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Can S Leone flush away corruption?

By Mark Doyle
BBC News, Freetown

It is not very often that a toilet sparks political debate.

And it is even rarer for a VIP ministerial toilet to be opened up for journalistic inspection.

Foreign Minister Zainab Hawa Bangura

We've got to stop the leakages

Zainab Bangura
Foreign minister
But a little over a year ago I began a journey in a ministerial bathroom that would take me down an unusual path of inquiry - and end up as a report on corruption for BBC News.

It all began in late 2007 when I travelled to Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, for the inauguration of the then-recently elected president, Ernest Bai Koroma.

I had obtained a confidential report, commissioned by the incoming government, into official corruption.

President Koroma had come to power on a strong anti-corruption ticket and the report was one of his first initiatives.

I reported on the revelations in the (until-then) confidential study and quizzed President Koroma about his promises.

During that same trip in late 2007, I went to the top floor of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs building to interview the newly-appointed Foreign Minister, Zainab Bangura.

To kick off the interview, I asked Mrs Bangura how she had found things when she took office. I was immediately treated to a tirade of complaints.

In the Ministry of Foreign Affairs building, the minister said, there was no cash, no pens and paper, no bulbs in the light sockets (which didn't matter much, because there was no fuel for the generator) and (here's where my journey begins) "No water - you can't flush the toilet because the water doesn't come up to my floor!"

I was incredulous - no water in the ministerial bathroom!

My journalistic antennae had sniffed something - and I decided to overcome my natural embarrassment.

"Could we," I tentatively asked, "have a look?"

So in we went to the ministerial toilet.

It was true. It didn't flush because there was no water in the pipes.

Delighted response

The minister's theme was serious. "We've got to stop the leakages," Mrs Bangura said, without a hint of irony.

"Stop the leakages?" I asked (we had by now left the bathroom).

Mrs Bangura said: "Stop the stealing! We've got to stop the stealing! We want to prove that there is at least one country in Africa that can work well."

Freetown view
Corruption is one reason why poverty remains widespread in Freetown

When I sent the story to London, my BBC editors couldn't get enough of it.

On the radio, they played the clip about the toilet again and again - along with some of the more boring stuff about the report into corruption, of course.

I don't think I've ever had such a delighted response to a story from my bosses.

Mrs Bangura's theme had been that corruption and a lack of maintenance culture - "stealing", as she put it, more bluntly - had ruined Sierra Leone in general. And not just her toilet.

She and her colleagues were going to put things right, she said, from President Koroma down.

So when the cold began to bite in London, in the depths of winter 2008, my mind drifted to warmer and friendlier climes.

A thought occurred to me - I may even have been perched on a chilly British toilet seat at the time - that my editors might entertain a return trip to Sierra Leone.

Pushing at an open door

The idea would be to see how, a year on, President Koroma's anti-corruption campaign was going - and (here's the killer part in the sales pitch I gave the editors) to see if that ministerial toilet was now flushing.

 President, Ernest Bai Koroma
President Ernest Koroma came to power on an anti-corruption ticket
I was pushing at an open door. The order went out: "Doyle! Get back to that toilet!"

The plane tickets were thrust upon me and I was heading for Sierra Leone before I knew it.

Once in Freetown, I visited the newly-strengthened Anti-Corruption Commission and its boss, Abdul Tejan Cole, who has mounted some serious investigations into graft.

Officials at the commission admit privately that they haven't yet caught a "big fish".

But they say they fully intend to do so - in order to convince Sierra Leoneans that they are serious in their work.

I again interviewed President Koroma, who said that any of his officials - "anyone", he emphasised strongly - suspected of corruption could be investigated by Mr Tejan Cole and his independent commission.

If they were found guilty they would be sacked, the president said, and he would protect no-one from prosecution.

Having done the weighty stuff, I then went back to call again on Mrs Bangura at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

"Minister," I began (with all the respect due to a senior government official), "the last time we met, you were kind enough to show me your ministerial toilet."

Embarrassment

I think the wily Mrs Bangura had seen this coming.

"The listeners would like to know," I continued a little pompously, "if your toilet is now flushing?"

She chuckled and stood up. We were on our way again into the small room.

Freetown resident getting water from public tap
Ministries may now have water - but not all Freetown residents

She turned the tap.

And water came out.

Now, I'd be the last to conclude that the Sierra Leonean Foreign Minister's toilet is some sort of symbol of a revitalised nation.

The struggle against corruption in Sierra Leone will surely be long and hard.

If rich countries with almost limitless resources, like the United States or Britain, can't stamp out crimes like financial fraud - which, time and again, they have shown they cannot - what chance for little Sierra Leone?

My conclusion, rather, is that it's clear some people in the year-old Sierra Leonean government are trying to make the country turn a new leaf.

I didn't meet anyone during my trip, for example, who thought President Koroma was on the make.

But at the same time it is equally clear that suspicions remain about the probity of a number of other ministers and institutions.

The encouraging thing, I suppose, is that I can confidently report this fact because the Anti-Corruption Commission has published a series of detailed probes.

There's another reason why I can't conclude that Mrs Bangura's toilet is a conclusive symbol.

That's because my enquiries didn't stop at the ministerial convenience alone.

No, in the interests of investigative journalism, I visited another small room in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs building that is used by people of lesser standing.

My findings indicate that there is still much work to be done.

So if you are reading this, Madame Minister, it is my duty to report to you that there is at least one other toilet, not far from your office, that does not flush at all.

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