The Office of the Ombudsman came into being in Sierra Leone by the Ombudsman Act, 1997, of the Parliament of Sierra Leone. It draws its powers from Section 146 of the Constitution, and it is empowered to do “investigation” of “any action taken or omitted to be taken by or on behalf of any department or ministry of government; any statutory corporation or institutions of higher learning, set up entirely or partly out of public funds”. In short, all those in government who abuse power, and have their complaints filed in the Ombudsman’s office, will have to answer to this Office.
For almost seven years, the Ombudsman in Sierra Leone was a renowned Freetown lawyer, Francis Gabbidon. Then, it was a ‘silent office’; and Gabbidon tarnished the very word “Ombudsman”, making himself into more of a political flunkey of the governing SLPP, rather than a man whose office exists to redress administrative wrongs. Gabbidon elicited disdain, even revulsion in the public. After Gabbidon was recently convicted of corruption, the damage to image the Ombudsman’s office was further hammered in. When President Ernest Bai Koroma appointed a former Judge who was also former Speaker of the House of Parliament, Justice Edmund Cowan as the new Ombudsman, he faced a herculean task of image laundering, and moving forward to educate the people about the essence of his office.
Justice Cowan, as Ombudsman, has been making waves over the past month, and, apparently, has started improving the credibility of the Ombudsman office. Newstime Africa met with the Ombudsman, on Thursday August 27, 2009, at his Siaka Steven Street office, in Freetown.
NTA: Justice Edmond Cowan, thank you in the first place for granting Newstime Africa an interview
Cowan: Welcome gentleman
NTA: Can you tell what your core functions are?
Cowan: Basically, people come here to make complaints about administrative lapses in government which adversely affects them. We investigate and then try to find a remedy to these problems.
NTA: How many complaints have you received since your appointment as Ombudsman almost a year a go by President Ernest Bai Koroma?
Cowan: Well, indeed I have been in office for almost a year now; and I have received over a hundred complaints. At present we are trying to put in place staff required for the office of the Ombudsman, including investigators, administrative offices, et al.
NTA: Over a hundred complaints, Sir? What does that indicate? I have gathered from the public that most people hardly knew what that the Office of the Ombudsman exists, not to talk of actually filing in complaints in the Ombudsman’s office. Why are people apparently taking advantage of your office, Sir?
Cowan: When I took up office, there was some publicity done in the print and electronic media on the role of my office. You guys in the media helped me a lot in this. Even your journalist association has filed in a complaint in my office, which was widely publicized in the media.
It has also helped that people have greater confidence in the person who holds the office. Before I became Speaker of the House of Parliament under the last government, I was a sitting Judge in our court. I was known for being completely impartial. So, people know that once I am in place, they are sure to be treated with respect, and get fair hearing from me. This means people have started realizing that there is an Ombudsman office where they could come and make complaints. The new Ombudsman office is prestigiously located in the old United Nations headquarters in the heart of Freetown – on Siaka Stevens Street, opposite Electricity House, one of the busiest thoroughfares in Freetown.
There is big and well-designed sign post with the crest of government displayed in front of the office. All of these things I have pointed out has been absolutely lacking in the Office of the Ombudsman in the past, when the office was in the corner of the city when even those who were in the vicinity were unaware of.
NTA: Now one may be tempted to relate your functions to that of also helping combat corrupt practices in public places, how has that been since you assumed office?
Cowan: Really, corruption related matters are matters for the Anti Corruption Commission (ACC). In a situation where issues touch on corruption, we refer it to the ACC. You know our work in the Office of the Ombudsman is one that most people are ignorant about even the educated class. People in high positions of trust tend to think the way they like and when we tend to intervene, they see us as intruders. That is why we have continued to educate people about our role. I am not an enemy but rather my office is there to promote good governance and integrity, and these two are lacking in most ministries, departments and agencies. We are engaged in an evolutionary process. We don’t expect to achieve our goals overnight. The fact that there is now an office that can check abuses of powers in our government departments is in itself revolutionary. So, the Office of the Ombudsman can be said to be a revolutionary office.
NTA: You called it a “revolution”, Sir, we all know how Sierra Leone operates, without political will from the Presidency, there you are sure to face incredible resistance from governmental agencies. How much support do you have from the presidency?
Cowan: The Office of the Ombudsman has the support of the President of the Republic of Sierra Leone, because this President is committed to making a significant positive difference in good governance during his term in office. It was the President’s goodwill that stimulated those variables which has enabled us to get this office, and to make the progress we have made so far. So yes, the political will is there. We have also been getting the support of the Justice Sector Development Project and other internationally-sponsored peace building organizations.
However, we have not been getting much support from other stakeholders – like ministries, departments and agencies. We still are starved of basics needed to effectively run an office of this type, that has to investigate, and help redress, administrative abuse of powers. We still don’t even have official vehicles as of yet. But I think it has to do with lack of understanding among people about the function of this office. For seven years, this office was almost not functioning, and so we have to convince people that we can do the work.
NTA: I learnt there is a five years strategic plan developed by your office. Can you take us briefly around the major areas of that plan?
Cowan: This plan has five major areas and they include awareness raising and ensuring accessibility, as we expect the public to be aware of the office, and its mandate. Also the area of capacity building and resource mobilization is another major area. It also includes the need to network and collaborate with other stakeholders. Also, it includes our effort to ensure the independence of the office in the implementation of its mandate and the elimination of administrative ills.
NTA: You have been making reference to the past seven years as year not being encouraging for the office; and we all know the issues surrounding the then Ombudsman. He was charged to court and found guilty of corruption. Are you hopeful of not taking back this office to those days?
Cowan: We are sure we are not going to get back to those days. What we have done is to establish an office and secondly we are got the staff in place required to do the work. We have been going out to promote the image of the office and to give confidence to people that there is hope and that we can do the work. We have started communicating with the public, this was lacking and I think people have started responding in the sense that they now come to the office to complain. But really, it is a gradual process. The perception of people about this office is that it is a corrupt office and changing that perception is a gradual process. We are also trying to get support from institutions that we are to deal with, especially those institutions normally complained by the public.
NTA: You spoke of not getting much support from ministries departments and agencies and the lack of official vehicles .These are major challenges and there must be more challenges?
Cowan: Changing the perception of people about the office is one major challenge; encouraging them to accept that this is office is ready to do the work, but we have had to start somewhere; and we are moving with the support of the people of this country.
NTA: It has been a pleasure talking to you
Cowan: The pleasure is mine.
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