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Another test of Koroma's democratic credentials

By James Tamba Lebbie

In spite of the fact that he was elected to parliament under the ticket of the ruling APC party, I have tried, fruitlessly, to reach my Member of Parliament for Constituency 81 (formerly known as Kono-South Constituency) with the object to solicit his views regarding the swift passing by parliament of the constitutional amendment bill on Tuesday, 19 November, now awaiting presidential assent. I'm told he is out of the country. The concerns and/or questions I wanted to put to him were whether he supported the passing of the bill and if his answer was in the affirmative, I would have also asked him whether he held any consultation with his constituents on the matter. I'm inclined to say that the answer to the latter is an emphatic NO!

But of course, the Deputy Majority Leader, Ibrahim Bundu, MP, had pointed out in a radio programme that it was not necessary to consult with their constituents or the general public because the issues concerned them directly coupled with the fact that the section of the constitution they wanted to amend was not an entrenched clause. This perhaps,  begs the question as to whether our elected members of parliament are representing themselves or the people.

Meanwhile it is important to look at the section of the constitution that our MPs are uncomfortable with and therefore wanted amended even if against a groundswell of public outcry; then I will delve into the arguments and counter-arguments for the amendment itself, and the timing and method of it.

Section 79 (1) of the 1991 Constitution states thus: "The Speaker of Parliament shall be elected by the Members of Parliament from among persons who are Members of Parliament or are qualified to be elected as such and who are qualified to be appointed Judges of the Superior Court of Judicature or have held such office: Provided that a person shall be eligible for election as Speaker of Parliament notwithstanding that such person is a Public Officer or a Judge of the High Court, a Justice of the Court of Appeal or a Justice of the Supreme Court, and such person, if elected, shall retire from the Public Service on the day of his election with full benefits."

To come to the arguments, one MP told a local radio station that in the whole world only Sierra Leone still had a Speaker who is not an elected Member of Parliament. In addition, some of the views proffered by the Deputy Majority Leader sounded intelligent even if they were unacceptable because they were probably farfetched. For instance, he argued that because there was a constitutional provision (Section 54 /6) for the possibility of the Speaker acting as President in the event both the President and the Vice President were out of the country, the possibility existed that the country would be ruled by someone (an unelected Speaker) should that section be invoked. Hence their position that Section 79 of the constitution be amended. And while he could not elaborate on other reasons which he said he could not thrust in the public domain, many observers were left to hazard a guess that the relationship between many of the MPs and the current Speaker of Parliament was getting frosty apparently because of his enormous powers, especially when it comes to overseas travels. And the absence of the Speaker in Parliament to preside over the amendment proceedings could lend credence to such a speculation.

A counter-argument by those on the other side of the debate, including civil society groups, is that, first, as a response to the point made by one MP that Sierra Leone is the only country with a Speaker who is not a Member of Parliament, a senior colleague told me that countries including the US and the UK cited by that MP have matured democracies. There, their elected representatives are well educated and they think beyond their narrow partisan interests and think issues and public interest. Therefore, the comparison is out of place. Others are of the opinion that  there is an existing constitutional guarantee for the election of a Speaker who is also a Member of Parliament, so why the fuss.

Moreover, they raised the question as to why MPs are in a hurry for an amendment of a part of the constitution when the President has put together the Constitutional Review Commission (CRC) tasked with the responsibility to review the entire 1991 Constitution through public participation. A spokesman for a coalition of civil society groups who feels very strongly about the speedy passage of the bill, Ibrahim Tommy who is also executive director of Centre for Accountability and Rule of Law (CARL) said on radio that they were not concerned about the quality or otherwise of the amendment but the timing of it. In their judgment therefore, such a move is considered a deliberate attempt to undermine the work of the CRC.

Suffice it to say that this is not the first time our elected leaders are undermining state institutions and bodies set up to expedite the democratic process. Institutions including the Independent Media Commission (IMC) have been undermined and rendered impotent much to public ridicule. A case in point is the decision by the IMC to give a license to AfriMedia to operate its radio but was arm-twisted by State House to rescind its decision. After some time, the IMC is being pursued again by the same authorities to revert to its original decision against the backdrop of the fact that AfriMedia is in court seeking redress. And there are several instances where state institutions have been undermined and rendered useless but that could be a subject of a subsequent piece.

To return to this issue of constitutional amendment, there seems to be many questions than answered. In the first place, the swift passage of the bill has led many to ask why other important bills are gathering dust on the shelves in parliament. Many believe - and perhaps with some justification - that the freedom of information bill, which took many years in parliament was only passed into law because of the requirements of the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) compact with Sierra Leone.

Another sheer hypocrisy in this whole constitutional amendment process is that when civil society and media rights activists asked the government for the decriminalization of the obnoxious seditious libel law, it was referred to the just-commissioned constitutional review process. However, when it comes to amending the constitution for the election of the Speaker, Parliament has no reason to wait for that same review process.

And conspiracy theories among a suspecting public are abound with regards parliament's decision to amend the constitution. For some, with the ruling APC having an overwhelming majority in the House, coupled with the fact the constitutional amendment has taken place against the backdrop of an apparently failed attempt to sell a presidential third term bid, many are viewing the recent move by the APC-dominated parliament as another attempt to revive that third term debate; hence their belief that President Koroma will ratify the bill into a law.

Another conspiracy theory is that with the election of a Speaker who is a Member of Parliament, our MPs can now move to debate an increase in their emoluments. Others are also suspicious that with its majority in parliament, the APC could now move to enact "bad" laws like it did in the past when the country was "under a one-party dictatorship."

I will conclude my piece by making the point that even if our MPs have some reasonable point for their move, they lost the ability to market their argument because of the apparent deep-seated suspicion for and the disappearance of trust in our politicians. Their ostensibly myopic focus for far too long on their shallow partisan concerns at the expense of public and national interests has led to such apathy within the public. And the quality, or lack of it, of the education of many of our elected MPs has also not helped their argument. In a nutshell, the enlightened public is simply not convinced that our elected representatives have the ability to rise above their narrow party interests.

Therefore, as the public discuss the merits and demerits of the latest parliamentary move, the country and its international partners await the decision of the president to give the bill his assent or not. And this could be another test of the president's democratic credentials.

(C) Politico 21/11/13