The constitutional crisis over the vice-presidency drags on while an unwelcome spotlight falls on the President’s affairs
A full explanation of why Vice-President Samuel Sam-Sumana was summarily removed from office in March has just emerged. President Ernest Bai Koroma feared he was building support for a bid to succeed him as President, political sources in Freetown have told Africa Confidential. Koroma was alarmed because his deputy was courting important factions of the governing All People's Congress (APC) and building up momentum. Without fully considering the consequences, Koroma summarily dismissed Sam-Sumana, from whom he has long been estranged, even though he did not have the constitutional power to do so. It has left a legal quagmire that the courts show no sign of sorting out (AC Vol 56 No 6, Koroma lashes out).
Initially, Sam-Sumana sought an injunction in the Supreme Court against his sacking which could only, according to the constitution, follow a formal procedure conducted by Parliament alone. Koroma claimed that 'Supreme Executive Authority' permitted him to sack Sam-Sumana and appoint Victor Bockarie Foh in his stead. The Freetown courts are reluctant to defy political authority and so took their time in addressing the point.
On 6 May the court pronounced that it would be unsafe for it to demand the removal of Foh from the vice-presidency. Chairing a panel of five judges, Acting Chief Justice Valesius Thomas saw 'very grave consequences for the whole nation' if the office of the Vice-President were left vacant. Few were surprised by the verdict, even though it left open and unanswered the important questions: whether Sam-Sumana was legally sacked or his successor legally appointed.
The case continues, although it took a bizarre turn when, early this month, Sam-Sumana sacked his lawyer, J. Blyden Jenkins-Johnston, claiming he had acted against his interests. He lost confidence in his lawyer after discovering that President Koroma had paid him a visit, Africa Confidential has learned. Veteran barrister Jenkins-Johnston retaliated by claiming that Sam-Sumana was relying on advice from a famous London barrister, Geoffrey Robertson QC, to 'micro-manage' and 'manipulate' him. Robertson is the founder and joint head of London's Doughty Street Chambers and a former President of the United Nations-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone. Sam-Sumana is now represented by lawyer and opposition politician Charles Margai who, like Sam-Sumana, supported Koroma when he was first elected in 2007 but has since fallen out with him.
Koroma is leaving nothing to chance and the government has reportedly allocated 3 billion leones (US$720,000) to its legal team of specially-hired counsel. Some local media have bitterly commented that this is more than the combined total Koroma allocated to District Health Management Teams in six of the districts worst affected by Ebola through the entire period of the outbreak (AC Vol 56 No 2, The politics of Ebola). Koroma could have used government lawyers in the Ministry of Justice for his defence but many believed he could not risk a confrontation with his Attorney General, Frank Kargbo. He is a former human rights lawyer and was Executive Secretary of Sierra Leone's Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He had already voiced unease about both Sam-Sumana's sacking and the appointment of Foh in his place.
New details have also emerged about the choice of Foh, Finance Minister in the much despised Armed Forces Revolutionary Council junta of 1997-98. The late President Siaka Stevens, founder of the APC, sacked Foh from the civil service in the early 1980s for the alleged theft of public funds. While Sam-Sumana himself has a questionable reputation from his less than straightforward past dealings with at least two sets of United States' businessmen, he was never brought to court.
One of Sam-Sumana's aides, Momoh Kemoh Konteh, was filmed in an Al Jazeera television sting operation apparently taking cash for access to the Vice-President (AC Vol 53 No 20, Sam stays on the ticket). He was tried and acquitted, and last February, Koroma appointed him to chair the National Telecommunications Commission. Africa Confidential previously reported that US businessmen Mark Heiligman and Ed Sandridge had paid Sam-Sumana close to $500,000 in the expectation of favours at the time of his and Koroma's election in 2007 but had got nothing in return. Although the contributions were illegal, none of this caused Sam-Sumana reputational damage or problems with the police at the time.
Sam-Sumana has since then come across as a shrewd and sure-footed politician, astutely building a base within the APC aimed at a presidential bid in 2017. Koroma may have given up his ambition of changing the law to allow him to stand for a third presidential term but he still wants to anoint his successor. He has now been telling foreign visitors that he is grooming Kaifala Marah, his Finance Minister, and John Bonoh Sisay, his cousin and the Chief Executive Officer of the mining company Sierra Rutile, to succeed him.
Before he was expelled from the APC in March Sam-Sumana counted among his supporters the late Kainde Gladys Bangura, a respected veteran APC activist who played a crucial role in reviving the party's fortunes after it was sent into oblivion by the military coup of 1992. She was expelled from the party on the same day as Sam-Sumana, accused like him of 'fomenting violence'. Sam-Sumana has also been supported by Jengo Stevens, son of Siaka. In a crude bid to steal Stevens's loyalty, Koroma has appointed him Assistant to the Vice-President. The political battles within the APC continue with more fervour than does the log-jammed legal contest.
Far from increasing his power in the party, Koroma's handling of Sam-Sumana and the succession issue has encouraged his enemies in the APC to assault his reputation. When he took office in 2007, it is believed, Koroma's mandatory declaration of assets to the Anti-Corruption Commission itemised only his villa at Goderich, Freetown, along with less than $100,000 in the bank. In 2011, he demolished the house and built a much swankier mansion in its place. He has also built houses in Makeni and acquired several valuable properties in Freetown, we hear.
One particular acquisition raises legal issues. Last year, the extensive property of the defunct National Diamond Mining Company (NDMC), which had been valued by experts consulted by a parliamentary committee in 2013 at $12 mn., was bought for $1.2 mn. by another party acting, according to impeccable sources, on behalf of Koroma. There was no open or public bidding for the property, which includes twelve mansions and dozens of acres of prime land in Freetown, and no process for disposal of the state assets. Koroma has also acquired extensive property belonging to Aureol Tobacco Company, a semi-government-owned enterprise.
A former insurance manager, Koroma has made no secret of his wish to retire in wealth and engage in expanded business on leaving office. He has helped his brothers and sisters, who were previously broke, to become millionaires. One of them, Thomas Koroma, was before the courts on a theft charge which his brother had dismissed after he became President.
A US embassy cable of 2013, which Africa Confidential has seen, claims that Koroma has a 10% stake in the Sierra Leone holdings of the Swiss company Addax Bioenergy, which started work in the country in November 2011. Addax, a sugarcane-based ethanol company, that is part of AOG, parent company of Oryx Petroleum. Addax has invested tens of millions of dollars in a sprawling sugar plantation in Koroma's home district of Bombali. Koroma is also believed to have stakes in African Minerals Limited, whose majority ownership recently passed from Vasile Frank Timis to a Chinese conglomerate (AAC Vol 4 No 9, Not so fast, Frank).
In March 2012, Koroma sold the government's shares in the world's richest titanium mines, operated by Sierra Rutile, for $17.5 mn. Experts contended at the time that the shares could have fetched many times that amount. It is widely held in Freetown that Koroma now owns a chunk of those shares.
Claims of shady business dealings on Koroma's watch have also surfaced in connection with Ebola-related contracts, which were the subject of a government audit report released early this year (AC Vol 56 No 4, The Ebola bonanza). Focused on the management of Ebola funds between May and October 2014, the audit found that 30% of $19 mn. of internally generated funds spent to combat Ebola could not be accounted for. It found that the contract for the purchase of 20 ambulances for $1.1 mn. was 'inappropriately entered into' with a shell company called Kingdom Security Logistics, ostensibly based in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, but which belongs to Koroma's squash-playing Lebanese friend Mahmoud Bahsoon and his brother Walid Bahsoon, owner of the Freetown-based Premier Logistics and Supplies, Ltd.
Koroma offered the contract to Mahmoud Bahsoon while the two were playing squash and the President then telephoned the then Minister of Health, Miatta Kargbo, to arrange for an advance payment of 50% of the contract to Bahsoon on the following day, AC has learned. The money was disbursed even before the contract documents were put together, we hear. The company charged the government additional costs of $360,000 over the $1.1 mn. to air-freight 17 of the 20 ambulances. Yet only 16 have been delivered.
Another audit in process is likely to uncover more malfeasance and the talk in Freetown is that the indefatigable Auditor General, Lara Taylor-Pearce, who origianlly uncovered the ambulance contract, is under intense pressure to tone down her findings.
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