By Umaru Fofana
Like with the Criminal and Seditious Libel Law of 1965, any opposition politicians will see as a bane a certain provision of Sierra Leone’s Electoral Laws Act of 2002, but when they get into office they bay for its retention with bated dedication and it changes from being an anachronism to becoming a law of extreme necessity.
Section 39/1 of that Act clearly spells out that “A person elected to the office of President shall, subject to subsection (2), assume that office on the date upon which he is declared elected by the Returning Officer…” Subsection 2 referenced above simply states that the declared winner must take an oath of before assuming office. All in under 24 hours. This is a clear mess at the presidency of our country that needs to be cleared up to make way for a more civilised and organized transition.
Ours is a Presidential system, not a Westminster or Parliamentary democracy where, among other things, ministers are drawn entirely from the House hence the cabinet is almost entirely known even before election, as there is provision for a Shadow Cabinet. Here it is the direct opposite – ministers MUST NOT be Parliamentarians.
Like with the 55% threshold to win, outright, a presidential election – probably the only country in the world where that is – the Same-Day system of announcing result and being sworn into office stifles a smooth transition of power and creates more vacuum than it seeks to avoid or avert. Petitions are possible – almost certain – after an election, and a smooth transfer of power is of extreme importance, which cannot happen with the Same-Day provision for a president-elect. In fact our laws hardly have any provisions for a president-elect. There is no time for it to exist. By the time a president is elected, he is under oath to start to serve as such.
Imagine the messy outcomes that most times accompany a presidential election in Africa and indeed in Sierra Leone, either as a result of an incumbent rigging the polls or an opposition being declared the winner. I would not be far from correct if I thought the thinking behind this clause was to ensure an incumbent presidential candidate or party couldn’t have a rigged result overturned when once the swearing-in ceremony has happened. Imagine if the election results in 2007 had been rigged in favour of the incumbent party and candidate. He would have been sworn in within 24 hours with no time for the courts to look into a petition. And knowing our court system and what it is in relation to government influence, one can only imagine that our judiciary would rule against an incumbent in such a case.
Again with the situation in 2007, the same-day law made a messy situation of our governance. While supporters of the winning candidate were busy chasing ministers out of their offices especially after the swearing-in ceremony of the new president, the ministries were left without political heads. So much so that even when the new man called for outgoing ministers to stay and hold on to the fort until further notice, they were dampened in spirit.
Sierra Leone needs a Transition Act that will spell out clearly when election results are announced, and one that allows for a reasonable time for appeals, petitions and preparation for a swearing-in ceremony and a transfer of power. Between winning and swearing-in the president-elect would have had time to cool off from the election vicissitudes and put together a list of his/her cabinet list for vetting by parliament.
The United States system is pretty good. Imagine where there was no adequate time allowance between voting and swearing-in ceremony and the aftermath of the contentious and long drawn-out conundrum that the Al Gore-George Bush election contest turned out to be in 2000.
A Transition Law will allow for outgoing ministers to give a proper account of their stewardship. It will enable a clean and civilised transition process not one that is fraught with rancour. It will allow for the outgoing government and the incoming one to hold fruitful dialogue in ensuring that a proper handing-over takes place. I know those that will be on their way out will become lame duck but they will have to answer to questions for actions taken – or not taken – rugs removed, cars not accounted for, money spent onto the day of handing over. Their staff will have to be accountable to them until that time reaches when they cease to function – not out of any magnanimity by the president-elect but because the law says so.
Even Senegal has a transition process. The new Kenya constitution makes adequate provision for that. The lack thereof was a reason for the civil strife that followed the rigging of the poll some four years ago or so. It is time Sierra Leone should look at ways of ensuring we also have our own transition process