On Monday April 26, the ECOWAS Court, sitting in Abuja, Nigeria will hear oral arguments in the case filed by Ebola survivors and the local NGO CARL-SL against the Government of Sierra Leone (GOSL). The matter, which was filed against the government in 2017, alleges that the mismanagement and possible loss of Ebola funds, as documented in the report of the Auditor General in 2015, led to the violation of the rights to life and health of Sierra Leoneans.
The matter has lasted longer than usual before the ECOWAS Court because the Government of President Bio informed the court in July 2018 that it wished to enter an out of court settlement with the plaintiffs. This was in line with his government’s position in the Professor David Francis led Government Transition Team (GTT) report which recommended that this matter be settled out of court and that an investigation into the mismanagement of Ebola funds be conducted by the Commissions of Inquiry (COI). The COI, in May 2020 handed its report to President Bio in which it confirmed that up to 85 Billion Leones and about 2.5 Million USD of Ebola response funds were misappropriated. The government in its official White Paper issued in November 2020 subsequently adopted these findings.
This is the first time that citizens have taken legal action against the government based on the findings of the Auditor General. If heard to conclusion, it will be a major development in establishing a nexus between corruption or mismanagement of public funds and fundamental human rights. The Applicants in the case argue that by failing to dedicate the maximum needed resources to the Ebola response, failing to comply with various accounting and procurement procedures, and by failing to conduct effective investigations into the mismanagement of Ebola funds, the government is in violation of its human rights obligations under various international covenants. These include the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Sierra Leone is a party to all of these conventions. The plaintiffs are seeking damages and other remedies for Ebola survivors.
The 2014 Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone recorded over 14,000 confirmed cases of infections and almost 4000 deaths. Many of these included healthcare workers. While many of the over 14,000 infected persons survived, they continue to deal with life-changing challenges relating to their physical and psychological wellbeing.
The case itself was inherited by the government of President Julius Maada Bio, having being filed during the life of the previous government of President Ernest Bai Koroma. While the present government had earlier indicated its plan to settle the matter out of court, it came as a surprise to many that In October 2019, the former Sierra Leone Attorney General Dr. Priscilla Shwartz chose to submit a defense to this action—effectively going against government’s originally stated position, as well as negating the findings of the COI and the government White Paper.
When the matter comes up before the ECOWAS Court on Monday April 26, the parties will make oral arguments on the merits before the judges retire to make a judgment. It is possible that the Justice Ministry, under current Attorney General will ask for a stay of proceedings as he has already indicated that the ministry, under his leadership will make good on the government’s earlier commitment to settle the matter out of court.