Tight security as Sierra Leone graft inquiry begins

Sierra Leonean President Julius Maada Bio
Sierra Leone’s President Julius Maada Bio

The maiden hearing of Sierra Leone’s Commission of Enquiry on corruption went underway on Monday amidst tight security across the country.

Armed security officers were positioned at strategic locations in Freetown, with reports indicating similar presence in other parts as the judge for one of the three commissions prepared to make his opening statement at the former UN-backed Special Court for war criminals in the country’s 11 year’s civil war.

Three commissions, headed by judges from Nigeria, Ghana and Sierra Leone respectively, have been set up by President Julius Maada Bio to look into alleged corruption in the administration of his predecessor Ernest Bai Koroma.

The establishment of the commission, a fulfilment of an election campaign promise, has been shrouded in controversy amidst a highly divisive public debate on the legality of the procedures.

The commissions were necessitated by the outcome of a presidential committee, which took stock of the activities of the Koroma administration, just days after Mr Bio assumed office, following his election in March 2018.

A political tool

Mr Koroma’s All People’s Congress (APC) has branded the inquiry a political tool for witch-hunt, and a deliberate attempt at unlawfully prosecuting APC members. It has vowed to ignore invitations to its members until their demands are met.

But Justice Biobele Gworgewill of Commission No. 1 sought to allay fears of bias, noting that all those who would be invited would be subjected to a fair and independent process.

“Only justice will be done to all and, most importantly, no injustice will be done to anyone,” said the Nigerian judge.

“I am here to serve without fear, favour or affection,” he added.

While Monday’s session was seen as a conclusion of the formal opening ceremony that began with a presidential inauguration last week, three witnesses appeared before Justice Biobele. They included representatives from the Government Printing Press and the Auditor Generals’ office, as well as the Secretary to Cabinet.

Secretaries for all three commissions were also sworn-in.

The session also heard that the State Counsel would comprise eight lawyers, among them the Attorney General and Minister of Justice and her deputy.

Provided office space

The Attorney-General, Ms Priscilla Schwartz, was present at the maiden hearing session, and said in a statement that the State Counsel members might be added as the hearings progress.

Ms Schwartz said the state had provided office space for the opposing counsel to fast-track the proceedings.

But APC officials were still adamant on their position not to honour the hearings.

Over the weekend there were reports of heavy police deployment in the northern town of Makeni where Mr Koroma currently lives.

Opposition supporters have termed that move as intimidation, while the police say it is a routine activity.

The commissions were formally inaugurated last Tuesday by President Bio who used the occasion to reiterate his determination to uproot graft.

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