By Chernoh Alpha M. Bah, Matthew Anderson, and Mark Feldman
Official correspondences and bank statements on travel expenditures from the Office of the President of Sierra Leone uncovered by Africanist Press reveals shocking details on 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 for the month of December 2020 alone, the highest travel expenditure incurred in a single month by any sitting president of Sierra Leone since independence in 1961.
Documentary evidence, including bank withdrawal notes and financial statements examined by the Africanist Press, show expenses for presidential trips to Gabon, Ivory Coast, and Guinea in early to mid-December 2020, and his visit to Bonthe in southern Sierra Leone for the Christmas holidays. These statements show total costs of Le5,217,538,692.86 charged directly from the country’s Consolidated Revenue Fund (CRF). As a low-income country, Sierra Leone’s annual budgetary estimates for fiscal year 2020, approved by the country’s parliament in December 2019, stood at around Le8.6 trillion (about US$8.4 billion) and funded mostly by external credit and grants from international financial institutions and multilateral agencies like the International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank, and African Development Bank (ADB).
Among the president’s listed expenses were a cash withdrawal on December 4, 2020, of Le550,060,520.52 (US$53,908) from the Local and Overseas Travel Account held at the Bank of Sierra Leone to be used as per diem by the president for a three-day working visit to Gabon. This amount did not include flights and sea-coach tickets, which amounted to Le245,905,000.00 (US$24,000), also withdrawn by Mohamed S. Bayoh on the president’s behalf.
We examined the statement of accounting activities, especially withdrawals from the Local and Overseas Travel Account, and discovered details showing that both the president and his wife, and close official aides make daily cash withdrawals from the Bank of Sierra Leone, typically foreign currency, as imprest and per diems for international trips. In the first ten days of December 2020 alone, total cash withdrawals by the president from the Local and Overseas Travel Account amounted to Le830,505,520.52 (about US$83,000). These include smaller amounts ranging from Le10,290,000.00, to Le39,165,000.00, and Le20,000,000.00 respectively, all withdrawn by one Mohamed S. Bayoh between December 1, 2020, and December 10, 2020, on behalf of the president. We observed that these daily cash withdrawals by the president left the Local and Overseas Travel Account with a meager closing balance of Le88,471,319.30 (about US$8840) as of December 10, 2020.
Apart from these frequent withdrawals, however, we also noted a similar frequency of requests for fund transfers by officials of the president’s office and the Accountant General’s Department to replenish the Local and Overseas Account from the Consolidated Revenue Fund (CRF). These frequent account credits from the CRF are most often instantly withdrawn as cash by the president and his wife, and, in other cases, by his aides – mostly by Mohamed S. Bayoh and Musa K. Jajua – acting on instructions from the president himself.
In the course of our investigation, we tracked a particular transfer of Le2,000,000,000 (US$200,000) made to the Local and Overseas Travel Account on request from the Secretary to the President, Julius Sandy, on December 10, 2020, with a GOSL Cheque No.291799 to replenish the president’s travel account. This Le2 billion transfer (with transaction ID: FT2034599735) was credited into the travel account ahead of the president’s trip to Conakry and Abidjan for the controversial third-term inaugural ceremonies of presidents Alpha Conde of Guinea and Alhassan Ouattara of Ivory Coast. This particular transfer brought the Le88.4 million closing balance to a total of Le2,088,471,319.30 (US$205,000) on December 10, 2020.
However, we observed withdrawal details following the transfer of this Le2 billion and discovered that a cash total of Le909,710,163.44, almost half of the transferred amount, was instantly withdrawn from the travel account on December 11, 2020, less than 24 hours after the funds were transferred from the CRF. Three cash withdrawals were immediately made from the Local and Overseas Travel Account before the close of the next business day on December 11, 2020. These cash withdrawals included Le308,350,377.04 (US$30,232) to cover the cost of per diems for the First Lady Fatima Bio, the president’s wife, and another Le562,194,786.40 (US$55,120) for the president himself as per diem and imprest for his trips to Abidjan and Conakry. Another cash withdrawal of Le39,165,000.00 was also carried out by Mohamed S. Bayoh again on the same day. Thus, within four days, from the closing balance of Le2,088,471,319.30 that was in the travel account (including the Le2 billion transferred on December 10, 2020), the president and his wife took out a cash withdrawal of more than Le1 billion.
The central bank’s transaction details show that by December 18, 2020 – within a one-week period – the Local and Overseas Travel Account had a closing balance of just Le1,035,488,146.96. Earlier that day, we equally noticed that a total of Le120,000,000.00 was also withdrawn by Mohamed S. Bayoh on request from the president. Toward the close of business that same day, the Bank of Sierra Leone then again processed another transfer of Le2,500,000,000 (US$250,000) to replenish the president’s travel account after the aforementioned withdrawals. This transaction, FT2035357864, was authorized by letter dated December 17, 2020, from the Accountant General’s Department. This transfer brought the closing balance in the account to Le3,535,488,146.96. On the same day, Musa K. Jajua, another aide of the president took out Le1,300,000,000.00 (about US$130,000). We also discovered that the Le2.5 billion that was deposited on December 18, 2020, had equally been withdrawn in full by December 21, 2020 by Musa K. Jajua acting on instructions from the president. By December 22, 2020, three additional cash withdrawals of Le120,000,000.00 and Le161,950,000.00 were done by Mohamed S. Bayoh, and a further Le552,100,000.00 again by Musa Jajua between December 21, 2020 and December 22, 2020 respectively. Thus, we observed that from December 18 – 22, 2020, over Le3.3 billion Leones, including the Le2.5 billion transferred on December 18, 2020, was taken out of the Local and Overseas Travel Account ahead of the president’s visit to Bonthe for the Christmas holidays.
On a whole, we discovered that the aggregate withdrawals from the Local and Overseas Travel Account held at the Bank of Sierra Leone as of Christmas Eve (on December 24, 2020) shows 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 represents the highest monthly expenditure on travel per diems and imprest by any sitting president of Sierra Leone since independence in 1961. By Christmas Eve (December 24, 2020), when the president and his family were in his home district of Bonthe celebrating, the Local and Overseas Travel Account had a balance of only Le201,438,146.96. The exhausted travel account was nonetheless replenished again by an additional transfer of Le2,000,000,000.00 (about US$200,000) on December 24, 2020 by a GOSL Cheque No.291991, the last account transfer of the year into the said account.
These travel expenditure details illustrate what is now an obvious and consistent pattern of the Bio government’s official use of local and international official travels, especially those associated with presidential delegations, to transfer money amounting to billions of Leones to foreign destinations as per diems and travel-related expenditures. These huge monetary deductions and revenue losses resulting from overhead expenditures have not only added fiscal pressure on the country’s Consolidated Revenue Fund (CRF), but we discovered that such financial operations largely account for the currency shortage that hit the country in December 2020.
Africanist Press couldn’t reach the Ministry of Information and Communication for government’s reaction to these accounting details as phone calls to the minister went unanswered. We have published on the Africanist Press website a table showing the transaction details of the Local and Overseas Travel Account for the month of December 2020 to demonstrate the evidence upon which this report is based.