S.Leone's "Timbergate" threatens president poll bid

Tue Dec 13, 2011 1:23pm GMT
 

* Bribery allegations hit VP's office

* Koroma seeking re-election in 2012

By Simon Akam

FREETOWN, Dec 13 (Reuters) - A corruption scandal in Sierra Leone could damage President Ernest Bai Koroma's chances of re-election next year and undermine his attempts to rebrand the West African state.

Last month a television documentary investigating illegal logging alleged bribery in the office of Sierra Leone's Vice President Samuel Sam Sumana, dubbed "Timbergate" by the press.

A spokesman for Sam Sumana denied any wrongdoing and said that he planned to stay in office.

Koroma is now saddled with a deputy who does not want to resign and who, constitutionally, he cannot fire, an unpalatable prospect for Koroma's reputation at home and abroad, where he has scored points for investment-friendly policies.

"If (Sam Sumana) doesn't go it's going to endanger, jeopardise Bai Koroma's chances of being re-elected," Lydie Boka of Lille-based risk group StrategiCo told Reuters. "It's terrible for the image of Sierra Leone."

"This is a major platform for him, the fight against corruption," said Dr. Lansana Gberie, a Sierra Leonean researcher based in the United States. "He's terribly open now, vulnerable to charges of not doing anything."

Nine years after the end of an 11-year civil war that killed some 50,000, Sierra Leone has attracted investors looking to exploit its natural resources and has sought to end corruption.

Two major iron ore projects belonging to British firms London Mining and African Minerals are coming on line, and the IMF predicts GDP growth of 51.4 percent next year in one of the world's poorest nations.

But with industrialised nations looking to rein in spending and presidential elections scheduled for November next year, the scandal has come at an unwelcome time for Koroma and the ruling All People's Congress party.

The Al Jazeera broadcast alleged that individuals in Sam Sumana's office accepted kickbacks offered to them by reporters posing as timber executives in return for a promise the vice president would back an illegal logging project.

Sam Sumana had previously been implicated in a U.S. lawsuit that also alleged bribery in a Sierra Leone timber deal, but that suit was later dismissed.

"CORRUPTION VIRUS"

Koroma came to power after a 2007 election on a platform of rebuilding infrastructure destroyed in years of fighting and tackling corruption.

Koroma's office has said the country's Anti-Corruption Commission is investigating the allegations of bribery, but that it was reserving judgment until the ACC finishes its report.

"(The) State House does not want to be seen to be interfering in the work of the anti-corruption commission," Unisa Sesay, Koroma's spokesman said. "He is presumed innocent until proven guilty."

But that approach may not wash, particularly after a report last month accused the ACC of being toothless.

The journal Africa Confidential published an article on Nov. 18 criticising the ACC's decision earlier this year to settle a major case involving the social security agency out of court, rather than seeking prosecutions.

"People will expect if something is not done about Sam Sumana it will indicate there is weakness in the dynamic of the APC (ruling party) and the president," Desmond Luke, a former chief justice of Sierra Leone, told Reuters.

In Sierra Leone the president cannot easily fire the vice president under the constitution, leaving resignation and impeachment as the only real options for his removal. An impeachment would be risky ahead of an election.

SLPP presidential candidate Maada Bio told reporters after "Timbergate" broke that there is a "corruption virus afflicting the government of President Koroma" -- evidence he is trying to make political capital of the scandal. (Editing by Richard Valdmanis)

 
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