19 September, 2012
As a scholar of law and government, I am disturbed by President Koroma’s action to “subsidize the National Electoral Commission (NEC) nominations fees”. The President’s action is not good for our democracy. It undermines the sovereignty of parliament.
His decision is not about the furtherance of democracy, but the hindrance of democracy.
The President would say “it is expensive, but we can’t afford the alternative”. But what is this alternative that has not been tested or explained?
This decision will be seen as a political manoeuvre to justify the misuse of public funds.
The President may have a good intention, but his intention in this circumstance is not good for our democracy.
I do not pretend that we have reached the point at which this is irreversible. I am simply angry at the decision to use public funds to subsidize NEC nomination fees, at the expense of the poorest in Sierra Leone.
This has no merit as a way to promote peace and democracy; it has no merit morally; it has no merit legally; it has no merit economically; and frankly it is a horrible decision.
Money that will be used to subsidize the nomination fees could have otherwise been used to support the countless number of children perishing and sleeping in market stalls across the country, or otherwise use that money to create jobs for the 80% unemployed – including the under-employed youth.
I do not believe that public funds should be spent on politicians who have failed to perform their responsibility in Parliament.
The nonchalant attitude of MPs to debate the NEC nomination fees has no justification whatsoever and we must condemn it in the strongest possible terms. There can be no motivation for this action other than greed.
The delaying of legislative business in parliament appears to have become a political strategy, with political parties dodging informed and incisive debates on policy matters. This is simply unacceptable.
The government uses its majority as a rubber stamp. The opposition is ignored or suborned.
Complex Bills are poorly scrutinised as the Government is bound to get its way. And if the opposition attempts to block or amend legislation, which is its legitimate role, it is discredited and attacked.
In a democracy, Parliament is the forum for the Opposition to debate government policies, not a battle field.
Parliamentary sovereignty has been undermined, because MPs have chosen to ignore the interest of the voters and failed to do their job.
As a result of the President’s decision, Parliament has surrendered decision-making within the legislature to the executive – a very big blow to the principles of separation of powers.
This is irresponsible. It undermines democratic principles and the autonomy of NEC. MPs are expected to act as representatives of the people, they are the eyes and ears of their constituents; they should be able to debate and adopt legislation to benefit all.
If the President had wanted to help our almost bankrupt political parties, it should not have been done in a fashion that was politically motivated in order to score political points.
What we have now is a one-way advantage for politicians at the expense of poor people that will distort the electoral make-up. The President waited too long and too late to act – what an error.
The President has ignored, bypassed and disregarded Parliament.
The NEC’s proposed nomination fees are exorbitant. The President should have allowed Parliament to discuss the proposals and take a vote, irrespective of time constraint. This is the only way to restore the reputation of parliament.
Instead, the Government went on to agree to use public funds to cover those fees. The Government and the Opposition had failed to carry out due diligence on the NEC, and now the poor people have to pay a very high price from our almost broke national confers.
The argument about NEC’s budgetary constraint is preposterous. The NEC has a responsibility to use public funds wisely and prevent mismanagement.
If the NEC needs more money to conduct the elections, then it should ask the Government to increase its budget, and not to rely on nomination fees.
People should understand that the nomination fees have NOT been reduced. The NEC proposals still stand. It is the government that has agreed to pay the outstanding amount in order to top-up the fees as prescribed by NEC.
Having a President who commands the majority in parliament, he could have rallied his MPs and lobbied for the legislation to be reconsidered, fast-tracked or otherwise implored NEC to revoke the legislation and reduce the fees.
Unlike primary legislation, delegated legislation such as the nomination fees can be challenged in the courts by affected parties and they can even quash the legislation.
Why? This is because they are created by non-directly elected people (NEC) and so there should be limits on their powers.
Only Parliament could have remedied this lacuna in the law by enacting a new amendment of the Public Elections Act 2012.
The President is well placed to canvass MPs to act wisely and accordingly, in this case, it was insufficient.
The President determines what bill Parliament should consider. After all, he gives the final assent to a bill and had the right to query from the resulting legislation anything he deemed not to be in the public interest. This he did not do.
I can understand the exigency of time as the elections are just around the corner, but it is better to do the right thing now and save our democracy, than sweep sensitive issues like this under the carpet, just for the sake of moving forward.
In fact it would take less time and less hassle for NEC to go back to Parliament and revoke the nomination fees, and the election can still go on as planned and on time.
The President’s apparent contempt of our Parliament has swept away the rule of law.
NEC neglected its responsibility to consult with the affected parties, and presented the nomination fees to parliament as a decision to be rubber stamped. And now the Opposition has been relegated to poor beggars protesting for ‘chicken change’.
Democracy has been tested. The Opposition has tested President Koroma’s leadership abilities and now they know he can always backdown and make a u-turn, even with issues that ought to be addressed by parliament.
As long as political parties believe they can win elections by changing the ground rules, the battle over elections will continue.
And as long as the government is usurping the functions of Parliament for political purposes – as the President has most certainly done – civil society must aggressively pursue the Government and Opposition to do the right thing.
Democracy in Sierra Leone today is in deep trouble: weak, shallow, dangerous, and corrupted. It is now the best democracy that money can buy.
Is it too late for our parliamentary democracy? I think not. I hope not. But the danger is clear and present. An effective parliament enshrining the sovereignty of the people, remains the yardstick for any serious measure of democratic reform.
President Koroma’s government role in the NEC nomination fess, absolutely undermines the basis of our democracy.