Sierra Leone’s democracy: A focus on public trust in state institutions

Rev. Gibrilla Kargbo: Sierra Leone Telegraph: 04 April 2021:

Given the current realities in Sierra Leone, it would appear as if the trust of the governed in the governors is a scarce commodity, thus the need to assess the situation and examine the key issues concerning public trust in state institutions.

It must be stated categorically that for governance to be successful, it must be founded on the trust of the governed in the governors, with far-reaching implications for the perceptions of the governed, as work is done through legitimate means to build confidence in and around the operations of the three Arms of the Government – in addition to Ministries, Departments, and Agencies of the Government as the very embodiment of the governors.

The purpose of this article in essence is to examine the foundations or criteria for public trust in state institutions, to analyse the literature on views or perceptions about public trust in state institutions, to highlight the historical context concerning public trust in state institutions, and to identify the challenges in building public trust in state institutions and make recommendations.

The gravity of the situation in Sierra Leone is evident in the fact that a portion of the Medium-Term National Development Plan (MTNDP) is dedicated to addressing the issue of public trust in state institutions, with a focus on the conscious effort that is to be made by the Government to address the issue as recorded in Sub-Cluster 4.6: “Building Public Trust in State Institutions” serving as a key component of Cluster 4: “Governance and Accountability for Results”.

In the context of the MTNDP, the Government has acknowledged that Public trust in state institutions is an important ingredient in building a strong civil coalition around the sustainable development programmes of the government. It has also accepted that one of the main expectations of citizens is that their government will fairly and effectively deliver economic, social, and cultural services to every citizen on an even keel, irrespective of their socio-economic background or political persuasion.

Furthermore, the Government has posited that it is also the popular expectation among citizens that public officials will manage state resources in a manner that will benefit the state and its citizens.

In short, the government is aware that public trust requires public service by state institutions that is devoid of institutional inertia and discrimination.

Despite such acknowledgment, it is clear as crystals that turning the tide against the negative perception of state institutions is a tall order. Many have assessed such acknowledgment in the MTNDP as wishful thinking and idealistic with the reality on the ground painting a different picture.

Due consideration is then given to the factors fostering such negative perceptions about these state institutions. In the mix for a thorough assessment of the situation are the recruitment processes and the quality of the personnel working for these state institutions.

Additionally, due consideration is given to the availability and handling of the resources to man or run these institutions very well. Also, the nature of the mandates of these institutions requires attention to assess the performance level and gaps in these institutions.

Furthermore, the operational context should be considered with a focus on the legal and political environment as the issues of autonomy (independence) and interference are examined to ascertain the reality on the ground. The situation is also assessed from the standpoint of the ethnic, tribal, and regional composition of staff in public institutions with a tendency towards nepotism.

In this regard, it has been acknowledged by both state and non-state[1] actors that for some time now, public trust in state institutions has dwindled significantly, and this in part is because professionalism and related standards are being undermined in the public sector, with best practices being rapidly replaced with political patronage and nepotism in addition to the pervasive corruption within these institutions.

Perception survey reports from various non-state actors and the yearly report of the Auditor General have not provided a positive view of these state institutions especially with the reported breach of procedures in addition to the resources that cannot be accounted for.

There is also the pervasive view that the mode of operation of state institutions over the years is largely based on ‘whom you know’, ‘what political party you belong to’, or ‘how much money you have’. In other words, it can be submitted that the merit-based approach to public service delivery has taken a back seat to corruption and nepotism.

It has been observed that despite the statutory mandate of these institutions there is still the lack of independence of some state institutions, especially the judiciary, the police, and the election management bodies, a situation that presents a serious public trust issue in addition to the reported weaknesses in human rights and democratic institutions with clear evidence of patronage and nepotism in public service delivery followed by the tendency of the governors to abuse power and state authority. These institutions and the related issues can be examined further to consider the extent of the challenges the nation is faced with.

Additionally, some people have observed that acrimonious political division and lack of patriotism have affected objectivity among Sierra Leoneans generally. Essentially, it has been observed that some members of the public who belong to the opposition tend to have less trust in state institutions compared to those who support the ruling party especially because of the seeming never-ending tension between the government and the opposition.

We have also witnessed instances in which civil and public servants have shown a blatant disregard for neutrality and impartiality as their party affiliations are in the public domain. Whether it is perceived or real, there is a very serious issue of lack of trust in state institutions from the public.

The situation is volatile in the country with increased frustration on the part of the citizenry respecting effective and efficient service delivery that can readily contribute to the consolidation of the nation’s democracy. There is a current wave of lawlessness and violence in the country indicative of the lack of trust in especially the justice service delivery sector inclusive of the judiciary and the entire gamut of law enforcement as people take the laws into their own hands inclusive of engaging in mob justice.

It must be noted with emphasis that this situation does not create the enabling environment for inclusive and sustainable national development that has eluded us as a nation for the last sixty (60) years of political independence.

In its historical antecedent, propaganda has been the order of the day with the political players using all forms of propaganda in keeping others at bay and keeping themselves in power. Since they now see through each other’s shenanigans, the atmosphere of doubt and suspicion can hardly go away from the politics of the country with far-reaching implications for national unity, political tolerance, social cohesion, and inclusive and sustainable national development.

The Creoles of the Colony used it against the colonial masters, the Natives and the Creoles used it against each other, SLPP and APC have used it and continue to use it against each other with no end in sight.

Apart from the use of devastating propaganda against each other, APC and SLPP have used instruments of state terror and coercion against each other and as such, there is no trust between them. With a continuation of the status-quo, meaningful national development is never going to be possible even as the vicious cycle continues unabated.

It must be stated that it does not matter what the other is doing right or wrong, the other will oppose it with a passion. As far as they are concerned, it can only be better when they are in charge, otherwise, they will pull the others down in the context of the crab mentality, a mentality that has impacted negatively on inclusive and sustainable national development in the country.

Going back to the content of the MTNDP, 2019 – 2023, “the strategic objective is to build trust in state institutions through the implementation of strategies to strengthen national cohesion and ensure a peaceful, just, and inclusive society. The aim is also to build a national spirit of cultural voluntarism for increased public acceptance of and participation in the national socio-economic development programme; to harness the energies and expertise of every Sierra Leonean towards nation-building and socio-economic transformation, and to build citizens’ confidence in state institutions that provide services to the general citizenry”.

However, such strategic objectives as laudable as they are, have not seen the light of day and the trust gap keeps increasing with the dividends of democracy still a far cry from the reality of the average Sierra Leonean. It is one thing to state the issues in a national document and it is another thing to work towards implementing such a plan for the impact to be felt by the people. In essence, making the plan people-centered can be cumbersome with the need for more effort in that direction.

Further to that, the key targets identified for building public trust in state institutions as stipulated in the MTNDP are stated thus:

By 2023, the level of public trust in state institutions is significantly improved compared to 2018; by 2023, about 50 percent of the adult population express satisfaction that state institutions are functioning better than in 2018; by 2023, create a favourable space for human rights organizations to effectively promote transparency and accountability in an unfettered manner; by 2023, create a citizens’ bureau that will meet annually with public authorities to review a wide range of issues stemming from the previous 12 months.

A fair assessment of these key targets will show that Sierra Leone has a long way to go in realizing such significant aspirations as state institutions continue to work in circumstances not different from what used to obtain before 2019.

It must be stated that these key targets respecting building public trust in state institutions should remind all stakeholders about the herculean tasks or responsibilities that should be carried out to change the narrative in the country.

The situation requires more effort in converting these key targets into objective realities as the governed are given a reason to build trust in state institutions even as they are expected to deliver on the cutting-edge. Of course, we are not expected to evaluate the process halfway through, even though a mid-term review is in place, but it is clear as crystals that you can tell a ripe corn by its looks, thus requiring all to seat up and address the challenges faced by the country in building public trust in state institutions.

Among others, the Government should strive to establish the Citizens’ Bureau as a citizen engagement platform to assess the performance of the Government on several governance issues if the trust of the ordinary man is to be enlisted in the proper governance of the state.

As we examine the subject further, let us remind each other about the expected key policy actions stipulated in the MTNDP and reproduced as follows:

“Establish a Peace and National Cohesion Commission that will build and promote national cohesion (promote national unity, foster national identity, inculcate a national philosophy and ideology, and encourage continuous dialogue on national cohesion).

“Build and promote national cohesion through the eradication of tribalism, nepotism, and other forms of discrimination; promote national unity and ensure togetherness; foster a national identity and inculcate a national philosophy and ideology and encourage continuous dialogue on national cohesion.

“Review the recommendations of the Constitutional Review Report (2018) and the Government White Paper (2018) to pursue a constitution that would address the needs and aspirations of the people.

“Strengthen the independence of the judiciary and the rule of law.

“Expand the capacity of human rights organizations and organizations promoting democracy and sensitize the public on their work throughout the country.

“Strengthen human rights and democratic institutions by promoting democracy and ensuring free and fair elections.

“Develop the capacities of democratic institutions through adequate funding, qualified and competent human resources, as well as efficient and effective systems and procedures.”

Apart from the establishment of the Peace Commission with a law in place and the setting up of a task force headed by the Attorney-General and Minister of Justice to continue with the Constitutional Review Process in the country, it is still a far cry from the reality in so far as the other five policy actions are concerned.

It must be noted that more than ever before, we have witnessed heightened tension between and among the different ethnic, tribal, and regional groupings as they continue to be divided into partisan and sectional lines with far-reaching implications for inclusive and sustainable national development.

Even with the setting up of the Peace Commission, concerns are being raised about the law enacted for the purpose with implications for abuse. Many have called for an ethnic or regional audit to be part of the mandate of this Peace Commission to foster balance in appointments across the civil and public services as conscious effort is expended in building public trust in state institutions.

From the perspective of an ethnic or a regional audit, it is expected that this should be reflected in the appointment of cabinet ministers in addition to the appointment of civil and public servants. In as much as the Peace Commission is not the panacea to the multifarious problems of the country, it should be allowed to play its role very well to correct some of the imbalances through nepotistic tendencies in state institutions. It then requires that even the composition of the Peace Commission should indicate ethnic and regional balance if it is to win public trust and confidence in establishing the much-needed cohesion in the country.

Also, apart from improvement in the administration of the Judiciary, courtesy of the new Chief Justice, not much has been done by way of deliberate policy action to make the Judiciary independent from interference especially from the Executive Arm of the Government. Many analysts have blamed the situation on existing constitutional provisions that leave the Judiciary at the mercy of the Executive Arm of the Government with many recommending that until the constitutional issues are fixed, Sierra Leone is far from having a judiciary that can be independent in its operations and administration of justice.

From a democratic standpoint, it must be noted that without an independent judiciary, it becomes impossible to put the necessary checks on the Executive Arm of the Government with far-reaching implications for the recognition and protection of the fundamental human rights and freedoms of the individual, thus compromising human security.

It must be noted that in instances wherein human security is compromised, suspicion rather than trust will increase for state institutions. At this critical juncture, I cannot help, but to interject that Sierra Leone deserves better.

It must be further stated that the massive transformation envisaged in human rights and democratic institutions is still a pipe dream as these institutions still go cap in hand begging for their very survival with subtle threats of closure and sackings still hanging on their heads like the Sword of Damocles. When it appears as if keeping these institutions is like doing a favour to those serving in them, efficient and effective service delivery in the context of promoting and even consolidating democratic good governance will continue as a mirage or a fleeting illusion.

Sierra Leoneans must wake up to the reality of the importance of good governance and demand that governance institutions are given the most reasonable level of autonomy to carry out their statutory mandates without being cowed into submission through the pittances given as subvention.

It must be emphasized that when state institutions especially governance institutions can operate under the laws setting them, that is their mandates, it will send a signal and a message to the governed that the governors are ready for these institutions to be trusted and until such a time it will only be an effort in futility.

It must be pointed out that we have been on this for the last sixty (60) years and the goal of inclusive and sustainable development continues to elude us and until such development is taken to the doorsteps of the people, public trust in state institutions will only be a by-word used as nothing but political rhetoric.

For as long as effective and efficient service delivery remains an ideal and not a practical reality, public trust in state institutions can only be a pipe dream. For as long as we allow arbitrariness to fester in the governance of the state, public trust in state institutions will continue as a future rather than a present reality.

For as long as ethnic, tribal, regional, and other identities are more prominent than the national identity, public trust in state institutions remains nothing but wishful thinking.

For as long as the allocation and distribution of state resources are done within the context of the winner takes all, public trust in state institutions can only be for talk shows. For as long as poverty continues as a reality in the country, public trust in state institutions can never be feasible. For as long as human capital development remains lopsided, public trust in state institutions will continue as an empty noise in the ears of many.

For as long as APC and SLPP continue to practice the politics of exclusion instead of inclusion, public trust in state institutions will not be realized. Until we extricate our country from corruption and dependency, public trust in state institutions can never be a practical reality to be achieved. Until sovereignty is vested in the people through just laws and the rule of law, public trust in state institutions will remain an illusion.

At sixty (60) years of political independence, every effort should be concentrated towards extricating Sierra Leone from all the above if we are to address the thorny issue of public trust in state institutions. We must desist from paying lip service to the substantive issue of public trust in state institutions and with open minds and willingness to be politically tolerant, let us face the future as we strive for a more progressive Sierra Leone.

Happy 60th Independence Anniversary to Citizens of the Land that we Love, Sierra Leone – on the 27th of April 2021!

2 Comments

  1. Building trust between the government and the governed, is one of the most comprehensive initiatives that a government can undertake, with the aim of strengthening the glue that binds the social contract between citizens and their elected representatives. This phenomenon of trusting those entrusted with looking after everyone’s interest should not be based on empty political slogans, but real initiatives that impact or make a difference in people’s lives. Not just for today, but for the rest of the years ahead. Its called longterm sustainable goals. Unfortunately for Sierra Leoneans, we have rulers who go into politics to liberate themselves from poverty and want, instead of serving the interest of the people that gave them the keys to the power they exercise over them.

    For a government to be judged successful, the institution of state has to enjoy a high level of perceived legitimacy by the electorate. That is, a free media, a strong opposition party that is allowed to raise its concerns where it disagrees with the sitting government. And most importantly of all, an independent judiciary, where the rule of law is respected. And where everyone is treated equally before the law. All our problems in Sierra Leone are man-made. Bio and his government are enjoying one of the lowest trust in government of all times. He needs to change course. The path we are following is not working for everyone and the country. We have reached a dead end.

  2. Gentlemen – when an animal is caught in a steel-jaw trap it can gnaw off its own leg in order to go free – that’s what true unparalleled courage actually looks like.The same thing applies to a nation that finds itself caught by the inflexible, unyielding traps of nepotism,tribalism,brazen thefts and rampant corruption – it must find the temerity to chew off her limbs of economic and financial regression without regret so that the whole body can go free.Time and tide waits for no man – Its time for men and women that will shoulder the burdens of our impoverished Sierra Leone with unmatched dedication, gallantry and honor to assume the reins of power – let these hyenas,coyotes, and hungry wolves return to their meadows with attractive wildlife and find fulfillment in the dark shadows of doom and gloom where they belong.

    Time and tide waits for no man – its now time for a new breed of selfless visionary leaders to take over the baton of power and run this race in which we have already been left far behind with the swiftness of young impalas that can outrun the winds. Listen,there is a wind blowing in the direction of Freetown that is signalling that the days of shoe shine boys becoming leaders of struggling nations are over;and be rest assured also there will be no imposters posing as Professors in my beautiful majestic Sierra Leone ever again. Time, tide and the hands of fate wait for no man – you cannot build genuine trust in a place where lies, treachery,and deceptions have already become acceptable norms and a way of life for millions of people.We are like animals caught by our legs in a trap and the only way out is a bloody one – we must chew off our legs and limbs in order to let the whole body of our nation go free – there is no other option.
    Sierra Leone its time to grow up.

    Its been six decades since our Independence and yet you still cannot tell the simple difference between a regular cough and a sneeze? Yup, you are still as naive as a toddler because you keep looking up to brazen thieves with Class 2 ideas to bring you financial security and prosperity – Well, you will have to wait for eons and millenniums to come for such a far fetched illusion to become a reality you can grasp with both hands.(lmao)

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