Sheriff Mahmud Ismail: Sierra Leone Telegraph: 03 July 2022:
Once again Sierra Leone has been gripped by the vagaries of political brinkmanship. Once again it is about the ruling Sierra Leone People’s Party’s (SLPP) penchant for conducting issues of national interest inspite of everyone else’s views and opinions. In exactly a year to the country’s general elections, the SLPP is attempting to change very fundamental aspects of the nation’s electoral laws.
The main opposition has fiercely objected to these proposed changes. The key arguments of the main opposition All Peoples Congress (APC) relate to concerns about attempts to amend the Constitution through the back door. Some of the specific sticking points include the following:
First, while Section 32(8) of the Constitution provides that the Chief Electoral Commisioner (CEC) could be removed due to misconduct; this Public Elections Bill which seeks to “Repeal and Replace the Public Elections Act 2012”, in Clause 5(1a), wants the removal of the CEC to be on “gross misconduct” but without any definition of what that means.
Second, Section 76(1b) of the 1991 Constitution provides that public officers should resign twelve months before an election. This Bill, according to a Power Point presentation to the Prelegislative Committee, reduces the length of time from twelve to six months.
The leader of the opposition in Parliament, Hon. Chernor Maju Bah, therefore insisted that if the SLPP wish to amend the Constitution they should come before Parliament with the appropraite instrument. And, Bah said, such an important instrument must be exhaustively dealt with before proceeding with the proposed Bill which is attempting to amend some critical constitutional provisions.
On this basis, Bah urged the Speaker not to allow the House to proceed with the Second Reading of the controversial Bill saying that, to procred would amount to putting the cart before the horse, as well as an attempt to amend the constitution through the back door.
This was in response to the submission by Mathew Sahr Nyuma that the House should simply proceed with the Second Reading of the Bill because, according to him, on Thursday next, the specific Bill to amend the 1991 Constitution will be tabled in Parliamnent.
At the same time, the Leader of Government Business and SLPP members, made a dramatic U-turn regarding the presentation by NEC on the Bill. Nyuma told Parliament to discountenance the NEC presentation because the clause about the length of time public servants are required to resign before an election is not included in the proposed bill.
Reacting to this serious inconsistency, Hon. Chernor Bah said: “… it means that the House was misinformed and misled by NEC through that presentation to the Prelegislative Committee.” The opposition leader further asserted that “this is even the more reason why we should deal with the instruments before coming to the Second Reading because this Bill is suspect”.
Given that the presentation in question actually lays the basis for the passing of the Bill under review, such inconsistency between NEC’s presentation and the Bill itself reaffirms the opposition’s concerns about the true motives of this proposed legislation. It speaks directly to the suspicion that the ruling party intends, as usual, to pass the controversial bill by ambush.
It is worthy to note that several elements of the proposed Public Elections Act 2022, relate to voter registration. Clause 13(1)(a)(i), states that “There shall be a national register of voters to be known as the “Register of Voters” which shall contain a national identification number….”
Some members of the public, civil society, the media and APC MPs, have expressed concern that such a requirement will disenfranchise a considerable number of voters. This is in view of the fact that majority of Sierra Leoneans have not registered with the National Civil Registeration Commission (NCRA). Given the limited time between now and the June 2023 general elections; observers believe that NCRA doesn’t have the capacity to conduct such a nationwide registration to allow for the critical voter registration by the electoral commission.
Also, in Clause 57(b) of the same proposed Bill, there is an attempt to reintroduce the proportional representation (PR) and the block district system by extrapolating Section 38(a) of the Constitution as amended in (2001). But this is being done in a way that favours the PR system even when constituencies exist.
The said provision in the extant Constitution provides that: “Whereas under any law for the time being in force, a date for a general election of Members of Parliament has been appointed but constituencies have not been established in accordance with subsection (3) of section 38 for the purpose of such election, the president may, after consultation with the Electoral Commission, direct that such election shall be conducted on the basis of the existing districts in a manner to be known as the district block representation system instead of constituencies.”
The operative clause to note in that provision is “whereas under any law for the time being in force, a date for a general election of Members of Parliament has been appointed but constituencies have not been established in accordance with subsection (3) of section 38…”
In the view of the APC, at this material moment, constituencies do exist and so, consideration of the PR and district block system is superfluous and totally irrelevant.
The main opposition APC is not alone in its opposition to unprocedural constitutional amendment. On 13 January 2022, during the “Launch of the Government White Paper on the Constitutional Review Process” to President Julius Maada Bio at State House, Speaker of Parliament, the Rt. Honourable Abass Chernor Bundu, emphasized that it was best for Sierra Leone that recommendations relating to amendments to the Constitution be deferred until after the 2023 general elections.
The thrust of Bundu’s statement then was that constitutional amendments of provisions such as the ones being proposed in the Bill under review would require a Two Thirds majority. For Bundu, given the chasm between the opposition and the ruling party, it is delusional to assume that such a consensus could be achieved. He said then that “even if all the 58 members of the SLPP, all the 8 members of the Coalition for Change (C4C), all the 4 members of the National Grand Coalition (NGC), all the 3 independents and all the 14 Paramount Chief MPs were to vote in favour, that would still not amount to Two Thirds” .
During his Thursday, 30 June 2022 intervention in Parliament, Bundu affirmed his position against any unprocedural amendment to the constitution. “The Constitution cannot be amended indirectly, there has to be a bill whose purport should be for that purpose,” he said.
Without doubt, such a Bill, if passed in its current state, would have direct negative impact on the June 2023 general elections. The main opposition therefore argues that proceeding with the Second Reading of a Bill which potentially modifies certain provisions of the extant constitution, without procedurally exhausting the debate on the instruments relating to the Bill which the Leader of Government Business promises to bring to Parliament, mimicks the passing by ambush of the COVID -19 State of Emergency Bill. That Bill, Bah recounted, was passed into law without the rules and procedures relating to that emergency. “We are not going to allow this to happen again,” asserted the opposition leader.