By Lawrence Williams
On 26 September, Fritong Post was commissioned to conduct a follow-up investigation into the audit queries raised in the 2020 and 2021 Annual Audit reports issued by Sierra Leone’s supreme audit institution, Audit Service Sierra Leone (ASSL). The focus of the investigation was on the Withholding Tax and Pay As You Earn (PAYE) tax queries related to the Judiciary of Sierra Leone, the National Minerals Agency (NMA), and the Sierra Estate Management Company (2017-2019). After several weeks of correspondence, the Judiciary and National Minerals Agency agreed to provide comments on the issues, while the Sierra Estate Management Company was unavailable for clarification.
Judiciary of Sierra Leone
The Judiciary of Sierra Leone (JoSL) is an autonomous body established under Section 120 of the 1991 Constitution, with judicial power and jurisdiction over civil, criminal, and constitutional matters. The specific issue raised in the 2020 Annual Audit report was the non-deduction of withholding taxes owed to the National Revenue Authority (NRA). The report indicated that payments totaling Le524,353,932 made to suppliers did not have the required withholding taxes of Le48,910,567.86 deducted, which was in violation of Section 117 of the Income Tax Act of 2000. The report recommended that JoSL takes appropriate steps to recover the unwithheld amount from the suppliers and pay it to the NRA. Failure to do so would hold the responsible person or authority liable to refund the amount to the Consolidated Revenue Fund (CRF).
In their official response to the audit queries, the Master and Registrar of JoSL explained some of the reasons for the non-deduction of withholding taxes. They mentioned that a significant portion of the amount in question, Le43,719,998, was related to a vendor located outside the country who provided campaign materials. They also cited payments made to service providers for vehicle repairs for judges and other expenses related to adverts and utility services.
During an interview with JoSL Communications Director Elkass Sannoh, he reaffirmed the institution’s official response given during the audit exercise, stating that JoSL did not violate the law regarding contract awards and withholding tax. Sannoh explained that the payment under review was granted to a non-resident company for the production of campaign materials for a Sierra Leonean judge running for election to the International Criminal Court (ICC). Sannoh argued that withholding tax does not apply to this particular contract.
However, upon reviewing the Income Tax Act of 2000, we found out that the law does impose a 10 percent withholding tax on payments to contractors outside Sierra Leone, making the claims by the judiciary spokesperson inaccurate.
Section 117 (5) of the Act specifies that withholding tax should be applied to payments made to non-resident contractors at the prescribed rate in Part II of the Second Schedule.
Based on the evidence presented above, it is clear that this issue remains unresolved, as stated in the audit report.
National Minerals Agency
The National Minerals Agency (NMA) was established by an Act of Parliament in 2012 to manage mineral rights, geological information, and regulated precious minerals trading. However, the 2021 Annual Audit report has raised concerns about the agency’s documentation and transparency regarding PAYE taxes and withholding tax deductions.
According to the report, the NMA could not provide sufficient documentary evidence to support PAYE taxes amounting to Le293,460,056 paid to the Commissioner of Income Tax for May, June, and July of 2021. The auditors highlighted that payment vouchers and an NRA receipt acknowledging payment were not provided, and they recommended that the necessary receipts and vouchers be made available to verify the payments.
Similarly, the auditors found a lack of receipts for withholding tax deductions paid to the NRA. A sum of Le399,579,096.39 relating to 5.5% withholding tax deducted was noted, but receipts confirming the payment made to the NRA were not provided. The auditors recommended that the NMA director general and finance director ensure that receipts justifying payments and transfers to the NRA were submitted for audit purposes.
In response to the audit findings, the NMA stated that all receipts and payment vouchers supporting the PAYE and withholding tax payments were available for review. However, the auditors commented that while partial resolution was achieved for some of the issues, there were still outstanding balances and missing receipts.
The NMA communications officer mentioned that only the auditors can follow up on the implementation of their recommendations, and any outcome would be communicated through the official subsequent report. Therefore, it remains uncertain whether the issues raised in the audit report have been fully resolved or the agency has complied with the recommendations.
Overall, the audit report highlights concerns regarding the NMA’s documentation and transparency in relation to tax payments. It is important for the agency to address these concerns and provide the necessary evidence to ensure proper accountability and financial compliance.
This report was produced with the support of Budget Advocacy Network (BAN), with funding from the Irish Aid Programme Grant II, which is overseen by Christian Aid Sierra Leone (CASL).