Sierra Leone Telegraph: 4 March 2016
I had been a critic of a lengthy constitutional review process by this government, especially considering the fact that, the revered Dr. Peter Tucker had almost completed the job at the tail end of the tenure of the last government.
My initial suspicion was that the government may want to insert issues that will be mainly to its advantage that may not bode well for this country.
The appointment of Justice Cowan to head the Constitution Review Committee (CRC), initially drew criticism as he was also doubling up as Ombudsman.
How wrong I was. The CRC under Justice Cowan has proved to be extremely participatory and has gone to great lengths to apprise itself of best practices elsewhere in Africa, and included germane issues in the Draft document that it has drawn up.
Communication with the public has also been very good, with Justice Cowan himself augmenting his Communications crew to discuss thorny issues in a frank way.
The composition of the eighty man CRC is all embracing, covering political parties, civil society organisations, community groups, etc.
It has been apparent more recently that, the CRC seems to be aware of problems thwarting our governance systems that are either fresh in our minds or been the source of so much rancour in the past.
My personal admiration of the CRC’s work was bolstered when I was part of a group that discussed with them more recently, on land, natural resources and the environment.
They had incorporated some good ideas that will bode well for this country.
Justice Cowan himself has been bold to air views on difficult issues like citizenship and land tenure in a dispassionate way.
As we can see from the draft report, new chapters have been created on natural resources, citizenship, the media, etc – issues which were previously subsumed under some bland statements in the 1991 constitution.
It would seem however that certain parties are unhappy about this turn of events, perhaps expecting Justice Cowan should have been a mere poodle in the hands of politically motivated people with narrow parochial interests.
Awareness Times described one such critic thus in glowing terms: “The Deputy National Publicity Secretary of the ruling All Peoples Congress party, Mr. Cornelius Babaogun Deveaux is regularly described as very eloquent and well grounded in debating legal and constitutional matters.”
But what is the gripe of this “well grounded legal and constitutional expert” against the Draft document?
Here are his views: “The CRC is proposing that: Local Council Elections should be non-partisan and that Loss of party membership shall not nullify from Office a sitting President or Vice president.”
He goes further to make his case: “The proposal, if accepted, will not only be in contradiction with another section of the very constitution in the making, but will also exclude political parties from participating in the activities, conduct and composition of an important tier of governance. Therefore there is no need for such a proposal as the current situation makes it possible for both partisan and non partisan contest.”
On the issue of removal of President and Vice President, he says: “It is therefore illogical and a speck of political mischief for the CRC to propose the input of a new provision in Section 54 that will say:
“Loss of party membership shall not nullify from Office a sitting President or Vice president”. Such a new provision will undermine the unity, sense of purpose and cohesiveness of political parties………..The proposal…..should read: “Loss of party membership shall nullify from Office a sitting President or Vice president”. This will protect political parties from being used by unscrupulous persons as springboard to power, fame and glory. It will……make the president / vice president principally accountable to the members of the party on whose Manifesto and Ticket he/she was nominated and elected to become President.”
Whatever my misgivings, his writing under the pen name Baba Ogun is civilised. Not so for Abdul Malik Bangura who makes vitriolic ad hominem attacks on Justice Cowan. Under the heading “Justice Cowan: Did President Koroma make a Mistake with an Octogenarian?”, he insinuates Justice Cowan’s age has in effect made him cuckoo.
He says of Justice Cowan, questioning the motive for his appointment and his fitness for such a job: “Who advised President Koroma to make such an appointment? Was it the former Attorney General Frank Kargbo? Or did the President act on his own deliberate judgment? Whatever the case, it is a fact that the brain cells inside the head of an 80 years old man is not up to par.”
He goes onto insinuate an “unfit and pliable” Cowan would is being manipulated: “This is just natural. An 80 years old man is pliable to being misled and the process hijacked by unscrupulous members of his staff and team.”
But why such venom? His later statements perhaps shed light on this. “Last week Friday, the BBC Media Action programme had Justice Cowan sit on an ill-publicised Panel at the YWCA at which the likes of well known Opposition SLPP sympathetic activists were reported to have shared the Panel with him, under the guise of being the voice of ‘civil society’ that were helping to validate the views of the ‘majority public’, insofar as recommendations to do with the Presidency, Parliament and Elections.”
The accusation of SLPP’s role gets clearer when he says: “My question and that of a growing number of concerned citizens, is: which “people” are these whose aspirations are represented in that piece? The mere “37%” but loudly vocal people in the Opposition or the majority people of Sierra Leone?”
He continues with his vitriol against Justice Cowan: “The Committee might have been already hijacked from the hands of an 80 year old chairman who is too tired to really exert as much needed brain power attention as possible into such a sacred assignment.”
He ropes in some more members of the committee as being complicit in Justice Cowan’s “devious scheme”: “It is time for the elderly, old man called Justice Cowan to resign as Chairman of our sacred C.R.C. The process is being hijacked by elements who have compromised the credibility of the process.
“Every day a new suspicion emerges… In my view, Justice Cowan’s continued presence at the helm of the C.R.C is a recipe for instability in this country…..President Koroma should immediately review the entire CRC Composition and CRC Process including the impartiality and credibility of Mr. Saa Kpulun, the current Executive Secretary of the CRC and Mr. Sannaulah Baloch, the Chief Technical Officer.”
I however, agree with Abdul Malik Bangura when he says: “A post-conflict land like Sierra Leone is threatened with instability, if its various state institutions are not handled in the proper manner. Notably, the Constitutional Review Committee was charged with responsibility to make impartial recommendations on issues affecting our well being.”
He is however fingering the wrong person, and perhaps it is he and his cohorts that are fuelling the instability.
It would seem the CRC is not oblivious of some of the problems we are having with our governance system and unwittingly these are the two for which Justice Cowan seems to be under attack.
There are indeed many people in this country who are troubled by the following scenario I outlined in this column after the Sam Sumana verdict: “I am troubled by a few possible scenarios that could arise in the future with such a verdict and cite some:
1. A party decides it wants a particular candidate as Vice President because of the votes he can garner in swing districts. Immediately after the elections, the President decides he would prefer someone else and convinces the party through their own internal mechanisms to expel him from the party. In essence the Vice President will be automatically ineligible and he will be replaced. This seems a neat, though sinister way to remove Vice Presidents from Office;
2. A President wins a general election and starts making decisions much against his party’s wishes. As an example he appoints an inordinate number of non-party members as board members and ministers, embarks on the elimination of patronage in jobs and practises real meritocracy. The party officials get livid and engender his successful removal from the party by spurious means. In essence the President no longer is eligible to stay as President because he does not belong to a party.”
This in essence is what these critics of the CRC are calling for. On the issue of the suggestion made in the CRC’s draft report for Local government elections to be non partisan, one only has to go back to recent problems with the uneven treatment of Councils and Mayors to be aware that, indeed this can be used for partisan purposes.
The recent suspension of Emerson Sahr Lamina in Kono, the problems encountered by the Kenema Mayor, the holding back of funds to “non pliant” councils all point to the fact that Councils can be used for political purposes.
The setting up of Local councils and the whole decentralisation process was based on taking economic power back to the people.
We all know this has not been the case, and quite apart from governments paying lip service to decentralisation and devolution of functions, they have actually used their powers to punish what they consider as “errant councils” who are not in line with their political agenda.
All of these issues are not lost on numerous stakeholders who have made over 100 submissions to the CRC and the great majority of the 80 man CRC.
Why should Justice Cowan be unnecessarily pilloried for merely agreeing to listen to the voices of people and borrowing from best practices for us to have a good constitution?
But who is behind all of this and where is the mischief? Although Deveuax and Bangura claim not to speak on behalf of the APC, the recent submission by the APC seems eerily similar to some of their views. I summarised the APC position in an earlier piece, thus:
“The APC would like Presidents who have reached their term limit to be eligible to stand for presidential elections after an intervening term. Not surprisingly, the party supports the removal of a Vice President by the President when “he comes to the conclusion that the Vice President lacks the requisite loyalty, capacity etc. to continue to serve as his/her principal assistant.”
Also the APC wants a President or Vice President to lose his/her office when they are no longer members of the party under whose ticket they become President or Vice President. On the issue of the President being eligible to stand after an intervening period, several observers have likened this in unflattering terms to the Putin situation in Russia. ”
I am however heartened by CRC’s resolve to be impartial and listen to the voices of the people. As for the ad hominem attacks, the Justice Cowan I know and whose experience and reasoning power are stellar will just shrug it off.
The real fear with this whole constitutional change is what I quoted one sceptic as saying: “How much “whitening” of the recommendations will take place in the White Paper; and how much tinkering will go on in Parliament?”
The intolerance of other people’s views that has crept into our body politic is worrisome. My advice for now is – don’t shoot the messenger.
Ponder my thoughts.