The Sierra Leone Telegraph: 26 February 2014
No one has asked the people of Sierra Leone – the ordinary man and woman in the villages, towns and cities – 70% of whom cannot read or write – earning less than one dollar a day, what the Constitution of Sierra Leone means to them, and whether they would like to see it changed.
But, be that as it may, the government and sections of the international community believe that the country’s constitution must be reviewed, and to what end – 70% of the population are likely to be uncertain.
There is no argument against a review of the constitution. What is in question is the purpose of the review; the extent to which ordinary people understand what the constitution is; why it needs to be reviewed, and what they are being asked to do.
These questions are pertinent, because there are suspicions that president Koroma is hoping to use the constitutional review process, as a form of popular referendum that could usher in sweeping changes to the constitution, including extending the fixed two terms for a sitting president to three terms.
So where lies the truth?
The need for a constitution review originated from the report of the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), as well as Article 10 of the Lome Peace Act 1999 – as part of efforts to bring the war to an end.
Article 10 says that; “In order to ensure that the Constitution of Sierra Leone represents the needs and aspirations of the people of Sierra Leone and that no Constitutional or any Legal provision prevents the implementation of the present agreement, the Government of Sierra Leone shall take the necessary steps to establish Constitutional Review Committee to review provisions of the present Constitution and where deemed appropriate recommend revisions and amendments, in accordance with Part 5, Section 108 of the Constitution of 1991.”
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was established in 2002 to investigate the root causes of the ten year long brutal civil war, and make recommendations as to how best to build sustainable peace, promote justice, equity, democracy, and human rights.
Among the range of recommendations put forward by the TRC, the report urged the government of Sierra Leone to pay “serious consideration” to the creation of a “new constitution”, in furtherance of building lasting peace, promote justice, equity, democracy, and human rights.
But after ten years since the TRC and its recommendations, successive governments have felt quite comfortable with the 1991 Constitution, and have not necessarily seen the urge for change.
Ironically, four successful general, presidential and local elections have been held under the aegis of the 1991 Constitution, though with unpalatable consequences that seriously calls into question the tribal based multi-party democracy that operates in the country.
Will the constitution review be allowed to address this anomaly?
There are many in Sierra Leone who believe that if the present form of multi-party – first past the post democracy is not changed, it would be impossible to build sustainable peace and promote equitable development across the country.
So what is wrong with the 1991 Constitution?
There have been several comments and proposals for the reform of the 1991 constitution, published in the country’s media recently. But ask politicians in Freetown to tell you what is wrong with the 1991 constitution, and you are likely to get a wall of silence or incoherent mumbling.
And so too, it seems the majority of Sierra Leoneans, who quite simply are confused about the process, and more preoccupied with putting one square meal on the table, rather than concerning themselves with constitutional language they hardly understand.
But the international community – the underwriters of the country’s peace dividend, are refusing to let the need for a constitution review – as recommended by the TRC and Article 10 of the Lome Peace Accord, become another unkept promise by State House.
With a strong and coherent voice, led by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Office in Freetown, and supported by the United Nations Integrated Peacebuilding Office in Sierra Leone (UNIPSIL), the international community are ensuring that the review – one way or the other – is carried out.
The Sierra Leone Conference on Development and Transformation, staged by the government in 2011, also upheld the call for a constitution review.
And in July last year, president Koroma launched the Constitution Review Process, after the formation of a Committee made up of 80 representatives from civil society groups, political parties, the media, and other stakeholders.
The Committee is chaired by Justice Edmond Cowan – a retired supreme court judge and former speaker of parliament.
But how true is president Koroma to the review process?
Launching the review in 2013, president Koroma was clear about the task ahead for the committee in general and his credibility in particular – ensuring a successful review. He said:
“I took an oath, on becoming President, to uphold the constitution. Today, I once again recommit my government to honour, respect, and uphold the letter and spirit of the Constitution in Section 108 that provides for the alteration of this constitution.”
“This review shall be true to the processes prescribed in the constitution for its alteration. The committee will submit its recommendations to my government. Government will in turn look into the report, and submit it to parliament. If parliament approves, it will then be put into a referendum for the people to decide the fate of the proposed covenant,” said the president, last July.
Commenting on the make-up of the committee, Koroma said: “This is a committee constituted from people of every region, political affiliation and socio-economic group to perform a sacred task. We trust that this committee will not seek to impose its opinion on the people.”
“We expect this Constitutional Review Committee to host public consultations in ways that allow every citizen to make a contribution. These consultations must not be centred within one specific area or region, but should span the length and breadth of Sierra Leone.”
“The Committee should also take advantage of other technological developments and receive submissions electronically to encourage the widest possible public participation.”
“We also urge all Sierra Leoneans, from every region, every district, ethnic group, and political and religious affiliation to support the process, fully participate in it, and take ownership of the review. This is the best way to make the resulting document a true covenant among all of us to honour our common aspirations. Good constitutions are not imposed.”
President Koroma called upon the committee to pay close attention to those sections and provisions of the 1991 Constitution that appear to be constitutional ambiguities, ensure greater clarity of “our statutes; and rationalize our governance processes.”
And the UN is pinning its hopes on president Koroma delivering a honest and transparent review that is devoid of partisan political agenda.
“The United Nations welcomes the political commitment and leadership demonstrated by the Government of Sierra Leone, in particular His Excellency the President, to an inclusive and transparent constitutional review process”, said Toyberg-Frandzen – head of UNIPSIL at the launching ceremony. “We are pleased that the review process, from its very start, is led and owned by the Government and people and national institutions of Sierra Leone.”
Analysts say that with a cost of more than $4 million to deliver – this constitution review does not come cheap. The process is entirely funded by the Department for International Development (DFID) and the European Union (EU).
But since launching the review seven months ago, there have been concerns that the process lacks a bottom-up approach, and that it had only succeeded in engaging with the country’s political class and elites, rather than the masses.
Critics say that the review process has lost its traction. The voices of the majority of the people of Sierra Leone have been excluded from the process.
Speaking at a technical workshop organized for members of the Constitutional Review Committee (CRC) two weeks ago in Freetown, UNDP Country Director – Sudipto Mukerjee, told the committee that; “The constitutional review process must be owned by the people of Sierra Leone.”
He said that the new constitution must “promote social justice, consolidate peace and prevent the repetition of violent conflict that Sierra Leone has witnessed in its recent past.”
But the UNDP’s constitutional review chief technical adviser – Sanaullah Baloch is fully aware of the risk of the process becoming a parochial political exercise. He warned the committee that “the constitution cannot be legitimate if the process is not people-driven.”
It is expected that the revised constitution will be adopted by a national referendum, following the review process.
Responding to the concerns of the UNDP, Justice Edmund Cowan – the committee chairman, assured the international community and the people of Sierra Leone, that the committee will ensure that “the people own the process.”
But there are serious challenges ahead. “There is a strong need for a strategic plan for the whole process, followed by various work plans and operational plans,” says Justice Cowan.
This technical workshop was organised by the UNDP, following a consultative meeting held in Kenema at the end of January, 2014, involving over one hundred paramount chiefs.
The Kenema meeting was attended by government ministers, local government and parliamentarians, and members of the Constitution Review Committee.
Justice Cowan told the paramount chiefs that; “The constitution is the highest legal document of our country.” He said that; “To make it credible and to include rural areas, paramount chiefs have to empower their people, make them understand and enable them to participate in the review process.”
But should anyone be unclear about the focus and direction of the constitution review process, the head of UNIPSIL reiterated the UN’s position:
“The constitutional review process is a unique opportunity for voices to be heard and to consolidate and safeguard Sierra Leone’s hard-won gains over the years in an inclusive way,” says Jens Anders Toyberg-Frandzen – head of UNIPSIL.
Sierra Leone’s constitution dictates how the country is governed. It defines the relationship between the state and society; and makes explicit the rights and duties of citizens. It also defines and confers citizenship.
In essence, the constitution should provide the basis and framework through which, society should function in harmony – politically, socially and economically, assuming that the rule of law prevails; and that those in power respects the constitution, and enforce the laws fairly and equitably.
But since attaining independence in 1961, Sierra Leoneans have invariably struggled to assert their basic constitutional rights:
– Freedom of association, which is very often curtailed by political intimidation and violence;
– Freedom of speech, stifled by the arrest and harassment of journalists; the deadly use of police brutality on citizens;
– The right to good standard of education – with current literacy rate of less than 40%;
– The right to decent living conditions – safe, clean drinking water, good sanitation, and electricity;
– The right to earn a decent living – average income per person is below one dollar;
– The right to economic opportunities – unemployment is over 70%;
– The right to reasonable housing – 80% of the population currently living in overcrowded conditions;
– The right to good health – average adult mortality is less than 46 years.
There is a strong argument that the current system of democracy and governance from the centre, has woefully failed the people of Sierra Leone.
This constitution review must therefore focus on a new direction – DEVOLUTION OF POWER to the regions.
What is needed is a national referendum, based on two simple questions, put to all the citizens of Sierra Leone for a new constitution:
1. Are you happy with the way you are being governed from the centre at State House and parliament?
2. Would you like power to be transferred to local people – through devolved regional development authorities, so that they can make life changing decisions about local economic development, social welfare, health, education, housing, water, electricity, sanitation, and other policy issues?