We finally met three weeks after I requested for a sit-down interview. The new man on the frontline of President Maada Bio’s fight against corruption is a very busy man. When he is not looking at cases he inherited from his predecessor; he is opening new ones. On top of this, he is crisscrossing the globe delivering speeches. In his office, his cell phone rings as though on a loop: calls from government functionaries, officials of foreign embassies, someone from the United Kingdom or elsewhere-it is nonstop.
The 33-year-old cherubic-faced Francis Ben-Kaifala does not betray emotions easily when you meet him. He listens intently, asks pointed questions, makes a few notes, and, at some point, he makes his points. On his desk are a pile of files, each file loaded with documents, and most documents awaiting his signature. As the pile of files decreases, having been attended to, his secretary walks in with a fresh bunch. Francis reads each document with the meticulousness of a prosecutor, sometimes making a few changes here and there and other times ordering further inquiries.
The ACC building in the heart of Freetown is nondescript; the painting faded eons ago. The Cathedral Bookshop, once the envy of students in search of textbooks still occupies space at that building. Nearby is St George’s Cathedral, the heart of the Anglican Church in Sierra Leone. The stone-walled building is well over 200 years old; its construction began in 1817 and was completed in 1828.
Inside a tiny alley on the side is the door that leads to the Anti-Corruption Commission. Men and women in mostly dark suits breeze in and out of that door. A security officer clutching an AK47 stands ramrod in front of the door. At exactly 3:00 p.m., I was called to walk up to the next set of floors where I met other plain-clothes security details of the Commissioner. They wanted me to surrender my cell phone, but I explained I needed it for the interview. A few minutes after 3:00 p.m., I was ushered into Mr Kaifala’s office. In a country where keeping to time is seemingly a vice, the new ACC boss’ meeting me on time was refreshing.
For starters, the 5 feet, 10 inches tall Fulbright scholar, Mr Kaifala has a very striking resemblance to a certain former Vice President. Mr Kaifala carries a ‘high-barb’ that makes him a Victor Foh lookalike. The hairstyle obviously adds some inches to his height. Interestingly, one of his first acts was to go after Mr Foh over the Hajjgate. The Hajjgate is one out of seven indictments that the ACC has filed.
Mr Kaifala, a Catholic who is now a bit more prayerful spoke about settling in his new job. He opened up about his motivation for taking the anti-corruption challenge, his priorities, his level of cooperation with the US Embassy and other foreign governments and institutions. He threw light on blocking the financial leakages, laundering the country’s image abroad and recovering the stolen wealth from corrupt government officials. He believes the country would recover several millions of dollars if he wins the cases that are being pursued.
I wanted to know how it has been for him since he took up the job. “These have been very interesting times,” he says, adding, “As you are aware, the circumstances surrounding my appointment generated a lot of public attention, and it was a roller coaster.” Now, though, it has also been hectic. “Things are falling into place, and it has been good so far.”
Kaifala is reviewing the files he inherited from the previous administrator of the office as well as looking into new cases for possible investigations. He is looking through audit reports, information in respect of public officials and their dealings with finances. On his head is also the task of reviewing the systems and processes in place in various ministries, departments and agencies, “ to enforce preventive measures in view of the fact that the fight against corruption is not only about investigating to prosecute; it is also about investigating to advise on what we should do so to avoid corrupt practices.”
A lawyer by profession and a married man with two lovely daughters, Mr Kaifala, is impressively motivated to serve his country. For him, being an ACC Commissioner is a call to his people, and, at his age, he could not have asked for more.
His buzzword is that “corruption is not shadow boxing.” He waxes poetic about the task at hand, stressing there would be no sacred cows. On whether he would go after officials of President Bio’s government if need be, he was emphatic: “One hundred percent. Absolutely, I will go after them.”
The ardent Manchester United fan has set for himself a three-year timeframe to succeed. His priorities include a focus on revenue-generation and mobilisation institutions, continuing with existing investigations at NaCSA, Ebola, the Red Cross, Mudslide, Moses Shears and the Hajjgate.
He has also opened up new cases from NASSIT, NRA, Youth Ministry and the Judiciary among others. They are in advanced stages of finalisation and likely indictments.
The eagerness to succeed keeps him up at night. Since becoming the ACC head, Mr Kaifala has received support from the US Embassy among others. They recently collaborated with him in the arrest of over a dozen persons implicated in the issuance and use of service passports to undeserving persons. This should send a signal to those who have looted and taken the country’s treasury to foreign lands that such monies will be recovered.
On the Hajjgate, the ACC Boss describes the experience of affected persons as traumatic; adding that it was inevitable that he took up the issue. He would like to send a strong message that such a practice has no place in the Sierra Leonean society.
He also revealed that since inception, the Bio administration has not had a need to borrow money to keep the government running and that government workers have been paid on time. It was a subtle hint that people in authority tend to be careful these days with public money.
Even before the interview, the ACC boss had started the investigation of the Sierra Leone Football Association headed by Isha Johansen and Chris Kamara. He would not tolerate FIFA, the football world governing body, standing in the way of accountability and transparency. “When was the last time you watched Mighty Blackpool versus East End Lions play at the stadium?” he asked, rhetorically, inferring that football in Sierra Leone is in disarray or almost dead.
As we were ending the interview, I wanted his final thoughts. Like the late Professor Akintola Wyse lecturing History to his students at the Mary Kingsley auditorium at FBC, Francis Ben Kaifala straightened his suit, adjusted his necktie and looked straight into my eyes. “Nothing threatens our survival more than corruption,” he began. “Politicians must understand that enough is enough.”
“Let us develop a sense of patriotism and nationalism like never before and push this country to greater heights. Let us make it the country it was poised to be when we gained Independence when our forefathers fought for this country to be free. Let us be the Lion Mountain and let us move into the future on a clean slate.”
On that note, we shook hands, and I bade him farewell and all the best in his efforts to contribute to making our country the land that we love, our Sierra Leone. His next guest was ready to be ushered in.
NB: The writer, an accomplished journalist and with over a decade of experience working in peacekeeping with the United Nations, is a former editor of Concord Times