Sierra Leone’s President, Julius Maada Bio, and his wife, Fatima Jabbe Bio, collectively withdrew a total of over Le30 billion Leones (more than US$3 million) from the Bank of Sierra Leone (BSL), the country’s central bank, for alleged travel expenses in fiscal year 2020 alone, despite bans on international travel due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The Africanist Press discovered that the more than Le30 billion included a cumulative Le8,684,733,037 (over US $868,000) withdrawn by the President and Le1,847,601,064 (over US$184,00) by Madam Fatima Bio, all in foreign currencies. Two presidential aides, Musa K. Jajua and Mohamed S. Bayoh, withdrew a total of Le11,368,330,000 (over US$1 million). In addition, two SWIFT wire transfers totaling Le2,387,719,500 (about US$238,000) were allegedly used to pay Davis and Dann Limited (a private air charter service company) for round-trip airfare to Lebanon, and another cash withdrawal in foreign currency of over US$400,000.
President Bio was elected on a promise to enforce fiscal discipline, and reduce waste and graft in public spending, including reductions in foreign travel by public officials. “My government will develop and introduce a standardized overseas travel policy for the public service and covering all categories of workers, including government ministers as part of additional expenditure control measures,” President Bio announced in Parliament on May 10, 2018, during his state opening address. An internal memo dated August 1, 2019, from the Office of the President addressed to all heads of government ministries, agencies, and departments announced a temporary freeze on overseas travel by public officials. “The President has directed that with immediate effect all ministers, ministers of state, deputy ministers and all other public servants should not embark on official overseas trips, except for statutory engagements, until further notice. Participation at statutory meetings must be cleared with His Excellency the President on the submission of concurrence for the use of public funds,” wrote Secretary to the President Julius Sandy on August 1, 2019.
However, despite these public pronouncements and promises, President Bio and his wife spent much of the first two years in office making frequent trips to Europe and Asia, drawing public criticism on the purposes and significance of these travels. Critics of the President say the number of overseas trips is now over 70 international trips in two years, a record that exceeds any sitting president of Sierra Leone since the end of the country’s civil war in 2002.
Bio, on the other hand, has argued that he travels frequently to rebrand the image of the country. “We are traveling internationally to reassure investors and multilateral partners that Sierra Leone as a country is well prepared now than ever to effectively manage resources that come in as assistance to the country, and that we are no longer a country of war and Ebola,” Bio recently told a Sierra Leonean audience in Accra during a visit to Ghana early this year.
Towards the end of 2019, however, Jacob Jusu Saffa – Bio’s finance minister – proposed a new legislative provision to grant President Bio unregulated access to travel money. The Finance Ministry’s Finance Amendment Act of 2020 called for an amendment to Section 65 of the 2016 Public Financial Management Act, which is the law that regulates government travel expenditure. The amendment substituted the law with a new provision that would have allowed Bio unregulated access to travel money. Section 42 of the proposed 2020 Finance Act requested Parliament to approve the new legislative provision for non-accountable use of travel funds by the President and his deputy for all international travels. The proposed law specifically provides in Section 42(5) for “non-accountable imprest to be provided for daily international travel expenses, excluding purchase of tickets incurred by the President and Vice President.”
Parliament initially passed the proposed legislation into law in late November 2019, but in early December 2019, Parliamentarians voted again to remove the legislation from the 2020 Finance Act due to public pressure. The law had given the President, and two of his top officials – the Vice President and Speaker of Parliament – open cheques to use public funds when on overseas travel.
An Africanist Press investigation into the financial operations of the Bio administration since May 2018 uncovered evidence revealing the use of local and international travel by senior government officials, including the President, to move foreign currencies amounting to billions of Leones (millions of US$) out of Sierra Leone to foreign destinations under the guise of per diems and imprest. We discovered that by the time Finance Minister Jacob Saffa proposed the legislation on unregulated imprest in late 2019, senior government officials who travelled on overseas trips, including the President, the First Lady (a non-government position), the Chief Minister, and the Director of Science and Innovation, had already spent billions of Leones. Documents reviewed by the Africanist Press, for example, show that a total of Le3,330,412,548 (about US$330,000) was spent on travel per diems between August and December 2018 alone, in the first four months after the appointment of David Francis as Chief Minister. We discovered that when senior Administration officials travel, large cash withdrawals and wire transfers have been regular and frequent.
In early January 2021, Africanist Press reported how the President and his wife withdrew more than Le10 billion (over US$1 million) for a vacation to Lebanon in August of 2020, and more than Le5.2 billion (over US$520,000) for travel in December 2020 alone. We examined BSL wire transfers and withdrawal notes from January 1, 2020, through December 30, 2020, relating to presidential travel expenditures. We noted several cash withdrawals, often in foreign currencies, withdrawn in the name of the President and his wife. We calculated at least seven large cash withdrawals carried out in the name of Madam Bio alone between 10 January 2020, and 11 December 2020, all totaling Le1,847,601,064 (over US$180,000). These transactions included two withdrawals on 10 January 2020, of Le322,083,000 (over US$32,000) and Le71,013,453 (over US$7,000) for the First Lady while accompanying the president on a trip to the United Kingdom, and a further amount of Le276,949,376 (over US$27,000) also withdrawn on January 30, 2020, for a trip to Ethiopia with the President.
These cash withdrawals do not include separate amounts simultaneously withdrawn in the name of the President on the same dates from the Local and Overseas Travel account at BSL for these trips. For instance, on 10 January 2020, three cash withdrawal transactions in the amounts of Le272,347,976 (over US$27,000), Le644,166,000 (over US$64,000), and Le649,457,300 (about US$65,000) were accessed in the name of the President for expenditures ahead of the UK and Ethiopia trips. Thus, the aggregate cash withdrawn by the president and his wife on 10 January 2020 alone amounted to Le2,019,912,730.00 (over US$200,000). It is of note that the direct cash withdrawals of public funds by the President’s wife from any government account violated Sierra Leone’s public finance laws. The country’s finance laws preclude the wife of a sitting president from receiving direct public funds for any activity.
Our investigation found that consistent cash withdrawals purportedly used for travel were accessed in the name of Madam Bio from the BSL Local and Overseas Travel Account. These financial transactions do not include other large cash withdrawals from the Office of the First Lady’s bank account at BSL. We have shown in a previous report examples of direct cash withdrawals from the Office of the First Lady’s BSL account. For instance, between 13 July 2018 and 28 December 2018, Le826,614,000 (about US$82,000) was withdrawn from the First Lady’s Office BSL account by several individuals. These separate cash withdrawals happened simultaneously as cash was withdrawn from the President’s Local and Overseas Travel Account in the name of the First Lady. Records of financial transactions from the Local and Overseas Travel Account also show that cash withdrawals were carried out separately by both the President and his wife from the same bank account each time the president travelled since assuming office in 2018.
We examined withdrawals from the Local and Overseas Account in 2020 and noticed that, despite the coronavirus pandemic and travel restrictions, large amounts of cash were still being withdrawn. We noticed that although limited travel was undertaken by the President in 2020, more money was withdrawn from the country’s central bank and allegedly used as per diem and imprest by the President and his wife. For instance, we calculated a total of 65 cash withdrawals by Mohamed S. Bayoh alone between 7 May 2020, and 22 December 2020, totaling Le4,364,715,000 (over US$425,000). The money was withdrawn on the explicit instruction and approval of the Office of the President during the peak of COVID-related travel restrictions and lockdowns. Similar cash withdrawals were carried out simultaneously from the same bank account during the period of lockdowns and travel restriction by another aide of the president, Musa K. Jajua, between 30 June 2020, and 22 December 2020, amounting to Le5,804,625,000 (about US$567,000).
Thus, BSL records on cash withdrawals and wire transfers for fiscal year 2020 show that the President and his wife alone spent about Le30 billion on travel expenses; an expenditure that is three times the budgetary allocation to several government ministries combined. To put this in perspective, we compared the President’s travel expenditures with BSL’s financial records for other government ministries and agencies. For example, as of December 28, 2020, the Ministry of Social Welfare had a balance of Le386,733,695 (about US$38,000), while the Mines and Mineral Resources Ministry had a remaining balance of only Le16,347,826 (US$1600), and the Information and Communication Ministry’s account showed a closing balance of Le205,479,946 (about US$20,000). The budgetary allocations to all these ministries from June 2018 to December 2020 were far less than Le10 billion annually in the course of the first two and a half years of the Bio administration.