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Setbacks in Sierra Leone's Struggle Against Corruption

Two years into a five-year term, the head of Sierra Leone's Anti-Corruption Commission has resigned amid speculation of government interference in high-profile cases. Civil society groups fear that Sierra Leone's fight against corruption will lose steam.

When he took office in 2007, Sierra Leone's anti-corruption commissioner, Abdul Tejan-Cole, said he was not afraid to take on the "big men," as he called them. The salary was not great compared to his previous position at the International Center for Transitional Justice in South Africa. But, he said, he was not doing it for the money.

Since then, Tejan-Cole has brought a slew of high-profile cases to court. The head of the National Revenue Authority was charged with graft, and the court sentenced the former health minister to five years on corruption charges. In March, the Minister of Fisheries and Marine Resources was indicted on 17-counts of graft and abuse of office.

So it came as a surprise to many when earlier this month President Ernest Bai Koroma received Tejan-Cole's resignation letter. The former commissioner has kept quiet about his reasons for leaving office midway through arguably the biggest corruption case in the history of the country.

Civil society groups are concerned. Director of Sierra Leone's Campaign for Good Governance, Valnora Edwin, says his resignation was likely influenced by political interference in the commission's work.

"So the issue of political interference, even though we don't have very strong evidence, we would want to believe that that could have been a contributing factor because it permeates every level of the society. And this is what is creating so many tensions and does not allow Sierra Leone to grow and move forward as it is supposed to," she said.

Edwin says with Tejan-Cole gone, governance groups are concerned the fight against corruption may not be pursued with the same independence and fervor.

Deep-rooted corruption was a major factor in the country's brutal, decade-long civil war. The government established the Anti-Corruption Commission in 2000, but graft continued unabated until 2008, when the commission gained the power to arrest and prosecute officials.

The Anti-Corruption Commission spokesperson said they could not comment on the reasons for Tejan-Cole's resignation.

But Sierra Leone's Minister of Information, Ibrahim Ben Kargbo, says there was no government interference in the commission's work. "We believe in the separation of powers. We do not interfere with matters that are of a judicial nature. And we have always allowed Mr. Tejan-Cole to take his cases to a logical conclusion. And he did find quite a number of important people guilty. He fined them, some of them were interrogated by his commission. They pleaded guilty, he fined them. And we do not see how we interfered in his operations at all," he said.

Kargbo says the commissioner's resignation will not affect cases brought against public officials nor will it dampen the government's commitment to eliminating graft.

At Freetown's oldest university, Fourah Bay College, students discuss the resignation of Sierra Leone's most productive corruption crime fighter.

There is general consensus that Tejan-Cole was doing a good job taking "the big men and women" to account. But why he left and how this will affect Sierra Leone's long struggle with corruption draws a mixed response.

History student Francis Thomas says Tejan-Cole was the first commissioner to actually prosecute and convict high-level officials. He believes it will be difficult to find an equal replacement.

"He has left a very big vacuum, regarding all the facts about anti-corruption and the cases there he has been handling. Now that he has just left abruptly, to get someone actually to fit in that [...] will be very difficult. So to fill in that vacuum is a problem. It's going to be very big problem for the president and even the nation," he said.

Fellow student, Aminata Williams, agrees Tejan-Cole produced results. But, she says, his resignation will not affect the commission's work. "I believe we have good lawyers and other officials who I believe will handle the situation," she said.

Valnora Edwin of Campaign for Good Governance says, either way the question now is who will lead the fight against corruption?

"We need to see somebody that can serve as a model, that can be strong to say that, 'If you do this, this is what will happen to you' and, 'These are the ways you can avoid doing this.' Which is what was happening [before]. But if we don't have that figure, then we will think it is business as usual," she said.

Whoever President Koroma chooses as the next director of the Anti-Corruption Commission will reveal much about how serious his administration is about curbing graft.