By Chernoh Alpha M. Bah, Matthew Anderson, and Mark Feldman
Sierra Leone’s president, Julius Maada Bio and First Lady Fatima Bio cumulatively withdrew over Le71.4 billion as international travel per diem in 2022 alone, new financial records of the Bank of Sierra Leone (BSL) accessed by the Africanist Press has revealed.
The transactions included direct cash withdrawals by President Bio and First Lady Fatima Bio that were processed as travel imprest for international trips made by the President and his wife between January and December 2022. The records also included a selected amount of funds diversely transferred to various Sierra Leonean embassies during the same period to meet alleged travel and accommodation costs of the president. In total, Africanist Press found that Le71,409,752,124.00 was cumulatively withdrawn by the President and First Lady from the Local and Overseas Travel Account alone in FY2022. These aggregated amounts do not include funds transferred directly to air charter companies, event planning groups, and travel agencies as separate payments for chattered flights, travel tickets, and for event planning and promotions associated with the president’s international travels.
Africanist Press discovered that on average President Bio’s took nearly Le7 billion each month as travel per diem while traveling out of the country in FY2022. For instance, we aggregated 22 financial transactions totaling Le27,852,438,031.00 that were processed on diverse dates between 27th May 2022 and 14th September 2022 as travel imprest for the President for his trips to Nairobi, London, and New York.
We discovered that on each trip, President Bio and First Lady Fatima Bio jointly transported a minimum of Le7.2 billion in corresponding foreign currencies abroad and they made no refund of unused amounts on their return to Freetown after each trip. For the New York trip, Africanist Press identified five transactions amounting to US$513,073 that were processed between 2nd September 2022 and 14th September 2022 to pay for alleged hotel bills, transportation costs, and per diems for the President and First Lady while visiting New York. The five transactions included three international wire transfers totaling US$353,346 and processed diversely between 2nd September 2022 and 13th September 2022. In addition to these transfers, we identified two other cash withdrawals totaling US$159,727 also processed on 14th September 2022 as per diems for President Bio and First Lady Fatima Bio.
We also identified similar transactions in relation to the London trip in July 2022 where £94,050 was transferred to the Sierra Leone London Mission on 27th July 2022 for the alleged purpose of the president’s visit. A letter from the Accountant General’s Department (REF#: AGD/YB/BOSL/22/607) dated 27th July 2022 authorized the Governor of the Bank of Sierra Leone (BSL) to transfer the said funds on instructions from Financial Secretary Sahr Jusu.
Similarly, on 27th June 2022 another transaction of Le640,370,700 was charged out of the President’s Local and Overseas Travel Account # 0112007302 through a letter of payment (REF# AGD/YB/BOSL/22/532) from the Account General’s Department for supposed “hotel accommodation of the presidential visit to Paris, France for UNESCO’s Pre-Summit from 25th – 30th June 2022.”
Thus, between 15th June 2022 and 10th August 2022 when state-orchestrated street protests erupted across major towns in Sierra Leone, at least Le27 billion billion (nearly US$2.5 million) had been withdrawn from the Central Bank of Sierra Leone in the name of President Maada Bio to fund his alleged travel expenses. These aggregated amounts included Le10 billion that was transferred from GoSL’s Other Charges Account #0111001279 on 15th June 2022 through an authorized letter of payment (REF#AGD/RSW/BOSL/22/500) issued by the Accountant General’s Department to replenish “floating allocation of funds for local and overseas travel of the President.”
To put this expenditure in perspective, we compared the aggregated Le70.4 billion presidential travel per diems in FY2022 with annual travel expenditure by President Bio in the previous four years – between 2018 and 2021. We discovered that withdrawals for travel per diems in FY2022 alone nearly equaled the aggregated Le93.6 billion in presidential per diems cumulatively withdrawn between April 2018 and December 2020. Thus, we observed that cumulative per diem withdrawals from the President’s Local and Overseas Travel Account has tripled since the suspension of Sierra Leone’s Auditor General, Lara Taylor-Pearce in November 2021.
President Bio controversially suspended the head of Sierra Leone’s national auditing agency after the agency highlighted financial and procurement irregularities while investigating the President and the First Lady’s travel expenditures for FY2020. Audit officials reportedly discovered that the President’s Office had submitted several forged documents, including fake hotel receipts and invoices to the Audit Service as part of the President’s travel expenditures for FY2020.
Africanist Press found that no credible audit exercise of President Bio’s Office has occurred since Lara Taylor-Pearce was suspended in November 2021. A questionable national audit report released in December 2022 by Sierra Leone’s Audit Service failed to mention any financial activities in the President’s Office, including the president’s travel expenditure. Audit officials claimed the President’s Office did not meet the auditing threshold for FY2021.
Since assuming office in April 2018, President Bio, his wife, and senior officials close to the president, have conducted nearly 150 overseas trips to Europe and Asia; a record that exceeds that of any sitting president of Sierra Leone since the end of the country’s civil war in 2002.
In 2021, Africanist Press published details of government financial documents showing overwhelming evidence that the president and other senior government officials were moving foreign currencies amounting to millions of dollars to Europe, the United States, and increasingly, to the Middle East under the guise of diplomatic travel. In 2020, for example, we highlighted that the president and his wife collectively withdrew over US$3 million from BSL for alleged travel expenses despite bans on international travel due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Our recent investigation discovered that the continuous use of international travel by President Bio and his senior officials to move millions of dollars out of Sierra Leone to foreign countries, and the practice has tripled since the suspension of Lara Taylor-Pearce in 2021.
We hereby attach a sample of President’s FY2022 financial transactions showing details of President Bio’s travel expenditure for FY2022 to illustrate the evidence upon which this report is based.