Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Leary of Conducting Business Again in Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone is a country that has seen a generation of coups and social and political infighting. It went through a decade-long civil war that ended in 2002. The world felt sorry for this “God forsaken” nation and the international community came to help restore stability and democracy, and help it grow into a prosperous economy by utilizing its natural resources for its own good. The diamond industry and non-government organizations have played an active role in helping realize these goals.

However, despite these efforts, the current social and political establishment of Sierra Leone hasn't learned from history and ignore the workers, businessmen, and foreign governments that have come to their aid. The local powers that be in Sierra Leone – government, politicians, business or professional leaders – continue to pursue their personal greed at the expense of the long-term future of the nation. The corruption in the country is so deep-seated and wide-spread that it seems to be part of the people's psyche and consequently their establishment.

Krishan Tyagi

Krishan Tyagi of T&T Enterprises, UK

I recently heard about the case of Mr. Ramesh, a businessman from India who is based in the United States. He was swindled out of $1 million in Sierra Leone in 2006. His case is still going on in the Sierra Leone courts.  I can relate to his case, because now I have been swindled too.

My name is Krishan Tyagi, a businessman based in the United Kingdom and the proprietor of T&T Enterprises. The difference between my case in Sierra Leone and Mr. Ramesh’s case, however, is that my case hasn’t yet reached the courts. I went to Sierra Leone to look for partnerships to import rough diamonds into the UK but what I found instead was a system fraught with lies, con-men, and fraud. Once I tried appealing to whatever authority that I could find, I was repeatedly given the cold shoulder. 

My story starts back in January 2006 when I visited Sierra Leone. I met a very senior politician from the opposition party (APC) who was a registered diamond and gold exporter. This politician introduced me to a tribal chief and registered miner, who made me some offers in an import/export partnership. I subsequently returned to the UK to ponder those offers.

After many telephone conversations with the chief over several months, I returned to Sierra Leone in October, at which time he and I agreed on a transaction worth $60,000. It was agreed that once I transferred payment directly to the chief's bank account, he would deliver goods to the customs office (GGDO) to complete the formalities and send the diamonds to me in the UK.
However, after I deposited the money in his account, the chief withdrew the sum and disappeared.

I reported the matter to the Central Investigations Department (CID) of the Sierra Leone police, where it was revealed that this chief was a known criminal. The police officials even had nicknamed him "The Capitalist." 

Three weeks after that trip the head of the CID phoned me and said they had arrested the chief, who had made a statement that he supplied the goods to me. According to the CID, the chief produced “a document” before the police showing that I had signed the receipt of goods from him. On my retort that it was a false statement and that the chief must have forged my signature, the head of the CID responded that he also believed the document to be false. 

I requested that the CID officials send me “the documents” (or the copies/summary of those documents) submitted by the chief and the CID head agreed to do that. However, those documents were never sent.

Every time I was able to get hold of the CID officials on the phone, they had an excuse for not sending the documents. Once they said they didn’t have my address for posting the documents, which wasn’t true. In the next conversation, the CID official told me that they were certainly sending all the documents for my “perusal and reaction,” but the police didn’t have funds to mail the documents.
Finally after a few days in back and forth telephone conversations, I was told to travel back to Sierra Leone and have a look at the documents myself. 

After about a month of the incident and my October trip to Sierra Leone, the APC politician made contact with me again.  When I told him of the fraud committed by his friend, the chief, the politician was “very angry” and promised to contact the police and press legal action against the chief to get my money back.  However, after a few days of his promise of help to recover my money, this politician requested me to help his son secure a laptop computer as he was studying here in London.  I really was not in the position to address the request.  And, within a few weeks, this politician’s efforts amounted to only a suggestion that the Inspector General of Police (IG) re-arrest the chief and force him to repay the money, but they would need £1000 to cover his “costs.” 

Furthermore, my original intent to strike a partnership in Sierra Leone was at the advice of a Sierra Leonean friend living in the UK.  Since I made it clear that I would not give money (or a bribe) to anyone as had been hinted,  my friend and his cousins avoided taking calls from me.

Now, you may ask – why not just return to Sierra Leone to view the documents the police claim are at their offices?

Since the police had already gone back on their word, I felt that going to Sierra Leone on my own --and giving another response to the police-- would be a waste of my time. The UK embassy in Sierra Leone advised me to hire a lawyer to take up the case. So, I hired one of the top law companies in Freetown to represent me from the list the embassy recommended on Chambers Global Guide.  [Editorial note: Rapaport News did verify at the time the  attorney had taken up the case and said a writ was to be filed on behalf of this writer. No subsequent requests by Rapaport were answered by the firm.]

The lawyers told me that they had filed a civil case against the chief in the High Court of Sierra Leone and were taking up the cause with the police, who, in their words, had been bribed. They did nothing of the sort.  They never bothered to inform me of any developments, and, more curiously, never sent a bill for filing the case.

I asked a friend to check with the High Court officials, and my fear was proven true: There was no case filed on my behalf at the High Court.

When I called the attorney on this they said my friend had lied, but the firm did not provide evidence of filing or of an acknowledgement issued by the High Court,  or a copy of the writ signed by the defendant.  (The writ of summons to the High Court was supposed to have been served on the defendant  in the town – not at any exact address - and the defendant “wasn’t expected to sign” for a receipt.)  The attorney simply decided not to “represent” me or communicate with me anymore. 

To my utmost dismay, I found that not only was I defrauded by respected members of the diamond industry, I too had been ignored by the police and the top lawyers in the country who were supposed to represent my interests. After being taken advantage of in Sierra Leone, one can’t even get a case registered with the court - let alone find justice. 

I want to warn readers to be very vigilant, even when dealing with what appear to be legitimate and highly reputed people in Sierra Leone. My experience was not an isolated incident, as others going to Sierra Leone on business encountered the same fraudulent practices. Even a recent television show in Britain addressed wide-spread lawlessness and corruption across Sierra Leone.

I believe that if the social and political establishment of that nation continues to follow their myopic ways, they face losing the sympathy of the international community and with it the equitable trade of western businessmen. By making antagonists of the very people most interested in their economic resuscitation, Sierra Leone could well find itself isolated from the world again. In such a scenario, and given its history, who can rule-out another civil war?

Link to Diamonds.net News - Editorial: Leary of Conducting Business Again in Sierra Leone