Sierra Leone’s 1991 constitution: An open letter to Parliament

M C Bah – Atlanta, USA

The Sierra Leone Telegraph: 11 July 2013

Sierra-Leone-ParliamentDear Parliamentarians

Once again, your noble institution is faced with another golden opportunity to rewrite history. A new chapter is about to be enshrined into the constitutional books.

Now, you are graciously confronted with the sacred duty to inscribe more fundamental human rights for the people and unlock the potential of our citizens, while building a foundation of prosperity for the new future.

You are also at a better position to expand the ladders of opportunity by providing access to jobs, a decent healthcare and the ability of our citizens to support their families without hardship. Indeed, critical investments in the areas of technology and trade are necessary to achieving such national objectives.

However, you are also tempted to unravel the dark chapter of a possible constitutional crisis that tomorrow’s generation will find disparaging to read.

If you seek to represent your own self-interest or engage in some kind of political favoritism, your good moral judgment will be clouded and distorted against the will of national democracy and political freedom. This is a dangerous path you must inevitably try to avoid.

Either way, it is important to remember the memorable action of President Joseph Saidu Momoh. Despite his political failings – he yielded to the historical demands of the people by commissioning the 1991 constitution.

Parliament Building SaloneAnd Parliament was part of that triumphant moment of history which charted a new way forward for our nation. Sierra Leone’s political horizon was illuminated by your partnership and patriotism.

Ironically, our 1991 constitution was pioneered by a party – the APC, that singled handedly ruled Sierra Leone under a one party system for more than two decades.

So, with the evil of dictatorship came the joyous rebirth of multi-pluralism. And, we must not reverse the democratic gains we have made for the past decades by endorsing the ill-intention of some of our citizens who happens to hold public office of trust.

Today, the benefit of multi-pluralism is an enduring legacy. The 1991 constitution engraved within itself  a trophy  of achievements  – a national colors of political freedom, the right to freedom of speech and a free press, the recognition and protection of fundamental human rights, and among other great things – the right to form political parties without sanctions and imprisonment.

parliamentary history - siaka stevensSierra Leone has, indeed, come a long way from previous undemocratic governance to becoming a strong observer of the rule of law.

Before I add my voice to the growing debate on the amendment of our 1991 constitution, I must bluntly say without equivocation that a constitution cannot be written for one man or one woman, for a political party or a region, for the purpose to disenfranchise or marginalize others or for the need to fight for the survival of a sole political party.

The moral and political value proposition of amending a constitution is to correct the mistakes of the past and build on the democratic credentials of the nation.

It is to develop strong pillars of liberties and human rights laws, to encourage strong financial management laws that will help reduce the culture of corruption in the machinery of government.

salone poverty2In a positive way, a constitutional amendment is another means of fighting for the people’s legitimate interest and securing a more prosperous and just future for everyone.

Nonetheless, a constitutional amendment does not mean: an act of silencing the opposition, creating a political mouse trap to deny Diaspora and local candidates including smaller political parties the right to participate in a free democratic elections.

A constitutional amendment does not warrant an obsession to gain power perpetually. Rather, it is a measure that centralizes the national aspiration and vision of a country as a uniform source of unity, freedom and justice.

A constitution is bigger than one person – it must be for the utilitarian good and benefit of Sierra Leone – a nation that will always be there when we are all dead and gone.

And it should not be amended for the sake of instituting residence requirements with unreasonable nomination fees that denies Diaspora or local candidates the electoral ability to participate and be the voice of the people.

In fact, the most troubling challenges facing Sierra Leone today is the urgency to expanding the fields of political inclusion and to genuinely embrace diversity of ideas and ethnicity – without limitations.

Thus, the constitutional review committee must understand their unique role and avoid being manipulated by the tendencies of supporting political interests. This is a national issue that deserves a national character of integrity, with an inspiring sense of nationalism.

And when you sit down to draft and vote for amendments – the eyes of history will be watching. If you imprisoned your good moral conscience because you merely want to satisfy a party or other short sighted objectives, this parliament will certainly be remembered as a legislative body that turned a blind eye to equality, justice and freedom for all it citizens.

At this junction, I would like to add my civic voice to the political debate of amending the 1991 constitution:

First of all, we must strike down the discriminatory and restrictive clause of our citizenship status, which states that: “a person of Negro African descent” is one of the determinants of eligibility.

This is a coward and heartless transgression against many of our nationals born in Sierra Leone and whose grandparents share the same citizenship rights and privileges like millions of Sierra Leoneans.

We must cultivate a global mind-set and take a universal approach in defining our citizenship laws. Majority of the African commonwealth nations and former British West African countries like Ghana, Nigeria and Gambia have a liberal, open-minded and progressive interpretation of citizenship laws.

law courts building freetownOn the Justice Sector: the Attorney General and Minister of Justice should only serve as the legal adviser to the government, as well as prosecute people who violate the laws of our nation.

The independence of the Judiciary should be enshrined in the new constitution, where it is absolutely clear that: “the judicial power of Sierra Leone is vested in the Judiciary of which the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Sierra Leone shall be the head.” The new amended constitution should clearly define the role and responsibility of the Attorney General and Minister of Justice.

Furthermore, the four members of the Electoral commission and the Chief Electoral Commissioner are all subject to the same terms and conditions, including the tenure of office.

The constitutional Committee must recommend an amendment that:  all the members of the electoral commission, which includes the chief electoral commissioner and as stated in Chapter IV, Article 32, and no 7, must be: “subject to the provisions of this section, a member of the electoral Commission shall vacate his office – (a) at the expiration of five years from the date of his/her appointment. “

Christiana Thorpe - NECCurrently, either this constitutional clause is being violated or there is no clarity on the tenure of office for the Chief Electoral Commissioner.

An unequivocal interpretation of the tenure of office is relevant to the democratic integrity of the electoral institution, as well as maintaining the impartiality of the commissioners in future election cycle.

It is undemocratic to sit commissioners on the Electoral committee more than the required constitutional timeframe. It undermines the institutional reliability and independence of the electoral system in Sierra Leone.

Election date: Both Presidential and Parliamentary Elections period should be schedule as a national day like our Independence Day (April 27) commemoration.

electionCurrently it is defined as: “during the period of three months beginning with the date when the office of President becomes Vacant” – Chapter V, article 43(b) and “after the beginning of the period of four months ending with the date when his term of office expires”.

Chapter V, article 43(a) gives too much flexible to any incumbent government that can schedule an election date at their own political advantage.

The constitutional review committee should recommend a specific day that cannot be change, and should also be described as “Election day” – a public holiday when citizens go to the polls to vote for their candidates and parties.

Campaign laws: In Sierra Leone, election campaign laws seem to favor the incumbent government at every stretch of the imagination. The period of campaigning should be extended from the date – city, local and national candidates file papers to represent their municipalities, districts and national constituencies up to Election Day.

Such electoral transparency will adequately give the people better choices and equal opportunity to compete for votes. When and how to campaign is state-controlled and continue to marginalize smaller parties with little resources and low strategic man power.

To this regard, an unrestricted campaign laws will further build more electoral credibility and improve Sierra Leone’s reputation internationally.

Elections are about candidates and parties with the best message and vision, good track record and the leadership potential to effect change. To allow parties and candidates to campaign only three months before election is a miscarriage of Justice and a crude practice of denying other candidates to fully campaign and take their mission and messages to the people during general election.

Also, independent candidates must be allowed to participate in every election process as long as they meet the electoral requirements and guidelines.

Some candidates might not agree with the philosophy of the two main political parties and may choose to run as independent. Every citizen who wishes to run without belonging to the traditional political parties must be able to do so for the sake of democracy and the rule of law.

Additionally, the amended constitution must have conflict of interest laws that ensure public officers do not engage in business activities, with companies with whom their offices have direct or indirect decision making influence.

The urgency to legislatively adopt strong code of ethics and conduct of public officers are desperately needed: from the establishment of an ethic commission to declaration of assets and complain of contravention, should collectively form part of the new constitutional amendment.

Finally, public finance laws need to be strengthened, while the Auditor –General must be empowered to carry out the constitutional mandate bestowed upon that office.

cartoon - leave the police alone - the jamaican observerStrong forfeiture laws must be crafted in the new constitution to target public officers who intentionally abuse or defraud the nation. And partisan effort must be collaborated to control and reduce corruption in government and public institutions. The biggest threat to economic growth and prosperity in Sierra Leone is the widespread practice of corruption in the civil service, police force and other government institutions.

These are some of the recommendations I would like to share with the constitutional review committee. When divergent opinions are drawn from different walks of life, not only will our nation prosper and survive the test of time, we are all blessed with the gift of being a Sierra Leonean.

After all, no parliament is properly represented if it does not reflect the will of its people – both at home and abroad.

Thus, I am absolutely convinced that parliament has a historical role to play. For you took the oath of office to represent your constituencies and nation, not only as members of your respective political parties, but as Sierra Leoneans of the same ancestral heritage and creed.

The burden of protecting and defending the rights of the voiceless and those who want to contribute and build a better future, rests on your willingness to make a change, based on human compassion and shared patriotism.

Mohamed C BahI urge you to use your legislative office to lead our nation to greater heights. (Photo: Mr. M.C.Bah).

I pray that God Almighty grant you the wisdom, the temperament and judgment to be the custodian of Justice and Freedom. I wish you all a steady and successful deliberation as you draft and vote for an amendment that will be a victory for all democratically minded and peace loving Sierra Leoneans.

May our Nation continue to be the realm of the Free!

Mohamed C. Bah – A Concerned Citizen of Sierra Leone