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New York Times was Misled on Sierra Leone Container Report- Former SEA
By Sylvia Olayinka Blyden
Oct 8, 2014, 17:17
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Dear Adam Nossiter (NEW YORK TIMES),

This email is copied to Professor Monty Jones, Mr. Yayah Alviv Conteh and Mr. Oswald Hanciles. I must state upfront that though Mr. Oswald Hanciles is clearly your source whose emails you copiously cite, you did not name him throughout your lengthy article. I find this to be disturbing.

Now, let me once again thank you for your coverage of our nation's Ebola crisis. Only God will reward you for the way you and Samuel Aranda have used pictures and text to powerfully inform the world on our unfolding crisis. Your Photo News on Makeni Ebola patients is an award winner.

However, I think you have been misled about the Chernor Bah issue which you covered in your today (6th October 2014) edition. To the best of my knowledge, throughout the government's correspondence with him, at no time did politics of President Koroma or politics of Makeni count with anyone dealing with him from the government side.
Rather, on a personal note, for me, what might have counted was my personal experience with him in the past. You see, Chernor used to work with me at my newspaper (AWARENESS TIMES) and when he left for America many years back, he left problems which saw police officers visit my premises with complainants alleging he duped them over claims he could get foreign Visas for them. Some alleged he even ran away with their passports. There was no veracity of the claims against him and he later explained it was due to a 'misunderstanding' but all the same, it was an embarrassing period for my newspaper.

Now, part of my assignments as the former Special Executive Assistant (SEA) to the President was to undertake and coordinate actions on his or the government's behalf that were within my abilities to solve, thus eradicating distractions and pressures on the President. This is how Mr. Oswald Hanciles, a State House staffer, asked for my assistance back in August when he complained that himself and Chernor were getting problems with the former Health Minister, Madam Miatta Kargbo in securing clearance of the said container from the ports.

Back in August, I engaged myself into the matter in order to assist to clear what sounded like much-needed materials in the container. To her fullest credit, Madam Miatta Kargbo explained in an email response that fiduciary due processes had to be followed since KPMG and Finance Ministry were asking for all payments concerning Ebola to be accompanied with legitimate documentations.

I delved deeper into the matter and I realised that Mr. Chernor Bah had infact never informed the Government that the container was to be shipped in and that it was only when the container was berthing into the ports that he contacted the government and requested for money he claimed was for shipment of the said container. Thus, the ministry really had no idea what he had been up to until he showed up at their doorsteps, with Mr. Oswald Hanciles, demanding to be given 6,500 dollars cash for a container he said he had shipped in.

I requested for the Packing List of what was in the container and based on what he sent me, I indeed responded it was very impressive and also used the chance to tell him that whilst I will ensure he got paid the money, it was rather unorthodox for someone to ship donations and not inform the recipient until the donation had arrived at the ports only for the person to then turn around and demand $6,500 cash as a prerequisite for handing over the donation. I advised him that in future, he should first let the government know he wanted government to pay the shipping costs and obtain prior approval that the government would pay him the requested cash before he shipped out the said items.

All the same, I worked with Mr. Yayah Alviv Conteh, who is in charge of Donations to Health Ministry and it was speedily agreed that the ministry will give the cash to Mr. Chernor Bah for this container. A copy of the Government's laid down procedures by which Donations are to be shipped to Sierra Leone, was handed over to Mr. Bah to ensure he followed them for all future shipments.

However, for the process of payment to commence, Mr. Yayah Alviv Conteh requested for the shipping BILL OF LADING from Mr. Chernor Bah. To our utmost shock and amazement, Mr. Chernor Bah refused to hand over the BILL OF LADING that would have commenced the process of clearing the container and proven to Accountants and KPMG Auditors than he had indeed shipped a container in. Rather, Mr. Bah outrightly stated that if he does not see the 6,500 dollars cash in his possession, he will not allow the Health Ministry to commence the process to clear the container. **It was a Catch 22 situation**.

If Mr. Chernor Bah refused to hand over the BILL OF LADING to Mr. Yayah Alviv Conteh, naturally Mr. Conteh could not have evidence to show KPMG and the KPMG Auditors will not approve for the payment of the 6,500 dollars cash to Mr. Bah. As you rightly state in your article, the Health sector has been so riddled with corruption over the years that KPMG was called in to provide auditing and fiduciary oversight of all payments concerning Ebola Response.

Eventually, after many, many days of wrangling, the Health Ministry was able to get a mere photocopy of the BILL OF LADING which was then verified with the Shipping company as authentic. This photocopied document and authenticity of it by the Shipping Company, was then attached to the request to the EOC/KPMG for Mr. Bah to be paid. However, the data available from the BILL OF LADING and other documents the government was eventually able to retrieve, totalled the sum of $6,183.53 and not $6,500.

The KPMG auditors, after much persuasion by the government, eventually approved for payment of the 6,183.53 dollars even though they did not see an original BILL OF LADING! The money was paid into the foreign bank account given to us by Chernor Bah. This was done since some two weeks ago; well before I left the government!

The instruction for Sierra Leone Commercial Bank to pay Chernor Bah the sum of $6,183.53 was signed by the WHO/UNICEF, State House and Health Ministry (Please see attached document) and was effected to the Bank since 21st September 2014.

It must also be noted that during the series of correspondence, Mr. Chernor Bah informed us that he had ten (10) ambulances to be donated to the Government of Sierra Leone from America. I immediately put him in touch with a credible Sierra Leone organisation in America which had been able to airfreight tons of materials by special air cargo. The organisation, NOSLINA, was willing to work with their partners in ensuring Mr. Bah's professed ambulances could be air freighted into Sierra Leone. Most disappointingly, it turned out that Mr. Bah was unable to work with NOSLINA let alone show evidence he had really procured 10 ambulances. In an email he sent to me, Mr. Bah said he will not discuss the airfreighting of the ambulances with anyone unless he first got the 6,500 dollars cash in his hands. It was sad.

Please note that even after the Government had paid him $6,183.53 cash, he still was unable to communicate with NOSLINA about the possibility of air-freighting these ambulances he claimed to have procured for Sierra Leone.

To make matters worse, Mr. Bah then sent out a lengthy insulting mail roundly attacking the entire Government that we were all a bunch of expensive jeep-riding, insensitive functionaries who did not want others to also get from government money. I declined to respond to his email but simply asked Oswald Hanciles for me to be removed from the correspondence; given the tone, diction and direction the language he was using had taken. Professor Monty Jones, a consummate professional of the highest standards, who had also been regularly copied into the emails including the offensively written one by Chernor Bah, also politely asked to be removed from the e-mails. I assume this is what you mean by "top government officials brushed aside the official (Oswald Hanciles) urging that the supplies be let in, saying they wanted to hear nothing more about it".

As I said earlier, I must here again note that I am very disappointed that though Oswald Hanciles is clearly the source for your article, you kept his name completely out of the article even as you copiously cited his written emails to top government officials. I find this disturbing.

To continue my narrative, as I earlier stated, Mr. Yayah Alviv Conteh continued working hard alongside the Procurement Office of the Health Ministry, to retrieve copies of the BILL OF LADING and ensure enough documentation was compiled to convince the KPMG Auditors that the dollars should be paid to Mr. Chernor Bah. So it was that two weeks ago, Mr. Conteh informed me that the WHO/UNICEF Partners and Government officials had ensured the money was paid to Mr. Bah's chosen Bank Account.
Please find attached a copy of the evidence that indeed Mr. Bah has been paid $6,183.53 through the Sierra Leone Commercial Bank.


Even as I type, the Health Ministry is now in negotiations with the Ports and Shipping company to pay further charges and other accrued storage fees in order for them to clear the container. This is in addition to the $6,183.53 dollars they have already paid to Mr. Bah.

Whilst I am no longer in the Government, I do hope you might be able to reflect the facts in this letter into a subsequent edition of your very credible newspaper. The delay in clearing the container had absolutely nothing to do with the politics of President Ernest Bai Koroma or the politics of Makeni. The delay laid in an inability of Mr. Chernor Bah to provide BILL OF LADING documents to back up his demand for 6,500 dollars cash after he shipped in a container without prior knowledge of the Government. He has since been paid the required cash he demanded - since two weeks ago!

Once again, I thank you most kindly for your work in Sierra Leone on behalf of humanity. I have copied AWARENESS TIMES newspaper into this email since I mentioned them therein. I will also be making it public since your article has already sparked off furious criticisms on social media against the Government of President Koroma; criticisms that in light of the facts herein, are patently unfair.

I share your other criticisms over the manner in which the EOC has been structured to fight Ebola Outbreak. However, on this particular matter of the container of Mr. Chernoh Alpha Bah, I believe the Government, the EOC, the former Health Minister Miatta Kargbo and KPMG got things absolutely right! The delay was due to Mr. Chernoh Alpha Bah's unorthodox method of shipping the donations and his strange reluctance to hand the BILL OF LADING over to the Health Ministry. Without the required documents, KPMG could not have documentary evidence (other than his spoken word and photos of him standing by a container) that indeed a container lies at the Ports waiting to be cleared. To eliminate corruption from the Ebola money disbursement, KPMG has been understandably, very strict.

Yours sincerely,
Dr. Sylvia Olayinka Blyden
Former Special Executive Assistant to the President of Sierra Leone.

Ebola Help for Sierra Leone Is Nearby, but Delayed on the Docks
FREETOWN, Sierra Leone It has been sitting idly on the docks for nearly two months: a shipping container packed with protective gowns, gloves, stretchers, mattresses and other medical supplies needed to help fight Sierra Leones exploding Ebola epidemic.
There are 100 bags and boxes of hospital linens, 100 cases of protective suits, 80 cases of face masks and other items in all, more than $140,000 worth of medical equipment locked inside a dented container at the port since Aug. 9.
Hundreds of people have died of Ebola in Sierra Leone since then, and health workers have endured grave shortages of lifesaving supplies, putting them at even greater risk in a country reeling from the virus.
"We are still just hoping (!!!) which sounds like BEGGING that this container should be cleared," one government official wrote in a frantic email to his superiors, weeks after the container arrived.
In many ways, the delay reflects what some in the growing ranks of international officials pouring into this nation to fight Ebola describe as a chaotic, disorganized government response to the epidemic.
"Its a mess," said one foreign official working alongside the Sierra Leone government agency set up to deal with the crisis. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to maintain vital relations with the government, said that nobody appeared to be in charge at the agency, known as the "emergency operations center," and that different factions made decisions independently.
"Its the only body responsible," the official said. "What is it doing?"
In the case of the shipping container, the desperately needed supplies seem to have been caught, at least in part, in a trap that is common the world over: politics, money and power.
The supplies were donated by individuals and institutions in the United States, according to Chernoh Alpha Bah, who organized the shipment. But Mr. Bah wears another hat, as well. He is an opposition politician from President Ernest Bai Koromas hometown, Makeni a place that clearly showed the governments inability to contain Ebola.
A recent surge of cases there quickly overwhelmed health workers, with protective gear so lacking that some nurses have worked around the deadly virus in their street clothes.
More than 80 health care workers in Sierra Leone have died in the outbreak, and even in the capital, Freetown, some burial crews wear protective gowns with gaping holes in them, a clear indication of the urgent need for more supplies.
The government official who pleaded for the shipment to come in said that the political tensions may have contributed to the delay, to prevent the opposition from trumpeting the donations.
Mr. Bah said he thought the equipment would be welcomed by the struggling authorities, and he said he expected the shipping fee of $6,500 would be a small detail for Sierra Leone. According to the official, the government has already received well over $40 million in cash from international donors to fight Ebola.
The shipping company, as a good-will gesture in a moment of crisis, had agreed to send the goods without being paid first, Mr. Bah said. But no more. Three other containers of similar value await shipment from the United States, he said, halted by the governments long refusal to pay.
"We will appreciate if the payment is made quickly so that the medical supplies will be sent directly to the affected or targeted areas," Mr. Bah wrote to the government on Aug. 16.
Instead, top government officials argued over the fee, said that the proper procedures had not been followed, and finally brushed aside the official urging that the supplies be let in, saying they wanted to hear nothing more about it.
"They are blaming us for shipping in without authorization," Mr. Bah said. "It appears all they are interested in is cash donations. And all we have are supplies."
At one point, a senior official close to the president, Sylvia Olayinka Blyden, acknowledged in an email that the items listed in Mr. Bahs container were "very impressive." But she said "future shipments" should follow procedure. That was on Sept. 1, and she has since left her post. The goods are still inside the container on the dock here.
"He should have contacted the ministry and discussed it with the ministry," Yayah A. Conteh, an official at the health ministry, said of Mr. Bah, adding that the medical supplies would be cleared "very soon."
In times of crisis, when needs are great and officials are overburdened, trickles of uncoordinated donations can be a distraction, some aid workers say, requiring a lot of attention without solving the biggest problems.
But some Sierra Leoneans say that the governments resistance has discouraged other potential donors in the diaspora.
The emergency operations center was established to manage the urgent but confusing patchwork of agencies and international aid groups trying to battle the virus. The health ministry itself has been rocked by corruption and mismanagement scandals in recent years, further weakening efforts in a country that, even before the Ebola epidemic, suffered from some of the worlds worst health statistics after a brutal 10-year civil war.
Twenty-nine of the countrys top health officials were indicted last year in connection with the misappropriation of a half-million dollars in vaccination funds. The leaders were all acquitted. A free health care program set up by foreign donors has been damaged by corruption problems, with nurses illegally selling drugs and doctors charging for services. In 2010, a former health minister was convicted on corruption charges. This year, the health minister was pushed aside during the Ebola crisis amid questions over her competence.
At a recent meeting at the emergency operations center, local politicians discussed at length how they might be able to use the governments recent three-day national lockdown in which volunteers went door-to-door to educate people about Ebola for their own political benefit.
Meanwhile, reported cases of Ebola are doubling every 30 to 40 days, according to the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than 620 deaths have been recorded, with the real number almost certainly much higher.
The government official who pleaded for the supplies to be let in argued that the epidemic, "like the war we experienced between 1991 and 2002," had exposed the extent of government corruption.
The more urgent the pleas, the official said, the more it "elicited only disdain from some people in authority."

© Copyright by Awareness Times Newspaper in Freetown, Sierra Leone.

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