Corruption in Primary Education in Sierra Leone

Salia Kpaka, 13th IACC, Workshop contribution, Civil Society

Transparency in education management workshop

Corruption in Primary Education in Sierra Leone: Local Accountability Mechanisms and the Involvement of non-State Actors at the Local Level

Salia Kpaka

Research Officer, National Accountability Group, Sierra Leone

1. Introduction

Once referred to as the Athens of West Africa, Sierra Leone was revered for its early excellence in academia and also for its lead ahead of other nations in Africa. Over the years however, there has been a dramatic decline and deterioration in this sector and many scholars have by now accepted that the country no longer holds this position and have blamed this on massive and institutionalized corruption in the educational system. The main reason for this drop in performance has foundations in the primary sector of the educational system: corruption has been named the disease that permeates the entire educational system. Despite the extent of the problem, this paper will focus on the primary sector, because as the gate way to higher education in the country, if this sector is reformed in terms of resource distribution and school governance, there would be a good foundation from where the secondary and tertiary levels will take over. This paper will focus on the following areas:

  • - Context – The Education Sector in Sierra Leone
  • - The Decentralization
  • - Corruption in Primary Education
  • - Causes of Corruption in the Primary Education Sector
  • - Stakeholders Responsible to Enhance Accountability in Primary Education
  • - Conclusion

2. Education in Sierra Leone

Education in Sierra Leonehas been in operation for a very long time now. It goes as far as the 19th century when missionaries built schools and other institutions of learning with a view to exposing African children (Sierra Leoneans to be more precise). Over the years, policies have been reviewed and among the documents and papers reviewed, we have “All our future” published in the early 1970’s and “Education for all” done in the early 1990’s.

Education in Sierra Leoneis primarily controlled by the Ministry of Education and is being divided into the following:

- Pre-primary

- Primary

- Secondary

- Tertiary

Formerly, pre-primary education was not an obligation because of the fact that not many of them existed then. What was important was primary, secondary and tertiary even though those who were privileged to attend pre-primary schools were also considered. At the turn of the 1990’s, pre-primary education gained some amount of importance because of the adoption of the new educational system in Sierra Leone.  That system called Basic Education was adopted after the JOMTIEN consultative meeting held in 1990. The aim of adopting such a system was to give every child the opportunity of having basic education until attaining the third form in secondary education. It was viewed as something praiseworthy because it was going to counter the Grammar school type of education which only catered for those who were intelligent. It was therefore going to have a blend of the grammar school type and the vocational type (education for self reliance.

The education sector in Sierra Leoneis the largest government entity with the highest number of government employees in the country. Since 1993, Sierra Leonehas been operating on the 6-3-3-4 system of education, meaning that pupils are expected to spend 6 years in primary schools, 3 years in junior secondary school, 3 years in senior secondary school and 4 years in tertiary institutions (college or university). After six years of primary education, under this system, pupils are expected to take the National Primary School Examination (NPSE), which if passed will allow pupils to enroll into secondary education for an initial three years. The Basic Education Certificate Examination (BECE) is taken after the first three years in secondary education. Successful candidates are enrolled into senior secondary for three years after which they take the West African Senior School Certificate Examination (WASSCE). Successful candidates in this examination are then enrolled into colleges or university.

Primary education forms about one-fourth of the entire education sector. In spite of this however, the budgetary allocation does not adequately cover primary education. This greatly affects the standard of services provided by primary schools, as Head Teachers often complain that the funds they receive for school fees subsidies are very inadequate to manage the schools and that what worsens the situation is the fact that most times these funds come in very late.

Primary schools are classified into either public or private schools. The private schools are owned, controlled and administered by private individuals or entities. Public primary schools, which form the focus of this paper, are further classified into government schools and government assisted schools. The government schools (municipal/local council schools) are owned and supported by the government, while the government assisted schools (mission schools) are owned by religious missions like the United Methodist, the Catholic, The United Christian Brethren, the Ahmadist and other Islamic bodies and assisted by the government.  There is a total of 4328 registered public primary schools (government owned and government assisted) as recorded by the Ministry of Education in 2006/2007. The Ministry has just completed school and teacher verification exercise throughout the country to ascertain the exact number of schools, teachers and pupils in the sector, but the result of the exercise is yet to be published.

3. The Decentralization Process

The phenomenon of Local Governance and Decentralization in Sierra Leoneis not a new development in the country’s political history. Historical accounts have maintained that Sierra Leonehad its own governance structures rooted in the institution of chieftaincy, which constituted an important ingredient of local community governance. Although the system of local governance retained a colonial outlook at independence, it was evident that the District Councils established in 1946 were in need of reforms particularly as it became clear that they were not fully representative of the people, and were also not meeting the increasing need for the delivery of social services. In spite of these shortcomings in the system of local governance, the local structures bestowed by the colonial authorities at the eve of independence, were considered to be relatively effective and efficient in performing their traditional roles of service provision, maintenance of law and order and promoting community development.

The decline of the local government structures however coincided with the death of the first Prime Minister of the country Sir Milton Margai in 1964 and the ascension to power of his younger brother Sir Albert Margai from 1964-1967/68. The once thriving local government system waned remarkably with the emergence of the practice of tribalism and rampant corruption in the operation of the District Councils. Owing to persistent outcry against the councils, the government of Sir Albert Margai took a bold step to suspend the councils temporarily in the hope of introducing some sanity and order into their operations. However, the intense political rivalry witnessed in the 1967/68 elections further worsened the situation.

The change in the political landscape in 1968, following the victory of the All Peoples Congress political party (APC) did not help the situation even after an affirmed promise by the ruling party to revive the operation of the councils as disclosed in the party’s campaign manifesto. In fact the introduction of a ‘OnePartyState’ further precipitated a theatre for the demise of local councils and in its wake a centralized system of government with the Prime Minister (who later became the president- with a Republican Constitution) at the centre.   As financial impropriety and mismanagement continued amidst the attempt to introduce meaningful reform, the All People’s Congress government under the leadership of Dr. Siaka Stevens formally and officially abolished the District Councils in 1972 in line with his earlier attempts at introducing a one party state system.

Following the first democratic elections in over three decades, in 1996, a vast majority of Sierra Leoneans called for the re-institution of local decentralized governance as a major strategy to enhance democratic and inclusive participation and improve service provision to the greater poor citizens.

In 2000, the UNDP supported project, ‘Peace and Development Initiative (PDI) conducted nationwide consultations on ‘The need to resuscitate elected local government in Sierra Leone’, which afforded the citizens an opportunity to express their desire to have in place local councils to facilitate local decision-making using local preferences especially in areas of welfare and development. In 2002, a multi donor governance round table was hosted by UNDP to consider a wide range of governance issues in the country and one of the priorities which came out succinctly was to return the country to elected Local Governance. The reform process started with the drafting of a bill leading to the Local Government Act which was enacted in March 2004 followed by a local government election held in May 2004.The passage of the 2004 Local Government Act promises to bring governance and development out of Freetownto the local level for the first time in 30 years.

The passage of the Local Government Act in 2004 introduced new prospects for governance in Sierra Leone, as the 19 local councils have now begun to undertake responsibility over certain key aspects of service delivery including health and education. The provision for greater accountability and transparency in local council activities is expected to yield greater benefit for schools, though this is largely dependent on the vigilance of civil society.

The passage of this Act heralds great potential for the system of governance in Sierra Leonethat increases citizen participation in public policy formulation and implementation. A meaningful redistribution of power and resources from Freetownto the 19 local councils and their constituencies could go a long way toward addressing the patronage networks and the lack of downward accountability that flourish in Freetown. If successfully carried out and with active involvement from the public, Sierra Leoneans could enjoy an unprecedented level of influence within government, allowing them their first significant opportunity to participate and affect change in their own communities. Citizenship will shift from mere users of services provided by the state and donors to makers and shapers of their own policies.

The handing over of responsibilities is currently ongoing, as the basic education sector has been officially devolved to the local councils on the 16th of September, 2006. While the effective transfer of funds and staff is yet to come to fruition, the devolution process is underway.

The concern is that the entire decentralization process is not totally appreciated by most heads of schools especially those in the interior of the country. The reason is that the structures are not there to effectively make the devolution process practical particularly in the basic education sector as the government has only succeeded in doing institutional devolution, but a crucial aspect which involves fiscal/financial devolution is yet to be realized. One then wonders how the recently established local councils will ever be effective in delivering education services without material and fiscal capacity to do so. Coupled with this, decisions are still taken at central level and take so much time before they get to the schools in the interior or rural areas and in a case wherein prompt action should be taken, the heads of schools find out that they can’t because the deadlines would have passed.

4. Corruption in Primary Education

The Primary Education sector in SL is beset by problems: teacher wages are still abysmally low. Often, salaries are not paid until months after due and only after civil servants have extorted a percentage. Thus there is little incentive for educated persons to become teachers, leaving substandard teachers to teach large classes with the result that most pupils leave school barely literate.

On another front, embezzlement, bribes, misappropriation of education resources and poor school management have been identified as common problems in the primary education sector in Sierra Leone. Several surveys conducted by the National Accountability Group and other civil society organizations have revealed massive corruption in primary education. In fact corruption at this level has been blamed as the root of corruption in Sierra Leoneand has become an accepted norm among pupils at this level.

Another area in primary education service provision hindered by corruption, deals with the award of contracts for the delivery of education services and procurement of these goods and services. One such corruption case that gained widespread publicity in both print and electronic media in 2005 was the contract awarded to the MIK Trading Company by the Ministry of Education to provide education materials to newly constructed and rehabilitated primary schools throughout the country. It was alleged that most of the material supplied were far below the standard demanded, with the presumption that some of the monies were diverted for personal benefit. While this issue was still pending, awaiting an audit report into the contract, the contractor was asked by the Ministry to supply the materials at his own cost.

The illegal practice in the educational system at primary level has greatly diminished educational standards in the entire educational system. Parents and sometimes pupils have to bribe teachers for promotion from one class to another. All these malpractices take place unchecked.

In summary, the challenges in the decentralization process relating to primary education are as follows: local councils and school administration reluctance to refrain from corrupt practices, poor conditions of service for civil servants, lack of capacity for local council authorities, unqualified teaching staff in schools, and massive extortion of money from parents and guidance through pupils. Central government departments are also seriously slowing the process of devolution when it comes to handing over financial responsibility to local councils. Payment of school subsidies is often delayed one school term running into another. This has also impeded effective running of primary schools and school authorities have often used this as an excuse for demanding extra charges from pupils.

To effectively tackle these corrupt practices, Sierra Leoneneeds all actors to be involved. There is need for effective and vibrant local government initiative in all the 19 local councils. Civil society engagement at this level is also an essential component. However, it is important to note that, at this level, local accountability mechanisms in curbing corruption in primary education is yet in its rudimentary stage. Local councils have just recently been resuscitated after 30 years in coma. Local council capacity has to be built for the task ahead, as accountability and monitoring mechanisms require expertise and are still lacking.

5. Causes of Corruption

Some causes of corruption in Sierra Leoneinclude the following:

Poor conditions of service characterized by low salaries and wagesover the years, is a contributing factor to corruption in the primary education sector. Head teachers, teachers and other wage earners in primary schools do not get salaries and wages that at least ensure an average living standard.

Pressures and demands from the extended family members:As a traditional society, over two-thirds of the population of Sierra Leone, is impacted by the extended family system, whereby family relations seek the help of other relations, which could either be on a permanent or temporary basis. This has impacted the lives of primary education officials, who because of limited resources become corrupt in order to meet their obligations.

The absence of deterrent measure to check or deal with cases of corruption:Despite the activities of the Anti-Corruption Commission, culprits charged with corruption, have not been promptly prosecuted or adequately punished. Government has however taken measures through the new anti-corruption commission to ensure the speedy trial of culprits charged with corruption.

Bad leadership – political, social and religious: In some of the spheres of governance, there has usually been bad leadership, characterized by the failure on those entrusted with responsibility to provide an example of good leadership hat may serve as a model. This has been attributed to political patronage.

High level of poverty: Sierra Leoneis one of the poorest countries and with a very low standard of living reflected over the years in the United Nations Development Program Development Index.

Greed and selfishness:Most Sierra Leoneans do not want to share with their fellow citizens. It is usual to see the gap between the life styles of the very rich and the poor.

Ignorance (Anti-corruption survey 2000):Most Sierra Leoneans are ignorant of the dangers of corruption and even the need to stamp it out. Corruption is seen as normal and constitutes no danger to society.

6. Stakeholders In The Primary Education Sector


Provides financial and materials and ensures effective use through inspection and assessment through audits and Expenditure Tracking Surveys

Create sanctions to ensure compliance and

Punish defaulters devoid of political and other connections


Effectively use school resources,

Undertake routine maintenance and other school development initiatives,

Direct charge school governance and management

Ensure proper record keeping and

Embark on accountability and transparency


Assist in school management and school governance

Provide oversight in school financial and general management

Assist in school development initiatives


Assist in school projects

Provide oversight


Provide oversight

Assist in school/community development

Provide financial/material resources

Provide capacity to school officials, local authority and community groups

For example, between 2006 to 2008, National Accountability Group has:

a. Trained 92 Primary School Teachers across the country on the decentralization process, budget formulation and implementation, school governance, public finance management and record keeping

b. Trained 24 local council finance officials on good governance, anti-corruption initiatives, budget formulation and implementation, audit and taxation, decentralization and the need to be transparent and accountable

c. Trained 68 citizens from Community Based Organizations on good governance, anti-corruption initiatives, Budget Monitoring and Report writing (these serve as our local monitors and report in all 19 local councils through the country)

d. Developed the “Citizens’ Handbook on Local Government” and “Citizens’ Handbook on Public Finance and National Budget” ( these served as training manuals for all the training afore-mentioned)

e. Developed a performance report for local councils through the Report Card System developed in 2007

f. NAG is also part of the Africa Education Watch Programme which aims to improve transparency and accountability in the use of primary education resources in seven African countries including: Morocco, Senegal, Niger, Madagascar, Sierra Leone, Ghana, and Uganda. It assesses waste, leakages and corruption in the education sector, and strengthens demand for policy reforms and improved service delivery.

The programme is based on the hypothesis that local accountability mechanisms need to be effective if financial resources are to be spent effectively. The Programme proposes to (a) examine the scope and forms of waste, inefficiency and corruption in the use of financial resources, and (b) to analyse the way in which local and decentralized accountability institutions and instruments are effective in preventing leakage of resources.

The main components of the program are:

First: evidence of waste, inefficiency and corruption, and of the effectiveness of local accountability mechanisms in regard to controlling them, will be collected in national assessments, consisting of a financial desk-study, a user survey and provider interviews that will be carried out in each country. By working in partnership with national education NGOs and drawing on the findings of the assessment, NAG will formulate policy recommendations at national level on how to improve local accountability with respect to managing resources transparently and efficiently.

Second: NAG will work in coalition, forming alliances and partnerships for national educational campaigns to integrate the call for more transparency and accountability into our agenda. Abroad coalition of NGOs, public officials, teachers and other “reformers” will be established and expected to institute changes in policy and practice that, ultimately, will lead to more effective use of resources for primary education.

Third: cross-country comparative analysis of national assessments will inform policy recommendations to donors and international EFA stakeholders. It is expected that they address issues that have been identified as key to improving the use of resources in the national assessments, thus the effectiveness of aid will be improved.

NAG has just completed the data collection and analyses exercises and we are currently compiling our assessment report which will serve as the bases for our advocacy campaigns.

7. Conclusion

The case of primary education underlines the problematic dynamics of corruption, transparency and accountability in the entire education sector in Sierra Leone. To a large extent it reinforces the thesis that the education sector of Sierra Leone is not only prone to corruption, but that corruption and mismanagement are also impacting factors on the evolution of transparency, monitoring and accountability structures in a seeming decentralized system. From all indications, however, it is evident that corruption, which was an instrumental factor in the collapse of the state, no doubt features as an element in its reconstruction, especially in the education sector, which has been enlisted in the National Anti-Corruption Strategy (NACS) as one of the corruption hot-spots in the country. The case of the primary education sector does not only exemplify this paradox but at the same time provides useful insight into some of the limitations in addressing corruption in the country. Building strong mechanisms to address the issue of corruption and mismanagement in primary education and the entire decentralization process is not only crucial for the viability of the entire education sector, but constitutes a critical element to any attempt at building a democratic state and society in post-conflict Sierra Leone.

docCorruption in Primary Education in Sierra Leone

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