Zuma court ruling – lessons for Sierra Leone president Koroma and the judiciary

Sierra Leone Telegraph: 3 April 2016

President koroma and victor foh at APC conference 30 april 2015

Political developments in Sierra Leone may be troubling, but do not come as a surprise to those who understand the post-colonial politics of the country.

Yet, expectations of a better way of doing politics – based on respect for the rule of law and constitutionality by a generation of younger politicians – including the president and those occupying the highest offices in the country are high.

But time and again, as recent political events have shown in Sierra Leone, the continuous erosion – or as many would say – substitution of the rule of law with so called presidential executive decisions or ‘orders from above’, is slowly diminishing any hope of a strong and independent judiciary, and unfettered guarantee of democratic freedoms.

Speak to supporters of president Koroma and members of the ruling APC party, whose political ideology is based on the idea of an all powerful, authoritarian and revered president, you get a sense of a presidential authority emanating not from the country’s constitution and laws of the land, but from the whims and caprices of those occupying State House and their cronies.

So why is last week’s ruling by the courts in South Africa against president Jacob Zuma an important lesson for Sierra Leone?

President Koroma’s sacking of the country’s vice president without recourse to the Constitution, was shockingly upheld by the highest court in the land – the Supreme Court.

The frequent bye-passing of parliament by ministers in their decision to borrow and spend millions of dollars on unapproved projects, and without following established procurement rules, are authorised and sanctioned by so called executive ‘orders from above’ – the president.

President koroma at UN post ebola confThe decision as to who in the country is investigated, brought to justice and convicted of corruption and other serious misdemeanors, is a matter for the president and the ruling party’s inner circle – not the rule of law.

Justice in Sierra Leone depends on the colour of your money and political connections.

Appointment to high office has little or nothing to do with competence or capability, but based purely on political influence or graft.

But all this, can be a thing of the past, if only president Koroma and politicians occupying the country’s political landscape – including the opposition, learn the lessons of good governance, respect the rule of law, and allow the judiciary to breathe and function without corrupt and undue political influence.

Writing for theconversation.com about last week’s court ruling in South Africa against president Zuma, Hugh Corder – Professor of Public Law in the University of Cape Town, concludes that: “The essence of the judgment is that the president failed in his duty to “uphold, defend and respect” the constitution and that the National Assembly failed in its duty to hold the executive branch to account.”

Can Sierra Leone’s parliament and judiciary take a leaf from this verdict?

This is what Hugh Corder wrote in his article – ‘Zuma court ruling: South Africans witness a massive day for democracy’:

The accountability of public governance in South Africa has come a long way since 1994. When the transitional constitution was hammered out in negotiations in 1993, the primary consideration was to establish an unshakeable commitment to government under law in terms of a binding constitution.

South Africa court

Founded on the “rule of law”, this means that no one is above the law and that everyone is formally equal before the ordinary courts. No-one, not even the president, may take the law into their own hands. One of the founding values of the constitution is the:

… supremacy of the constitution and the rule of law.

The brand of democracy enshrined in the final constitution of 1996emphasises participation by the people in a multi-party system of democratic government, to achieve “accountability, responsiveness and openness”.

Recognising the democratic deficit that South Africa faced because of the ravages of apartheid, additional mechanisms were introduced to strengthen participative democracy and popular accountability. One of them was the establishment of the office of the Public Protector.

The Constitutional Court’s judgment in Economic Freedom Fighters and Democratic Alliance v The Speaker of the National Assembly, the President and Others represents the exercise of judicial authority and expertise at the highest level by international standards.

The judgment and what it represents

The essence of the judgment is that the president failed in his duty to “uphold, defend and respect” the constitution and that the National Assembly failed in its duty to hold the executive branch to account. Both did this when they effectively ignored the “remedial action” recommended by the Public Protector in her report on the development of the Nkandla homestead.

The court thus ordered the president personally to pay a sum of money in respect of non-security features of the homestead, including the chicken run and the swimming pool. The actual amount is to be determined by the National Treasury.

The court also ordered the president to reprimand cabinet ministers involved in approving those aspects.

But there is much more in the judgment. This is because the Court has chosen this opportunity to state its unambiguous view of several key aspects of South Africa’s democracy. This included:

the separation of powers;

the role of parliament; and

the critical role of the president in advancing constitutional government.

It also has emphatically endorsed the rule of law as the key foundation stone of public governance, and that the courts provide the only channel through which constitutional obligations and rights can be determined.

Someone who disagrees with the law or a constitutional ruling, and then refuses to comply with it – “without recourse to a court of law” – attacks the essence of the country’s constitutional democracy, as President Jacob Zuma did here. The court referred to this as a “self-help” approach.

Zuma and chief justiceSeveral formal aspects of the judgment add to the respect that it deserves: it is unanimous, delivered powerfully by the chief justice; of the 11 justices, only three were not appointed by Zuma; and the judgment is written in an accessible style so that most people can understand it. (Photo: Zuma and the country’s Chief Justice). 

In every sense then, this judgment shows complete fidelity to the constitutional project, embarked on so bravely some 22 years ago.

It has reverberated around the country, indeed internationally, and has been widely welcomed.

The reason for this I’d suggest is that most observers and ordinary citizens have become so used to reports of the unchecked abuse of power, corrupt practices and inefficiencies of service delivery that they have become cynical about the capacity of the constitution and the courts to expose and declare such misconduct unlawful.

More so, some have even questioned the legitimacy of the constitution and the judiciary, and vilified them as part of the problem. So this judgment represents a massive reaffirmation of the ideals on which our post-apartheid dispensation is based, in the best traditions of the “founding fathers and mothers”.

Much hangs on the ANC’s response

The responses of the governing African National Congress (ANC) will have huge ramifications for its future as majority government. Zuma’s fate is in its hands. Only a two-thirds majority vote of the National Assembly can remove him from office.

It therefore remains to be seen whether the president has sufficient support within the caucus and the ANC national executive to avoid this.

Whatever happens, his formal authority has been irrevocably weakened by his misconduct highlighted in this judgment, not to mention all his other indiscretions committed over the past 15 years.

In such circumstances, desperate measures may be resorted to, and we can expect some form of backlash, including further questioning of judicial authority.

How the ANC resolves this fundamental challenge will resound throughout the country and the continent. If democratic constitutionalism is allowed to take its course, there will be many in power who will need to pause to reflect.

After so much recent disappointment, this is a massive day for democracy, not only in South Africa. Would that it signalled the beginning of a new phase of good government faithful to the constitution, also throughout Africa.

About the author

Hugh Corder is Professor of Public Law in the University of Cape Town

theconversation.comAcademic rigour, journalistic flair


  1. I have to start by saying that South Africa has a bright future, whatever economic and social problems it may be facing now. The architect of this will always be Saint Nelson Mandela. May the Almighty grant him perpetual peace.

    South Africa would have gone up in flames had Nelson Mandela associated himself with immortality. But the Saint was intensely aware that like the rest of us he was a passing thing, and that it would be his legacy that would endure in perpetuity, to give generations still to be born a chance of a descent life.

    The man was not power hungry and certainly not insanely materialistic. Not long after he was voted in as president , according to his own words, he became a ceremonial head of state by passing all executive responsibilities to his younger deputy – Thabo M’beki. The Saint insisted on sticking around for just one term.

    Being a trained lawyer, the Saint respected the rule of law, thereby laying the unbreakable foundation on which Jacob Zuma’s political head is at stake, and may roll at any time – an example to Sierra Leone , the rest of Africa and beyond.

    Our own Nelson Mandela – Sir Milton Margai – sadly did not live long enough to thwart the emergence of Siaka Stevens, who laid the foundation for our current political, economic and social malady. We became listless by the time he was through with us. Recovery has been elusive ever since.

    President Koroma now looks like a race horse that has been whipped to a trot. He has proved to be unable to cope with the demands of leadership.

    The only thing we cannot take away from him is his expertise in recycling old hands and kleptomaniacs, while smashing the constitution. Like Siaka Stevens, he seems not to know where his powers end, vis – a – vis the other arms of government

    My belief in a bright future for South Africa rests on the crude fact that it is showing itself as a country where the law respects for no one – including the president. No one tries to blur anything by claiming to have been instructed “from above”, as we are constantly told in Sierra Leone.

    All is not lost on the Continent however. The new Tanzanian President, who frowned at inauguration ceremonies as well as lavish independence celebrations, is a new bright beacon. Believe me, my fellow Sierra Leoneans, this is something I had expected from Earnest Koroma in his first and second term.

    Another bright spot is Senegal’s Marky Sall. With all the levers of power in his hand, he has successfully pushed for a reduction of presidential term by two years.

    Earnest Koroma keeps glancing at a third term to further upstage the constitution. Poor Sierra Leone.

  2. I want to believe President Zuma’s leadership role belongs now to the dustbin of history. And for the good of his country’s democracy and Africa’s hope in the international arena, he should do the noble thing and just resign honourably.

    Corruption is the root of all evils in a country’s national body polity. And for Sierra Leone, it is with us, it sleeps with with us, and it is in the corridors of every public office in the country.

    To fight it, the President should do away with anything connected to tribalism and regionalism. And second, the public should know how government spends the country’s money and this should be published periodically.

    Thanks my noble editor.

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