Monrovia - While President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf defended that officials of her government appointed to manage Ebola funds and materials during the peak of the virus outbreak could not provide proper accountability due to the emergency nature of the situation at the time, neighbouring Guinea has sentenced two of its officials for embezzling Ebola funds.
Guinea on Tuesday sentenced two officials for embezzling more than US$56,000 of the country’s Ebola fund in sharp contrast to Liberia where following an audit by the country’s supreme audit institution, the General Auditing Commission of Liberia, which indicated that Liberian officials could not account for expenditures incurred during the outbreak, President Sirleaf defended her officials when she said the emergency situation warranted making decisions that violated the country’s public procurement and other laws in the interest of saving lives.
The deadly Ebola virus struck three neighbouring countries, Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia early 2014 and the situation later became a world crisis when the virus spread from the three countries to other parts of the world-Spain, and the United States, amongst others.
The crisis led to increase in support to the three highly affected countries with millions in medical supplies, cash and other means to the affected countries.
The World Bank for example, provided US$28,184,871 to the Government of Liberia besides other forms of support. The United States, China, Israel and many other countries provided support to Liberia in efforts to eliminate the virus.
President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, knowing that virus had overwhelmed the ability and capacity of her government to deal with the situation, made a written appeal to the world to come to the aid of Liberia.
With the high support, accountability became a major problem as vehicles and other equipment donated by friendly nations allegedly became subject of massive abuse by officials in charge of handling the funding and equipment.
Reports of the sale of Ebola donations and misapplication of other materials donated were widespread leaving the Government of Liberia to have commissioned an audit through the General Auditing Commission of Liberia to audit the usage of money funding and other processes.
Amid the high death toll which led to the large contributions, there were still instances where hospitals and other facilities lacked supplies as cases flooded Ebola Treatment Units (ETUs) with many Liberians expressing anger as to why, in the wake of the donations, citizens were still enduring much pain with many pointing to corruption.
In assuring Liberians and donors that accountability will be the hallmark of the numerous donations to fight Ebola, Amara Konneh. who served as Finance Minister at the time, declared that any individual found to have abused the public trust in the management and operation of Ebola funding will face prosecution.
“Let me say this loud and clear, any individual or entity, found to have abused, the public trust in the management and operation of resources given to them to fight Ebola and at the same time do their regular business as a government, would be prosecuted in accordance with the law and we will put the necessary resources, at the government’s disposal, to ensure that, that happens”, Konneh said.
Konneh looked to have the comments against the backdrop of his boss who pledged years back that corruption will be public enemy number one under her tenure.
In what appeared as an attempt to show to the rest of the world that Liberia was sincere in expending donations intended for Ebola, the Government mandated an audit which was conducted by the General Auditing Commission of Liberia (GAC).
Over $15 million misused
In its audit the GAC found that discrepancies took place during the expenditure of funding provided to fight Ebola. The GAC noted that US$15,169,635.00 was misused and abused by those tasked with the responsibility to oversee the fight against the virus.
In its report, the GAC found that financial activities and the conduct of the affairs of the National Ebola Trust Fund (NETF) were marred by financial irregularities and material control deficiencies for a number of transactions carried out by the Incident Management System and the eight Implementing Partners of the NETF.
“These irregularities were the result of the Incident Management System and the Implementing Partners not fully adhering to the Public Financial management Act of 2009, Public Procurement & Concession Act of 2010, IPSAS Cash Basis of Accounting, the Ebola Trust Fund Financial & Procurement policy and other applicable laws and regulations.
Same situation, different responses
In her response to the audit report, President Sirleaf said the emergency in Liberia at the time warranted some kind of action and she believes it was in that context her officials acted.
“Five millions were put in the Ebola Trust Fund. That fund was put there at the time when nobody had given support to fight Ebola and it was a time when hundreds of people were dying; when people were running away from the places; when we had chaos.
In the midst of chaos, something has to be done, and so I am quite sure that it reflects the context of the kinds of urgency that was required in some cases”, the President said regarding the audit report.
She added: “I know that there might have been some procedural errors, but I believe that if someone says that they have to buy a bus to carry people when a hundred people are dying on the street and that did not go through a bidding process, as long as the fund was properly used for the purpose intended, there is no problem".
"It was in those difficult days when we had to run some decisions, decisions that run contrary to all procedures”.
Following the President’s statement, some of her officials accused of acting improperly by violating financial, procurement and other laws, came out strong fighting back against the audit report.
Members of the Ebola Task Force in a 36-page letter to the Auditor General Yusador S. Gaye accused the integrity institution of being incompetent and unprofessional, even going far as issuing a threat of lawsuit.
The Ebola Incident Management System at the time rejected the report describing the supreme audit institution handling of the report as improper.
Different emergency in Guinea?
While President Sirleaf and her officials defended that the irregularities reported by auditors were due to decisions taken as a result of the emergency situation, neighbouring Guinea has acted differently, sentencing two officials.
Ernest Paquille Guema, a senior member of the Health Ministry was given a two-year sentence and another official, Abdoulaye Sadio Fofana of the Communications Team on the Anti-Ebola Commission received a one-year suspended sentence.
Accordingly, the money was set aside for educating traditional healers on the dangers of the Ebola virus during the outbreak in that country.
Since the regime of President Sirleaf promised to fight corruption, no official of her government has been sentenced although there has been few cases of court indictments that later ended nowhere with these officials going free in a justice system that is dubbed corrupt.
The use of the Ebola related funding continues to damage the international image of Liberia as an audit supported by the World Bank and conducted by the GAC found out.
Known as the Ebola Emergency Response Project (ERP) Audit, the GAC indicated that the World Bank provided US$28,184,871 directly to the Government of Liberia and the government disbursed US$16,023,029 during the audit period and had a balance of US$12,161,842 at June 30, 2015.
The audit, which covered the period July 1, 2014 to June 30, 2015, found that total payment of U$2,657,640 made to 6,893 routine and response health workers as hazard payment for the period of four months was disbursed without evidence of attendance records and contracts.
The GAC stated that it was therefore unable to satisfy itself about the validity of the payments.
During the payments of hazard benefits to health workers, many workers protested that they worked and were listed but did not benefit from the payments.
As President Sirleaf nears the end of her tenure, her administration is yet to take any notable action against corruption that it will be remembered for, even though the President has admitted that corruption is still a problem facing the country. At some point she has described it as a vampire.