Trading Gender Violence: First Lady uses President’s Influence for Personal Financial Gain
In two previous reports published on January 18 and 25 2021, we showed how the wife of the president of Sierra Leone, Madam Fatima Jabbe Bio, received nearly Le30 billion Leones (almost US$3 million) of government funds in less than three years after the inauguration of her husband, Julius Maada Bio as president of Sierra Leone in May 2018. We revealed, in particular, that a total of Le7,890,755,000 (over US$789,000) that was disbursed from the country’s Consolidated Revenue Fund (CRF) to the organization Hands Off Our Girls during the first six months of the Bio administration were instead all spent between June and December 2018, allegedly on office furniture, electronic equipment, fuel, travel tickets, and hotel accommodation costs for the First Lady’s foreign guests.
In a video broadcast issued on Monday January 18, 2021, First Lady Fatima Bio admitted to receiving state funds. However, she argued that the funds allocated to her organization Hands Off Our Girls, a program she says is intended to end child rape and gender-based violence in Sierra Leone, were used for “the intended purpose.”
In fact, additional documentary evidence examined by the Africanist Press suggests that the First Lady is trading off young girls’ health and sexual vulnerability for her own profits.
In a BBC interview on Thursday February 4, 2021, Madam Bio denied that she received direct public funds, stating that the Office of the President is responsible for the fiscal operations of her organization. But on January 18, 2021, the Africanist Press released bank statements from the Office of the First Lady that show direct disbursements of government funds to the First Lady. The Africanist Press reported that those funds – over US$800,000 – were allegedly used on furniture, event planning, hotel accommodation, and travel-related costs for foreign guests, and not the Hands off our Girls campaign.
In this article, we further examine the organizational operations of the Office of the First Lady and its financial operations, especially its fundraising activities. We observe, mainly, how Madam Fatima Bio, Sierra Leone’s First Lady, used her husband’s influence and position as president to solicit funds from private organizations and business individuals across Sierra Leone from 2018 to 2020. Letters and other organizational documents from the Office of the First Lady examined by the Africanist Press provide a clear view of how Madam Bio used the name of the president and her own office to generate funds from the members of Freetown’s business community in exchange for business favors and meeting opportunities with the president, in complete violation of the anti-corruption laws of the country.
Section 31(3) of the Anti-Corruption Act of 2008 forbids the peddling of influence in return for any kind of advantage or public benefit. The law makes it a serious offense for “any person who solicits, accepts, or obtains an advantage from any other person for himself or for any other person in order to make use of his influence, real or fictitious, to obtain any work, employment, contract, or other benefit from a public body.”
In the course of our investigation, we discovered that the First Lady, on the contrary, raised funds totaling billions of Leones through official letters sent directly to businesses and private individuals promising them tickets to presidential banquets and advertisement opportunities at official events. However, we have found that funds solicited in the name of the campaign against rape and sexual violence were never deposited into official bank accounts set up by government officials for the program at the Rokel Commercial Bank (RCB) and the Bank of Sierra Leone (BSL).
We discovered that cash donations from private businesses and individuals to the Hands Off Our Girls Campaign were paid into the Guarantee Trust Bank (GTB) bank account of the Maada and Fatima Bio Foundation – the private bank account of the president’s non-profit organization, which is registered as a charity in Sierra Leone and the United Kingdom. The Maada and Fatima Bio Foundation describes itself as an organization committed to preserving the dignity and safety of girls though advocacy, capacity building, and awareness creation.
Fundraising documents and financial records, we examined, reveal that the First Lady used her husband’s status and influence to raise tens of billions of Leones between November 2018 and December 2020 in the name of Hands Off Our Girls. For instance, we collected copies of letters sent to telecommunications operators and other private business institutions, including some government departments and agencies, soliciting donations of between Le50 million and Le100 million from individual organizations and businesses in return for dinning tickets, advertisement offers, and the promise of meeting with the president. We discovered, for example, several letters sent by the First Lady to business organizations and private individuals on November 14, 2019 soliciting funds for “the launch of a national sanitary kits project for schoolgirls” scheduled on December 14, 2019, to mark the first anniversary of the Hands Off Our Girls campaign.
The letters described the project as “a sexual reproductive health and rights component of the Hands Off Our Girls campaign with an objective of supporting each schoolgirl in junior and senior secondary schools with sanitary kits.”
In one letter, Madam Bio asked businesses for corporate sponsorship of the sanitary kits project by donating Le50 million (about US$5000) in return for 10 free tickets to attend the annual Presidential Banquet with a branding table assigned.
“I have decided to select your establishment as one of the corporate sponsors and the key champion of this innovation by supporting us to collectively save the lives of our girls with the sum of Le50,000,000 only,” she wrote to multiple organizations. Madam Bio promised the potential corporate sponsors, what she called, “golden opportunities” that included “free ten tickets for the Presidential Banquet and a branding table assigned on a first pay basis.” She added that sponsors could also have their business logos printed on the official brochure along with invitation cards to the Presidential Banquet, and a public acknowledgment of all sponsors to be announced at the Banquet.
Recipients of these letters were then requested to make payments of their cash donations on or before November 18, 2019, within four days after the letters were sent. Although these uniform sponsorship request letters were sent out on the official letterhead of the Office of the First Lady, we discovered that the potential sponsors were asked to deposit their cash donations into the Maada and Fatima Bio Foundation accounts at Guaranteed Trust Bank (GTB) Bank Account (Account #201 312 6282 110) instead of the official bank accounts set up at BSL and RCB for Hands Off Our Girls.
We located and reviewed the response letters and found that almost 90% of the organizations and individuals responded favorably to the First Lady’s request. The donations made were the requested amount or more, ranging from Le200 million to Le500 million (about US$20,000 to $50,000).
On November 27, 2019, one donor wrote: “This is in response to your letter dated 14 November 2019 concerning request for sponsorship in relation to the Launching of the National Sanitary Kits Project for the Schoolgirls. Please note that we have responded to this communication and have disbursed the sum of Le50,000,000.00 (fifty million Leones only) into the bank account stated in your letter.”
The Africanist Press also reviewed GTB transaction records for the Maada and Fatima Bio Foundation account; we saw that more than 100 organizations and businesses made cash donations to the Sanitary Kits Project. However, we found no evidence that any of the donated funds by these business organizations and private individuals were ever transferred from the GTB into the official accounts of the First Lady’s Office designated for the Hands Off Our Girls programs.
In addition to these fundraising initiatives, our investigation further discovered that the First Lady had, in fact, also received a total budgetary allocation of Le8,531,150,000 (US$830,000) from the CRF in 2019 alone to fund all yearly activities of the Hands Off Our Girls program. These allocations included three separate disbursements in the amounts of Le205,850,000 (about US$20,000) with a transaction #1903253904 paid by Government of Sierra Leone (GOSL) cheque numbers 00095376 on February 1, 2019, a second account transfer (transaction #1910072969) of Le995,000,000 (about US$20,000) paid with GOSL Cheque Number 282936 on 10 April, 2019, and a third transfer (transaction #1925636563) of Le4,849,000,000 (about US$474,000) on September 13, 2019, with GOSL cheque number 285161; allegedly to fund the Hands Off Our Girls campaign.
Despite these significant CRF disbursements to the First Lady’s Office, Madam Bio also received numerous cash donations from several private institutions and businesses that were paid directly into the Maada and Fatima Bio Foundation accounts allegedly for the Hands Off Our Girls program. The 2019 expenditure details show that the First Lady spent Le8,881,530,545.87 (about US$867,000) in government funds from the BSL account alone in the name of Hands Off Our Girls. There is no evidence that these funds were actually used for substantive Hands Off Our Girls programs apart from the lavish launch in December 2018. Further, there is equally no evidence that the funds deposited in the Maada and Fatima Bio Foundation Accounts were ever used for the Hands Off Our Girls programs.
We have published, on the Africanist Press website samples of the sponsorship request letters sent by the Office of the First Lady to demonstrate the evidence upon which this report is based. For more information, see Africanist Press: https://africanistpress.com/2021/02/07/trading-gender-violence-first-lady-uses-presidents-influence-for-personal-financial-gain/
By Chernoh Alpha M. Bah, Matthew Anderson, and Mark Feldman
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