By: Karamoh Kabba
In Sierra Leone, hearts are ablaze and imaginations are running wild over the ‘illegal suspension’ of the Auditor General of Audit Service Sierra Leone (ASSL), Lara Taylor-Pearce and her immediate under-link, Mr. Tamba Momoh in just weeks leading to the release of the 2020 audit report.
The social media is awash with insinuations that President Maada Bio always wanted to fire Lara and was looking for the right opportunity to act. Others believe that State House is worried about yet another “hard-hitting” annual audit report from Lara.
But according to a letter from the Office of the Attorney General and Minister of Justice signed by the Deputy Minister, Umaru Napoleon Koroma and addressed to the Hon, Justice Desmond Babatunde Edwards on 8th November, 2021, Lara is accused of “alleged misconduct or lack of professional performance” in the exercise of her mandate as Auditor General.
In the aftermath, intense constitutional and legal debates have ensued amongst politicians, political pundits, non-state actors, high-profile legal luminaries and the media mostly calling for a review of the president’s decision against Lara in this small West African nation with a bitter history of coup d’états and savage internecine conflicts since Independence in 1961.
Lara’s unprecedented suspension by President Maada Bio according to many observers has awakened bad memories of unabated breaches of the 1991 Constitution and the attendant constitutional crisis and political tensions that are undermining elections, good governance and democracy since Maada Bio rose at the helm of affairs in this country following a controversial presidential election victory in 2018.
The ‘Afrobarometer’ wrote in favour of Lara that, “As the government’s chief external auditor since 2011, she has won praise for helping change Sierra Leone’s public-sector accountability landscape…” The statement in part further reads that “Among other honours, she received the 2015 National Integrity Award from the Sierra Leone Anti-Corruption Commission.”
Umaru Fofana, the BBC stringer in Sierra Leone describes Lara as “The highly-respected career auditor who has headed the institution for 10 years…,” on his Facebook page. “Mrs Taylor-Pearce told me that she had not been told what the remit of the tribunal was or what wrongdoing she and one of her deputies (also suspended) had committed. She has been consistent in releasing hard-hitting audit reports about the handling of state resources by the former and present governments,” Umaru continued.
Lara may have been denied the right by her accusers to know the reason for her suspension, but the haste to suspend her has spurred a major concern amongst Sierra Leoneans that the president might have breached the constitutional provision to suspend/remove an auditor general. The argument is that a tribunal should have been setup before the issuance of the suspension letter and that the procedure through the judiciary has been considered to be ‘flawed’.
Basita Michael, who is a member of the Judicial and Legal Service Commission (JLSC) before her resignation few days ago, and who also served as a former President of the Sierra Leone’s Bar Association has resigned from the JLSC, citing reason of unacceptable manner in which President Bio appointed a Judicial Tribunal to investigate alleged wrongdoing by Auditor General Lara Taylor-Pearce.
In a legal opinion titled; “My Thoughts on the Mrs. Lara Taylor-Pearce Saga” by a well-known politician and renown lawyer of over forty-year experience in the profession, Hon. Charles Francis Margai raised not only a constitutional glitch in the process over the suspension of the Auditor General, but he also alluded that the president may attract an impeachment process for misconduct when Lawyer Margai called the attention of the less legally inclined public to “Section 51 of the Constitution of Sierra Leone Act No.6 of 1991 – titled misconduct by president”.
In conclusion, Charles Margai pondered the question of “Are there attendant consequences when a president breaches provisions of the Constitution?” The legal luminary henceforth lured the minds of attentive Sierra Leoneans to Section 51 Act No.6 of 1991 Constitution.
And here is what the foregoing Section of the Constitution states in that regard; “If notice in writing is given to the Speaker signed by not less than one-half of all the Members of Parliament of a motion alleging that the President has committed any violation of the Constitution or any gross misconduct in the performance of the functions of his office and specifying the particulars of the allegations and proposing that a tribunal be appointed under this section to investigate those allegations, the Speaker shall…”
Indeed, concerned civil societies, rights advocates and the media have heaped serious condemnation and criticism on Maada Bio’s government and its judiciary for imprudence in their actions that have provoked yet another constitutional crisis and a possible butt of a toxic political atmosphere.
The Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ) has registered its concern “about the issues of transparency accountability in the use of public funds by government and its agencies”. The Institute of Governance Reform (IGR) states that the institute is appalled by “the move given the reputation the Auditor General has built over the years particularly coming just weeks before the release of the annual audit report.” 50/50 is a feminist organization that has expressed suspicion of a foul play against powerful women in governance in a press statement in response to the Lara saga. The Standard Times newspaper republished a letter president Maada Bio wrote in 2015 in praise of Lara Taylor-Pearce for auditing the Ebola funds.
Political parties, either separately and or in a union they called a Consortium of Progressive Political Parties (CoPPP) made up of thirteen out of seventeen registered political parties have been highlighting similar concerns over constitutional breaches by Maada Bio’s government in the past to no avail. They have now seized the opportunity to showcase a proof that their concerns, all these years, were valid.
They are now up in arms with the government over the “illegal suspension” of Lara. Hon. Kandeh Yumkella, leader of the National Grand Coalition (NGC) in Parliament tweeted in part that “It is another nail in the coffin of accountability and democracy.” This is because Lara, according to international and local opinion leaders and observers, carries an unblemished character and an indefatigable passion for carrying out her mandate in accordance with international best practice as well as her well-known consistency for publishing fearless and without favour annual audit reports.
In all of these, lawyer Francis Gabbidon, former ombudsman and long-standing lawyer sees no problem with the right of the president to hire and fire. Nonetheless, many other prominent lawyers retorted that “The issue is about the blatant violation of the Constitution and the flawed process of suspending/removal of the Auditor General and not about questioning the Executive Power of the president.”
Well, Lawyer Garbidon is not the proverbial ‘new kid on the block’ when it comes to instigating controversies – this was the same lawyer who interjected the infamous ‘two sims’ (dual citizenship) issue into the political discourse in the run-up to 2018 parliamentary elections that led to the disenfranchisement of many active diaspora politicians.
And the defunct All Political Parties Association (APPA) is observed to be unusually silent on this matter this time around differently from their unguided support for government in the past for all the wrong reasons, one political commentator observed.
And in this fight to defend her integrity, dignity and good name, Lara is indeed living up to the challenges consistent with the great religious doctrine that “A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches”. Indeed, her name Pearce is a good surname “derives etymologically from the Germanic word to pierce, and was a name commonly given to warrior caste”.
Maada Bio has been a good mask man with his quiver full of arrows before, but now confounded by the challenges to pierce Pearce especially in the face of a ‘disgrunt’ grassroots who are poised to stand with the defender of their economy against corrupt politicians amidst the rising prices of food stuff, and they don’t give a damn about the legal intricacies in the discourse.