Reports on COVID fund management show scale of corruption in Africa

Image de Olga Lionart via Pixabay

COVID-19, which first emerged in Wuhan, central China on November 16, 2019, subsequently took the world by surprise that year and caused almost 7 million deaths. Given the lack of high-quality healthcare infrastructure on the African continent, governments were expecting the worst and thereby rallied to contain this disease. However, rather than being an opportunity to strengthen the healthcare systems, crisis management ultimately led to practices of corruption. This has since become indisputable following several reports on Covid-response-fund accounting in certain African countries, including Togo and Senegal.

Criticism in Togo

On February 1, 2023, the Togolese Court of Auditors (the body responsible for auditing government accounts) published its audit report on the Covid-19 Response and Solidarity Fund (FRSC) management. This report identified some irregular  expenditure, which sparked national public debates. Several contracts were effectively awarded without any framework, and several funds were also spent without any justification.

Several leading figures have since spoken out against this corruption, either on social media or during press conferences.

On February 7, 2023, Gerry Taama, who is leader of the opposition party, Nouvel Engagement Togolais (New Togolese Commitment, or NET), and a member of the National Assembly, expressed his outrage on Facebook. He demanded the imposition of robust sanctions commensurate with the misconduct identified.

(…) c’est un énorme scandale. La lecture de ce rapport m’a donné des frissons. Certains se sont mis bien, et d’autres ont été très négligents, mais en conclusion, l'argent public et l’argent des dons ont été gaspillés, mal gérés ou détourné. (…) Je m’en remets au chef de l’État. Il faut des sanctions et des réparations.

(…) this is a major scandal. Reading this report sent shivers down my spine. Some acted transparently, others were extremely remiss. However, public money and donations were ultimately squandered, mismanaged, and misappropriated. (…). Sanctions and reparations are a must. I’ll leave this up to the head of state.

Togolese eco-entrepreneur and politician, Nathaniel Olympio, questioned President Faure Gnassingbé’s verdict on this audit report on Twitter.

#Togo: More than billions in corruption again? The 2020 Covid response fund was 183,494,620,882 [over EUR 183 billion]. According to the Court of Auditors report, anomalies, irregularities, and flawed proceedings accounted for over 39,357,949,757 [EUR €39 billion], which is more than 21 percent of the fund’s total. What has @FEGnassingbe got to say?

— Nathaniel Olympio (@nathanielolymp) February 7, 2023

Various civil society organization groups have also put their foot down. On February 13, 2023, 11 movements and associations called for a judicial inquiry into those accused in this report. February 14 then saw a further five organizations demand the resignation of the current government.

In an exclusive interview with Radio France Internationale, Thomas Dodji Koumou who is an economist and president of the Lidaw Coalition, which unites several civil society organizations, feels betrayed and looks to the justice system to make a final ruling.

Nous pouvons vous dire aujourd’hui avec certitude que nous sommes en présence d’abus de confiance, de fraude, de fraude fiscale. Nous avons également intégré la sortie de flux par ce qu’on appelle la surfacturation des importations de biens – ça allait dans le cas de la commande des caméras thermiques. Nous comptons désormais sur l'intervention de la justice, qui doit trancher.

Today, we can safely say we are dealing with the misappropriation of funds and fraud, fiscal fraud. We have also included the outgoing funds through the so-called over-invoicing of imported goods, as was the case with the thermal camera order. We are thereby relying on the justice system to intervene and make a final ruling.

Togolese government denial

Amidst frenzied waves of indignation, the government issued a press release on February 9, 2023, stating its due acknowledgement of the Court of Auditors report. However, it focused on the fact this report considered its expenditure on barrier, response, and health measures to be compliant, regular, and sincere. It stated:

Les ressources mobilisées à travers le FRSC ont été utilisées conformément aux clauses des accords de dons et de prêts d’une part, et dans le respect des textes en vigueur et de ceux pris dans le contexte d’urgence sanitaire.

The resources deployed during the FRSC were used in compliance with the loan and donation agreement terms as well as with the laws currently in force and those implemented during this public health emergency.

This denial of any misconduct has angered many Togolese citizens. Nathaniel Olympio tweeted a curt reply to the prime minister and her government, who consider the expenditure pinpointed in this report to be “regular.” He wrote:

#Togo: PM @DogbeVictoire, don’t take us Togolese for fools! Your administration published an explosive report on the calamitous management of Covid funds, now your ministers are saying all expenditure was regular. #RapportFRSCTogo #Corruption #Gouvernance

— Nathaniel Olympio (@nathanielolymp) February 12, 2023

Meanwhile, Togolese journalist, public relations expert and political communications and crisis strategist, Anani Sossou, questioned the government authorities’ glowing description of this report on Twitter.

#Togo: Given the findings of this Court of Auditors Report, do you really need to be an expert to understand the magnitude of these damages and misappropriation of public funds? And yet the government gave itself a glowing report? #RapportFRSCTogo#Corruption#TT228#TgTwittos

[Photo: No order contracts, no acceptance reports, uncertified invoices, no economic operator ID, or tax clearance certificates provided.

No expenditure supporting documentation (receipts).]

— Anani Sossou (@SossouAnani) February 11, 2023

According to the 2021 rankings of the Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index, Togo had a score of 30/100 and was ranked 128th out of 180 countries. In 2022, the country subsequently fell to 130th place, which clearly shows the scale of corruption in this country.

Demonstrations and inquiries launched in Senegal

Togo is not the only confirmed case of corruption; Senegal is also experiencing this issue. In December 2022, the country’s opposition and several civil society movements called for a judicial inquiry following the publication of a report on Covid fund management. As such, Senegal’s former prime minister and minister of justice, Aminata Touré, used her Twitter account to protest:

We need explanations on the Court of Auditors Report on the #covid19 fund mismanagement. It’s quite simply an abomination! The taxpayers’ money must be paid back into state funds.

— Aminata TOURE (@aminatatoureklk) December 19, 2022

As a result, the “Sunu’y Milliards du Ress” (Our Billions Will Not Disappear) movement, which began shortly after this report was published, filed a complaint demanding a judicial inquiry into those mentioned in this report.

What's more, the Yewwi Askan Wi Coalition, which unites a section of the opposition, organized a demonstration on December 30, 2022 via a tweet:

Come demonstrate on the 30th

Photo: Our Billions Will Not Disappear

A people’s rally for a judicial inquiry to be launched into Covid-19 fund management.

Friday December 30 2022 at 3pm in Place de la Nation

— Yewwi Askan Wi (@yewwi_askanwi) December 28, 2022

The demonstrations and actions led by various Senegalese civil society actors have finally paid off. According to the newspaper, Le Monde, the Senegalese justice system ordered an inquiry, on February 6, 2023, into these suspected cases of “corruption” and “abuse of office” in the Covid response fund management. This case was also to be led by the  Criminal Investigation Department of the Judicial Police.

An issue throughout the continent

Several leaders in Sub-Saharan Africa have also been accused of misappropriation and mismanagement of pandemic response funds, namely in Cameroon and South Africa.  In November 2022, three Malian officials were charged with the mismanagement of Covid response funds. This is a “crime against public goods” worth around EUR 15 million.

This issue has also been picked up by several international organizations, including the UN. In reference to various examples from Togo and Senegal on February 14, 2023, WHO Africa Regional Covid-19 Incident Manager, Dr Thierno Baldé, reaffirmed the WHO zero-tolerance policy towards the mismanagement of funds.

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