President Julius Bio came into office with a commitment to fight corruption. His government in 2018 appointed Francis Ben Kaifala as Commissioner of the country’s anti-graft body, the Anti-Corruption Commission. Close to two years in office, his tenure in the office has witnessed an increase in prosecutions as well as stronger efforts in the areas of prevention and public education. But this period has had its own challenges, with the public seeing it more as one that has been chasing past government officials, something Ben denies in this talk with SierraEye Magazine.
On whether the recent changes to the ACC Act which gives him enormous powers thus appearing to have usurped the powers of the Attorney-General and Minister of Justice in terms of being principal legal adviser to Government on contracts, the anti-graft boss agreed that “the Commission has powers, whether that is extremely powerful is not something I can say.” The Commission, he said, is “going to continue to investigate members of the past government who have issues of corruption hanging over their heads that have not been cleared,” also defending why they didn’t ask for a sitting government minister to be relieved of her duties whilst she is being investigated but another was relieved.
Francis Kaifala started by taking the magazine through his achievements as Commissioner.
I came in on the 28th of June, 2018. Practically, not much changed since I came in. There were no sackings, only the leadership was changed. I came in with a vision to ensure we try to expand the boundaries of the fight against corruption to take it as far as we could, to be able to use the Commission as a bean for a kind of social revolution, a revolution that would permeate down in ensuring transparency and accountability in public service and for us to be united in doing that as a sacrifice. The staff received that well and I created the enabling environment to feel comfortable to work and achieve this and a lot has changed. We expanded the scope of operations; more investigations were happening, covering wider sectors. We have been engaged in more systems processes and recovery, changed name of Systems and Processes Department to the Preventions Department so that a lot more scope could be given to what they can do in terms of prevention. We also improved the Public Education Department by introducing the Public Relations Unit in that department.
The recent changes to the ACC Act give you immense powers. What is your response to those who say you are most powerful person in the country today and you have usurped the powers of the AG in terms of being principal legal adviser to Government on contracts?
When I came in, I viewed the fight against corruption like a business and you being the CEO of that business. You view it as a production chain; there is a downstream end of the production and the upstream end of the production. The downstream end is the raw materials, the middle stream is where they are processed and the upstream is where they are sold. So I saw that there were problems along the supply chain, problems with the production mechanisms, the tools used, the regulations around them and also the upstream end, the judiciary’s response to how things are happening.
So basically, one of the things we set out to do was to correct that. We also identified that the 2008 amendment had loopholes and these were informed by things that happened in the country. After the 2008 amendment, in 2013, we were still rated as the most corrupt country in the world by Transparency International. So, going forward, we saw a more decline in our ranking after 2016 in the international indices that measured corruption perception. There was a need to take onboard this fight, by correcting these loopholes, by making sure that the proverbial supply chain is properly cleaned and one of the things that needed to be done was an amendment that would capture those issues to enable us to be properly positioned to fight against corruption. That is why that amendment was promulgated, including the powers that go with it. If you want someone to attack a monster like corruption, he would need the tools and weapons to be able to battle it and we felt that all the issues in there were necessary and proper and when we went to parliament there was overwhelming support in parliament. When it went to Cabinet, there was an overwhelming approval. That is why we also have the anti-corruption division at the High Court so that the judiciary that deals with our cases is also better prepared and have a more efficient system in terms of case management and case disposal system.
So, basically, if somebody says I am the most powerful man in the country that would not be entirely correct. We all know there is supreme executive power given to the President by the Supreme Court. I agree that the Commission has powers, whether that is extremely powerful is not something I can say.
Let us look at recovery of public funds. We know billions were recovered by the previous commissioners. What are the figures for the last two years under your watch?
When I came in, the Finance Director gave me records of actual recovery by the ACC, that is monies that came through ACC. At that time, the entire recovery by this Commission from day one to the time I came in was about 16 billion Leones. As I speak with you, we have recovered over 20 billion Leones and we have handed over to the President 15 billion Leones of that money to build an advanced diagnostic facility. Of course as you know 10% of that money is used to cushion our operations.
Do you take directives from the presidency when it comes to prosecuting people?
At all not, the ACC is functionally independent. The President is head of the country and of course he leads everything. He is the one man that is 100% elected by the people. We all are working within the agenda of the President. If the President came to power on the basis of fighting corruption, when he is accounting for that at the end of the day, his is not talking about what he would do as president; he is talking about what we would do at the ACC.
So yes, my time at the ACC is consultative and inclusive as governance itself is consultative, informative, educative and interactive. But to say we sit here and wait on the President to give us directives is incorrect and the current President has never ever interfered in our operations, even though we keep him informed on issues that need his attention.
There appears to be sacred people in this administration. A minister was sacked recently because he was being investigated by your office whilst another minister, a Resident Minister who is also being investigated by your office over the Chinese rice scandal is still in office. What is the difference between the two?
Investigations are usually structured in such a way that responsibility is identified clearly and it is based on responsibility or participation in the entire corruption process that determines what action we take. With the Chinese rice saga, rice was handed over to the Ministry of Basic Education and the purpose was that it should be used for school feeding program. The school feeding program itself is handled by WFP, so one would expect the rice would be handed over to WFP to deal with it. But if it is not handed over to WFP, you would also expect that there is a proper system put in place to ensure it is properly applied and utilized.
When we started the investigation, it was divided into three phases; the decision makers; those in the ministry who were given this rice and who knew what happened in cabinet, who knew what the instructions were that came with the rice and who decided to do things we felt were improper. Those people bear the greatest responsibility for whatsoever happened. There are also the people who took the rice from the ministry to be delivered to the various schools. So that is devoid of the decision. The decision may have been even wrong for you to have been given the rice but let say you were given, did you take it to where it should go? Then there is the third phase, we checked with the schools to find out if they received it.
When it comes to the issue of Mr. Timbo and the Resident Minister, the Resident Minister’s case is that they were taking bags of rice to Port Loko District after a decision was taken by the Ministry that certain percentage should go there. Then it got there; the villages were inaccessible by those big trailers. So they decided to leave the rice with the Resident Minister so she can help facilitate for the rice to get to the villages and that is how they gave her a certain percentage of the rice. To hold her on the same scale as you would hold those who took the decision to first, take the rice to places where proper systems were not put into place would be most improper. You will commit no crime to receive. Where crimes comes in now is what she did with the rice.
But did she deliver the rice to the schools?
That is what we are now verifying. We actually retrieved several bags of the rice with her because even when she received it, she didn’t have the capacity to take the rice to the villages. The only way we can be able to establish that indeed she committed any wrongdoing is in that phase of verification which is now happening. That is why she was not arrested or relieved because you cannot say simply because they took bags of rice to her; she is culpable of an offence.
Here is another issue; you were literally defending the Chief Minister when a journalist was investigating an alleged 1.5 million dollar bribe. That matter may have come to an end but why did you take the position you had taken when the issue became public?
Again, that is another misunderstanding of the issue. The Chief Minister sent me information that he has been accused by a journalist of engaging in corruption. I am the focal person for the fight against corruption. Once I received this information, I got to the journalist as his number was on the information I received. I called him and asked if he can work with the Commission to get to the bottom of it. When I did that, it was not to protect the Chief Minister. It was for me to be able to take my responsibility because the Chief Minister is a public servant and if there is allegation of bribery against him, I am responsible to look into it. The journalist refused to cooperate with me and he made all kinds of accusations against me. We went to the bank where he alleged the money was paid. I personally called the MD of that bank and asked her whether there is any truth in the allegation. She said no. The bank told us the Chief Minister has nothing, except an expressed travel card which has never been charged.
Whilst I got that information, I woke up in the morning and the journalist was on the radio making all kinds of accusation against my institution. When you are a leader, your primary responsibility is to protect the institution that you lead and the other responsibility is to be able to achieve your mandate. My institution and reputation were under attack. So when I called that morning to correct those issues within the public domain, it was nothing about the Chief Minister. It was to present the correct facts as they happened and to defend my institution against such callous attack. We however pointed out that the investigation remains open and if people have information, they should come to us.
Will you assure the nation that you won’t be afraid to go after SLPP members?
I do not see SLPP or APC. I am not here to do an SLPP or APC bidding. I am here to carry out the mandate of the ACC as established in section 7 of the Anti-Corruption Commission Act. What we are interested in is the evidence that supports whatsoever claims and where it leads, that is where we go irrespective of who you are or what position you hold. There is the minster we were talking about; we have investigated Sarah Bendu who was appointed by the SLPP government. If anyone has the evidence or the lead, something which can help us to zoom down on issues, please take a chance with me and let’s see.
But public view is that your era in the ACC is mostly focused on chasing officials of the former government. How would you react to that?
We at the ACC under my leadership follow the evidence. I came in at a time when there was a transition of government. Naturally, it is not like you are going to find evidence the next morning against the people who just came in. Corruption is something which builds on for a very long time. Those who took the Commission of Inquiry money, immediately we investigated, prosecuted and found them guilty in two weeks. It was this current government. The rice saga, we went in quickly, by the time people could know, the Minister, Permanent Secretary, the Deputy Minister and Head of Nutrition were relieved of their duties whilst investigation is ongoing.
There are many other cases in the current administration where we have gone in. Dr. Denis Sandy has been investigated several times here.
Our investigations do not always have to lead to prosecution. There are many things we can do, it can be administrative, it can be court led or non-conviction based asset recovery. Do we have an instance of evidence that is available to me and we decide to look back? I challenge anyone to bring that. I am assuring the nation, the fight against corruption is going to remain fair and fierce. We are going to continue to investigate members of the past government who have issues of corruption hanging over their heads that have not been cleared. We cannot be cowed. It is not a weapon against the former regime or a weapon against the current regime. It is about evidence. If anybody that has been charged to court does not at least have something to answer by virtue of his responsibility given by the state, I stand to be judged by it.
Let me draw your attention backwards; the investigation on the Minister of Lands, Dr. Denis Sandy that you referenced. At what point would you normally ask for public officials to be suspended or relieved?
When we have sufficient evidence to establish a corrupt practice that is when we come in. But most times, it is when we indict an official. If the nature of what that public official did is such that, continuing in office even before we indict might prejudice the investigation, we can make a request to the person who has responsibility to relieve him to do so. But we cannot do so if at least we do not have something we can hold on to, to make such request.
You have had a number of out of court settlements on matters of corruption with suspects. Was that not undermining public confidence on the institution?
It is not in any way undermining public confidence. In fact it was geared towards increasing public confidence because the volume of recovery we made in those settlements was unprecedented, for example, for one person to pay 2 billion Leones to the Commission. We go to the court, the court fines them 30 million Leones minimum and that is it. Juxtapose 2 billion Leones to a 30 million Leones fine. The whole idea behind it was to make sure there was greater efficiency in the fight against corruption. What we did was to create a system whereby we do not send every case to the court and continue to choke the court system. There are 71 cases outstanding in the court with no decision, some since 2012.
The ACC Act gives the Commissioner prosecutorial discretion. The Commissioner cannot look at a particular case and decide that we don’t have to go to court. Sometimes it is because the evidence is itself not reliable to take the risk to go to court, or sometimes it is because it is more efficient or rather more expedient to be able to retrieve the resources and proceed without committing further cost of investigating and going to court and prosecuting without even knowing when that judgment would be forthcoming and even if it does, what way would it go. So as the Commissioner, the court gives me that kind of prosecutorial discretion to determine what to do as per law and that law is not just the Anti-Corruption Act, even International law allows these things; non conviction base asset forfeiture is something which every jurisdiction that fights corruption recognizes .
Public procurement appears to be an avenue for pilfering public funds. What is the level of collaboration between your Commission and the National Public Procurement Authority?
The degree of collaboration with them is huge particularly in our prevention drive. Even when we did our amendment, it was a concerted effort between us and them in respect to the contracts clause. Now, when a contract is to be terminated by reason of the fact that it was negotiated with corrupt elements in them, we have to agree. So, if I have the evidence I simply take it to the CEO and we say it should not go through, then they give their consent in writing and then we proceed to terminate. That is the highest peak of collaboration. We have signed an MOU; we jointly launched the standard bidding document for 2020.
What is the latest with the teachers that your Commission paraded for public viewing on allegation of corruption even when they had not been charged at the time and why did you choose doing that?
They are in court standing trials. Criminals who are arrested are paraded everywhere in the world. They are introduced to the public that these are the people arrested. We carried out a raid over the week, arrested them in examination malpractices; teachers taking exams with students in the principal’s office and we introduced them to the public.
Everywhere in the world when these criminals are introduced to the public, they are not taken to court. It isn’t an indictment; it is not saying they are guilty. It is simply saying these are the people we arrested.
And the President himself had to apologize for that your action?
Yes he apologized. I do not control the President. Those who took unto social media considered themselves the public view. We have done our research and we are of the view that more people were in favour of what we did. Like I said, our actions may not be perfect. It can never be perfect when you are confronting corruption. We do not always expect the public to be in the same line with us and our mandate is not to please the public. Yes we had public outcry but was it in the majority? We have no way of knowing. Did the President apologize? Yes. Do we think we needed to apologize? No I don’t think so but the President, the head of the state. He did so on our behalf and that means we did.
Have you had lonely moments in the job?
I can assure you that it is a difficult job. You are dealing with people who, some of them have been very close to you, either as a family, or you went to college together or had social interactions in the past and sometimes people who emotionally you may feel attached to. But you see sacrifices have to be made.
People have to understand that the collective interest is bigger than the individual interest. So, what I tell my friends is ‘do not put me in a position where I have to take a decision on you’ because when it comes to taking a decision our friendship is secondary. Yes, I have had moments when I sit in this office and look back and realize that somebody who has been close to me is under investigation. As long as we understand that a man has to do his job, I don’t think anybody would take it personal.
What should the public expect from the Commission?
The public should expect more successes in terms of convictions, in terms of investigations, in terms of recoveries, more movements in our perception indices. We are trying to move the commission from a three figure index to a double figure index within the next one to two years. And the way things are going, we are expecting to do that within the next one year. I am counting on the public’s support. Together we can change the story of Sierra Leone.