The Sierra Leone Constitution of 1991 seeks to ensure good governance within the state, but the absence of a transition clause reveals a significant flaw. Without any law to regulate the transfer of power, political transitions in Sierra Leone have always been a ride on the rocks. As a result, incoming presidents always find it challenging to consolidate peace and stability in the first few weeks of governance.
The Governance Transition Team (GTT) report 2018 notes that the transfer of power from one government to another is part of Sierra Leone’s culture. But the transitions have not always gone smoothly in recent times. “Our political system fashioned by the 1991 Constitution has fully not developed the mechanisms necessary to make presidential transitions truly orderly and routinised,” the GTT report reads.
It also indicated that the transfer of power in 2018 took the form of an emergency situation. Several ugly developments, including repeated episodes of violence in some parts of the country, the vandalisation of the President’s lodge at Hill Station and the looting of government vehicles by outgoing officials, according to the report, suggest a legal framework to guide the transfer of power.
In March 2018, President Julius Maada Bio was hastily sworn in at the Raddison Blu Hotel in Freetown instead of State House, which, for years, has been the usual avenue for the oath-taking.The swearing-in ceremony marked the third political transition since the return of multi-party democracy in 1996.
The turbulence, insecurity and threats of violence hanging on the atmosphere pushed the swearing-in ceremony to a different location. It took days for the new President to restore calm and order. Ministers, permanent secretaries, directors-general and other heads of agencies who were disappointed with the declaration of Maada Bio as President allegedly undermined the transition.
Several former government officials abandoned their offices while many melted into thin air. Ministry of Youth Affairs was singled out as one where officials took a French leave due to regime change without handing over notes. The former Minister of Fisheries and Marine Resources, Captain Momodu Alieu Pat-Sowe, left Sierra Leone on the day ex-President Ernest Bai Koroma handed over power to President Bio. The immediate departure of former government officials without proper handing over and taking over procedures became a popular subject for discussions at the defunct commissions of inquiry.
The transition period became more cumbersome when allegations of stealing government vehicles filtered through the public, prompting a counter-response. A group of civilians, led by the sacked Mines Minister, Rado Yokie, were let loose on the streets of Freetown, the capital city, to retrieve what they referred to as stolen assets. Without proper orientation, the vigilantes did not know precisely who should be targeted.
Apart from ministers, senior government officials were relegated to objects of humiliation by the irate youth. High-ranking judicial officials were not spared. A high court judge in Freetown was pushed out of his vehicle on the street not until a call from higher quarters reversed the youth’s action.
Ex-President’s daughter, Alice Mansaray, also became an innocent victim as her residence was raided by the vigilantes for government vehicles. Mrs. Mansaray was mistaken for a government official, and an appeal to Mr. Yokie got the thugs out of her premises. The rampant dismissals of public officials, especially ambassadors, high commissioners and principal representatives abroad and the controversial setting up of commissions of inquiry made matters worse.
The 2018 political transition was not the only rudderless transfer of power Sierra Leone has seen. It could be traced back to 1967 when the Governor-General, Henry Lightfoot Boston, was detained on the orders of the Army Chief, Brigadier David Lansana, on the eve of a transfer of power from Prime Minister Albert Margai to Siaka Probyn Stevens, who was also arrested. Both were, however, released, but the transition never worked well. At that time, conflicts, thuggery and undercurrents of disorder were visible in almost every part of the country, prompting a military take-over immediately followed by a declaration of martial law. The historic, turbulent transition triggered intermittent waves of the political thuggery that defined Sierra Leone’s politics for years. The TRC report, 2004 noted the use of the youth for ephemeral intervention into politics as thugs, especially during transitions.
According to the report, the unwarranted manipulation of the young men constituted an element of disorder in the evolution of the state of Sierra Leone. For an extended period, coups and counter-coups replaced violent transitions. However, the 1996 transition of power from President Bio, then military ruler, to President Ahmed Tejan Kabba was a bit peaceful since Sierra Leoneans had made up their minds for peace. They wanted to see late President Kabba end the war and return Sierra Leone to the development path. Sierra Leoneans would therefore support any move for peace and development at that time. A troublesome transition, however, resurfaced in 2007 when President Kabba handed over power to former President Koroma. The transition was also hallmarked by violence and thuggery as government officials were chased for alleged theft of government vehicles. An order for all public vehicles to halt movement was issued almost immediately after the allegations were made. SLPP headquarters in Freetown was partially vandalised, property worth millions of Leones carted away and women allegedly raped.
To cool down troubled waters, former President Koroma took responsibility for the damage. He donated Le 40m (NLe 40,000) to give back a facelift to the party office.
The former SLPP (Sierra Leone People’s Party) Spokesman, Victor Reider, was intercepted at Gendema, a town bordering Sierra Leone with Liberia, as he tried to escape for his life. Key SLPP sympathisers and supporters who had no business with governance went into hiding due to fear of the government’s reprisals. Senior ‘Tana’ members in Bo city in the Southern region sought safe havens after President Koroma was declared winner of the 2007 elections. ‘Tana’ is a group of loyal SLPP supporters who generated pump and pageantry for late Vice President, Solomon Ekuma Berewa, ex-President Koroma’s main challenger.
Many Sierra Leoneans argued that the Kabba-Koroma transition would have been more violent had the new administration displayed political intolerance to SLPP. Unlike other previous administrations, ex-President Koroma worked with ex-ministers for three months with full pay.
However, a commission of inquiry was set up to look into the management of funds under the SABABU Education project. The tribunal did not last long, as it was closed after investigations were completed. Professor Alpha Tejan Wurie was the main person of interest at the commission. Mature and liberal democracies have transition rules to ensure the smooth transfer of power from outgoing presidents to incoming ones.
The United States is a typical example of a country with a sound transition system. Outgoing presidents spend three months in office after the elections before handing over power. A chronology of recent American political transitions indicates thus: in 2008, President George Washington Bush spent three months in office before handing over to his successor, President Barrack Hussein Obama. Almost invariably Obama transferred power to Donald Trump in 2016 after spending three months in the White House.
Despite challenges and threats of conflicts in the 2020 American elections, Trump stayed in office for three months before President Joe Biden took over.
The trend continues, but will Sierra Leone lend a leaf from other countries that have a clear transition law?