Sierra Leone: First Lady Spent Over Le7.89 Bn Of Public Funds On Shopping & Foreign Guests.

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

Documents on the finances and expenditure details of the Office of the First Lady of Sierra Leone show clearly how Madam Fatima Jabbie Bio spent more than Le7.89 billion (over US$780,000) of public funds on personal shopping needs, and paying the travel costs and hotel accommodation expenses for foreign guests she invited to Sierra Leone to witness the launch of her flagship program, the Hands Off Our Girls Campaign, launched in mid-December of 2018. Sierra Leone’s finance laws do not authorize the wife of a sitting president to directly receive or use any public funds to undertake a social activity or public campaign. In a video broadcast on Monday January 18, 2021, First Lady Fatima Bio admitted to receiving state funds, but she argued that the said public funds allocated to her organization were used for, what she described as, “the intended purpose.”

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on expenditure details of the First Lady’s Office show that a total of Le22,188,104,986.87 (about US$2.2 million) was withdrawn and spent by Fatima Bio within a 30-month period – from June 2018 to December 2020.
However, financial records of the First Lady’s organization show that the Le7,890,755,000 (over US$789,000) that was disbursed from the country’s Consolidated Revenue Fund (CRF) to the organization during the first six months of the Bio administration were all spent between June and December 2018, mostly on alleged office furniture, electronic equipment, fuel, travel tickets, and hotel accommodation costs for foreign guests of the president’s wife.

In a report published on January 18, 2021, Africanist Press released bank statements of the First Lady’s organization that showed precisely how the president’s wife received nearly Le30 billion (almost US$3 million) in government funding in less than three years after the inauguration of her husband, Julius Maada Bio as president of the country in May 2018 contrary to the finance laws of the country.

Operational documents of the Office of First Lady claim that the organization’s flagship program is aimed at a campaign to eradicate rape and violence against teenage girls, including a campaign against teenage pregnancy and early marriage.

However, our investigation into the financial operations of the organization, including how its allocated funds were spent in 2018, revealed that the Le7.89 billion disbursed to the organization by finance ministry officials did not comply with national finance laws. Sierra Leone’s 2016 Public Finance Management Act – the law that governs budgetary allocations and use of public funds – provides that all expenditures from the country’s CRF, regardless of the individual authorizing withdrawals and disbursements, must be based on stipulated department or agency budgets approved by parliament, and that procurement activities of agencies or institutions in receipt of public funds must equally follow the relevant procurement plans and rules governing public procurements and expenditures of public funds as provided in the public finance laws and regulations of the country.

For the launching ceremony of the Hands Off Our Girls Campaign, we collected documents confirming the disbursement of a total sum of Le3,116,755,000 provided by the Ministry of Finance just for the two-day event.

We discovered in the course of our investigation that public funds allocated to the First Lady to fund her organization’s operations, including the “Hands Off Our Girls” campaign, were never approved by Parliament, and that the allocated funds were also used contrary to the finance regulations governing withdrawals, expenditure, and retirement of public funds.

Evidence acquired by the Africanist Press shows that the First Lady made direct payments for services and goods to suppliers and service providers without a competitive bidding process. We discovered, in particular, that payments made to individuals and organizations between June 28, 2018, and December 28, 2018, were never preceded by advertisement notices for procurement bids. We also found evidence of repeated payments for goods and services in ways that suggest multiple and exaggerated invoicing.

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. We discovered that all these payments were made directly from the First Lady’s BSL Bank Account without compliance with the public finance laws.

Our investigation into the financial operations of the organization, including how its allocated funds were spent in 2018, revealed that the Le7.89 billion disbursed to the organization by finance ministry officials did not comply with national finance laws.
Payments to All Events Concepts, for instance, 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. We discovered again that these repeated payments were not supported by any documentation showing how these organizations were awarded the contracts for the alleged services they provided, and no evidence showing that any bidding or tender process were followed. In fact, the transaction notes only 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, however, 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 also found that these expenditures do not include diverse funds donated by corporate agencies again for the two-day launching ceremony of the Hands Off Our Girls Campaign, and other funds by NGOs for the erection of hundreds of the campaign’s billboards and to meet costs related to the national tour of the First Lady. In mid-March 2020, Africanist Press published documents confirming the disbursement of a total sum of Le3,116,755,000 provided by the Ministry of Finance for the two-day launching ceremony of the organization’s flagship program in December 2018. We published correspondence between Bockarie Momoh Foh, writing on behalf of the president’s secretary, to the Administration and Finance Officer of the First Lady confirming the allocation of the Le3.1 billion Leones for the launching event.

The total amount of money allocated to the First Lady for the two-day launching ceremony of the Hands Off Our Girls Campaign alone is four times more than the combined annual salaries of all 40 of the Senior Procurement Officers in the Public Procurement Department assigned across all government ministries, agencies, and departments.

We tabulated, in March 2020, the total amounts of extra or separate government funding and discovered that at least Le5,827,080.000 of additional government funds were disbursed from the Finance Ministry into the First Lady’s Rokel Commercial Bank (RCB) Account during the first two months following the campaign’s launch. The total amount of money allocated to the First Lady for the two-day launching ceremony of the Hands Off Our Girls Campaign alone, for instance, is four times more than the combined annual salaries of all 40 of the Senior Procurement Officers in the Public Procurement Department assigned across all ministries, agencies, and departments. With monthly salaries between Le1,420,076 (about US$140) and 1,624,763 (about US$160), the total combined salaries of all 40 Senior Procurement Officers in the national workforce is Le56,803,146 (US$5580) monthly.

Thus, we conclude that 85% of the Le7.89 billion disbursed into the BSL Bank Account of the Office of the First Lady in 2018 for the fight against rape and teenage pregnancy were used mostly on furniture, events planning, hotel accommodation, and travel-related costs for foreign guests of the president’s wife.

Copyright: Africanist Press.