Former minister – Abdulai Conteh – says NO to Constitutional faux pas

The Sierra Leone Telegraph – 23 November 2013

president koroma - military commanderPresident Koroma has been accused of making several policy blunders since coming to office in 2007 – though not surprisingly, but his decision to ‘dumb-down’ the qualifications for Speaker of the country’s parliament, goes beyond the pale of political ignorance.

Some would argue that his decision to subvert the due process, enshrined in the terms of reference issued by himself to the country’s Constitutional Review Commission, raise several questions.

Why appoint and mandate a constitutional review commission to consult with the people of Sierra Leone, and then usurp their powers by imposing a change in the constitution before the commission completes its task?

Why is the president in such a hurry to get his majority controlled parliament to remove that all important qualification for a Speaker of parliament, only to create a problem of having a semi-illiterate and inexperienced individual occupying such an important office?

Why is president Koroma in the habit of appointing and mandating public enquiry commissions, then either make them redundant halfway through their task, or fail to implement their recommendations?

Is the president above the law, or is he simply unconcerned about his constitutional negligence? Is he not heeding the advice of his Attorney-General, or is the Attorney-General himself guilty of constitutional negligence?

Such flagrant abuse of presidential powers is now further compounding suspicions, that president Koroma is preparing the way for the declaration of a one-party state, as well as his continuation in office beyond the mandated two terms.

As Dr. Abdulai Conteh – a former foreign minister of Sierra Leone and an eminent constitutional lawyer argues, there has only been one such occasion when the person appointed to the office of Speaker of parliament was without judicial qualifications.

Yes, you guess it right; and that was under a one-party state governed by the ruling APC party, headed by the dictator – President Siaka Stevens, until the start of the civil war in 1992.

Whilst president Koroma has made no secret of his affinity with the policies, values and principles of the former dictator, his decision to usurp the powers of the country’s constitutional review commission that he himself established, has raised more than a few eyebrows:

Dr Abdulai conteh2This is what Dr. Abdulai Conteh says:

Re: The Speaker of Parliament

It is with consternation that I read the recent Constitutional amendment passed by Parliament concerning the qualification for election to the Speakership of Parliament.

With all the goodwill, respect and esteem I hold for Parliament, this amendment is unnecessary, uncalled for and a recipe for a constitutional debacle ahead in our country’s efforts to achieve a stable and fairer political process in its governance.

If it was the intention to elect in the future someone who does not need to have the qualifications to be appointed a judge of the Superior Court of Judicature, there is provision already in the extant section 79(1) of the 1991 Constitution, provided the person is a Member of Parliament.

This is the meaning and effect of the opening sentence or clause of section 79(1) which in plain English states:

“The Speaker of Parliament shall be elected by the Members of Parliament from among persons who are Members of Parliament…”

It is the other half of section 79 (1) that is I believe, misunderstood. This simply goes on to state, after the first sentence or clause of the same section (which clearly provides for the election of the Speaker from among Members of Parliament, that:

Sierra-Leone-Parliament“The Speaker of Parliament shall be elected from persons “…or who are qualified to be elected as such and who are qualified to be appointed Judges of the Superior Court of Judicature or have held such office.”

No need to mention the provis to section 79(1), which deals with the situation if a member of the public service, including a judge, is elected as Speaker. Such person will have to resign from the public service on the day she or he is elected.

The country has had since just before independence to the present, ten eminent Sierra Leoneans who served as Speaker of Parliament.

The late Sir Henry Light—Foot Boston, who served from 1957 to 1962, when he was translated to the office of Governor-General. He was succeeded as Speaker by the late Sir BanjaTejan-Sie, who was Speaker from 1962 to 1967. He in turn was succeeded by the late Sir Emile Fashole-Luke in1968.

Sir Emile was succeeded by the late Justice Percy Davies in1973; he in turn was succeeded by the late Justice Singer-Betts in 1977, who on retirement was succeeded by the late William N.S. Conteh who served until 1992 with the military coup d’etat of that year.

After the restoration of constitutional civilian government in 1996, the late Justice Mohamed F.K. Kutubu was elected Speaker. He had been a former Chief Justice; and served as Speaker until 2000.

Justice Edmund Cowan was elected Speaker in 2000, and he served until his succession in 2007 by the current Speaker, the Justice Abel N. Strong.

From this it can be seen that the only person to have held the office of Speaker – without judicial qualifications, was the late William N. S Conteh, who was appointed in 1977.

William Conteh was elected because he was at the time a Member of Parliament, and it was thought there was no need to go outside of Parliament to get a Speaker.

But Singer-Betts, whom he replaced, was a retired judge.

So there was and there is ample provision in our national Constitutions (including the present 1991 Constitution) for the election of someone who does not hold judicial qualifications, provided only that that person is a Member of Parliament.

It is therefore with grave concern that I read the recent amendment of the Constitution on the election of the Speaker.

Again, with all deference, affection and goodwill, the utility, practicality and rationale of the amendment begs many questions, but at the same time, yields no clear answers to its intent and necessity at this juncture in the country’s life.

This is more so in the face of an on-going Constitutional Review Commission – now one of several in the nation’s life.

Prudence, openness in constitutional consultations and processes would dictate that if amendments are thought necessary and desirable, then the Attorney-General could make the case for same, by representation to the Review Commission.

There is no need to give hostage to fortune by by-passing the recently established Review Commission.

This can only lead to unhelpful and unhealthy speculation about hidden agendas.

We have, as a country, been down that road before. We should try to avoid seemingly alluring and facile, but in the end problematic and treacherous turns in our constitutional progress.

Ad hominem legislation, especially in constitutional texts is universally frowned upon, and should, at all cost, be avoided.

parliamentary history - siaka stevensOne had hoped that salutary lessons would have been learnt from the near crisis, wrought in the changes to the then 1978 Constitution, regarding the succession to the presidency in 1985/6.

(Photo: The one-party state dictator – Stevens)

A practical problem implicit in the amendment is that, if enacted, it may lead to pure and plain confusion and potential constitutional debacle, when at any given time, there would be no Member of Parliament who would have served “five to ten years” apprenticeship in Parliament, as it were, to be eligible for election to the Speakership, as the amendment now requires.

Needless to say this is a recipe for confusion and paralysis waiting to happen. We don’t need this in so important an institution as Parliament.

The alternative provision for the eligibility of someone with judicial qualifications to be elected as Speaker is plainly to insulate that office from the cut and thrust of partisan political proclivities, inherent in a multi-party form of government that the country now enjoys, and which was its legacy before the unfortunate advent of one-party politics in 1978.

The record shows that for a very long time, Speakers of Parliament had been retired judges, who, it is reasonable to suppose, by training, career and temperament, would have inculcated the thought processes of impartiality, fairness and balance.

It is undoubted that these are eminently desirable qualities in any Speaker of Parliament, who in the hurly-burly of parliamentary debate, is expected to be above the fray and not himself descend into the arena.

This certainly is not to say that a non-judicially qualified Member of Parliament would necessarily be lacking in these qualities.

But it is apprehended, if it is not already manifest, that there is some lurking but inarticulate misunderstanding about the present section 79(1) of the Constitution and the office of Speaker in our constitutional arrangement.

This section does not and was not intended to give a monopoly or a head- lock hold on election to the Speakership to only persons with judicial qualifications.

Parliament Building SaloneIt simply provides that the Speaker shall be elected from among Members of Parliament or from persons who are qualified to be elected as such and are qualified to be appointed as judges of the Superior Court of Judicature.

The section plainly does not say that a Member of Parliament is ineligible or that only persons with judicial qualifications shall be eligible for election to the Speakership.

The section only provides an alternative (or) for the election of persons to be the Speaker.

A Member of Parliament need not have judicial qualifications to be elected Speaker; it is only if a non-Member of Parliament is to be elected that that person should hold judicial qualifications.

It would have been thought that a plain reading and interpretation of the section’s clear and express words would make this obvious.

Perhaps, it is this misunderstanding that actuated the amendment, or is there more to it than meets the eye?

Also, the provisions regarding the Speaker acting in place of the president, when both the president and his vice-president are unavailable was intended to avoid a lacuna in these important offices.

There is no age requirement in the Speaker for this purpose, as is found for eligibility for election to the presidency.

And the Speaker, who assumes the office of the presidency in those circumstances, is constitutionally instructed to arrange or call for elections to the substantive office of the presidency within ninety days.

Please, let us not distort and deform our national Constitution needlessly.

Dr. Abdulai Osman Conteh is a Justice of Appeal at the Court of Appeal in the Commonwealth of the Bahamas, and a former government minister of Sierra Leone.