By Beny SAM
Whichever way you may want to look at it, the recently concluded “negotiated dialogue” and its Communique have given us Sierra Leoneans great respite. There is actually no need to continue to be overtly apprehensive. The problem we had was a political one which is being solved politically. The question is why we even allowed the problem to occur in the first place, indeed we saw it all coming. The main Opposition APC Party had all along throughout the 2023 electoral cycle raised all sorts of objections which to a large extent remained unresolved. Please note that by highlighting these issues we are saying that the Opposition acted in the best interest of the nation or that it was in good faith or not. We are not passing any judgment here.
What has been a serious bane in our legal and political system is that for far too long our courts have set precedents that can hardly stand the test of time but done to suit certain interests and in most cases, they have favoured governance incumbents.
We have witnessed a lot of legal “revenging” or “avenging” when government changes and new authorities are put in place. We saw the sacking of a vice-president without due process and the replacement of disqualified elected Members of Parliament with no bye-election. What is interesting is that some of the precedents are set partly due to constitutional lacunas or ambivalence. Do not forget that our present 32-year-old constitution was enacted after the one-party Constitution which for perhaps obvious reasons many dictatorial portions were retained. The Constitutional Review process itself which started in 2015 is yet to be professionally completed in a people focus. The story about that process under both Former President Koroma and current President Bio is a “Musa Wulo story” that never ends. You might be wondering why I am talking like this. Listen, after the Justice Cowan led review gave its report to the previous government, it was negatively edited and an Obnoxious White Paper was released accepting only about 22 out of over 200 recommendations. At the change of government, the Bio Administration accepted less than 40 recommendations which also, though improved fell short of what the people wanted. Well, 14 years on, a new constitution is a pipe dream! This is most unfortunate as so much money has been poured into the Constitution review and we are yet to come to any conclusive fruition. May Justice Cowan’s Patriotic Soul rest in Perfect Peace.
Back to precedents, we are told these refer to a court decision that is considered as authority for deciding subsequent cases involving identical or similar facts, or similar legal issues. Legal precedents are when a case’s circumstances and legal requirements match those of a contemporary legal dispute.
When laws and systems for whatever sector are made, too often they are designed to avoid the mistakes of the past, especially the immediate past. Care should be taken in doing so not to overreact and create a system that goes too far in terms of correcting previous problems. In the case of electoral systems designers would do well to pose some unusual questions to avoid embarrassment in the long run. Let us take the case of the Proportional Representation/ District Block system which we used for the 2023 Parliamentary and Local Government elections. One of the greatest advantages proponents gave was that under this system smaller parties would have representation in parliament thereby enriching our multiparty democracy. Well, our Parliament has gone two-party from the previous four-party.
Possibly the Electoral Commission of Sierra Leone (ECSL) overrated the capability and capacity of the parties. Interestingly many parties could not garner the threshold to have a seat in parliament. We all know many of our motley parties do not have the resources to even field up to 20 % candidates across the country. How can they get voted for when they are not on the ballot paper? Many just hang around and hope for the Presidential re-run so that they can form alliances.
Definitely, as a country that has gone through very horrendous events; we are really tired and just want to move on with our lives quietly without further calamities.
One thing that remains lacking is high voter influence in our country. They do not seriously know how to select within and across parties their candidates. There is this fixity based on ethnicity and region engrained in most Sierra Leonean psyche.
We need to have strong political parties if voter influence has to be maximized. What most parties do is go for short-term advantages for elections and not think of the long-term stability of the Party itself. In some way, the APC is or will face this situation. We should always keep an eye on the broader picture of the country and make our internal party systems so democratic that when you win an election, you can produce a democratically oriented government.
One thing that exacerbated the seeming confusion over the 2023 elections is the review of some of the statutory instruments well in time. The main activities started with the previous Public Elections Act and then much later the new one was used. Granted that electoral laws need review, but also this needs to be done in good time for the Parties to be familiar with them. Even when this is done such laws are never a panacea for all previous challenges of a country. Even a well-crafted electoral system, can be rubbished by an inappropriate constitutional dispensation. In our situation, we also had dominated forces of discord both internally and externally that threw spanners in the governmental works. These undermined our strength as a nation.
As we have seen the rigmarole of our constitution review is suffering, sometimes reform is perceived more as a case of politicians altering the rules for their benefit. Most damaging are situations when the change is seen to be a blatant manoeuvre for political gain. What is disturbing is that defects emanating thereof cannot be easily fixed. Our current electoral system dictates that there will be winners and losers. Of course in this case there are always vested interests. Authorities should take the work towards the new constitution more seriously as a starting point for national peace and cohesion.