By Maxwell Cole
This week, the judiciary’s social media accounts announced the dismissal of the seven grounds of appeal presented by former President Dr. Ernest Bai Koroma against the judge-led Commission of Inquiry.
The panel of judges, comprising Hon. Justice Fatmatta Bintu Alhadi, Hon. Justice Komba Kamanda, and Hon. Justice Tonia Barnett, unanimously ruled against the appellant, ordering him to jointly and severally refund Le 70,294,264,523; $3,000,000; and $12,263,821. The court mandated that these funds be repaid into the Consolidated Revenue Fund within 30 days.
The matter centers around a loan to the Rokel Commercial Bank (RCB) (largely own by the state) sought a government bailout during Dr. Ernest Bai Koroma’s presidency. The bank was in such financial distress that a certain international financial institution advised the Government of President Koroma to sell it off which the president refused to do. Rather, he tasked the Ministry of Finance and Economic Development and the Bank of Sierra Leone to find better ways of salvaging the struggling Rokel Commercial Bank. The then Minister of Finance, Kelfala Marah, and the then Bank Governor, Momodu Kargbo, sought a $12 million loan from the Petroleum Directorate to rescue the Rokel Commercial Bank. With presidential approval, the loan was granted, leading to the government’s increased stake in the bank from 51% to 65%. Subsequently, RCB not only recovered but also initiated repayment of the loan to the government which is ongoing.
The RCB has since flourished to become a financial ‘power house’ in Sierra Leone, according to media reports. In 2021, RCB reported 88.7 Billion profit. “…the Rokel Commercial Bank has paid over 17 Billion Leones to its majority (Government of Sierra Leone) and minority shareholders as dividend following a pre-tax profit of Le88.7 Billion recorded for 2021. The dividend represents a significant increase from Le10.6 billion (6%) reported for 2020 financial statements.” In 2022, the bank made even more gains posting a remarkable profit of Le94 billion (Old Leones) in its 2022 financial statements. This impressive figure marks a 5.96% increase from the Le88 billion (Old Leones) profit recorded in 2021.
Despite such remarkable turnaround owing to President Koroma’s approval of the loan used to recapitalize RCB, upon his election in 2018, the Sierra Leone Peoples Party (SLPP) leader, President Julius Maada Bio, instituted three Judge -led Commissions of Inquiry, one of which, led by Justice Goodwill Biobele, recommended an investigation into President Koroma, the former Bank Governor, and the ex-Minister of Finance and Head of the National Petroleum Authority (PRA), for their involvement in the loan.
The Bank Governor and Finance Minister appealed these findings, resulting in a different Court of Appeal panel asserting that the funds were not missing, as evidenced by Rokel Bank’s account, and upheld their appeal.
Here is the judges’ reasoning in upholding Kelfala Marah’s appeal:
It is the substance of the evidence of Mr. Charles Babatunde Isaac Sylvester Sesay (CW7) at page 424 to 433 of the records ni vol. 1 that due to the recapitalization to the Rokel Commercial Bank (RCB) same have helped to prevent a national economic disaster in that Government which had 51% share ni RCB before recapitalization now has 65.02% of the shares as the bank became one of a going concern and a profitable commercial Bank. Mr. Charles Babatunde Isaac Sylvester Sesay at page 428 ni his evidence ni chief inter alia stated to wit: – “We understand that Rokel Commercial bank was formed ni 1919, the position is walk on the Street of Freetown, watch the TV, the status is that last year we were able to turn the Bank around, we were able to declare a profit after tax of roughly 62 billion Leones”. It is the evidence that without the recapitalization, the 51% that Government had would have dissipated and the Bank would have closed leading a serious economic downturn.”
The Panel went on to assert that:
“….Hence, on this ground of appeal it is our considered view that although there was blatant breach of the procedure in obtaining the loan leading to the entire process been irregular, what came out clearly having done a review of the evidence before the commissioner is that notwithstanding such irregularity, there was not established any act of abuse of office, misappropriation, maladministration and act of coruption by the Appelant as stated in the finding of the sole commissioner of commission No.64. Rather, the recapitalization has helped to save the collapse of a gigantic institution- the Rokel Commercial Bank – which was considered ‘too big to fail’ and thus became a going concern until now.”
Significantly, the judges made the strong point that:
“…. In the light of the foregoing analysis we hold that it would be a travesty of justice to hold that there was abuse of office, misappropriation, maladministration, and act of corruption by the Appellant. We further hold that although the process of obtaining the loan was irregular, the positive effect of the recapitalization at the end of the day by far outweighs any negative effect same may have caused .”
The recent panel, led by Justice Bintu Alhadi, diverged from the previous conclusion, stating that former President Koroma misused his presidential powers to order the petroleum sector to bail out Rokel Bank.
Consequently, he has been ordered to repay $12 million to the state. Another panel concurrently concluded that the Head of the Petroleum Unit was reckless in granting the loan, mandating a $12 million repayment to the state.
What is noteworthy amid these legal proceedings is that while Rokel Commercial Bank has significantly recuperated as a result of the said loan, recording substantial profit, paying large amounts of dividends to its shareholders – the largest of which is the Government of Sierra Leone – and RCB continues to repay the $12 million to the government. Despite all this progress deriving from former President Koroma’s decision to approve the recapitalizing loan to the then struggling RCB, he and the former head of the Petroleum Authority have each been ordered by another Panel of Judges in the same Court of Appeal to pay the same $12 million to the same Government of Sierra Leone.
The Court of Appeal’s decision to dismiss the appeal by former President Dr. Ernest Bai Koroma raises significant questions about political interference in Sierra Leone’s justice sector. The controversial verdict implies a breach of presidential authority in utilizing state resources for a specific bailout, holding him accountable for the $12 million loan to the government own Rokel Bank.
The differing conclusions between panels of the Court of Appeal provide fodder for the former President’s supporters, who argue that the state is determined to target him at any cost. While one panel of the Court of Appeal is not bound by the ruling of another panel, substantial disparities in the judgments warrant scrutiny. When the facts of the loan are apparent, and repayment is underway, questions arise about the presence of corruption and political interference in the handling of the case and the order for the repayment of the full amount.