It is 5:20am on 30 January, 2014, and most of the residents of Ethiopia's capital are asleep. On the streets, a few vehicles prowl as night-time revellers - mostly girls in short skirts - make their way home after a long night of merriment. On Bole Avenue, some guards stand in front of the enticing window displays of the well-stocked shops as the artificial palm trees that line the street shimmer in the biting morning cold.
Near a roundabout, our source approaches us. Despite the early hour, she seems alert, her bright eyes piercing in the pre-dawn light.
"I hope that no-one will recognise me," she says in a soft Southern African accent. She wears a hood over her head and asks us not to look at her. "Walk right and stick to me," she urges, hoping we will look like clubbers returning home.
After a long silence, she speaks. "I fear for my job by talking to you," she says before another long pause, "but my job is nothing compared to the fate of the continent through the APRM."
The APRM she is referring to is the African Peer Review Mechanism, an instrument set up by the African Union in 2003 to encourage good governance through mutual assessments. The mechanism was heralded as an innovative African solution to African issues, and so far 34 countries have joined voluntarily. But over a decade on from its establishment, it seems a number of problems have developed, distracting the APRM from its mission.
These are problems that few in the organisation are willing to talk about. One Cameroonian minister, for example, declined to be interviewed for fear of retaliation against his government, commenting mysteriously "each state has its own skeletons in the closet." Meanwhile, two other senior figures - one a former member of the APRM's Panel of Eminent Persons, the other a minister in a West African government - first agreed to speak before having a change of heart.
Another individual who evaded persistent requests for an interview was Assefa Shifa, who was at least until this January, head of the APRM Secretariat. Shifa's reluctance, however, may be understandable given that, according to many people, he's at the centre of the APRM's travails.
Shifa, a tall Ethiopian man in his early 60s, is described as shy by many who know him. "He could not hurt a fly," Marie-Angelique Savané, a former member of the Panel of Eminent Experts, recalls thinking of him when they first met. But what some see as timidity, others say is an act to conceal his linguistic failings. Shifa reportedly speaks broken English and has not mastered French, Arabic or Portuguese, despite the APRM's requirement that employees are able to speak at least one of these four languages. Shifa's CV contains some similar mysteries. In it, for example, he lists his most recent academic achievement to be an MBA I from the University of South Africa in 2007-8. When contacted, the university said it had no record of issuing such a degree.
Shifa's route to the leadership of the Secretariat, the body that oversees the day-to-day running of the APRM, is as curious as the man himself. In 2006, Shifa had been working at the UN Development Programme (UNDP) for over a decade, during which time he had risen up to the position of Regional Information Technology Officer. But that May, the UNDP sent him to the APRM Secretariat, based in South Africa, where he was initially hired as a technician to manage the database.
One of the recruiters who interviewed him recalls pointing out to Shifa that the APRM job would be a significant step down from the leadership positions he had previously held at the likes of IBM and Shell, according to his CV. Shifa did not mind. Similarly, it seems that the APRM did not mind hiring Shifa to do a job that, according to sources close to the APRM, was already being done by the Development Bank of Southern Africa (DBSA).
Shifa did not stay long in this position though. In July 2008, the director of the Secretariat stepped down, and the Panel of Eminent Persons picked Shifa to hold the reins for a three-month interim period.
Two years later, however, Shifa was still running the show and eventually managed to convince the Panel to confirm him as Acting Director. At the time, the Panel was in an ongoing struggle over organisational control with the Committee of Focal Points, another body in the APRM's management structure. According to an APRM source, the Panel was led to believe that Shifa would side with them in the dispute. And so, the insider says, Shifa's position "is the interim which lasts to this day."
Adding a further layer of confusion, Akere Muna, who was Chairperson of the Panel until this January, asks why the UNDP has even allowed its employee to work at the APRM all this time. "As an employee of UNDP, he is not qualified to transact business on behalf of the APRM Secretariat," he says.
Accusations of mismanagement, intimidation and fraud
The uncertainties around Shifa's ascension and ability to safeguard his position would seem less dubious if he were considered to be good at his job, but his tenure so far has hardly been steeped in triumph.
For example, Muna claims he forbade the 2012 Annual Report from being made public because it was so full of errors that "it would be a disgrace to the APRM." In it, for instance, Denis Sassou Nguesso is listed as the President of Uganda rather than the Republic of Congo, Tanzania is classified as a Francophone country, while the flag of Mauritius is attributed first to Mauritania and then to Mozambique.
When asked by the Panel to present details of the finances that went into the production and printing of 500 copies of the report, Shifa reportedly destroyed all the documents relating to the procurement of services. Think Africa Press managed to track down the contact details of Jimmy Andetowa, the marketing manager of the company responsible for printing the report, but he ignored several requests for an interview.
"All members and partners are aware of all these malpractices," says our hooded source in Addis, "but no-one says anything...It protects Shifa, who knows too much."
Meanwhile, another APRM employee, speaking on condition of anonymity, suggests a different reason people are reluctant to speak out. "[Shifa] imposes fear and servitude. He gives contracts of two to three months to employees and reminds everyone that he is the one who signs them."
This claim is backed up by Muna in his 'Reflections on the APRM and the Management of the Transition', a report he wrote coinciding with the end of his term as Panel chair earlier this year. In it, he writes: "[Shifa] hired and fired at will without consulting anyone. He increased salaries and made appointments and promotions without any consultation... New employees appeared and disappeared in Panel meetings without any information supplied to the Panel on their status functions or duration of employment."
However, according to some, Shifa's misdeeds in the Secretariat go even further than incompetence, mismanagement and intimidation.
In 2012, the APRM paid the company Reneesance 4 million Rand (around $400,000) to cater for a two-day meeting in Durban, South Africa. But according a source in the APRM, the costs for the conference were already covered by the South African government. "This sum is South African taxpayer's money," says the APRM insider. "The late Minister of the South African Public Service, Roy Padayachie, has presented an appeal to the Durban municipality to fund dinner and transportation for participants."
Think Africa Press contacted some of the late minister's former employees, but they declined to comment.
The same year, Deloitte also conducted a 'Forensic review of subsistence and travel claims expenditure incurred by the ARPM'. In the final report, a copy of which is in the possession of Think Africa Press, the investigators expressed serious concerns around the APRM's financial procedures. "The APRM does not currently have its own set of Policies and Procedures in respect of S&T [subsistence and travel claims]," it concludes, adding that "The APRM therefore processed some transactions without complying with the requirements of any policy."
The Deloitte review goes on to point out that "The honorarium rate has never been reviewed", that "Panel members do not declare their interests" and that "APRM does not have an internal audit function." Among many other things, it also reports that "the APRM is paying excessive per diems", that "Panel Members do not always use the most direct routes when travelling on APRM business" and that "unauthorised salary advances were being provided to APRM employees and consultants."
Crucially, the review also notes "The APRM CEO [i.e. Shifa] approves and authorises all S&T claims, including his own."
The report thus detailed a series of extensive problems in the APRM's financial management system, but according to Joseph Tsang Mang Kin, a member of the Panel of Eminent Persons, nothing ever came of it. "This forensic audit report was never made public or brought to the attention of the [Heads of State] Forum and [Committee of] Focal Points," he says. "It was presented only to the Panel [of Eminent Persons] in September 2012 in South Africa. [There was] no follow-up."
Similarly, at the recent 30 January 2014 APRM summit, Muna claims that Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the president of Liberia and the current president of the APRM's Heads of State Forum, instructed him to keep silent on internal APRM affairs. "No mention was to be made about poor management at the APRM Secretariat," he says. "I am therefore complied to orders."
The APRM's financial dealings have thus remained obscured to the public, though the European Union, one of the organisations' funders, may be aware of the mismanagement. In 2010, the EU donated €2 million ($2.8 million) to the APRM's Trust Fund, into which all external contributions are paid. Maria Sanchez, the EU's communications officer, told Think Africa Press that €1.3 million of the donation has been spent, but she refused to give any details of how it was used.
One possibility, however, is that at least some of the money went towards paying Shifa's salary. Muna recalls that soon after his appointment as Chairperson of the Panel of Eminent Persons in May 2013, he came across a letter from Amos Sawyer, a former Liberian president and Muna's predecessor as Panel Chair, requesting that Shifa's contract be extended and that the Trust Fund pay his wages. "All this is contrary to the rules of APRM and those regulating the Trust Fund," insists Muna.
Deloitte's 2012 report also recommended a forensic audit of the APRM's Trust Fund and bank accounts, but Shifa, who is responsible for these funds, reportedly refused access to the necessary information. According to a source associated with the APRM, what investigators would have found is a set of obscure payment systems. The employee claims that to extract money from the Trust Fund, one would "transfer money from the Trust fund account to Standard Bank hosted by the Development Bank of Southern Africa [which manages the APRM's accounts]. Then from there, [one would] transfer the money into an account opened by Shifa at Nedbank."
Akere Muna fully supports a forensic audit of the Trust Fund and says there is an urgency to do so. A financial audit of the APRM, he hopes, will give assurance to member states that their contributions are well managed. Moreover, he argues that the Secretariat should be equip a competent and motivated staff.
Shifa and Sawyer
Despite the many questions around Shifa's background, competency and financial dealings as head of the Secretariat, he appears to be strongly supported by various friends in high places.
For example, a few months ago when the Director of UNDP Africa, Abdoulaye Mar Dieye, tried to recall Shifa to the UNDP - sending Shifa an email on 13 December 2013 and then a letter on 8 January 2014 - he came across stiff resistance.
Amara Konneh, president of the APRM's Committee of Focal Points and a minister in the Liberian government, quickly opposed the measure, sending a letter to members of the Panel telling them it was not their prerogative to terminate Shifa's tenure. Konneh also said that he would contact the UNDP at the highest level to contest Shifa's removal.
According to a well-placed source at the UNDP, President Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia, who is currently the president of the APRM's Forum of Heads of State, also got involved, calling Dieye and ordering him to reconsider.
The UNDP director reportedly declined. However, Shifa then resigned from the UNDP and, on 13 January, Konneh submitted an official letter to Shifa authorising him to resume his duties as head of the Secretariat and promising to grant him a new contract. The president of the Committee of Focal Points explained his decision by insisting that with "multiple urgent activities" coming up, including a heads-of-state summit in January 2014, it was important to have a Secretariat with "institutional memory."
According to Panel members Tsang Mang Kin and Muna, this move was in breach of APRM rules. Muna also questions Konneh's justification for it, pointing out that the UNDP made the decision to recall Shifa in mid-December, but that it was only a month later that his supporters spoke out. "Why is it during the last week before the preparation of the summit that this story resurfaces?" he asks.
As Konneh promised, Shifa was offered a new contract, and in her speech at the APRM summit, Johnson Sirleaf announced that Shifa - along with the rest of the Secretariat staff - would remain in his post for at least a further four months.
Some of those present for the summit at the African Union headquarters were critical of Johnson Sirleaf's actions, commenting that "Africa will never take off with this type of business management." Meanwhile, another attendee asked, "Who appointed the Acting Director and what is the procedure?"
The answer, according to the APRM's Procedural Manual, is that the director is to be appointed by the Heads of State Forum for a three-year term, renewable once. This was not the case with the renewal of Shifa's contract this January.
Think Africa Press sought clarification on this matter from Erastus Mwencha, Deputy Chairperson of the African Union Commission, the body in charge of matters relating to the APRM, but did not receive a response.
However, regardless of the legality of the move, these recent events beg the question of why Konneh and Johnson Sirleaf have been so keen to keep Shifa in office, even if it means upsetting influential peers and bending the rules. According to a source in the APRM, the answer may come back to APRM's financial dealings.
"Johnson Sirleaf seeks to protect Shifa to prevent the audit of the Trust Fund which may expose Amos Sawyer," says the insider. Sawyer, the former Liberian president, was the Chairperson of the Panel of Eminent Persons from January 2012 to May 2013, and just before he stepped down personally urged that Shifa's tenure be extended. Some suggest that Sawyer is concerned that if Shifa were to be replaced, certain transactions might be exposed.
From documents Think Africa Press has seen, there is a record of Sawyer misapplying for APRM funding support. On 21 May, 2011, for example, Sawyer received a letter from the APRM's Finance Department asking him to reimburse the organisation R58,837 ($5,500). The letter states that Sawyer claimed expenses for a journey from Monrovia to Maputo - which, being for APRM business, would be eligible to be paid for by the organisation - but which first went via Indianapolis in the US. Sawyer was a research scholar at Indiana University. A more direct journey from Monrovia to Maputo would have been much cheaper, and the APRM requested that Sawyer pay back the difference.
An APRM insider also claims that Sawyer took advantage in more ways that have not been uncovered. For instance, our source claims Sawyer used APRM funds to pay private healthcare bills and received $9,000 for secretarial expenses, the need for which was never justified with supporting documents.
Think Africa Press contacted Sawyer for comment, but did not receive a response. Konneh was also contacted repeatedly, but to no avail.
An attempt to question Johnson Sirleaf the day after the APRM summit was similarly brushed aside.
In March, Othello B. Garblah, writing for the Liberian paper The New Dawn, did get an opportunity to directly confront Johnson Sirleaf. Towards the end of a long interview about a variety of topics, Garblah introduced the issue of the APRM and this investigation, saying "I have a colleague called Ramata Sore she's from one of those Francophone countries, she did some investigations in Addis Ababa and other places, it has to do with the appointment of the head of the APRM Secretariat (Assefa Shifa) and how you tried to shield Dr. Amos Sawyer, by keeping the head of the Secretariat there to prevent his alleged exposure."
The Liberian president responded by repeating her argument earlier in the year: "First of all, I am not shielding Dr. Sawyer," she said. "Dr. Sawyer was head of the Panel of APRM, elected by them... We could not let him [Shifa] go just before the AU summit-otherwise there would have been nobody to have prepared the Summit meeting...My position was, we had three weeks away from the summit, if you don't have a CEO and there is no time to recruit a new CEO how will you have a successful summit?
"So, we had to ask UNDP to let him stay. At the meeting they have here just last week, the man has now been dismissed and they have a recruitment process on the way to find his successor."
The exact status of Shifa remains unclear, but Muna is keen to point out that, contrary to Johnson Sirleaf's claim, Sawyer was not elected by the Panel. "He is one of the rare Panel Chairs not to be elected by his Peers," he says. "He was appointed by Meles [Zenawi]."
The Panel vs. the Committee of Focal Points
According to Muna, the opacity and lack of oversight at the heart of the APRM's inner workings can be traced back to the leadership of Meles, the late Ethiopian prime minister and Johnson Sirleaf's predecessor as president of the Committee of Heads of State.
Meles rose to that position in 2007 after Nigeria's former president, Olusegun Obasanjo, stepped down. The Ethiopian premier's term then should have lasted a maximum of two years, but he somehow held onto power until his death in August 2012.
One of his first actions as chair was to appoint his Chief Economic Advisor, Newai Gebreab, as the chairperson of the Committee of Focal Points. And with this, says Muna, Meles was able to control the administration of the APRM for several years.
"The fact that Meles remained for a long time as the Forum Chair is the cause of this poor governance," he says.
Central to this, he claims, was Meles' efforts to undermine the power of the Panel of Eminent Persons. Under the APRM's framework, the Panel's independence and authority over the Secretariat is meant to ensure the credibility and integrity of the mechanism. However, Muna argues that, in 2012, Meles rebalanced power away from the Panel and towards the Committee of Focal Points (CFP). He says that the mission of the CFP, which is made up of current government ministers and senior officials from member states, changed dramatically and was awarded greater control over the management of the APRM at the expense of the Panel. "Since 2012, the Panel is no longer in charge of administrative and financial affairs," he says.
According to Tsang Mang Kin, the very creation of the CFP "was not included in the basic documents of the APRM," but now "the CFP is considered superior to the Panel." Furthermore, because members of the CFP are part of governments under review, he believes that CFP members may have a conflict of interests and an interest in disturbing the process to avoid censure of their governments.
In his written reflections, Muna says that after the establishment of the CFP, he persistently tried to meet with Konneh, the CFP's chair, to discuss its mandate and relation to the Panel, but was constantly avoided. "As Chair of the Panel I requested such a meeting over five times in writing by mail and orally, to no avail," he writes. "As a matter of fact I did travel twice to Monrovia to meet with the Focal Point Chair but was unsuccessful. On one occasion there was a Focal Point Meeting, and I was allowed to sit in the Lobby of the Hotel for half a day waiting to meet the Chair of the Focal Points. I was not even invited into the meeting which all levels of members of the Secretariat were allowed to attend. I was not even allowed to be introduced for me to address a prepared courtesy message and leave!"
"It is inconceivable that there is no mechanism for continuous contact and collaboration," he adds.
Tsang Mang Kin claims the opacity and new arrangement with the CFP has undermined the credibility of the evaluation process and that the moral authority and integrity the APRM was meant to have under the authority of the independent Panel has been destroyed.
Muna meanwhile concludes his report, writing: "From the issues discussed hitherto, one must necessarily conclude that there is an urgent need to fine tune the Operating Procedure Rules, revise the nature of the relationship between the Panel and the Committee of Focal Points, urgently develop governance rules for the Committee of Focal Points, change the strategy for the management of transition and migration into the AU structure and, finally, instituting [sic] a more robust and transparent approach to recruitment."
"Africa must rise again"
Back on the streets of Addis Ababa, it is now 6:48am and the sun has risen. The small groups of night-time revellers on their way home have given way to the city's early risers walking to work, and the roads are quickly getting busier.
"I must go,"says our hooded source, having revealed all she knows about the problems at the heart of the APRM, about evidence of corruption and nepotism, and complicity at the highest levels. Before leaving, however, she turns back to us. "Africa must rise again," she says, "and it must begin with the APRM."
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Ramata Sore is a journalist, currently working at Deutsche Welle, the German international Broadcaster based in Bonn. She is a former Fulbright, and the Reuters Institute in Oxford, fellow. She holds an MA degree in media studies from Quinnipiac University in the USA, and another MA in Sciences, Information and Communication Strategies from Ouagadougou University, Burkina Faso.