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Sierra Leone’s ‘little gifts’ incite fight against graft

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Whether you want to sit an exam, get electricity or just drive in town, life in Sierra Leone is punctuated by endless “little gifts” to those with power.

In defiance of government anti-bribery campaigns, the sticky fingers of officialdom are a wearisome fact of life for many in this poor West African country.

The nation of a little more than seven million people holds 128th place out of 180 on the latest Corruption Perceptions Index compiled annually by Transparency International, an NGO that focuses on the misuse of public power for private benefit.

The run-off of a presidential election took place on Saturday, with both candidates contending with allegations of graft.

Samura Kamara, the candidate of the ruling All Peoples’ Congress (APC), was tagged “Mr Ten Percent” by contractors when he ran the finance ministry.

His rival Julius Maada Bio of the opposition Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) is accused of misappropriating $18m during his brief time as head of state in 1996 after a coup.

“Whether you want to get electricity connection, whether you want to get land, whether you want to get scholarship for studies abroad,” graft is everywhere, Lavina Banduah, the director of Transparency International’s small Sierra Leone office in Freetown, told AFP.

For bus driver Tamba Ellie, speaking at the main public transport terminus in the capital beside the central market, the biggest bane was the police.

“Whenever they want us to give the money, they always stop us, and they say that you commit(ted) a crime last week, or this week, without no reason. And there is no proof,” Ellie said.

Drivers have no choice but to cough up, since otherwise the police immobilise their bus for hours, the young man said.

Sexual favours

In another district, a 28-year-old man who wished to go only by his first name, Abioseh, has painful memories of his efforts to get his teaching qualifications.

“The one I vividly remember is when I was asked to pay a fee for certain subjects. I couldn’t afford the 500 000 leones ($64) to pay as I was asked. Even though I did study hard, I was withheld on one subject because I didn’t pay that one,” he declared.

Bribery perhaps would be less of a problem if teachers weren’t usually paid five or six months late, Abioseh said.

But, he also noted, from secondary school through university, some payments are made “in kind” – a euphemism for sexual services.

With financial support from the British government, authorities in Sierra Leone have founded an Anti-Corruption Commission, charged with cracking down on graft and taking preventive steps including in education.

In recent years, members of the public have been able to report cases of corruption via a free phone service.

Every three months, the commission publishes statistics illustrated with the most telling cases, such as a nurse who demanded the equivalent of 25 euros before she would give a blood transfusion to a young child, and police who fleece car drivers and motorcyclists the equivalent of a euro per day in central Freetown.

Banduah believes that the combined efforts of the Anti-Corruption Commission and the courts are starting to bear fruit.

“From what we’ve been following, a lot of public officials… have been found wanting and in most cases punitive measures have been meted against them,” Banduah said, noting that police officers have been sacked and civil servants face legal action.

Teacher Abioseh remains far from convinced. “I know about the free phone line, but I don’t contact them,” he said. “It’s just a waste of time.”

Meanwhile, tackling graft beyond petty bribery is another matter.

Corruption in the higher echelons of state remains the hardest kind to fight “since we don’t see the money changing hands,” Banduah said.

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