Salone News

The "missing" laptops: Separating fact from fiction

24 December 2020 at 23:20 | 1555 views

Commentary

By Vandy Kanyako, Portland, USA

The phrase “Missing laptops” is trending on Sierra Leone social media, for a good reason. Partly due to the robust intervention of the ACC, Pictures and video clips of boxes of laptops, with some of the content in pristine condition are making the rounds on whatsapp, facebook and other chat forums. The dramatic incident “has caught the public’s eye”, in the words of the Auditor-General in a just-concluded interview on AYV TV.

Laptops are all of a sudden at the heart of Sierra Leone’s political discourse. As one would expect, the opposition is LAPPING it up and naysayers are having a field day with it.

The government is in a damage limitation mode, scrambling to contain the fallout.

Clearly the issue has been weaponized for political purposes and as such there now exists a very thin line between fact and fiction.

The Auditor General’s office, I am afraid, is partly responsible for the inchoate mess. Here is why:

Upon a quick forensic examination of the Special Report titled “Report on the Audit of Funds managed by the National COVID-19 Emergency Response Centre and other Ministries Departments and Agencies” the word ‘laptop’ appears 13 times. The phrase “Laptops valued at Le476 Million are missing” features no fewer than four times in the 133-page report. The 13-4 inconsistency lies in the fact that there are other laptop issues in the report, but I won’t get to that.

The phrase itself “Laptops valued at Le476 Million are missing” reads like a tabloid headline. Therein lies the problem. The Auditor General sensationalized the issue and blew it out of proportion when the facts, as outlined in her report, say otherwise.

Here is what we know from the report

The Finance Team of the Integrated Health Projects Administration Unit (IHPAU)
purchased 47 laptop computers and other equipment ((15” touch screen Intel Core i3, 8GB Memory and 1 TB harddrive), 4 printers, 4 projectors and other accessories (including Microsoft Office Professional Edition and antivirus packages) for and on behalf of NaCOVERC, from the House of Electronics (S.L.) Ltd. for Le475,113,600. (Pg 17). FACT.

So from this statement we know the laptops (and other items which she ignored) were actually PURCHASED

Having established this basic fact, let’s move on. The report is again clear on what followed next:

“According to both the supplier and the end-user (i.e. NaCOVERC), all 47 were delivered in accordance with the contract specifications. (pg 17).

Here the contractor appears to have done the right thing: they actually DELIVERED, as per the contract, according to the Report.

Check that, let’s proceed as it gets even more interesting.

“According to the delivery note prepared by the logistics pillar on 3rd April, these laptops were received in good condition, and they all met the specification requirements of the agreed contract” (pg. 64)

So here again everyone involved seem to have done the right thing: They did not just deliver a laptop, any laptop, they actually supplied what was asked for, if the Auditor-General’s Report is anything to go by. The laptops were delivered on time, in good condition, meeting ALL of the specifications outlined in the contract. We now know better but let’s leave this here for now, will get to it in a second.

We also know that the total cost of the 47 laptop computers according to the invoice was Le475,113,600 (i.e. unit price of Le10,108,800). The Auditor General also verified that the funds were actually paid out to the supplier.

“From a review of procurement documents, it was observed that payments amounting to Le636,557,600 were made to ‘House of Electronics’ for the supply and installation of 47 laptop computers... “(pg 64)
.
So right up to this point, on paper at least, all parties (IHPAU, NaCORVERC and House of Electronics) appear to have done everything right. They followed standard procedures: carried out a transaction in a transparent manner, documented it, and perhaps most importantly, made the paperwork available to the auditors.

Everything appears to have gone south when the auditor general stepped in and muddled the water. When the auditors went in for the physical inspections, the laptops were “not available”.

Here is what she wrote:

“It was however, during the physical verification exercise, that we observed that the laptops supplied by ‘House of Electronics’ were not available. When this matter was raised in the draft report and responded to by both IHPAU and NaCOVERC, inconsistencies were noted.”

“not available” and “missing” carry different connotations, but they deliberately or accidently conflated the two.

Instead of reporting the non-availability for verification in a more nuanced language (as in “We go dae but we nor see natin oh”) or something to that effect, they ran away with the tabloid headline: “Laptops valued at Le476 Million are missing”, which she went on to repeat ad nauseam.

The Report also mentioned’ inconsistencies’ from the staff of the institutions in question. But what these ‘inconsistencies’ are, the report does not say.

Even more bizarrely she recommended that the funds for the purchase of the laptops be refunded pronto. She refused to countenance the fact that it is plausible for a portable device to actually be with staff working in the field. It seems as if she got carried away here and broke with her own tradition. In years past, she would have given the auditing entity, in this case NaCORVEC, a specific time frame (as outlined in the Audit Service Act of 2014) to respond or face the consequences. For example, her 2015 Report (pg 210) on the Constitutional Review Committee notes that “nine lap-tops worth Le93,530,950 were not produced for physical verification”, the exact same thing that happened with NaCORVEC. Instead of asking the CRC to pay up right away as she has done in the case of the “missing laptops” she instead recommended the following: “Therefore section 12 of the Audit Service Act 2014 should be implemented”. Section 12 of the Service Act is mainly around recovery of missing or stolen assets/ monies and the process that involves. It makes clear on at least two occasions that the person or institution in question should be given 30 days to make amends or face the music.

In another glaring example in 2015, that may read like double standard to skeptics and critics, when her audit revealed that one vehicle with registration number AJE 712 (Toyota Hilux P/Van) was missing from the inventory of vehicles assigned to the Constitutional Review Committee, she urged the procurement officer of the Committee to “make the vehicle available for physical verification within 15 days of this report otherwise the appropriate authorities will be advised“ (AR 2016, pg 208)

In the case of the ongoing “missing laptops” however, Ms. Taylor-Pearce appears to have shifted policies dramatically. She has gone straight for the nuclear option.

“The audit therefore concludes that the Logistic Pillar which confirmed receiving all 47 laptop computers with the correct specification (i.e 15” touch screen Intel Core i3, 8GB Memory and 1 TB hard drive), but which are missing, should refund the sum of Le475,113,600 without delay”. (Pg 64).

Ms. Taylor-Pearce, what happened to the 30 days as stipulated in the Audit Service Act, or even the 15 days which you’ve been generous with in the past in similar scenarios? NaCORVERC may have erred in the implementation of their mandate. To be fair to NaCORVERC, on the strength of the evidence deduced by your report, they appear to have mostly done the right things. Whether that’s enough is another matter.

When it comes to the “missing laptops” what is really missing is consistency and moral conviction on the part of the Auditor General’s office.

To play the Devil’s advocate, I can perhaps understand why the Auditor General’s office is jumpy. The office may actually be suffering from the auditing version of PTSD. Their over-reaction may have been shaped by past experiences, wherein in Sierra Leone, if something is “not available”, it often means it’s gone— for good. But going into an auditing process with preconceived notions is not only unethical, but also opens the highly regarded auditing outfit to further scrutiny.

Ms. Lara Taylor-Pearce. who has done a remarkable job under extremely difficult circumstances up to this point, appears to have over-played her hands on the laptop issue. Though well-intentioned, she clearly made a mountain out of a mole hill thereby igniting a chain of unfortunate events with dire consequences for the often underpaid and under-appreciated average worker at these institutions. Hopefully she comes to the realization that the numbers, words and phrases in her reports, have real consequences, for the country, and perhaps most importantly for the ordinary men and women who toil every day to make this country a slightly livable place.

Let’s end with the quality of the laptops, which is the latest twist in this ongoing saga. As already pointed out, the Auditor General’s Report confirms that the laptops met ALL of the specifications in the contract. But preliminary investigations by the no-nonsense ACC (as outlined in a Press Release dated December 23, 2020) indicates that in fact the laptops did not meet ALL of the specifications. How did the Auditor- General’s Report miss such a critical piece in their investigations? The ACC picked out the glaring omission in less than a day what the Auditor General could not ascertain in more than 6 months. This raises some uncomfortable questions, especially around the caliber and adequacy of trained personnel for such a critical job.

In conclusion it is not all bad news. We can take at least five positives from this “not available/ missing” laptop hysteria:

·The nation is actually talking about it and about the corroding effects of corruption. Social and mainstream media is abuzz with laptops, no laptops. Good thing.

· We still have some honest people in Sierra Leone’s public institutions. All is not lost.

· The ACC now barks and bites. Their robust intervention seems to have brought the issue to a swift resolution.

· The authorities appear to be taking these reports and the issues raised therein- seriously. Let’s applaud the efforts, warts and all, in sanitizing a rather decadent system.

· The Auditor General’s Office is a critical component in the fight against graft. This incident however shows that from time to time even the auditors need to be audited. They should use this as a teachable moment to further up their game and deliver for Sierra Leone the financial gatekeeping it desperately needs.

Vandy Kanyako is Associate Professor at Portland State University

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