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The Anti-Corruption Commission and the Sierra Leone Lebanese Question

2 August 2019 at 18:05 | 8932 views

The Anti-Corruption Commission and the Sierra Leone Lebanese Question: A call for an ACC study!

By Kortor Kamara, USA

Reforms in Sierra Leone’s economic and financial services sector are projected to largely fail unless the Sierra Leone-Lebanese economic power imbalance question is adequately addressed.

This question revolves around the inordinate monopolistic economic stranglehold being exerted over all aspects of the society, by the Lebanese business community, as a result of their dominant economic power dating to the pre-independence era.

Despite political independence in 1961, Sierra Leone’s new and subsequent leadership have continued to act as though merely continuing the colonial era economic models and power structures without addressing the core economic power imbalance will suffice to ensure economic prosperity.

Having initially entered Sierra Leone as refugees in the early 1890’s, the Lebanese were rapidly catapulted into business prominence by the British colonial administration who sought to replace the influence of colony-Krio traders, who had previously served as intermediaries in the lucrative trade with the hinterland.

Due largely to increased agitation for self-governance and other nationalism-related disagreements between the colonial administration and the Krios, the new arrivals adaptation of life in the protectorate made them suitable collaborators with the colonial administration.

It was thus not uncommon following establishment of the protectorate to see settlements of Lebanese traders in villages and towns throughout the provinces, mostly as buyers of cash crops and sellers of European merchandises.

However, following independence in 1961 the vacuum created by the absence of a coherent independent economic model and Sierra Leonean entrepreneurial economic class largely saw the Lebanese, hitherto intermediaries to the colonial administration, filling the void and replacing the British colonialists as the major economic powerhouse.

The Lebanese cartel
In especially the economic and business sectors, our Lebanese brothers and sisters have established a sort of cartel, the dismantling of which must be studied by policymakers and commissions, such as the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) and or the relevant economic and business oversight committees of the Sierra Leone Parliament and reforms accordingly instituted.

Prior reform efforts largely failed due to the failure by successive governments in understanding the nexus between Sierra Leone’s economic development, rampant corruption and the Lebanese question. It is feared that the same fate awaits the current administration if it neglects to address and engage the Lebanese community with goals, expectations and monitoring of this major economic driver’s contributions towards elimination of corrupt practices, creation of employment opportunities and industries and innovations in general business practices.

The symbiotic relationship between the Lebanese and Sierra Leonean communities has been fraught with frictions and fissures, largely due to their generally accepted corrupt business practices and perceived absence of allegiance to the Sierra Leonean state.

For example, in the period following the First World War Sierra Leone saw the 1919 rice riots erupt in Freetown, in protest against Lebanese traders hoarding of rice in order to create an artificial scarcity. These riots were brutally suppressed by the colonial armed forces resulting in deaths of several Sierra Leoneans.

Since independence these latent fissures have occasionally bubbled to the surface of resentment with violent reactions against Lebanese merchants at times of civil strife and unrests.

This Lebanese conundrum will continue to plague and challenge our nation if not addressed openly and objectively; for while it is a truism that the community is as much an integral part of our comity as other tribes, it has however remained disproportionately and largely responsible for the corrupting economic problems permeating our country.

Business practices engaged in by the community have for decades been embraced and emulated by other actors in the commercial sector. For example, the expansion of sole or family owned shopkeepers as a primary mode of economic activity has remained the model of choice in our nation’s commerce.

The need for economic dialogue
The purpose of this piece is not to castigate any one segment of our community, but a genuine desire to have a national dialogue leading to reforms within the Lebanese and to a lesser degree the Indian and Nigerian merchant communities, especially addressing issues not only in contracting for and implementation of public projects; but these communities expected essential roles in spearheading meaningful economic development in our country.

The Lebanese community therefore needs to reform itself from merely a façade-community of shopkeepers into economic drivers and participants to help rebuild Sierra Leone into the economic powerhouse it can be.

This re-examination must include an assessment of their central role in our nation’s economic and business life, the fight or lack thereof against public corruption and transparency in business, industrialization, job creation and development of best practices in the economic arena. Whether their de-facto centrality and pre-eminence has been used as a force for good and development; and how efforts at good governance continue to be consciously or inadvertently thwarted by the business as usual attitude of the community.

The perceived and or real corrupting influence of Lebanese and Sierra Leone born-Lebanese traders, importers and businessmen has and continues having a debilitating and corrosive influence not only in the economic and business spheres, but on good governance generally in the country.

The recent exposures in the local media regarding the corrupt contracting business activities of the Shallop brothers, Fawaz and other prominent Lebanese must not be seen as an isolated issue, but rather a continuum of business as usual practices, especially since independence, that generally have thwarted development of our nation; and a central reason why the country remains at the bottom of the human development index.

The ACC as a tool in effecting change
The Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) represents one potent institution that can effectuate real and meaningful change into how the Lebanese business community addresses issues as corruption, bribery, non-performance of public contracts and smuggling.

With the Anti-Corruption Act, 2008, the Commission is empowered to investigate and bring corruption related charges against not only public officers who receive but also against “any person who offers any advantage to any public officer”. In fact, a primary function of the ACC as noted in section 7 (1) (a) is “to take all steps as may be necessary for the prevention, eradication or suppression of corruption and corrupt practices”.

Also, pursuant to Part 11 section 7 (2) (i) of the ACC Act, 2008 the Commission is empowered to “undertake studies and assist in research projects in order to identify the causes of corruption and its consequences on, inter alia, the social and economic structures of Sierra Leone”.

Thus, as can be seen the proactive corruption prevention functions of the Commission need to be activated by embarking on such studies to get at the root causes of corruption in the country.

Anecdotal evidence is pervasive throughout the country as to how the Lebanese have for decades perverted legitimate business and transparency transactions by bribing public officials.

While we have seen some ACC activity against public officials and low level government officials, we are as yet to see application of the anti-corruption laws against the people given the bribes and the ultimate beneficiaries of the advantage.

These to a large extent are the Lebanese and other foreign contractors and businessmen who continue to prey on the flaws and frailties of the Sierra Leonean public servant, whose meager salary and emoluments continues to serve as the inducing driving force.

The Commission must be made to understand that a direct corollary of corruption is not only the soliciting and acceptance of bribes but more so the offering of the bribe. A direct causal relationship thus exists, which if not aggressively pursued through prosecutions of the parties/persons offering the bribes, will ultimately negate the very essence of the fight against corruption.

The Commissioner of the Anti-Corruption Commission, whose shoulders the task of eradicating or minimizing the pervasive corruption in the country currently rests, must be seeing utilizing the proactive measures at his disposal in combating corruption at its source and prosecuting parties who largely are the initiators and beneficiaries of the corrupt practices.

This indictment should not be viewed as a political party issue but rather must be seen as a collective failure of all political parties, entities, civil society, economic leaders and political practitioners.

The Lebanese community despite a century of continuous abode in the country still view themselves and has remained very much foreigners with no serious attachment to the development of the country.

Several reasons have been adduced for this state of affairs on a continental basis, however, in the Sierra Leone system, the focus of this article; I venture to state that the central dominance of ethnocentric political parties in an unholy alliance with an unassimilated foreign –focused Lebanese economic class, whose near monopoly over all business activities in the country, have had a debilitating stranglehold on the nation’s progress since independence.

The community having largely failed to be assimilated into Sierra Leonean culture and identity, despite over a century of habitation, largely thrives on the Sierra Leonean public servant and political elite’s penchant for corruption and specifically small bribes for favors in contracting and smuggling of diamonds and other precious minerals.

The Lebanese community therefore needs to reform itself to help rebuild Sierra Leone or the coercive powers of the ACC and the state must surely be deployed to effect the required change that Sierra Leone’s economic development requires-dismantling of the monopolistic Lebanese cartel.