Barely two years after West African nations defeated a deadly Ebola scourge, they are confronting a new epidemic; the corruption epidemic in Liberia eating up the fabric of the Liberian society.
In October, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) admitted that its officials, local bankers, volunteers and others had embezzled more than $6 million in aid funds in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia.
“For it to now behave like corrupt politicians, to steal Ebola money meant for the poor masses, is unacceptable,” said Freetown teacher Musa Koroma, 26. “It’s a shame. The Red Cross must account for this. They must be prosecuted. They must pay back.”
Between March 2014 and January 2016, the Ebola virus killed more than 11,000 people in the three West African nations, according to the World Health Organization. The plague crippled their economies and forced their governments to institute quarantines and other harsh restrictions, such as banning public assemblies and encouraging people to refrain from sex to prevent the spread of the disease.
Many of the approximately 17,000 Ebola survivors in the three countries are facing health complications from the sickness.
“I have received reports of eye sight and other health problems from some of my members,” said Yusuf Kabba, president of the Sierra Leone Association of Ebola Survivors. “The government needs to fast track free health care for Ebola survivors.”
In an internal audit, the IFRC said it discovered inflated purchase orders, payments to non-existent workers and padded expense accounts.
“We didn’t hear the news from outside. Our internal auditors discovered the fraud and we made it public,” said Aissatou Nafo Traore, who leads the IFRC in Africa. “This is a sign of transparency. We are unhappy about it, and we are very sorry.”
In Sierra Leone, anti-graft investigators launched a probe into spending associated with humanitarian efforts in the wake of IFRC admissions.
“We are concerned that our international partners who are supposed to help us in times of need are also involved in this alleged type of practice,” government investigator Shollay Davies said in an interview with Radio Democracy.
The IFRC revelations were not the first indication of corruption related to the epidemic in Sierra Leone. Early this year, a government audit found that at least $14 million had been misappropriated or was unaccounted for by government agencies and their partners. The audit found that health workers in high risk environments, like transporting corpses that could infect them with the virus, did not receive the hazard pay they had been promised.
In all, the audit identified 40 government contractors who misused funds. A few returned money to the government.
The IFRC was supposed to be different, said Martha Conteh 32, who campaigns for the rights advocacy group, the Women’s Coalition, in Freetown.
“Many times, we heard the international community say they have sent huge amounts of money to Sierra Leone,” said Conteh. “For a charitable organization to reap from West Africa over $6 million (in stolen money) during this crisis is unbelievable. I’m shocked and not knowing who to trust now.”
Liberians are also angry. Emmanuel Gargah, 28, an activist with Stand Up Liberia, a youth advocacy movement in the Liberian capital of Monrovia, said the IFRC scandal “will undermine future responses in the country.”
“It might not be Ebola, but we might have another emergency which will require donor attention. If the donors say no, we will have ourselves to blame. This must be investigated.”
The IFRC estimated that corrupt workers absconded with $2.7 million in Liberia. That money could go far, said Dukuray Osman, 22, an Ebola survivor and student at the University of Liberia. “It could change the lives of survivors in the whole country,” he said.
In Guinea, ambulance driver Ousmane Bah, 42, a resident of the village of Melliandou, the epicenter of the Ebola outbreak, expressed shock when he heard about the graft.
“I drove an old ambulance for months without pay,” he said. “I left the job because I felt unsafe. I felt very bad for all those colleagues I knew who died from the virus over the lack of medical treatment. Only God will grant them eternal peace.”