Sierra Leone lawyer and political commentator Jenkins-Johnston dies

Sierra Leone Telegraph: 11 September 2016

blyden-jenkins-johnstonOne of Sierra Leone’s top legal luminaries and political commentators – James Blyden Jenkins-Johnston (Photo) passed away a few days ago in London after a short illness.

Jenkins-Johnston will be remembered for his eloquence in the unprecedented Supreme Court case that followed what many saw, as the unconstitutional sacking of the vice president of Sierra Leone – Sam Sumana by president Ernest Koroma.

Ironically, Jenkins-Johnston died exactly one year after that incredible Supreme Court ruling that kept both president Koroma and vice president Victor Foh in office, despite strong legal argument by Jenkins-Johnston, and the massive public outcry about constitutionality, democracy and the rule of law.

President Koroma’s decision to sack the vice president without following due legal process and constitutional arrangement sent shock-waves across the country and beyond. This unilateral decision has left deep political wounds in the very heart of the ruling APC party, which may never heal.

Lawyer Jenkins-Johnston who was the lead counsel for vice president Sam Sumana tried to obtain an interlocutory injunction to restrain Mr. Victor Bockarie Foh from acting as and, or carrying out the functions of the vice president of Sierra Leone, pending the determination of the matter before the Supreme Court, in respect of the action of the president to “relieve” Sam Sumana from the office of vice presidency, but failed.

sam sumana 6Lawyer Ajibola Manley-Spaine acting as the lead counsel for the 2nd Respondent Victor Foh, and Berthan Macauley (Jr) – serving as the lead counsel for the Attorney General – the 1st Respondent, argued that Sam Sumana’s lawyers have not satisfied the court of any justifiable and reasonable grounds for an injunction to be granted. (Photo: Sam Sumana).

At the heart of the Supreme Court case, was the question as to whether president Koroma acted unconstitutionally, when he unilaterally set aside the relevant sections of the country’s Constitution in deciding to relieve the elected vice president of his duties.

When the matter was brought before the Supreme Court on the 6th April 2015, few in Sierra Leone trusted that the judges will grant an injunction, given the politically charged atmosphere prevailing in Sierra Leone at that time.

In arriving at their unprecedented ruling, it seemed the five most senior judges in the country, had relied less on the legality, constitutionality and equity of the arguments posed by Sumana’s lawyers, but more on the political context and consequences for the country.

But despite their ruling being massively unpopular, it reinforced the negative perception and distrust that people generally have in Sierra Leone, with regards the independence of the judiciary.

jenkins-johnston2However, the substantive matter put before the Supreme Court by Jenkins-Johnston (Photo) and his colleagues, was in pursuant to Sections 124 and 127 of the Constitution of Sierra Leone No. 6 of 1991, namely:

(1) For a determination of the following questions to wit; (a) Whether the Constitution of Sierra Leone empowers the PRESIDENT “to relieve the Vice-President of his Office and duties” in any way Other than by the procedure set out in Sections 50 and 51 of the said Constitution.

(b) Where the “Supreme executive authority” of the President mentioned in Section 40 (1) of the Constitution of Sierra Leone includes the power to “relieve the Vice-President of his Office and duties”, other than by the procedure set out in Sections 50 and 51 of the said Constitution.

If the answer to each of the questions above is NO, then the plaintiff will seek the following further reliefs:

(i) For a declaration that the Public Notice announcing that the Vice President had been relieved of his duties and office (Exhibit A herein) is unconstitutional, null and  void, and of no effect.

(ii) For a declaration that the appointment of Victor Bockarie Foh as Vice President of Sierra Leone is also unconstitutional, null and void and of no effect.

(iii) For an injunction restraining the said Victor Bockarie from acting in the Office of the Vice-President of Sierra Leone, pending the hearing and determination of this action.

(iv) For a declaration that the Elected Vice-President of Sierra Leone (the Plaintiff herein) remains in Office as Vice President thereof unless and until removed from Office as required by Section 50 and 51 of the Constitution of Sierra Leone.

parliament sierra leone2The constitution of Sierra Leone clearly states that ONLY parliament has the power to impeach or sack the vice president. But in justification of his decision to sack the vice president with immediate effect, this is what president Koroma told the people of Sierra Leone:

“On the 6th day of March 2015, the National advisory Committee (NAC) of the All Peoples Congress (APC) took a decision to expel Alhaji Samuel Sam Sumana from the APC, and by letter dated 6th day of March 2015, Alhaji Samuel Sam Sumana was duly expelled from the APC.

“As president of the Republic of Sierra Leone and guardian of the constitution of Sierra Leone, pursuant to Section 40(3) of the constitution of Sierra Leone Act No.6 of 1991, I have taken note of the decision of the APC.

“The public will recall, and I have also taken note of the fact that on Saturday, March 14, 2015, Alhaji Samuel Sam Sumana sought asylum from a foreign embassy, demonstrating a willingness to abandon his duties and office as vice president of our beloved Republic.

“And whereas Alhaji Samuel Sam Sumana is no longer a member of a political party in Sierra Leone and therefore does not have the continuous requirement to hold office as vice president of the republic  of Sierra Leone, as provided for in section 41(b) of the constitution of Sierra Leone Act No.6 of 1991, I hereby relieve Alhaji Samuel Sam Sumana of the duties and from the office of the vice president of Sierra Leone with immediate effect, pursuant to my supreme  executive authority as president of the republic of Sierra Leone as enshrined in Section 40(1) of the said constitution of Sierra Leone.

“I am in consultation with the leadership of the APC, the party under whose ticket I was elected president, in relation to the appointment of another person as vice president.

“I shall appoint and announce the name of the vice president of Sierra Leone shortly, pursuant to Section 54(5) of the constitution of Sierra Leone Act No.6 of 1991.”

president koroma celebrates end of ebola - 061115President Koroma (Photo), his then Attorney General – Frank kargbo, his lawyers and ruling APC party executives, were convinced of the legitimacy of the president’s decision to set aside the provisions enshrined in the country’s constitution, which clearly dictates the circumstances and procedure for relieving the vice president of his duties.

The main point of their argument hinged on their wide interpretation of Section 41(b) of the country’s constitution, that following his expulsion from the ruling party, Sam Sumana had ceased to enjoy continuity of tenure of vice presidential office, and hence automatically lost his right to stay in that office.

This is what Section 41(b) says: “No person shall be qualified for election as President unless he a member of a political party”.

Did the president’s argument safely meet the requirements of Section 41(b)? Does this section not solely relate to qualification for election? Or can it be stretched to include circumstances where a member of a political party has been expelled from and by the party, after his appointment to that office?

Given that the country’s constitution does not make provision for the principle of continuity of membership of the ruling party, in order to continue to serve as the elected vice president, why did the Supreme Court rely on such lame argument?

If vice president Sam Sumana had been investigated by the ruling party and found guilty of gross misconduct, the constitution of Sierra Leone is unequivocal as to what to do in circumstances where the vice president is found to be no longer fit for office due to misconduct.

Why Jenkins-Johnston failed to argue this point at the Supreme Court, may never be known. But the Sierra Leone Telegraph had strongly argued that this should have been the argument put forward by Sam Sumana’s lawyers.

Section 54(8) says that: “The provisions of sections 50 and 51 of this Constitution, relating to the removal from office of the President, shall apply to the removal from office of the Vice-President.”

sam sumana and president koroma at warAnd if vice president Sam Sumana had committed an act or omission that was deemed to be gross misconduct – as the president has been trying to convince the people of Sierra Leone into believing, then why did the president refuse to use Section 49(1) of the constitution to get rid of the vice president?

Section 49(1) of the constitution, says that: “The office of vice president shall become vacant where the incumbent ceases to hold that office in pursuance of section 51 of this Constitution” – (i.e. gross misconduct in the performance of the functions of his office).

This provision must apply where there is gross misconduct in the performance of the functions of his office, and 50% of parliamentarians have signed and handed a petition to the speaker of parliament for the vice president’s impeachment.

There was drama in the corridors of the Supreme Court in Freetown on the 9th of September, 2015, after the marathon reading of the judgement by the five Supreme Court Judges.

Lawyers for the sacked vice president led by Jenkins-Johnston argued in the Supreme Court that the vice president’s sacking was unconstitutional and unlawful.

But lawyers for the president said that he had sacked his vice president because he had been thrown out of the ruling party, and therefore cannot continue to serve as vice president.

All five Supreme Court Judges sang from the same hymn sheet in delivering their final judgement: ‘President Koroma has the power to sack the vice president, without recourse to parliament, and that he had acted lawfully in sacking Sam Sumana.’

Lawyer James Blyden Jenkins-Johnston was a legal luminary, and may have lost that unprecedented Supreme Court case against the State for all the wrong reasons.

But he was also at times a thorn in the side of president Koroma and his government, though he was never known as a registered member of any of the opposition parties in the country.

In particular, he will be remembered for his letter of protest to the president written in February 2013, just months after Koroma had won the 2012 general and presidential elections that have kept him in office for a second and final term.

Jenkins-Johnston wrote his letter to the president in the face of continuing economic hardship, persistent electricity blackouts, and serious water shortage in the capital Freetown.

blyden-jenkins-johnstonToday, and three years on, Jenkins-Johnston is dead, but the problems that he described in that letter to president Koroma still persist: economic hardship, intermittent supply of electricity, and acute shortage of clean drinking water.

This is what he said in his letter to president Koroma:

“Your Excellency, I am normally a patient, understanding and long-suffering person, and I do not get annoyed, nor do I lose my cool very easily.

“But I must confess that since about a week before the General Elections in November 2012, the non-availability and/or constant disruption in the supply of Electricity in Freetown has seriously annoyed and aggravated me to the extent that I have now decided to write this letter to you.

“The Electricity situation has been deteriorating steadily and is now at rock-bottom, thereby causing serious inconvenience and substantial financial losses to citizens, and further putting the lives of citizens in danger by encouraging armed robbers to operate easily under the cover of darkness at night.

“Even for those of us who are really fortunate and lucky to be able to buy generators, we find that they are expensive to fuel and maintain, and as in my case, the poor generator has packed up due to overuse and overwork.

“I recall that during the last election campaign, a lot of noise was made about the completion of Bumbuna, and the fact that we were now going to enjoy continuous electricity in Freetown. What a sick Joke!! The Electricity situation is worse now, than it has been in a long while.

“So Mr. President, what is the truth about Bumbuna and the Electricity Supply in Freetown?

“How long are we going to continue suffering from this Blackout? We the citizens want answers!! Honest, truthful and sincere answers, not excuses.

“We want answers from N.P.A; we want answers from The Minister of Energy; and we want answers from you, Mr. President, for whom the citizens of Freetown voted solidly in the last Election, as indeed the buck stops at your desk!!

“Most citizens in Freetown can no longer enjoy a drink of cold water in their homes anymore; our fridges, freezers, microwaves, electric irons and electric kettles etc are all now items of furniture in our homes.

“Freezers have to be emptied out and food thrown away even though they were purchased at great cost. Those who sell “cole wata”, coolaid, yoghurt and cold drinks for their living are now out of business.

“Many offices are at a standstill because computers, printers, photocopiers etc cannot work without electricity. And the list goes on!!

“How Long O Lord, How Long……..??

“Is this what the Agenda for Prosperity is all about?? Can anyone prosper in such a situation of perpetual darkness??

“We want answers, Mr. President, and we want relief from this problem.

“Thank you, and God Bless you.

“Yours Faithfully – A totally Angry and Frustrated Citizen.”

The letter was copied to: (1) The Hon. Vice President, Tower Hill, Freetown. (2) The Speaker, Parliament Building, Tower Hill, Freetown. (3) The Majority Leader, Parliament Building, Tower Hill, Freetown. (4) The Minority Leader, Parliament Building, Tower Hill, Freetown. (5) The Minister of Energy, Electricity House, Siaka Stevens Street, Freetown. (6) The General Manager, N.P.A. Electricity House, Siaka Stevens Street, Freetown.

blyden-jenkins-johnston-esqIn June 2012, James Blyden Jenkins-Johnston was elected as President of the Sierra Leone Bar Association. This is how Awoko described the outcome of the election and the promises made by Jenkins-Johnston as to how he will approach his office:

Effective this afternoon, Friday 29th June 2012, astute lawyer, James Blyden Jenkins-Johnston is President of the Sierra Leone Bar Association, following his victory of forty-four (44) votes against his rival Floyd Davies, who secured 42 votes.

The association’s presidential election was held in one of the conference rooms at the Hill Valley Hotel after its last Annual General Meeting (AGM), which focused mainly on a theme that was considered timely, since it dealt with “elections, accountability and law – the legal practitioner’s role in the machinery of a democratic state”.

Lawyer Jenkins-Johnston in a short interview upon his victory said that taking up the Presidency of the Bar is a big challenge, considering the number of issues that the country is facing with regards injustices and maladministration.

He had once served as the Bar’s President in 1988 to 1991. He vowed to vigorously restructure the position of the Bar (as a pressure group) to the prominent position it played after its formation, while recognizing that their active participation in the passage of the Freedom of Information Bill is quite necessary.

Prominent among other many transformational steps Jenkins said he was going to take – has to do with his liaising with the Office of the Attorney-General and Minister of Justice to ensure that all Bills about to go to Parliament for passage into law have technical inputs from members of the Bar, adding that most of the technical problems we as citizens face after Bills have been passed bordered mainly on the lack of necessary contributions of members of the civil society, especially the Bar.

Furthermore, he registered his submission on the appalling condition of the judicial system in which he said that low payment of judges and magistrates including government staff, is attributed to poor performance, bribery and corruption.

He exemplified his assertion by claiming that so many people are kept behind bars (in Pademba Road Prisons) forgotten about, and without being prosecuted, simply because the prosecution team (s) do not go to the court.

He mentioned instances in which he had offered pro-bono service (free service) to people whom he deemed necessary by virtue of their despicable vulnerabilities. He said that he would urge his colleagues (lawyers) to be offering such pro-bono services to poor people in the country, despite the existence of the Pilot Legal Aid Scheme.

He also touched on the issue of massive unemployment which they (lawyers) aptly deliberated on during the AGM; describing the social despondency many youths are living in with regards their lack of employment and non-provision of basic necessities of life.

The Lawyer further pointed to the vulnerability of the youths as one of the causes of political and other violent behaviours, adding that since he has been a renowned fighter for injustices and voice of the voiceless, he would champion the cause of those societal malaise during his presidency.

Jenkins-Johnston Esq. said that during his 38 years in the Sierra Leone Bar Association, he has witnessed many negative changes, and that during this upcoming one-year term, he aspired to restore the association’s connection to the international community.

He assured that through the backing of his colleagues in the Bar and the legal profession in general, where he claimed unity prevails at its pinnacle, very soon members of the populace will begin to see the Bar at performance in an appreciable sphere.

Blyden Jenkins-Johnston was elected as the new President of the Bar, along with other executive members including: Rhoda M. Suffian Kargbo- Vice President, Leonard Taylor-Sec-Gen, Martha Sesay- Asst. Sec-Gen, Francis Ben Keifala-Public Relations Officer, Cheryl Blake -Treasurer, Joanne Wellington- Asst. Treasurer and ex-officio members in the persons of Reginald Fynn Jnr. and Joseph F. Kamara.

The Sierra Leone Telegraph wishes to convey its deepest sympathy to the family of Lawyer Jenkins-Johnston. May his soul rest in peace.

2 Comments

  1. I really do wish I did not have to do this. With pain in my heart and deepest sorrow, please let me use this medium to pay tribute to a decent, honest and God fearing man.

    Blyden Jenkins-Johnson acted for me in a case where I stood to lose thousands of pounds with an official who was very high in authority in Sierra Leone. The case was settled before going to Court but it would not have ended that way had it not been for him.

    We have lost a good man and there are not many of them left in Sierra Leone. I am saying this from bitter experience as I have another ongoing matter at the moment.

    Please extend my sincerest sympathy to his family and I hope he has gone to a better place. MAY GOD REST HIS SOUL.

    Yvonne Williams (London)

  2. This guy made me proud.

    Lets rewind a little bit. He led the Sierra Leone Bar Association’s two-day strike on November 14 1985, in protest against the use of the executive powers of President Siaka Stevens to remove Chief Justice Eben
    Livsey Luke who was 55 and swore in Justice Sheku Kutubu (53) in replacement.

    Challenging the president’s decision in a release, the Bar Association said, “it deprecates the manner in which his excellency the president has exercised his executive powers yet again under the provisions of section 115 of the constitution,”

    The release further stated that this section (115), ” is inimical to the concept of an independent judiciary” and called for a repeal of the relevant section of the constitution. The constitution has since been amended.

    I covered this story for the VOA and remember it well. I am fortunate to have known the fine Sierra Leonean that was JBJJ. The gates of heaven are wide open to receive him. He did what God planted him on this earth to do and he was damn good at it.

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