Let us speed up Sierra Leone’s constitution review process

Basita Michael: Sierra Leone Telegraph: 29 January 2021:

Diamonds are forever, but constitutions are not. No Constitution is meant to last in perpetuity. That is probably why Thomas Jefferson wrote to James Madison in 1789 and said, “…it may be proved that no society can make a perpetual constitution or even a perpetual law. The earth belongs to the living generation and not to the dead – every constitution then and every law naturally expires at the end of 19 years.”

If Jefferson’s thinking is correct, Sierra Leone’s 1991 constitution expired more than a decade ago. At Lomé in 1999, the Government committed to review the constitution, and in 2002 the Truth and Reconciliation Commission called for a review of the 1991 constitution. We are way behind schedule.

This is not to say that successive governments have not expressed their commitments to call for the review of the 1991 constitution. Almost every political party has pledged in their manifesto to review the constitution.

Millions of Leones and resources have been spent to produce two Constitutional Review Reports – Dr. Peter Tucker’s in 2008 and Justice Edmond Cowan’s in 2016. Despite these promises and reviews, successive governments have failed to deliver a revised constitution.

Sadly, the many Sierra Leoneans who dedicated their precious time to the review processes have passed away without seeing their recommendations come to fruition. Dr. Peter Tucker, Justice Edmond Cowan, Justice Tolla Thompson, N.D. Tejan-Cole and James Blyden Jenkins-Johnson, to name just a few.

If we are to honour their memories, we must at the very least ensure that we deliver a new constitution that meets the aspirations of the people. Furthermore, going by the strategic objectives and key policy actions mentioned in the Middle Term National Development Plan 2019-2023, there cannot be a better time to accelerate the review process and finalize it.

The progressive and ambitious policies of the government uniquely afford us the opportunity and valid grounds to urgently reform our constitution. There is a need for us to align the strides we have made as a nation and our progressive policies with our constitution.

We cannot afford to have a constitution that is at odds with the new values, needs and aspirations of the people of Sierra Leone. Our constant call and longing for good governance, lasting peace, national cohesion and better standard of living for our people are far too advance for the 1991 constitution.

It’s difficult to imagine the kind of amendments that would effectively fix all of the flaws and loopholes of the 1991 constitution, but we can easily revise the 1991 constitution to give it a humane face.

One that believes in the dignity of humans and that mirrors the needs of our nation that has grown not only in population but also in both its international and domestic responsibilities. Mindful of this, the Institute for Legal Research and Advocacy for Justice (ILRAJ) adds its voice to the voices of well-meaning Sierra Leones to call on the government to expedite the review process, which is long overdue.

In the name of progress, we trust that the government will take this call in good faith and meet it with the same bravery it demonstrated in abolishing the criminal libel provisions in the Public Order Act.

It is reported that the government has already appointed a task force to look into the review process. That is commendable indeed, but we don’t know much about the task force and its exact purpose.

Is it to review the recommendations of Justice Cowan led CRC and choose from it what is practicable for amendments?

Is it to review the white paper dated 10th November 2017 issued by the former government on the Justice Cowan Report?

Is it to look into the possibility to accept the more than 100 recommendations rejected by the former regime out of the 134 recommendations?

Lots of questions that need answers. Therefore, we look forward to the Taskforce informing the nation about its composition, mandate, mission, and the work it has done so far. The need for the process to be open, transparent and participatory cannot be overstated.

On our part, we are willing to work with the Taskforce on such an important national issue that is so close to our hearts and the hearts of many Sierra Leoneans.

Mindful of the above and the seriousness of the review process, ILRAJ aims to mobilize and rally for a national effort to speed up the review process. To this end, ILRAJ will embark on series of activities.

Our main activity is to organize several discussions on some thematic areas in the 1991 constitution that are ripe for amendment and reform. This will be done through its TV program, Law Review, which will take place every fortnight at 8-9 pm on Thursday, aired live on AYV, and broadcasted on popular radios in the western area and the provinces.

Nicky Spencer Coker will host Law Review, and our first program is on the 4th of February. Through Law Review, ILRAJ aims to engage key stakeholders and experts to discuss ten themes recommended for review and amendment by the Justice Cowan Report.

To avoid getting lost in the details of the particular amendments, I shall give you a rundown on the following themes.

1,Abolition of the Death Penalty

2.Address decentralization issues and the division of responsibilities between local government and central government by adding a new chapter in the revised constitution.

3.Remove the discriminatory provisions against women in section 27 4 (d) and (e) of the 1991 constitution.

4.Provide greater Clarity on Citizenship laws to ensure that it is not discriminatory, i.e., based on race or gender.

5.Enshrine a right to a healthy and clean environment that will be protected for the benefit of a future generation and to introducing a new chapter on land natural resources and the environment.

6.Separate the Office of the Attorney-General from that of the Ministry of Justice and make both appointments subject to the approval of Parliament.

7.Maintain and strengthen judicial independence by reforming the composition and mandate of the Judicial and legal service commission.

8.Make the appointment of Judges more independent, transparent, and merit-based.

9.Make provisions for a fixed date for elections and a smooth and clearer transition.

10.Abolish Supreme Executive authority.

Based on the outcome of the above prior discussions, ILRAJ aims to hold a conference in October 2021 to mark the 30th anniversary of the 1991 constitution and further discuss the above themes in the hope that we will come up with what we may call the people’s Constitution.

To further mark the 30th anniversary of the 1991 Constitution and the 60th independence anniversary of Sierra Leone, at the conference in October, the Institute for Legal Research and Advocacy for Justice (ILRAJ) will compile a journal on the Constitution of Sierra Leone.

ILRAJ has already made a call for high quality articles from authors from a multidisciplinary background of law, political science and other social sciences. The articles in the journal will look at the extent to which the 1991 Constitution has served in responding to the political, social, economic and cultural issues that face Sierra Leone.

We trust that if, as a nation, we come together and redouble our efforts, our hopes and dreams of a revised constitution will soon be turned into reality.

Lɛ wi kam togɛda fɔ mek wi kɔnstityushɔn wok bɛtɛ.

About the author

Basita Michael is the CEO of the Institute for Legal Research and Advocacy for Justice (ILRAJ), and former president of the Sierra Leone Bar Association.

This article is an excerpt of a speech made by Basita Michael at a conference held in Freetown this week, aimed at speeding up Sierra Leone’s Constitution Review Process. The conference was organised by CARL and funded by ActionAid.

You can read a powerpoint presentation here about the need for economic, social and cultural rights to be paramount in the constitution review review process:

SOCIO-ECONOMIC AND CULTURAL RIGHTS

7 Comments

  1. “That brings me to the question of the death penalty. My Government believes in the sanctity of life of every citizen. We have maintained the moratorium on the death penalty for that reason. Although the recommendation by the Justice Cowan-led Constitutional Review Committee (CRC) was rejected by the last Government, a committee set up by my administration to revisit the issue has recommended accepting the Justice Cowan recommendation. So my Government has moved significantly on this question and we will continue making progress.”- State House Press Release

    The above is an excerpt (paragraph 15) of the statement by President Bio on the occasion of the formal presentation of the Human Rights in Sierra Leone 2019 Annual Report on 17 December 2020.

    Did the author know about this when she included this issue in her clarion call for a review of the 1991 constitution and the report from Justice Cowan?

  2. Mr Daboh, tha is a good suggestion. The four year term will shorten the time limit our corrupt politicians are given for looting of state coffers or enriching themselves on the backs of the people of Sierra Leone. If the elected government is working in the interest of the country, like where governments are really accountable to its people, I think Sierra Leonean will support such changes. Such like the USA, UK, Germany, these countries and their leaders are more worried about the opinion polls of their people than being locked in a cage with a lion. Such leadership wants to know what the ordinary man and woman think of the way they are performing in government or are delivering their promises which they used as the guiding principle for the way they govern their people.

    That way, they feel more accountable to the people. Bio has no such qualities, and does not care about opinion polls. The Pademba Road prison riots and killings of youths in Makeni, is just a typical example that he does not care what people think of his unhinged government. He got the brass neck to make a joke of the killings in the correspondence black-tie dinner he organised at the end of last year. Even when it comes to implementing policies within the five year term framework, has always been fraught with massive challenge and it remains so. For instance when Bio was made president, he cancelled all the road construction that were taking place in the North and other projects that will benefit the country.

    Maybe if EKB had a seven term, at least some of the projects he started would have completed, before the APC was voted out of power. Right now there is no guarantee if Bio loses the next election, that the next government will not go down the same route. What we need is not term limits, but a law that states if a government is elected from a different party from the previous one, they should see through all the development projects started by the previous, regardless of which party is voted in by the people. Right now for many Sierra Leoneans the five year term is looking like eternity, given licence to corrupt politicians to enrich themselves. Five, ten or twenty years – nothing seems to work for our country.

    • “For instance when Bio was made president, he cancelled all the road construction that were taking place in the North and other projects that will benefit the country.” Abraham amadu jalloh

      Like you I am from the north and I am taking aback with the above statement. Can you please back up your accusation with proof? Which road construction were cancelled in the North and which road was under construction when EBK left power?

      The only proposed construction project that was cancelled by Bio was the construction of the Mahama Airport. Bio had said this in his election campaign and it made many of us who did not know the ramification of the loan and arrangement with China to resolve to vote for EBKs successor. But cancellation of road construction is new to me and I think in the Constitutional review, we should be asked as citizens to stop peddling lies, because we hate one or more persons on the other side.

  3. Yes there is an overarching need to change or amend our 1991 constitution. This 1991 constitution needs to be amended to reflect the social media age we are living in. They are only supposed to last for twenty years and there after. When it comes to Mordernisation, our country is unique at its snail pace to adaptation. We don’t often go with the flow of the times. Like the appointment of judges be done more independently and transparently, a complete separation of the role of Attorney General from the ministry of justice, abolition of the death penalty, and given women more rights and the definition of citizenship.

    But if we take one section of the 1991 constitution – Chapter III- Recognition and Protection of Fundamental Human Rights And Freedom of the Individual, Where it clearly states every person in Sierra Leone is entitled to the fundamental human rights and freedom of the individual, like the right of freedom of speech,respect of individual human rights, rights to peaceful assembly, none discrimination based on race, ethnic origin, and the right to own your property. We can see these fundamental human rights have been trampled upon, or violated by Bio and his government. So we can do all sorts of changes to the constitution, if we have a government, that came to power with the slogan “POAPA” just in case you are wondering, in plain English meant whether you like it or not, doesn’t bode well for the citizens, when you have such power hungry people exercising power over you or decides your future existence.

    Talking of changing the constitutional arrangements, but where was the Sierra Leone Bar association when Bio, and his enforceres where trampling and shredding to pieces, the one we have now. No one heard from the Sierra Leone Bar association back then, condemning in the strongest terms those retrogrssive actions by Bio. Yes Ms Basita Michael has expressed her opinion on the importance of good governance, but she is a lonely vioce in the echo Chambers of professional cowards. The Poalo Conteh case, Dr Blyden, the ejection of elected members of the opposition APC at the wells of Parliament. Right now the only clear and present danger facing our country is Covid 19 and the Bio government. Any changes to the constitution should be included in the parties manifestos of the 2023 presidential. So people can have informed decisions, and can vote and approve of the changes. Real power rests with the people. You are only a government as long as majority of the population accept you as their rulers.

    • Thanks Mr Mansaray. I don’t come on this forum to make up stories. Thank you very much. I don’t know which part of the North you came from. The North covers a vast area. But just when you are out of Kabala, you are heading for Musaia, and Falaba further North towards the Guinea border, the road works was not completed. And they are terrible. Recently, I and my younger brother have to help a motorbike man that was stuck in pool of red mud that pass for road. The cobalt that was meant for the road is lying around until Bio’s government reviews the contracts with road construction company. Look my brother from the north I have no axe to grind. I am certainly not an apologist of any government even if that government happens to be run by my parents. If my dad is the president of Sierra Leone and I look at the corruption and the state of our country, he is guaranteed to get criticism from me.

      The problem with us Sierra Leoneans we like to say things are working, when it is the opposite. That is why our country is struggling today. For too long we have been lying to ourselves. FAKE NEWS? WHAT IS FAKE NEWS? Maybe it was in existence in Sierra Leone long before Trump popularised it. Sorry I am not part of Bio’s fake news brigade. Let us stick with the facts. What is really going on in our country, that is rich in human and natural resources but we still rely on international aid.

    • Mr Alaka Mansaray,my brother from the North, since you asked me for evidence about my assertion of Bio’s government halting the road construction that was commissioned and approved by the previous government, which I clearly did, but you have failed to come back on this forum to either agree that I was right and you were wrong. I want to make one thing clear, please next time my brother from the North, if you want to accuse me of lying on this forum, please make sure you do your homework before you debunk my story. The way I look at it, when we say we are fighting against corruption in our country, this is the place we start. Let us strive to stay with the facts. Basically we are fighting against politicians who have been lying to us.

      That is what corruption in Sierra leone is all about. So coming on this forum and spreading false information will not help us achieve that goal of helping our country develop. Just because you support a government, does not give you the licence to tell Sierra Leoneans under this government, they are living in a land of plenty. So if I can be economical with the truth in a public forum like this one here, as you asserted in your piece, can you imagine if I was in position of power in any government in Sierra leone, then I will be lying to them too. Just like what Bio and some of his ministers are doing, I cannot be lying to an audience of more than twenty six thousand readers of my fellow country men and women. The Sierra Leone Telegraph is not a mouth piece of any government.

      You can support any government or party, just like you, Bio is my president, if he succeeds our country succeeds. If he is doing the right thing for our country, I will support him. But right now that’s not the way it looks to me. One day I hope we meet up and drive in our paved four lane roads from Kabala to Falaba on towards the Guinea border. Then I will eat my words and apologies for making up a story. Thank you my brother from the North.

  4. I posit that any constitutional review should consider first changing the four years presidential term to seven. The presidential and parliamentary life span is too short for governments in our societies to function properly, hence the plethora of constraints to settle before any proper work is done after every election cycle. The four years’ timeline could be workable for the USA and Europeans because there’s barely any post-election violence and skirmishes to deal with. Our laws should manifest the inherent cultural and traditional values of our society not Europe. Firstly, our elections are almost a tribal battle resulting in deep divisions in our societies. These squabbles squander a third of the four-year terms thereby haemorrhaging most of the newly elected officers time to deal with developmental issues. Secondly, the cost of elections is always a dent in our financial holdings (though much of it always come from external donors) who by default call the shots.

    Independent and progressive nations should determine their electoral rules without external input but our endless financial commitment to donor governments and others keep us within their sphere of influence. Invariably, with the seven years term, governments would have adequate time to plan and execute development policies with minimal time constraint. In the end, no government will blame any one but itself for failures, or a lack of development. In conclusion, whilst echoing Bastia’s argument for the need to review the 1991 constitution or implement the several review recommendations, those reviews must reflect our social structures, developmental needs and aspirations. The economic dilemmas coupled with the multi-faceted developmental problems experienced in our countries are inherently the result of our endless political squabbles with little time for governance. So, changing our four years term to seven should provide us adequate time to settle and lead.

    Moreover, such a change should also provide a clear time lime on adjudicating election petitions with provisions compelling the courts to settle such matters with urgency, and that all such matters must be settled within the first ninety days of the new parliament. Those reviews must be sustained and efficacious. Our economic dilelmas coupled with the multi faced develomental problems we experience in our countries are inherently the result of our endless political squabless with little time for governenace. So changing our four years term to seven should provide us enought time to settle down after elections and forge ahead with leading.

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