The head of Sierra Leone’s Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC), Abdul Tejan-Cole, resigned Thursday 6th May, as the trial of former minister of fisheries and marine resources Haja Afsata Kabbah got underway.
A feeling of déjà vu and anger is gleaned among Sierra Leoneans, not because of the resignation itself, which was expected but for the lack of an explanation. The silence from Abdul, as he is fondly called is deafening leaving open space for gossip and innuendoes from admirers and foes of the ACC and Tejan-Cole himself.
Most of the criticisms are politically motivated and comes from those preferring to detract from the importance and potential for good of the commission, and all the good work the man did. And, it must be pointed out that Tejan-Cole is not doing himself any favours by keeping silent.
The government is keen to stress – because of the likely political implication on the ruling All Peoples Congress (APC) – that Tejan-Cole left for no other reason other than the fact that he wants to move on and it his right to do so, brandishing Tejan-Cole’s letter to drive home the point. The opposition Sierra Leone Peoples Party (SLPP) sadly, is feeding into that line by accusing the erstwhile ACC boss of leaving his avowed commitment to work for his country at such a crucial time to seek greener pastures. Supporters of Haja Afsatu Kabba including party supporters who haven’t masked their desire to see the back of Abdul are basking in the euphoria surrounding his departure.
New African Analysis interviewed Tejan-Cole during his visit to London attending the Sierra Leone trade and investment conference from 18th – 19th November ’09’. Some of what Tejan-Cole said then might just throw light on recent developments. The former ACC commissioner was categorical and unequivocal that he would resign if the government interferes with his work. The only framework from which he can operate is ‘Independence, freedom to investigate and prosecute as well as the effective cooperation of the ruling party’. Tejan-Cole said these were vital and won’t carry on with the job in any other way if those conditions were absent or lacking.
Cue the case of the ACC versus Haja Afsatu Olayinka Kabba, former minister, ‘very close’ friend of President Ernest Bai Koroma and staunch APC stalwart. The case was to be a game changer for the commission. While previous convictions such as that of former health and sanitation minister Sheku Tejan Koroma have done much to cement the ACC’s reputation, Afsatu Kabba’s case took things to a new level. Tejan Koroma’s prosecution in March this year provided evidence that the amended ACC act of 2008 could be used effectively for prosecution. However, Afsatu Kabba is an influential member of the ruling party, whereas Tejan Koroma was a member of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) a junior coalition partner in the government. Prosecuting Afsatu Kabba thus means tackling corruption within the government itself, with all that it entails.
Upon her arrest the APC immediately released a statement in support of Kabbah, allowing her to maintain her influence and keep her role within the party structure. Additionally, Afsatu Kabbah had influential albeit rather strange friends within the country’s media landscape and within government. Those friends seemed determined and in haste to clear her name, never mind the fact that the matter is sub judice, and, also the fact that the country is in a democracy where the rule of law is expected to prevail. They cited the ‘billions she has generated’ in her marine and fisheries ministerial capacity, while at the same time attempting to discredit Cole, calling him ‘arrogant’ and ‘corrupt’.
The former commissioner of the ACC was threatened and his offices ransacked. The life of the president of the journalist union (SLAJ), Umaru Fofanah who doubles as the BBC correspondent in the country was also threatened because of his journalistic involvement in the case. There were crowds of Afsatu supporters invading the court dressed in the ruling APC party colours, singing and chanting in support of the former minister, creating inopportune confusion during the trial.
These may not be evidences of clear-cut government interference in the case, which might have caused Abdul to quit his job. But, they show the extent to which supporters of Afsatu Kabbah are prepared to go to intimidate the ACC and its supporters to ensure she doesn’t face trial or the case is thrown out of court; never mind the small matter of the rule of law. President Koroma whose mantra is zero-tolerance on corruption, did very little if anything publicly to reassure Abdul of his government’s support. He said nothing publicly to stop the intimidatory and threatening behaviour of supporters of Afsatu, and the need for all to respect the rule of law.
President Koroma has lost a potentially transformative moment in his anti-corruption agenda, which would have been boosted if Afsatu’s case was allowed to go unhindered. The country’s judiciary, which would have gained from this case by ensuring delivery of a sound and fair judgement based on evidence, and providing a decisive example of a legal system that provides no protection against abuse of power, has missed that opportunity.
Supporters of Afsatu have surely got their way with the departure of Tejan-Cole, and the replacing of a relatively decent Judge in the person of Nicolas Browne-Marke, with a contractual and controversial Judge. Justice Samuel Ademosu will not deliver. His appointment is political and solely for the purpose of letting Afsatu off the hook, which he will do in the days and weeks ahead.