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  • Joseph Kamara

The British Minister of State for Justice and Civil Liberties, Rt. Hon. Simon Huges, is reported to have told British House of Commons and some Sierra Leoneans that the British Government can no longer trust their Sierra Leonean counterparts with money. He attributed the reason for his statement to corruption and commented that the British rather prefer dealing with their own NGO’s to manage the Ebola treatment centres and Ebola response funds.

Rt. Hon. Simon Huges reportedly commented that “each time monies are allocated to Sierra Leone, it is not used for the intended purpose,” and that “the British Government…cannot trust the (Sierra Leone) leaders with British tax payers’ money because we know where they go.”

The Secretary of International Development, Baroness Northover, and Deputy Head of West and Southern African Directors’ Office, Jonathan Tostevin, who represented the British Department for International Development (DfID), also reportedly condemned the Government of Sierra Leone on the same grounds. According to report, this is the first time that the British Government has openly condemned the Sierra Leone Government publicly for alleged misuse of the former’s support to the latter. This development, according to report, took place on Monday 8th December, 2014. On the same day, the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ) issued a news release expressing massive corruption and fraud in the National Ebola Response Centre (NERC). The Association expressed worries over the widespread corruption in the handling of the Ebola funds by authorities in charge. SLAJ was particularly concerned about the disclosures of the NERC’s CEO’s revelation that some 6,000 ghost names were have been discovered in the weekly payment voucher for healthcare workers in the frontline, and the strikes by healthcare workers negatively impacting on the fight against Ebola.

According to SLAJ, over Le1.5 billion cannot be accounted for by the NERC in relation to ghost workers, while radio stations are owed billions of Leones as subsidies rate for airing the “SLAJ Dreb Ebola Programme.” SLAJ is still to be paid by the Presidential Ebola Taskforce Team for the use of a hall for hosting of critical weekly press briefing for over two months.

The recent corruption scandal in the fight against the Ebola disease in the country is the former Minister of Tourism and Cultural Affairs, Peter Bayuku Konteh’s alleged soliciting of funds from various donors in Italy to distribute food to quarantined homes and youths manning checkpoints in the “11 Regional municipalities” of Koinadugu as a good pretext for enriching himself in Government’s efforts to fight the Ebola disease. But State House twisted the truth to make Peter Bayuku Konteh look innocent by issuing a press release informing the general public that he tendered his resignation as Minister of Tourism and Cultural Affairs due to health reasons and that the President had accepted it in good faith.

Though the Government may genuinely argue that they have made assiduous efforts in stemming the epidemic from spreading, yet evidence emerging indicates that corruption has become the benchmark of the Ebola fight. That this is the first time that the British Government has openly condemned the Sierra Leone Government publicly for alleged misuse of their support to this country sounds very much disappointing and scandalous. When the outbreak of the Ebola Viral Disease (EVD) struck in May this year, the Government diverted greater part of their budget to fighting the epidemic. But even so, that budget fell short of achieving the objective of stemming the virus from spreading. The President consequently became very emotional in mobilizing more international response to the Ebola fight and he succeeded in doing that whilst the British Government took the lead in aiding the Ebola fight. Now that we have the opportunity as a nation to take on the Ebola fight head-on after more than 1,600 Sierra Leoneans have died of the virus, corrupt Government officials are heartlessly and intentionally cheating to gain an advantage. NERC is still to explain to the general public whether or not it intends investigating the 6,000 ghost workers it discovered in the weekly payment voucher for healthcare workers in the frontline. The highfalutin Presidential Ebola Taskforce Team still owes billions of Leones for the use of a hall for hosting of critical weekly press briefing for over two months despite it is under the direct supervision of State House. Radio stations are still owed billions of Leones as subsidies rate for airing “SLAJ Dreb Ebola Programme.” Millions of dollars and pounds sterling have been poured into the Ebola fight but Government has shamefully decided not to honour their internal debt obligations as if they are cash-trapped. Amidst this entire scenario is corruption scandal swirling over the so-called Government officials claiming to be championing the Ebola fight.

Some Government officials are taking undue advantage of the Ebola outbreak to enrich themselves with funds provided by donors and development partners to aid the fight against the epidemic. And State House of all, which should be naming and shaming corrupt Government officials, seems to be portraying the former Minister of Tourism and Cultural Affairs Peter Bayuku Konteh as Mr. Clean by feigning that he resigned due to health reasons when he should be answering to questions at the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) for chopping funds he reportedly deviously solicited from donors in Italy on the pretext of feeding quarantined homes and youths manning checkpoints in his home district of Koinadugu. How can the Ebola go away when damning allegations of corruption in the Ebola fight are swept under the carpet?

Many Sierra Leoneans do appreciate President Ernest Bai Koroma’s robust efforts in stemming the epidemic from spreading, but his inertia to ensure accountability and transparency may have given cause to the British Government to openly criticize his Government for alleged corruption. The President can only reverse this trend by asking officials to properly account for their stewardship. If reports of corruption in the Ebola fight continue making the headlines, I am afraid donor fatigue might step in and the UK’s threat to suspend funding to Sierra Leone could just be a harbinger.

But again, the British Government should do some soul-searching before taking the Sierra Leone Government to town over the Ebola fight. The British team in Sierra Leone has faced enough press bashing over their handling of the six treatment centres they are supporting, notably, the Kerry Town Treatment Centre, which is managed by the British Non-Governmental Organization – Save the Children UK. Though the British would prefer dealing with their own NGO’s to manage the Ebola treatment centres and Ebola response funds, yet it is an established fact that their NGO’s do not have the expertise to manage them to the expectations of Sierra Leoneans who are sick and tired of the Ebola outbreak that has killed over 1,600 of their compatriots and devastated the national economy. The Hastings Treatment Centre at the Police Training School (PTS) which is wholly and solely managed by Sierra Leoneans is the most effective centre that has discharged more Ebola patients in two months than the rest of the British sponsored treatment centres which are yet to commence full operations. Indeed, the British have not done much in Sierra Leone as compared to their USA counterparts in Liberia or their French counterparts in Guinea as regards stemming the epidemic from spreading. While the Ebola fight has improved tremendously in those Ebola affected countries that first experienced the outbreak, the Ebola fight in Sierra Leone continues to deteriorate with all the so-called heightened international response.

I think the way forward is that both the British Government and Sierra Leone Government should revisit their formal agreement to aid the Ebola fight so as to plot the course of winning the fight instead of suspending funding to this dying country. Sierra Leone alone cannot win this battle without the fullest support of its former colonial master and the wider international community. Leaving the country midstream could only exacerbate the situation and this could be very disastrous for poor Sierra Leoneans who are the real victims of the scourge.

Again, the leaderships of both Britain and Sierra Leone need to step up if they should succeed in fighting the deadly virus. Though they have made much effort in stemming the epidemic, much need to be done as evidenced by the fluctuation of number of new Ebola cases especially in the northwest of Sierra Leone where the total accumulative laboratory confirmed cases have swallowed Kenema and Kailahun districts where the outbreak was first confirmed in May this year.

Though the NERC is implementing the Ebola programme, the President must really ensure that there is complete chain of command because there are some lapses in the centre’s operations. The discovering of 6,000 ghost workers in the weekly payment voucher for healthcare workers in the frontlines, and the numerous strikes by healthcare workers and volunteers in the Ebola burial teams are some of the lapses of NERC.

The British Government also needs to seriously consider their decision to hand over all the six treatment centres to UK Non-Governmental Organizations. They should revisit their decision and consider the area of expertise which the NGO’s lack in fighting the epidemic. It is only when both Governments work concertedly and assiduously that Sierra Leoneans would be hopeful of seeing light at the end of the tunnel.