Big constitutional changes announced by President Bio about the way Sierra Leone is governed

Sierra Leone Telegraph: 15 January 2022:

President Dr Julius Maada Bio on Thursday, 13 January 2022, launched the government’s long-awaited White Paper on the review of the 1991 Constitution of Sierra Leone, which could herald welcoming siesmic changes to the way the country is government.

Speaking at the event, the President said: “Today’s launch is a fulfilment of the pledge made by Sierra Leone during the Universal Periodic Review on Human Rights in May 2021 that it will finalise the Constitutional Review Process. The UN system here in Sierra Leone, in collaboration with other development partners, stands ready to support with requisite capacities, ensuring that the process is broadly consultative and fruitful, while leaving no one behind.”

These are some of the key highlights of the government’s response to the constitution review report announced on Thursday by President Bio, which could change the way Sierra Leone is being government:

“On elections, Government accepts the recommendation for fixed and predictable dates for elections and inaugurations. Further, a fifty percent plus one threshold is proposed in view of the circumstances, insecurity, and expenses associated with run-offs.

“Loss of party membership shall no longer be sufficient and sole cause for removal of a President or Vice President from Office. A two-thirds parliamentary majority will be needed to ratify any resignation or expulsion notice from a political party. Impeachment processes will also be clearly defined.

“Government accepts the recommendation to decouple the Office of Attorney General from that of the Minister of Justice. The Attorney General will now be the principal adviser to the Government and not a cabinet minister while a Minister of Justice will continue to sit in cabinet. Questions around age limits are also addressed for judicial and electoral commission appointees accordingly.

“Government accepts a renaming of the PPRC to The Political Parties Registration and Regulatory Commission in view of its existing mandate.

“Most importantly, my Government has argued for and worked towards achieving increased participation and representation of women in our democracy. In that regard, my Government accepts the increased mandatory minimum representation of women in parliament.

“Further, my Government accepts that members of parliament shall be elected in accordance with a system of proportional representation. This, in Government’s view, will spare the nation the acrimony, costs, and insecurity associated with bye-elections.

“Also, the period for public officers and members of the armed forces who wish to vie for parliamentary seats to resign from public service shall now be reduced from twelve months to six months.

“Government also accepts the recommendation that a speaker shall be persons who are either members of parliament or are qualified to be elected as such and qualified to be appointed as judges of the Superior Court of Judicature.

“My Government also accepts that Parliamentary Committees will now additionally have powers to investigate and enquire into the activities or administration of agencies of Government.

“There are changes also in the judiciary. Government accepts that the Chief Justice shall by Statutory Instrument create such Divisions of the Court of Appeal as she/he may consider necessary. Within the Judiciary, Government also accepts the recommendation specifying age requirements and the composition of the Supreme Court, Court of Appeal, and the High Court.

“Government accepts the expansion of the Judicial and Legal Services Commission and also accepts the change in reference to courts as ”inferior” and “traditional” to “subordinate” and “local” respectively, among other changes.

“There are arguments for the inclusion of new chapters, local government and decentralisation, national security, the public service, and citizenship.

“Overall, these are indeed the most extensive and thoroughgoing constitutional reforms we will undertake since we adopted the 1991 Constitution. We will now undertake public education on all recommendations so there is clear understanding and buy-in by all citizens.”

Speaker of Parliament, Dr Abass Chernor Bundu, said the country has been a constitutional democracy since gaining independence from Britain, adding that the promotion and maintenance of peace, security, order and good governance is the prime duty of the organs of state, including parliament, which he said has the sole mandate to make laws.

Dr Bundu further noted that many attempts by past governments to amend the 1991 Constitution had failed, adding that it behoves every Sierra Leonean to maintain unflinching fidelity to the 1991 Constitution until such a time when the country would get a new one.

Sierra Leone’s Chief Justice Desmond Babatunde Edwards welcomed the launch of the Government’s White Paper. (Photo: Chief Justice Edwards on the left, alongside Speaker of Parliament Abass Bundu).

“The Judiciary welcomes the process not just because there are provisions which would benefit the Judiciary and make it more effective, but also most welcoming is the fact that the process constitutes Legal Reform of the highest order,” the Chief Justice said.

He noted that, “as a Judiciary, our duty will be as has always been; firstly, to Interpret the Constitution. In Interpreting the Constitution, we employ and engage the Statutory/ Constitutional Rules of Interpretation.”

Justice Edwards added that the prerogative to use any of the Rules distinctively remain the Judiciary’s and that it is only time and circumstances that would tell which Rule “we adopt at any given time.”

In his historical analyses of the review process, the Chief Justice noted that the process, since its inception by the setting up of the Dr. Peter Tucker Constitutional Review Commission has undergone a chequered history.

He noted that the recommendations from both the Ernest Bai Koroma Administration in its unpublished White Paper as well as the Justice Cowan Constitutional Review Committee, were both “pertinently considered” by the Technical Committee set up by President Julius Maada Bio.

“Rest assured that whatever we do would be in tandem with the principles of Freedom, Democracy and Justice” he assured Sierra Leoneans.

“Whilst our main Vision has been to make Justice accessible, fair and expeditious for all Sierra Leoneans, no doubt our Mission which tells of what we do, remains to be to uphold the Constitution of Sierra Leone and the Rule of Law, adjudicate on all matters, Criminal and Civil in order to promote national Peace, Security and Development,” he stated.

Attorney General and Minister of Justice, Anthony Brewah said that the Constitutional Review Process is in compliance with one of the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report and Article 1 of the Lomé Peace Accord.

The event, held at State House, was attended by the diplomatic community, committee members of the constitution review process, representatives of political parties, parliamentarians, women organisations, nongovernmental organisations, civil society groups and school pupils.

This is President Bio’s full speech delivered at the event:

The Honourable Vice President, The Honourable Speaker of Parliament, My Lord, the Chief Justice, Superior Court of Judicature, Ministers of Government, Honourable Members of Parliament, Members of the Diplomatic and Consular Corps, Fellow citizens, Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen, Good morning.

When I promised a new direction for our nation, I did so after much thought and reflection on how we could get it right again as a nation. The anger and brutality of the ten-year civil war and the copious Truth and Reconciliation Report of 2003 were inflection points for our nation. We tasted the bitterness of war; we had not seemed to learn the lessons.

Rather than shy away from the hard-hitting recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as my predecessor did, I have actively implemented them because I believe that those governance reforms are in the best interests of this nation.

So, in just the last one year and some months, I have worked with Parliament, the Judiciary, development partners, and civil society organisations to implement over half of dozen of the key governance and legislative imperatives outlined in the Truth and Reconciliation Report:

A. My Government has repealed Part V of the Public Order Act; there is no journalist in prison for the practice of journalism; the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists and international media and free speech organisations have been consistent that free speech and the practice of journalism are indeed unfettered.

B. My Government has established the Independent Commission for Peace and National Cohesion to identify and resolve potential triggers of conflict in our nation. According to the Global Peace Index, we are the fourth most peaceful country in Africa. To further cement our credentials as a tolerant nation, Sierra Leone will soon be the latest member of the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance – a global alliance that “promotes universal respect for freedom of religion or belief.”

C. My Government has permanently abolished the brutal and inhumane death penalty for all crimes. Never again; never again will we execute our own brothers and sisters in this nation.

D. We have deepened and speeded up the process of decentralisation.

E. We have decongested prisons, improved prison conditions, and significantly expanded access to justice. We will continue doing more.

F. We have established a standalone Ministry of Gender and Children’s Affairs and introduced policies and laws to protect and promote the rights of children and women. A Gender empowerment and equality law has been laid in parliament and we are reviewing the child rights Act.

G. Social safety, persons with disability, mental health care, improving healthcare, and free quality education for our children have all been at the centre of our agenda to invest in an inclusive and sustainable future for this nation.

Add this to our sustained and much-lauded fight against corruption, our institutional and governance reforms, and our overall commitment and success in ruling justly and investing in people.

Today, we will address gaps, discrepancies, and inconsistencies in our 1991 Constitution that the TRC report identifies as triggers of conflict and bad governance. Especially in the decade preceding 2018, we witnessed unconstitutional intrusions on matters of the rule of law and on the protection and promotion of rights and liberties guaranteed in our constitution. Executive privilege and powers were loosely defined and used. Inclusion and equality were not guaranteed in law not to mention in practice.

There were significant gaps in access to the essential elements of a thriving democracy – access to fundamental rights, protections, justice, resources, and opportunities. Matters of citizenship were not clearly defined and were the basis for exclusion and discrimination.

In the New Direction Manifesto, we bemoaned the “countless breaches, infractions, and abuses [of our national constitution] by President Koroma and his All People’s Congress” including the sacking of an elected Vice-President of our nation.

We promised to remedy the “weaknesses, shortcomings and other lacunae that manifest themselves in the course of application of the terms of the Constitution [. . .], by way of specific amendments of its relevant parts, in order to give efficacy to the promotion and protection of good governance and respect for the Rule of Law at all times.”

I have always signalled that only bold and audacious decisions can transform our nation. I have always argued that recognising and embracing the inevitability of progressive change is critical for consolidating and enriching our democracy.

We promised. We worked diligently. Today, we have delivered. Where the former APC Government shilly-shallied, we acted decisively because a review and amendment of our 1991 constitution, though long overdue, is urgently needed and is in the very best interest of the people of Sierra Leone.

So, today, we go full circle from the setting up of a Constitutional Review Committee (CRC) by my predecessor, Dr. Ahmed Tejan Kabbah.

With great reverence we remember the outstanding leadership of the late Justice Edmond Cowan and the 80 other citizens who worked in a CRC reconstituted by President Ernest Bai Koroma.

I also thank the technical committee that examined the recommendations of the Constitutional Review Commission and the accompanying White Paper with a view to giving effect to them as much as practicable. Your work is done today but you give Sierra Leoneans a bigger task – to understand, speak to one another with honesty about why these reforms matter, and work together to make this nation even better. As I have always said, the ties that bind us together as a nation have and will always be stronger than the fear-mongering and selfish interests of bad politicians that blind us.

The bad faith attempt in 2017 to push through a restricted number of recommendations was not only not in compliance with the constitutional procedure but also violated ECOWAS protocol.

Our approach is different. We will take practical steps to implement the non entrenched ones immediately. The entrenched provisions will be addressed within an exclusive and uncluttered timeline – and in all likelihood, after extensive consultations, engagements, and public education on those provisions. No entrenched provisions will be rushed through a referendum ahead of the forthcoming general and presidential elections.

The full White Paper as accepted is rational and more extensive than the 2017 white paper. For instance, it includes human dignity and equality among fundamental principles of state policy, new sections for gender inclusivity, agrees with change in nomenclature of groups of persons in line with international best practices, and places the burden on the state to prohibit discrimination while promoting national integration and unity.

It affirms the state’s commitment to providing free quality and compulsory education at primary and secondary school levels and includes civic education and entrepreneurship among the state’s educational objectives.

Government will promote national culture and especially national fashion and citizens will have a duty to respect the National Currency and National Pledge.

In other instances, sections of the constitution will be renamed. For instance, the recommendation to rename Chapter III of the 1991 Constitution to read “The Recognition, Protection, and Promotion of Human Rights and Freedoms of the Individual” in line with its international obligations in safeguarding and promoting human rights of its citizenry, is accepted.

There are recommendations for a reduced detention period prior to being brought to court. Unlawfully arrested or detained persons shall be entitled to compensation and/or public apology. Government also accepts recommendations to protect fundamental rights subject to national security interests. Those rights shall not be derogated from during a State of Emergency.

Government also accepts that a completely new chapter should be dedicated to clearly defining citizenship and addressing all questions of discrimination and exclusion once and for all.

On elections, Government accepts the recommendation for fixed and predictable dates for elections and inaugurations. Further, a fifty percent plus one threshold is proposed in view of the circumstances, insecurity, and expenses associated with run-offs.

Loss of party membership shall no longer be sufficient and sole cause for removal of a President or Vice President from Office. A two-thirds parliamentary majority will be needed to ratify any resignation or expulsion notice from a political party. Impeachment processes will also be clearly defined.

Government accepts the recommendation to decouple the Office of Attorney General from that of the Minister of Justice. The Attorney General will now be the principal adviser to the Government and not a cabinet minister while a Minister of Justice will continue to sit in cabinet. Questions around age limits are also addressed for judicial and electoral commission appointees accordingly.

Government accepts a renaming of the PPRC to The Political Parties Registration and Regulatory Commission in view of its existing mandate.

Most importantly, my Government has argued for and worked towards achieving increased participation and representation of women in our democracy. In that regard, my Government accepts the increased mandatory minimum representation of women in parliament.

Further, my Government accepts that members of parliament shall be elected in accordance with a system of proportional representation. This, in Government’s view, will spare the nation the acrimony, costs, and insecurity associated with bye-elections.

Also, the period for public officers and members of the armed forces who wish to vie for parliamentary seats to resign from public service shall now be reduced from twelve months to six months.

Government also accepts the recommendation that a speaker shall be persons who are either members of parliament or are qualified to be elected as such and qualified to be appointed as judges of the Superior Court of Judicature.

My Government also accepts that Parliamentary Committees will now additionally have powers to investigate and enquire into the activities or administration of agencies of Government.

There are changes also in the judiciary. Government accepts that the Chief Justice shall by Statutory Instrument create such Divisions of the Court of Appeal as she/he may consider necessary. Within the Judiciary, Government also accepts the recommendation specifying age requirements and the composition of the Supreme Court, Court of Appeal, and the High Court.

Government accepts the expansion of the Judicial and Legal Services Commission and also accepts the change in reference to courts as ”inferior” and “traditional” to “subordinate” and “local” respectively, among other changes.

There are arguments for the inclusion of new chapters, local government and decentralisation, national security, the public service, and citizenship.

Overall, these are indeed the most extensive and thoroughgoing constitutional reforms we will undertake since we adopted the 1991 Constitution. We will now undertake public education on all recommendations so there is clear understanding and buy-in by all citizens.

Let me close by thanking the technical committee, stakeholders, citizens, development partners, and everyone who has contributed to making history today. Thank you and may God bless Sierra Leone.” (END).

YOU CAN READ THE REPORT OF THE GOVERNMENT’S REVIEW HERE:

REPORT ON THE REVIEW OF THE 2017 GOVERNMENT WHITE PAPER ON THE CONSTITUTION OF SIERRA LEONE 1991

4 Comments

  1. A constitution, however well written, is only as good as the respect it gets from those it affects. Such respect forms the background to adherence from the highest office in the land (the presidency) to all the way down to goodness knows where. Inherent in this is an utter, unquestionable respect for the Rule of Law, there should be no shifting lines between the three branches of government – Legislature, Executive and Judiciary to the extent that they become blurred.

    These blurred lines are what Siaka Stevens, Earnest Koroma and Maada Bio have exploited in our dear country to lock up opponents indefinitely (in the case of Bio) and illegally sack public figures (in the case Earnest). Kamarainba Mansaray is still languishing in prison after having been granted bail by a judge because Bio says so.

    Casting aside the foregoing, Bio has had us recolonised all over again. Abraham Amadu Jalloh alluded to this in his submission. It’s what the so-called international community tell Bio to do that he does. In fact these are imperialists in disguise. Their aim is to lose us our identity. In his very opening sentences in accepting the new constitution Bio extolled the role the international community is ready to play in ensuring that the constitution is adhered to. Implicitly, this means that as a people we lack the ability to come together to independently craft a constitution. Bio is the number one sycophant in our country vis-a- vis the international community. When they say ban Bondo , he bans it. When they say ban the death penalty, he bans it, and the list goes on. Soon enough they will tell him to legalise same sex marriage and he will do it because it’s been accepted in the Western world.

    Why is proportional voting confined only to parliamentarians – what about the presidency? Why do we have to be told that it makes sense for specific dates to be set for presidential and local elections. What’s all this nonsense about inauguration rather than a simple swearing-in ceremony for the president for such a poor country? I hope a future President Yomkella will get rid of all the costly ceremonies associated with the presidency.

  2. When it comes to wooing international support, Bio is never short of ideas. Aparantly this constitutional overhaul is long overdue. This proposals tick all the right boxes that the United Nations is keen to promote in our country. This proposals is like a bait in a fishing rod trying to make more money from our international donor partners. The 1991 Sierra Leone constitution have been trampled upon by Bio, like a bull in a China Market, it has literally been shredded to pieces, now Bio wants to conjure an other one to keep him in power. The judiciary that is responsible for interpreting and protecting our constitution has been acting like a wrecking ball, in its failure to check the abuse of power by Bio the head of the executive branch. Where is the check and balances.?

    The president talk of the removal of the vice president, or a parliamentary requirement of two third majority of Parliament, when was the last time an impeachment process is followed through the letter of the law? When Vice president Chief Sam Samuna was dismissed by former president Bia Koroma, our justice system in the country failed him. Vice president Francis Minah, was also failed by our justice system. S I Koroma was forced to nominate Momoh as the only presidential candidate to succeed Pa Saki.

    The truth of the matter is, even if we have the Ten Commandments, as the guiding principle under which we govern out country, the president remains the most powerful person in the country. Every institution of state bend to his will. Giving women more political rights as promised by Bio is an other of those” ME TOO “political gerrymandering to satisfy our international partners. If he is serious about women representation, they should be accorded %50 percent of parliamentary seats. Don’t judge Bio by his words but his actions. If he is really the president that is interested in women participation in our political dispensation, why does he keeps harassing Dr Blyden, Mayor Akin Sawyer, and his latest victim our fomer auditor General Ms lara Taylor. Abolition of first past the post voting system and adopting proportional representation will help smaller parties have greater say and representation in our Parliament where the two major parties have been the dominant forces. More like we are ditching the Westminster style of voting and adopting the German way of electing their leaders. But when it comes to Bio is all talk no action.

  3. Its funny that this man that has no idea about running a small shop is the person that is our Country’s President – What a shame…This man is not fit to be in that office.

  4. As the saying goes, the road to heaven is paved with good, not to say golden, intentions. So seems to be the roadmap of wholesale constitutional overhaul being proposed by our dear leader. The trouble though is this: walking the talking – actualising the golden intentions paving President Bio’s way to constitutional nirvana. For instance, to what extent will those appointed to work out and make the ‘thoroughgoing’ constitutional Innovations be independent of our all too powerful executive arm of government, which to put it mildly, has proved to be time after time a law unto itself? In other words, despite his mellifluous rhetoric on the need for a constitution that every Sierra Leone will buy into, will the advantage of incumbency that Bio and his PAOPA Administration currently enjoy not come into play when the final recommendations are being drawn up, debated and implemented?

    Will self-seeking party political bickering be put on hold to allow rational, strictly nation-serving discussions to take place, giving Parliament and the Judiciary, not State House, the final, exclusive say in shaping the nature and function of the constitutional revamp envisioned? And what real, tangible and palpable input, if any, will ordinary citizens have in the making of the new constitution?

    These, among many others, are the burning issues that President Bio glosses over in his overly optimistic and self-serving speech. And considering the dictatorial tendencies and actions that he and his PAOPA Administration have displayed since holding the reins of power (the ongoing arbitrary suspension of the Auditor General and her Deputy being a case in point), neutral observers of our country’s political scene cannot be expected to take the President’s pronouncements at face value. Rather, they will withhold their judgement until they see in practice how honest and determined Bio and his Administration truly are in walking the high road of radical constitutional change talk. Particularly so when the President’s summary dismissal of the previous government’s white paper on constitutional modification already shows his true direction of travel: constitutional innovation framed from a decidedly partisan perspective and characterised in consequence by partisan mudslinging. Mr President, put our nation first and party politics last. PLEASE.

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