It is too often evident that when individuals want to lend some authenticity or credence to what they say or do, they fall back on the law… be it a county’s constitution, party constitution, bye laws, policies, minutes, reports and the like. When the dead are buried and mourned, the next thing discussed is their Will, which is if they left one. Of course in these days of austerity not many people write Wills, in any case there is often nothing to write Wills. Perhaps it is even No will No Cry. As a civil society activist for quite a long time and a keen socio-economic and political analyst in my own little way, I have seen a lot of disjoint between the law and the reality. As I often reiterate art is permanent, nature is transient. You hardly find things that are consistent and permanent. In fact they will tell you that the only thing in life that is consistent is inconsistency.
One does not need to be a lawyer to know that part of our problems of governance and human rights to see the gaps and grey areas in our laws. The first area of concern is the fact that laws are made most times in isolation. This to some extent is understandable given the needs at the particular moment that gave rise to that law. Take what has been happening in the mining sector. Over the years civil society has come in strong to point out how mining should be people friendly. The mining laws have been revised at least twice over the past decades. But like every law the realities on the ground soon overtake it and make it inadequate.
I particularly find it interesting that even with the bandying of sound concepts like the EITI, EIA and the latest, corporate social responsibility we still need to see a pro-poor legislation that bails the country out of the present near waste of God given resources that only turn round to be a cause for agony of the foot citizen. One good and interesting thing about the NGO/CSO world of development is its inexhaustible list of concepts and jargons like human rights, good governance, democracy, sustainable livelihoods, participation, and ownership etcetera. These have over the years been traded off the abundance on concepts and jargons that of late are now traded off to the public. It is very usual to hear especially the mobile phone companies talking like this: ” As a company meeting its corporate social responsibility we will do all we can to continue promoting the welfare of students…” It is a very good development that civil society and corporate bodies can actually speak the same language.
Now coming back to our laws a major step in the right direction could be when a particular is to be made; a holistic approach is taken up so as to make it stand the test of time. Take mining again. Mining alone touches so many aspects of life that in making laws on it one has to consider all those sectors. Mining touches on livelihoods, human rights, the environment, the economy, security, tourism, business/commerce, agriculture, food security, governance, democracy, youth and recreation, disaster, transparency, gender, education, infrastructure and poverty reduction. I have just named eighteen…but this is not exhaustive. This shows how dicey the whole issue of making laws for a sector is a complex issue. As you can see the entire sector need to be part or else the law will not stand up to the test of time, and we cannot afford to be changing laws too frequently.
What has caught my attention since the 2004 Local Government elections is the fact that we are spending far too much on conducting elections. I some times ask my self whether we can ever conduct elections without international financial support. Have we ever thought of finding ways of conducting our elections in such a way that the financial burden is reduced without compromising democracy? I strongly believe that in life there must be compromises…compromise is not always negative, it sometimes demonstrates collaboration and cooperation with the bid to achieving progress. Some people say we don’t have to compromise ideals. I will tell you that a country that depends on donors for as much as 40% of its budget has already compromised its territorial integrity or sovereignty. I am sure if the United Nations Charter is reviewed, a lot of those incongruous concepts like sovereignty or territorial integrity may be expunged as they have long outlived their value.
Although elections in Sierra Leone have hardly been violence free the conduct of the Electoral Commission especially since James Jonah, had passed been most acceptable and democratic given the particular circumstances. One can safely say that all elections form 1967 to late President Momoh were travesty of democracy to say the least. That is why the Jonah – Thorpe styles have been almost overwhelming. A lot of Sierra Leoneans still wonder how we were able to perform so very well. But…but…but I am worried about what I see as wastage especially on Bye elections. Let us realize that democracy itself is still to some extent an intractable concept that needs a lot of compromises. Even the greatest democracies allow compromises. I believe that as long as people are the key protagonists of democracy there can hardly ever be a full proof democracy. In a partisan situation where there has to be a loser there is always some voice crying foul…this voice though feeble in fact strengthens democracy. That is why the minority lone voice has to be heard.
Let us take the two Bye-elections recently in Sorogbema and Port Loko. See the violence that stepped in causing scores of people to reportedly flee beyond their constituency borders. The disenfranchisement of these people is more important to me than the fact that the elections were held. Some times it is more important how things are done than merely what was done. Yes the elections were held after a postponement caused by violence…a matter yet to be investigated and report made public. Never mind we may never get reports of the many violent incidents that have occurred over time. Do I hear you say bonfi, buff and fomefein? Well I don’t know. Dear country men for each of the two elections upcountry we were told NEC needed about Le 108 million! For a country that is literally always begging for donor funds for virtually everything, I find this ludicrous if not foolhardy. Perhaps we need knee caps to protect the begging knees of our leaders.
I have been thinking a lot about Bye-elections and I now strongly feel that we do not need them. I will tell you why. Indeed parties won at the main election. So the laws should take that into consideration and just find a compromise in which the party that had won easily provides the replacement of either the MP or the Councilor see ambivalence in the laws. There are situations in which replacement of a dead representative is done within the party that had actually won. In a nation where people can do anything to get power, Bye elections can actually encourage contenders to cause the death of winning candidates knowing that they might have a chance in a Bye-election. Through sheer intimidation a popular candidate may lose. Another issue is, the party in power may have an edge over others in a Bye-election. During the main elections since all candidates are at the same level, no known winner people vote their conscience… some thing NEC itself preaches. So the question is how fair can Bye-elections be, given recent violence that visited the Sorogbema situation and of course the whooping sum involved for a poverty malnourished nation like ours. Granted that people will continue to die since that is the only way we can get out of this world what if we have so many of these and we do not have the cash to conduct bye-elections? What is wrong for the party that had won to replace the candidate…I am sure those advocating for the return of the Proportional Representation will definitely love this one. If our concern is more to avoid elections violence and cutting down on costs we can’t afford by ourselves then we might try this. Even in our traditions there are other ways of filling governance positions apart from risking expensive elections. Remember that the life span of MPs is five years and Councilors have four years. Let us say an average of 25 MPs and 10 Councilors leave office every two years. Then we have at least a total of 70 Bye elections. This accounts for between 8 to 9 Billion Leones. In a country where some government ministries’ annual budgets are less than Le 2 Billion, this sounds outrageously unsound. I really think people should be made to understand the whole budgetary process. Definitely what is saved on the so called Bye-elections could go to source other very vital areas that perhaps hinge on people’s livelihoods. I know all the monies coming to the country from the various funding sourses are seen in totality…even those that come through NGOs. Some people say oh the money is coming from donors yes…but do not forget that Sierra Leone also has its own contribution.
The other issue is how critical and impact creating are the Bye-elections from the point on view of the electorate. People get frustrated that they vote time and time again but then do not get their pains worth. We have seen poor turn outs at Bye-elections which also mean money is wasted! The argument of saying that is what the law says is not tenable when reality comes into play. I can give examples. The 1996 elections were done on proportional representation. My Psychology lecturer once said that abnormal situations breed abnormal situations. Even the snail has a time when it increases its speed. Looking at NEC, they too cannot use the argument of going by the laws. This is simply because they too have been using discretion on certain issues especially when time and resources were not their best friends. You can well remember the problems of security that was to be provided by the police but then the police were looking up to NEC to provide the resources like fuel. The public was never able to know exactly where to draw the line between the responsibilities. This clearly shows that even the law cannot say everything. Some things are left hanging as caveats open to discretion. One important thing that needs to be pointed out on which NEC took discretion during the 2007 and 2008 elections were this issue of Exhibition of Voters lists for verification. This did not actually happen as spelt out in the law, but it did not markedly affect the elections…although civil society observing the process saw it as depriving the electorate a chance to vet. So for me the same discretion could be placed in the laws to save us the violence and whooping sums of money spent on bye-elections.
There are other issues on which compromises were done. Take the issue of information sharing on party campaigns. The law books are ambivalent on this. Some say paramount chiefs should be notified and others say that parties should seek clearance from paramount chiefs. Also take the case of the electoral Laws saying that political parties were to declare assets 21 days after the announcement of the date for elections. In fact the PPRC threatened and threatened until they became worn out and kept quiet. Yet no party was disqualified from contesting even when many could not field candidates beyond waterloo. How shameful that every Jack and Harry wants to be a presidential candidate…just for the records. These were all compromises by statutory election bodies some of which of course they will say were done in good faith! Let us face it which statutory body dares challenge the APC and the SLPP especially when they are in power. This is the problem…perhaps only Dr Christiana Thorpe’s NEC did it, but not without seeming dissentions.
Perhaps one of our greatest problems is non compliance with laws. Even the high- performing Anti-corruption Commission was not able to succeed with the MPs and Ministers on the issue of assets declaration. They had to do two postponements or so. This itself was compromise… but of course do we expect the ACC to have dragged the many defaulters to court. What if there was a stand – off, who will win? This brings me to the issue of the powers of the presidency. Honestly the powers are so much that it is only the liberalism of a president that prevents autocracy. No statutory commission can be appointed without the presidential approval. Of course the presidency has the prerogative to appoint the Head of the Commissions. It is often said that you cannot bite the finger that feeds you. Think hard on this and see why compromises are indeed part of democracy whether we like it or not. Stop spending hundreds of millions on bye- elections when people need food on the table. Remember the countries helping us are cutting down on their funds because of the current credit crunch…or Don’t you know?
By S. Beny SAM