By Chernoh Alpha M. Bah, Matthew Anderson, and Mark Feldman
In our January 5th article on travel expenditures by the President of Sierra Leone, we reported how the country’s president Julius Maada Bio, and his wife Fatima Bio, spent more than Le5.2 billion (over US$520,000) on travel costs and per diems in December 2020. We highlighted, in particular, that aggregate withdrawals from the Local and Overseas Travel Account held at the Bank of Sierra Leone (BSL, the nation’s Central Bank) as of Christmas Eve (on December 24, 2020) show that a cumulative Le5,217,538,692.86 was withdrawn in December 2020 alone by President Julius Maada Bio and his wife. This total amount, we noted, represented the highest monthly expenditure on travel per diems and imprest by any sitting president of Sierra Leone since independence in 1961.
In addition to the President’s December 2020 expenditure, we further investigated BSL financial records on presidential trips between President Bio’s inauguration in May 2018 and December 2020 and all BSL wire transfers and withdrawal notes from August 1, 2010, through September 30, 2020. In the course of our investigation, we discovered evidence that reveals the use of local and international travel by officials of the Bio government, including the President himself, to move foreign currencies amounting to billions of Leones (millions of US$) out of Sierra Leone to several foreign destinations under the guise of per diems and imprest. These monetary exports to international destinations have been regular and frequent when senior Bio officials have traveled since Bio assumed office in May 2018.
Further, between August 26 and September 30, 2020 alone, President Bio withdrew a cumulative Le10,117,531,840.00 (over US$1 million) from the Local and Overseas Travel Account for a supposed emergency trip to Lebanon. The amounts, in question, comprised an aggregate total of Le7,586,450,552.00 (over US$758,000) spent on fees paid to a private air charter, alleged payment for the president’s medical bill, and daily subsistence allowances – DSA – for the First Lady Fatima Bio, and other members of the delegation. Other amounts included cash withdrawals carried out on dates between August 27, 2020 and September 30, 2020 in amounts ranging from Le20,400,000.00 (US$2,040) to Le75,000,000.00 (US$7,500), and Le200,000,000.00 (US$20,000) respectively; all withdrawn by close aides of the president – most notably Musa K. Jajua and Mohamed S. Bayoh.
We noticed in particular that on August 26, 2020 – a day before the president’s departure for Lebanon – BSL processed a transfer of Le10 billion Leones (US$1 million) from the Consolidated Revenue Fund (CRF) into the Local and Overseas Travel Account. This transaction, FT2023902311, was authorized by a letter dated August 26, 2020 from the Accountant General’s Department (AGD). We observed that three withdrawal transactions were carried out on August 27, 2020 from the Local and Overseas Travel Account, less than 24 hours after the Le10 billion Leones was posted to the travel account. The first transaction on that day was an outward SWIFT (international wire) payment (FT2024015064) of Le1.088,781,100.00 (about US$108,800) made to a private air charter service company, Davis and Dann Limited as cost for a chartered aircraft from Lungi International Airport to Beirut. The second transaction (TT2024066186) was a cash withdrawal of US$410,000 (Le4,058,184,100.00) by the president on that same day – August 27, 2020 – allegedly for medical bills, and DSA for his wife, and other delegation members. The Bank of Sierra Leone’s withdrawal records noted specifically that the US$410,000 cash transaction (TT2024066186) was for payment of the president’s medical bill, and the DSA for his wife and delegation members. A third cash withdrawal transaction (TT2024069755) of Le2,940,000.00 was also completed before the close of that same business day (August 27, 2020) by Mohamed S. Bayoh, one of the close aides of the president.
To put this cash withdrawal into perspective, we examined BSL’s transaction records from January 2000 to December 2020. The single cash withdrawal of US$410,000 on August 27, 2020 by President Maada Bio represented the largest cash withdrawal on a single transaction from the BSL over the last 20 years by any president. We also noticed glaring discrepancies between official records at BSL and the AGD regarding the alleged purpose of the Lebanon trip. A State House press release issued on August 27, 2020 – the day of the withdrawal – claimed that the president was heading to Lebanon on a one-week private visit, while records at the BSL and AGD state that the money was to pay the president’s medical bill.
“This visit will further strengthen ties between the two nations,” the State House press release stated, in direct contrast to official records at BSL and the AGD regarding the purpose of the said trip.
We further observed transaction details at the BSL following the president’s departure on August 27, 2020, and another cash withdrawal (TT2026000016) for US$67,200 (Le665,021,952.00) completed three weeks later – on September 16, 2020 – by order of the First Lady Fatima Bio to be used as additional payment for alleged medical treatment overseas.
We discovered absolutely no evidence that any such payment was made in Lebanon for medical expenses incurred by the president or First Lady. On additional examination of BSL’s withdrawal records, especially transactions from the Local and Overseas Travel Account from September 17 -30, 2020, we found a total of 12 transactions that occurred in the account within the last two weeks of September 2020. These transactions included an outgoing SWIFT payment on September 18, 2020 (FTT2026150076) in the amount of Le1,298,983,400.00 (about US$129,000) to Davis and Dann Limited for a chartered aircraft from Beiruit to Lungi International Airport. Three other smaller withdrawals totaling Le24,690,000 (about US$2,460) by Mohamed S. Bayoh preceded this SWIFT transfer.
Records uncovered by the Africanist Press indicate that upon the President’s return from Lebanon, a cash deposit of US$12,000 (Le117,531,840.00) was made into Local and Overseas Travel Account on September 22, 2020 to refund unutilized per diem by the President from his Lebanon trip. To be clear, from the more than US$500,000 cash taken out of the Bank of Sierra Leone (BSL) by the president for his Lebanon trip, only US$12,000 was returned to the central bank as the unutilized balance upon his return to Freetown. Of interest, we noticed that a total of Le200,000,000.00 (about US$20,000) that included the US$12,000 returned on September 22 was also withdrawn on September 29, 2020 – seven days after the Lebanon trip. This transaction, TT2027333915, was done by Musa K. Jajua on the instruction of the President. The central bank’s transaction details also show that two additional large transactions in the amounts of Le75,000,000 and Le140,000,000 respectively were also drawn out by Mohamed S. Bayoh on September 30, 2020.
Africanist Press couldn’t reach the Ministry of Information and Communication for government’s reaction to these expenditure details as phone calls to the minister went unanswered. As we described in our first report on January 5, 2020, these travel expenditure details illustrate how officials of the Bio administration are consistently using international travels to transfer cash amounting to billions of Leones to foreign destinations in the guise of per diems and other travel-related expenses. These financial operations – the transportation of large amounts of foreign currency overseas through travel by government officials – fits the definition of illegal financial flows organized under the guise of diplomatic travels.
A recent annual report of the Global Financial Integrity (GFI) found that the Coronavirus pandemic has resulted in a potential increase in the levels of illicit financial flows from developing countries that are going undetected within the global financial system due to the pandemic. A recent study by the Institute of International Finance (IIF) estimated the value of global illicit financial flows to be around 2% to 5% of global GDP annually. This translates to somewhere between US$800 billion and US$2 trillion. A similar analysis of trade-related financial flows in 148 developing countries over a 10-year period by Transparency International discovered that an average of 27% were potentially related to illegal activity, and 45% of those financial flows ended up in offshore financial centers. This information indicates that public service funds meant for health care and municipal infrastructure were diverted from intended beneficiaries.
In subsequent articles, we intend to aggregate the cumulative amounts in foreign currencies taken out by some of the top officials in the Bio administration since they assumed power in May 2018. We have published on the Africanist Press website a table showing the transaction details on presidential expenditure for the Lebanon trip to demonstrate the evidence upon which this second report is based.