By Chernoh Alpha M. Bah, Matthew Anderson, and Mark Feldman
In our first report on the Office of the Chief Minister of Sierra Leone published on February 14, 2021, we showed how the Office of the Chief Minister spent over Le34.2 billion Leones (more than US$3.4 million) in less than three years without following the public finance laws and the public procurement regulations written into Sierra Leonean law. We highlighted how the allocations to the Chief Minister’s Office was spent mostly on travel per diems (expenses listed do not include airfares) and for procurement of goods and services that did not undergo an official competitive bidding process with open requests. We stated, in particular, that the Chief Minister’s Office carried out several wire transfers of hundreds of millions of Leones to foreign media agencies and technology companies in Europe, China, and the United States for consultancy services, public relations operations, and information technology products that were mostly never advertised or put on an open bid. Records of these large monetary transactions and wire transfer payments reveal that the financial transactions of the Chief Minister’s Office were non-compliant with Sierra Leone’s public finance laws and the public procurement regulations.
In a press release issued on February 16, 2021, in response to the Africanist Press, the Permanent Secretary of the Chief Minister’s Office claimed that “all procurements undertaken by the Office of the Chief Minister were done in accordance with the Procurement Act of 2016,” citing alleged authorization from Sierra Leone’s National Public Procurement Authority (NPPA) to restrict bidding for services and goods procured by the Chief Minister’s Office. In a local radio interview in Freetown on Monday 15 February 2021, the head of the NPPA – the institution responsible for enforcing compliance of procurement regulation – accepted that the institution did authorize the Chief Minister’s Office to undertake procurement activities without a competitive bidding process or tender.
A civil society organization in Sierra Leone, Budget Advocacy Network (BAN) criticized the NPPA for defending the obvious violation of procurement procedures and regulations by the Chief Minister’s Office and other government agencies. “BAN is concerned that the NPPA is actually neglecting some aspects of its statutory role of properly monitoring national procurement,” the organization said in its press release issued on February 18, 2020.
In this report, however, we show how expenditures of the Chief Minister’s Office between 2018 and 2020 did not only violate the procurement rules and regulations, but we also highlight how these payments and cash withdrawals further demonstrate a pattern of irregular public finance activity. We focus mostly on repeated and frequent cash withdrawals by specific individuals and fund transfers to consultants that demonstrate the irregular spending of public funds by the Office of the Chief Minister.
Documents on the expenditure details of the Office of the Chief Minister of Sierra Leone, reviewed by the Africanist Press, show precisely that large cash withdrawals alone amounted to over Le10 billion Leones (more than US$1 million) from the Imprest Account of the Chief Minister from August 2018 to December 2020. We reviewed transaction records and financial documents from the Chief Minister’s Office, and we discovered that, in 2018 alone, about 60% of the of the Chief Minister’s expenditure details represented daily cash withdrawals by several officials with weak or unstated purpose of the expenses.
Transactions were withdrawn mostly by close aides of the Chief Minister David Francis, and a few other employee’s contrary to the finance laws and regulations of the country. We observed in particular that most cash withdrawals were carried out by Sidique Jabbe on behalf of the Chief Minister. Between 14 September 2018 and 27 December 2018, within the first three months after the appointment of David Francis as chief minister, cash withdrawals by Sidique Jabbe alone amounted to Le 1,455,703,199. These transactions are in various amounts that range from Le 1,450,000 to Le50,000,000 and between Le100,000,000 to Le150,000,000 on several single transactions. We tracked a total of about 80 cash withdrawal transactions within the last quarter of 2018 alone, amounting to Le1.4 billion; all carried out by Sidique Jabbie.
On October 26, 2018, for example, we identified four separate cash withdrawals conducted on the same business day by Sidique Jabbe totaling Le68,150,000. These cash payments were carried out in smaller amounts that included single withdrawal transactions of Le50,000,000 (TT1827606104), LeLe12,000,000 (TT1829974446), Le3,650,000 (TT1829927413), and Le2,500,000 (TT1829927413). A similar pattern of smaller cash withdrawals was also carried out on 30 October 2018 in the amounts of Le29,500,000 (TT1830370898), Le12,260,000 (TT1830300030), Le12,260,000 (TT1830300031), and Le8,750,000 (TT1830351804); all totaling Le62,770,000 taken out by Sidique Jabbe again.
Upon further observation of these transactions, we noticed that for the most part, the pattern of splitting cash withdrawals into smaller multiple amounts drawn out on a single business day recurred right through the expenditure details of the Chief Minister’s Account. In some cases, we also observed that multiple cash withdrawals in larger amounts that range between Le60,000,000 and Le150,000,000 were also evidenced in the transaction details of the Chief Minister’s Account. For instance, two cash withdrawal transactions in the amounts of Le150,000,000 (TT1832630143) and Le 100,000,000 (TT1832600752) were carried out by Sidique Jabbe on November 22, 2020.
We calculated the frequency of cash withdrawals on a weekly basis and we discovered at least in some weeks, withdrawal transactions by Sidique Jabbe alone totaled around Le250,000,000 to Le350,000,000. For example, in the third week of November 2018 (from November 15-22, 2018) cash withdrawn by Sidique Jabbe was to the tune of Le326,196,973. Between December 20, 2018 and December 27, 2018 total cash withdrawals by Sidique Jabbe was a total of Le537,450,000; all taken out in a combination of small and larger amounts ranging from L2,500,000 to Le157,500,000. We also observed withdrawal notes from the Bank of Sierra Leone (BSL), the country’s Central Bank, and the administrative records from the Chief Minister’s Office and found no proper accounting or administrative records stating the purposes for which these frequent cash withdrawals were made and how they were actually spent. While some of these large cash transactions taken out by Sidique Jabbe were usually split into smaller amounts, perhaps to avoid the payment thresholds of Le60 million, we also discovered several other large cash withdrawal transactions that were sometimes issued in Cheques of Le75,127,500 and Le157,000,000; amounts that exceeded the supposed transaction thresholds governing the withdrawal of cheque payments. For instance, on November 18, 2020, a cash transaction with a cheque payment of Le80,000,000 (TT203233469) was carried out by Sidique Jabbe, an amount that exceeded the supposed established threshold for such payments. Similar cash payments were equally issued in Cheques of Le72,000,000 (TT2015699045) and Le75,000,000 (TT2024168626) respectively; all withdrawn diversely on June 4, 2020 and August 28, 2020. We then aggregated total cash withdrawals by Sidique Jabbe from the Chief Minister’s Account, and we discovered that a cumulative total of Le5,629,039,522.91 was withdrawn cash by Jabbe alone between September 2018 and December 2020. We found no administrative records in the Chief Minister’s Expenditure Statements indicating the purposes for which these various cash withdrawals and payments were made.
However, these cash withdrawals do not include cash transactions by various other individuals like Dudley E. Cowan, Lamin Sheriff, Jasper Sembie, and the multiple foreign currency withdrawals taken out as per diem by senior officials in the Chief Minister’s Office. For example, cash withdrawals by Dudley Cowan between January 7, 2020 and January 30, 2020 were also to the tune of Le201,748,135.00. We calculated all cash withdrawals drawn out of the Chief Minister’s Account from August 2018 to December 2020, and we discovered that a total of over Le10 billion in cash was withdrawn by various individuals in the Office of Chief Minister in less than three years of the Bio administration. These transactions do include various fund transfers to consultants and SWIFT payments to international service providers, including media and public relations agencies contracted through the Directorate of Science, Technology, and Innovation (DSTI).
Thus, we conclude that contrary to Bio’s pledge to curb financial indiscipline and limit waste in government spending, we note glaring evidence of frivolous public spending and irregular financial payments in the expenditure details of the Chief Minister’s Office. Besides the huge amounts withdrawn by senior officials in the Chief Minister’s Office as international travel per diem, we find that the establishment of a Single Treasury Account (TSA) by President Bio has led to an irregular disbursement of public funds by the Finance Minister without the necessary oversight from other government institutions nor the public. The result has been a troubling rise in non-scrutinized use of public funds by leading members of the Bio administration, including those in the Office of the Chief Minister. In subsequent articles of the Missing Billion Series, Africanist Press will continue our examination of the diverse ways the centralization of government revenue mobilization and spending conceals this pervasive non-scrutinized public spending and financial waste that now characterize the Bio administration.
We have published on the Africanist Press website details of these various cash withdrawals from the Accounts of the Chief Minister’s Office. You can also download the CASH WITHDRAWALS by SIDIQUE JABBIE in 2020 here.