three transactions constituted only the CRF’s direct budgetary payments of Le999.089,111 (US$98,000) to the Foreign Affairs Ministry’s Imprest Account for the first six months of the Bio administration in 2018. This amount was almost Le7 billion less than the total budgetary payments made to the First Lady’s Office for the same period in 2018.

The aggregate funding from the Chinese Embassy to the Foreign Affairs Ministry’s Imprest Account in the first six months of the Bio administration totaled Le2,261,897,066.95 (about US$222,000) paid in two tranches on May 25, 2018, and June 25, 2018. The Chinese Embassy’s allocation, the largest single multilateral contribution to the Foreign Affairs Account in 2018, appeared to be the main funding source for the Foreign Affairs Imprest Account.

As we reported earlier, within the first six months after the First Lady’s Account was opened, the Office of the First Lady received Le7,890,755,000 (over US$789,000) from the CRF as direct budgetary support in 2018 alone. In other words, the financial statements show that without multilateral support, especially from the Chinese Embassy in Freetown, the Foreign Affairs Ministry of Sierra Leone had seven times less than the amount allocated to the First Lady’s Office. We discovered that by the end of December 2020, for instance, BSL’s financial records on government accounts held at the Central Bank showed a negative balance of Le105,966,519.51 (about US$10,000) in the Foreign Affairs Imprest Account; whereas the Office of the First Lady had more than Le7.5 billion (over US$735,000) remaining balance despite the large withdrawals we discovered from the organization’s account in fiscal year 2020.

An examination of the BSL’s financial records for other government ministries and agencies, like the Ministry of Social Welfare, revealed an even sharper comparison. For example, as of December 28, 2020, the Ministry of Social Welfare had a balance of Le386,733,695.21 (about US$38,000) , whilst the Mines and Mineral Resources Ministry had a remaining balance of only Le16,347,826.45 (US$1600), and the Information and Communication Ministry’s Account showed a closing balance of Le205,479,946 (about US$20,000). The budgetary allocations to all these ministries from June 2018 to December 2020 were far less than the total allocations to the First Lady’s Office in the course of those two and a half years.

Along with these budgetary allocations and disbursements, we also observed withdrawal records from the Account of the First Lady, and we found that as of December 28, 2018 – in the first six months of the Bio administration alone – a total of Le5,490,819,078 (about US$539,000) was withdrawn and spent by the First Lady mostly on alleged payments for furniture, electronics, fuel, hotel accommodation, travel-related costs, and for media and event organizing services. These payments included a cumulative total of Le296,493,752 (about US$24,000) paid to the House of Electronics, payments totaling Le614,282,211 (about US$60,000) made to AA Enterprises for furniture for the Office of the First Lady, a total of Le374,112,000 (about US$36,000) to Demba Enterprises for fuel charges allegedly incurred by the First Lady, and other payments totaling Le111,585,600 (about US$11,000) to YOZ Services for media promotion, and an aggregate total of Le850,000,000 (about US$83,000) paid to All Events Concepts, and about Le785,991,937 (about US$77,000) to Africa Media (SL) Limited. The payments to YOZ, All Events Concepts, and Africa Media were allegedly for media and event promotion services. Payments to All Events Concepts included two transactions (FT1833213220 and FT1833328225) carried out on November 28 and 29, 2018, for the amounts of Le255,158,451 (about US$25,000) and Le178,618,916 (about US$14,000). Two other additional payments (FT1833898326 and FT1834431721) to All Events Concepts were also made on December 4 and December 10, 2018, for the amounts of Le240,000,000 (about US$24,000) and Le176,222,633 (about US$17,000), respectively. The transaction notes state that these payments totaling about Le2.2 billion (about US$214,000) were for the launching of the First Lady’s Flagship Program – the Hands Off Our Girls Campaign – held on December 14-15, 2018. Of interest, there is no indication that the Le2.2 billion to launch the Hands Off Our Girls Campaign included any funds to run the program or to any communities involved.

We discovered that by the end of December 2020, for instance, BSL’s financial records on government accounts held at the Central Bank showed a negative balance of Le105,966,519.51 (about US$10,000) in the Foreign Affairs Imprest Account; whereas the Office of the First Lady had more than Le7.5 billion (over US$735,000) remaining balance despite the large withdrawals we discovered from the organization’s account in fiscal year 2020.

Other withdrawal transactions from the First Lady’s account included a payment of Le664,559,910 (about US$65,000) paid to Doren Travels on December 12, 2018, and another Le245,700,000 (about US$20,000) paid to Sea Bird Express to cover travel costs for guests invited to the Hands Off Our Girls Campaign launch in December 2018. The rest of the other transactions from the account are several cash withdrawals on diverse dates between June 28, 2018, and December 28, 2018, by different individuals including Mohamed Dassin, Edward P. Sam, Mariatu Finoh, and Sheik Salim Feika.

Thus, the Africanist Press has unearthed another aspect of corruption in public finance management under President Maada Bio’s administration. Beginning with an article published on March 15, 2020, we highlighted the Bio administration’s use of off-budget expenditures made without public scrutiny or parliamentary authority. We showed how off-budgetary expenditures and frivolous public spending intensified following the president’s April 9, 2018 Executive Order on revenue mobilization. We reported that the president’s decision to implement a single treasury account and his order to centralize all government revenue, including mobilization and expenditures, in the hands of the Finance Minister, Jacob Jusu Saffa, created a non-transparent and unaccountable mechanism in the management of public finance and national revenue allocations.

Our investigation discovered, in particular, that the creation of a centralized public finance mechanism, revolving around the presidency and the finance ministry, has enabled top finance officials in the Finance Ministry and those in the President’s Office and the First Lady’s Office to freely and frivolously disperse, dispense, and utilize national revenue and resources to fund non-budgetary and overhead activities.Thus, we conclude that the president’s April 2018 Executive Order to establish a single treasury account has not only removed previously existing fiscal oversight on government expenditure and budgetary allocation, but it also facilitated surreptitious disbursement of state revenues and contracts to relatives of the president, to non-state institutions, wire transfers in foreign currency to foreign accounts, and to the Office of the First Lady.

We have published on the Africanist Press website the BSL’s record of transactions from the Account of the Office of the First Lady to demonstrate the evidence upon which this report is based. The document can be downloaded here: Bank of Sierra Leone Transactions of the Office of the First Lady for 2018

6 thoughts on “Illegal Public Spending: Sierra Leone’s First Lady Received Le29.7 Billion in Government Funds”

  1. When most governmental institutions are not effectively functioning because of inadequate funds, we witness one that is not even supposed to be funded by our nation’s money enjoying an overflow of funding. Irony, misdirection and a loss of purpose is gradually sinking my nation.

  2. Thieves wives do all the lavish spendind. If Bio stole millions of $ in 3mths. What are you expecting now that he have 5yrs there.

  3. Abdulrahman T Wurie

    It’s disgraceful how this woman is busy misusing government money all in the name of his position but God will judge her someday

  4. We applaud and commend your great selfless and in depth findings of the reckless spending of our country’s money by these hoodlum and racketeers, Maada Bio and wife, and the entire administration of Sierra Leone. We the people of Sierra Leone would like The Africanist Press led by Chernor Bah and Team to ensure the International community, African Union, European Union, China, and all developmental partners be informed about corrupt practices of the Sierra Leone People’s Party. Thank you for the hard work. Fatima Bio is on social media defending herself with guilt written all over face.

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