Pres. Bio Leading But Not In Charge?

Does Sierra Leone have a Chief Minister or a Prime Minister?

By Basita Michael

Me: Good afternoon Siri

Siri: Good afternoon.

Me: I’m confused! Who is in charge of the Government of Sierra Leone?

Siri: I found this on the web (It referred me to some websites including Britannica and Wikipedia)

Me: Okay Siri! Who is the Chief Minister of Sierra Leone?

Siri: I found this on the web (It referred me to some websites including few that made cross references to Prime Minister)

Me: No Siri I want a direct answer. Do not refer me to websites

Siri: Here is what I found (It referred me again to some websites including ones that made cross references to Prime Minister)

Me: Okay then who is the Prime minister of Sierra Leone?

Siri: The Prime Minister of Sierra Leone is David Francis since May 8, 2018.

This is not fiction. It is a real conversation I had with Siri, the voice activated digital assistant of Apple IPhones. I was quite taken by surprise when Siri without hesitation instantly and authoritatively answered that the Prime Minister of Sierra Leone is David Francis. For a second I paused and asked myself whether we had transitioned from a Presidential System to a Prime Ministerial one overnight and no one had knowledge of it. The last time I checked the last Prime Minister of Sierra Leone was Siaka Stevens under the 1961 constitution. Given this confusion and the fact that Siri can sometimes get stupid in answering questions put to it such as in this case I had to cross check with Google and ask the same question. The first answer and result given by Google was Wikipedia and it read “David John Francis (born October 5, 1965) is a Sierra Leonean politician, academic and author serving as Chief Minister of Sierra Leone since April 2018.”

Indeed it is hardly news that Siri and Wikipedia can sometimes be unreliable sources. However it also clearly shows that to the outside world, Sierra Leone has a “Prime Minister”, and the terms “Prime Minister” and “Chief Minister” are used interchangeably with reference to our own David John Francis. For instance, according to Wikipedia “The office of Prime Minister was abolished after the constitutional referendum in 1978, and reinstated in 2018 with the appointment of David J. Francis as Chief Minister.”  A view that is apparently also shared by David John Francis as can be seen in a report by Betty Milton of Awoko newspaper dated the 25th June 2018. After his appointment David Francis was quoted saying “This is the first time, as far back as 1961, a Chief Minister has been appointed, interviewed and approved by Parliament.”

The idea that the Office of the Chief Minister is a post that has been resurrected by President Bio is misconceived. Here is the reason; unlike the 1991 constitution which created a republic with an executive presidency, “the Independence Constitution of Sierra Leone in 1961 created a parliamentary system in the Westminster mold, with apparently less than absolute separation of powers among the three branches of government.  The Governor General delegated executive power to the Prime Minister and his cabinet, who were chosen from among Members of Parliament. Moreover historically and conventionally the term Chief Minister describes someone who is over and above other ministers and is the Head of the government. Sir Milton Margai was referred to as Chief Minister but he had executive powers over and above the other Ministers and was the head of the Government.”

According to Dr. Abdulai Conteh “When Sir Milton Margai was Chief Minister in the run up to independence, he was the head of the cabinet ministers, superintended by the Governor, who was the direct representative of her Majesty. One of his powers included nominating for ministerial offices, which were approved by the Governor under the control and direction of the colonial office in London.”

Therefore creating the impression that the office of the Chief Minister as we know it today is the same or equal to that of the Chief Ministers or Prime ministers of 1961 as propounded by David Francis, Siri and google is wrong both de facto and de jure. Generally the Chief Minister or the Prime minister is typically elected by a legislative body, of which he or she is also a member. In the U.K., for instance, Prime Ministers are not voted into office by the Public but are the leaders of the majority party in Parliament, but appointed by the Queen. The Prime Minister is also typically the leader of the Government and is ultimately responsible for the policy and decisions of the government. As leader of the UK government the Prime Minister also:

  • oversees the operation of the Civil Service and government agencies
  • appoints members of the government
  • is the principal government figure in the House of Commons”

As a general rule, then, the Prime Minister as head of government has more practical political power than the president, whose role as head of state is largely ceremonial.

On the basis of the above the tendency to equate the office of the Chief Minister to the one that existed in 1961 and to that of the Prime Minister, creates the erroneous idea that David Francis is the one who dominates the Cabinet and not the President, that David Francis has the power to hire and fire ministers and not the President, that David Francis exercises control over the Cabinet’s structure, agenda and meetings and not the President.

The tendency to equate the office of the Prime Minister to that of the chief minister and the idea that the Chief Minister is serving in the same capacity as the Chief Minister of 1961, whether they are improperly motivated or ill-advised creates confusion, and possibly constitutional questions that can have significant impact upon the exercise of Executive Authority.

Why the Confusion:

The seed of delusion and confusion was planted the moment the President created the office of the Chief Minister in 2018. The question of why in the first place the President decided to create the office of the chief Minister sparked intense debate. No one was expecting that position. When president Bio was campaigning for the Presidency as an opposition politician, he never mentioned that he was going to create the office of the Chief Minister and it is alleged that the office was not duly approved by the SLPP party. He took everyone by surprise when he did.  The debate also revolved around whether such position was constitutional, whether such change is necessary or important since there is a Vice President, and what this change would entail in practice.

Is the office of the Chief Minister constitutional?

Constitutionally in Sierra Leone the President acts as both head of state and head of government. Section 40 subsection 1 of the 1991 multiparty constitution provides that “There shall be a President of the Republic of Sierra Leone who shall be Head of State, the supreme executive authority of the Republic and the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces.” The Constitution of Sierra Leone does not expressly enumerate the powers and functions of the President, but simply provides, in section 53(1), that ‘subject to the provisions of this constitution the executive power in Sierra Leone shall vest in the President and may be exercised by him directly or through members of the Cabinet, Ministers, Deputy Ministers or Public officers subordinate to him.’

This provision in the constitution therefore clearly shows that the President can delegate to his Ministers his executive powers and functions. The question therefore whether the creation of the office of the Chief Minister by the President is constitutional can be clearly answered in the affirmative with reference to section 53 (1).

Notwithstanding the powers of the President under the constitution to create any ministry, the creation of the office of the Chief Minister which is expressly not provided for in the constitution connotes a subjugation of other ministers to this “Chief Minister”. According to Dr. Abdulai Conteh “This negates the necessity, concept, doctrine and practice of collective responsibility. In so far as the formulation of policies by the cabinet as envisaged in the constitution, all ministers are collectively responsible for the governance of this country. To single one of them out as chief is to undercut the ethos and practice of collective responsibility.”

Why Was The Office Created?

In the Media Release of the 1st of May 2018 the motivation behind the President’s appointment was briefly stated. It says that the President appointed the Chief Minister as part of his efforts to ensure that his new government delivers on key strategic priorities.

On taking office, the Chief Minister was quoted saying “My office works as the coordinating link at the ministerial level with all ministries but also at the cabinet level and the day to day operational level with the Office of the Secretary to the President.” He said, “This is the place where we coordinate and push the implementation of government programs from the center to key structural train. Francis said, “For this country and the New Direction to succeed it needs a strong Presidency, strong center. That is why the Office of the Chief Minister was constituted.” According to Francis, “Colleagues who are now ministers and those that have served as ministers before are saying that they are very pleased that the President appointed a Chief Minister because we have somebody who follows and coordinates the implementation at that level.” (https://awoko.org/2018/06/29/sierra-leone-news-chief-minister-chief-organizer/

Does it overlap with the office of the VP?

In response to pundits who opined that the VP’s office and that of the Chief Minister overlapped and clashed, the above media report quoted the Chief Minister to have said, “The VP is the principal assistant to the President. The role of the Chief Minister is not even in the Constitution. It is a presidential prerogative. My role as Chief Minister is to support the President and Vice President in the delivery of their executive functions.”

Indeed since the creation of the Office of Chief Minister by the President, there have been reports of duplication of roles especially when set against the office and functions of the Vice President as Principal Assistant to the President. It raised the question of the extent to which the office of the Chief Minister overlaps with the Office of the VP. A look into the official role and responsibilities of the Chief Minister is most relevant for any attempt to answer the above questions. Media release dated the 1st May 2018 from the Government of Sierra Leone, State House, Office of the Press Secretary, states as follows:

“Some of the roles and responsibilities of the new Chief Minister of Government will include:

•        Under the directive of the Executive President, the Chief Minister will provide competent leadership for the day-to-day operational coordination, oversight, monitoring, and evaluation of government business.

•        The Chief Minister serves as the central hub responsible for the overall coordination and facilitates the implementation of the Government’s Strategic Priorities.

•        Working with all Government ministers, the Chief Minister facilitates the coordination and implementation of government policies across all Ministries, Departments, and Agencies (MDAs).

•        As directed by the Executive President, the Chief Minister chairs the 3 cross-cutting sectoral ministries for inter-governmental co-ordination including Education and Social Development Sector Ministries; Finance and Economic Development Sector Ministries, and the Peace, Security, and Justice Sector Ministries.

The Office of the Chief Minister incorporates the former Office of the Chief of Staff and is supported by the following strategic directorates: Directorate of Presidential Infrastructural Projects and Service Delivery (DPIPSD); Directorate of Strategy, Policy and Planning (DSPP); Directorate of Performance Management, Monitoring and Evaluation (DPMME); Millennium Challenge Coordinating Unit (MCCU); and Directorate of Institute for Science and Technology (DIST). A Permanent Secretary will provide the administrative leadership for the Office of the Chief Minister.”

Though the functions and roles of the office of the Chief Minister are spelt out expressly that of the Vice president are not.  However section 54 (1) of the 1991 constitution provides that “there shall be a Vice President of the Republic of Sierra Leone who shall be the Principal assistant to the President in the discharge of his executive functions.”

Set against the functions delegated to the Chief Minister above as principal assistant to the President in the discharge of his executive functions what now are the functions of the VP having regard to those functions delegated to the Chief Minister? What does the Principal assistant to the President entails now vis a viz the Chief Minister? And what happens when the President and the Chief Minister travel out of the country who takes over the functions and roles assigned to the Chief Minister? Is it the Vice President? Answers to the above questions remain unclear and all attempts to reach the office of the Chief Minister proved futile.

According to Dr. Abdulai Conteh because of the office of the chief minister “we now have a pull and push of forces between the offices of the Chief Minister and that of the Vice President and the latter is expressly the Principal Assistant provided for in the constitution. This has undermined the VP negating its efficacy as the Principal adviser to the President. The existence of the office of the Chief Minister brings in a strain and confusion as to the role, relevance and function of the VP. The VP’s office is created by the constitution, unlike the office of the Chief Minister which is nowhere mentioned or intended under the constitution but is now given assigned roles. The creation of the office is an aberration.”

 Who Is In Charge Of Running The Country?

In view of the numerous roles and significant powers and functions officially assigned to the Chief Minister, the public perception is that it would appear President Bio is leading but he is not in charge. The Chief Minister vested with such significant powers seems to suggest that the President has removed some functions from his office to that of the office of the Chief Minister thereby reducing the role of the Presidency.

It is not surprising therefore to hear many citizens say that the Leader they voted for has less influence in the day to day running of the Government than the Chief Minister. Many also tend to believe that while the President is the “Face of the country” he the President wields a lot less power and the government is actually being controlled by a more influential figure in the Person of the Chief Minister who holds much practical power in the everyday affairs of the Government. Furthermore it sets up the argument that President Bio is not practicing Presidential government in the sense in which the founders of the 1991 constitution intended and in the sense in which his predecessors did.

In this regard Dr. Abdulai Conteh stated that “The Chief Minister is presently at odds with the administrative experience of this country. The Office of the Chief Minister exists in states that are federalists in structure like Australia, India and Canada. But for a Unitary state like Sierra Leone with an executive Presidency the office of Chief Minister is an unnecessary encrustation on the edifice of the administrative and political structure of the country. The roles assigned to the Chief Minister empties the office of the executive presidency of mush of its content and almost render it symbolic.”  

What Does Bio’s Unconventional Approach Suggest?

It is noteworthy that whilst most Presidents seek to exercise greater control over events and expand their powers unconventionally and sometimes unconstitutionally, President Bio has thankfully exhibited no desire to do so. An approach that some believe requires a principled restraint that perhaps extends beyond the capabilities of most politicians but which can be found in a disciplined military personnel. Nevertheless this laudable restraint also raises several questions. Does it mean that the President cannot deliver the New Direction without the Chief Minister?    

Is The Office Of The Chief Minister Desirable?

There are those who hold the view that indeed the office of the Chief Minister is necessary and important. Many believe that “since the President spends a lot of time abroad trying to convince the world that Sierra Leone is open for business, the office of the Chief Minister is needed to help coordinate the work of Government, ensure implementation, coordinate the work of various ministers to ensure delivery, so that the President focuses on high level strategic matters.”

However this view is not shared by some. According to Abdul M Fatoma of Campaign for Human Rights and Development International, Sierra Leone, “The role of the Chief Minister is that of a Prime Minister. He is just like a President ceremonially. We were not prepared to accommodate such administrative restructuring. Look at the resources we have and the promises of this government to the people of this country.  Ministers are supposed to report to the Chief Minister and supervised by him.  But we have ministers who would tell you they are taking directives from the Vice President or the President himself and not the Chief Minister.”

Within the first seven or so months of this administration, Fatoma said, “this was not the case as everybody was answerable to the Chief Minister. If there is chaos in supervision and monitoring, the consequence is inefficient and poor result for Ministers and the President himself has admitted that they have not done that much. The restructuring of the governance system is what has brought us to where we are. It is not working. We never had a plan for that. We were not used to such a pattern.  Bringing it needed some orientation not just at cabinet level but at the level of directors. This keeps making people think the Chief Minister is in charge and the President isn’t. But then whenever the president travels, he takes his Chief Minister along.”  For him, he doesn’t think the position of a Chief Minister is necessary. “It should be abolished. They can get him another job. We haven’t seen any tangible result from that office.  It is a mockery to our democracy.”

As far as Dr. Abdulai, he is concerned the office is an aberration. “The office of the Chief Minister as it exists today is an anachronism and a misnomer because it represents a throw back to our evolution from colonial status to an independent sovereign country. It is an anachronism because since independence nobody had held the office of Chief Minister in this country and there was no provision in the constitution and laws of this country for a chief minister as borne out by the 1961 constitution, 1971, 1978 and ultimately the current 1991 constitution. There is no place or scheme or intendment for the office of the Chief Minister in the present constitution.”

Such public sentiments about the office of the Chief Minister may be one of the reasons why it was vital that debate over the office was drawn on the broadest scope of opinion and information possible before his appointment. However that did not happen. His appointment was said to be unexpected.

Has the office of the Chief Minister lived up to expectations?

As all attempts to get a response from the Office of the Chief Minister proved impossible we can only attempt to answer the above question based on the achievement the Chief Minister reported of the New Direction prior to the 3rd Cabinet Retreat in Freetown. 

It was reported that The Chief Minister unequivocally stated that the Government of President Bio firmly remains on track in the delivery of the manifesto commitment.  He noted that though there are challenges, yet much progress has been made in laying the foundations for a prosperous Sierra Leone. He reiterated President Bio’s stance that 2020 is a year to consolidate on the achievements and successes of the New Direction Government. He stated that a scheduled cabinet retreat was to firm-up the collective commitments for the effective service delivery to the last mile. He highlighted key achievements of the New Direction Government.

We bring you some of those he highlighted as key achievements: After 12 years of trial, the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), a United States Foreign Aid agency in 2019 positively assessed Sierra Leone under the leadership of President Bio in the control of corruption, ruling justly and investing in people with pass marks in guaranteeing democratic rights, civil liberties, the rule of law, health and primary education expenditures. The MCC also gave a pass mark to the government of President Bio in the area of economic freedom, trade policy, gender in the economy and business start-up; Reviewed the Anti-Corruption Act to make it more robust in the fight against corruption; The government of President Bio paid $1.2 billion domestic debt left by ex-president Koroma of the APC; In 2019, President Bio launched Africa’s first blockchain and decentralized digital platform under the National Civil Registration Authority (NCRA) in Sierra Leone; Established and operationalized the Directorate of Science, Technology and Innovation (DSTI) under the Office of the President, among other achievements he outlined.

The question that arises from the above and for the public to ponder is whether these “achievements” could have been achieved by Ministers without a Chief Minister or whether they are due to the role of the Chief Minister.

However At the 3rd Cabinet Retreat, it was reported that President Bio informed all MDAs that the people of Sierra Leone are eager for effective and efficient service delivery which are not just on papers, but real and visible delivery that will change the lives of the ordinary citizens. He asked the Chief Minister, Professor David John Francis who served as Chair for this year’s retreat to be more intrusive and make sure all MDA’s work together and deliver to satisfaction. Declaring the year 2020 as a year for delivery, President Bio declared war on MDAs heads that are not professional, discipline and prompt in taking actions on service delivery matters. “I have no yellow card in my 2020 service delivery move, we MUST deliver and on time”. He stated.

Are the words of President Bio a testament that the office of the Chief Minister has not lived up to the expectations of the President and has not moved things any faster than the Government could have without the office?. Or could it be that the President has delegated further executive authority to and influence on the Chief Minister because he has faith in him and the office of the Chief Minister? 

Challenges:  

For those who imagined that the New Direction era would quickly bring major reforms, President Bio’s tenure so far has struggled to fulfill those ambitions. Though they point to what they inherited and the severe debt they said they met, almost two years in, progress in the country has come either slowly or not at all. The Country’s economy continues to decline, just as it had during the last administration and this is so despite the so many attempts to fix it including the carefully drafted Finance Act 2020. Despite the commendable work of the ACC, official and unofficial corruption scandals of current government officials make the rounds, Investment rates are low, foreign exchange scarce, intermittent shortages of fuel, poor electricity and water supply widespread, Youth Unemployment alarmingly high.

Many discontented Sierra Leoneans, especially educated youth, cannot wait to leave Sierra Leone in search of career opportunities depleting the current and future skilled workforce. Sierra Leone has dropped in its rating on the global peace index. Recent political violence between the two parties and high crime rate contributed to it coming down 18 places from the previous year. Allegations of abuse of Power by some Ministers are rife causing serious divisions amongst Sierra Leoneans especially some who feel they have been disenfranchised of their right to own properties in the Western Area.    

The issues most citizens want President Bio to do something about such are Maintenance of law and order, Peace, Unity, Service Delivery, Fighting sexual offences, Fighting corruption, the widespread Abuse of Drugs by the youth, poor health care and a diminishing economy are among those the President is seen as having the least power to affect having delegated his authority to the Chief Minister to oversee Ministries responsible for those issues. Whilst the role and responsibilities of the Chief Minister is predominantly the reason it is deemed that the President’s authority and influence has been reduced there are many who believe too that the Chief Minister does not report all the issues that citizens are concerned about to the President. There are many who believe that the President is in a cocoon created by officials at State House and as such is not aware of all the issues that affect his people. That he has lost contact with the grassroots and with his people. Effectively he is our leader, but is he in charge?

This question takes on added significance when you consider the frequency of his travels. There are those who believe that all of his travels are absolutely necessary to bring investment and aid to the country and that he does not need to be physically present to rule as his role can be easily filled by the Vice President and the Chief Minister and modern technology allows uninterrupted communication. However there are those who believe that his travels are excessive and unnecessary and place a great financial burden on an already battered economy but most importantly for the critics it is clear evidence that he leads but he is not in charge.

Is there a need for a dramatic change?

Although the challenges are considerable, changes are needed. The people must see our President lead and be in charge. They need to see him not in his heavily armed military style convoy or secured and out of sight in the tightly controlled State House but in person in the communities mingling with his people, at the hospitals and at the schools, on the streets and they need to see him exercising complete control.   

The nation is aware the president is human, and as humans to succeed, we need assistance and we need to delegate. However in times of need the people look to the Presidency for leadership, reassurance, toughness, competence and decisiveness and a belief that the President is in charge and in control. All Sierra Leoneans need their President to succeed but can it succeed without the office of the Chief Minister? Is the office of the Chief Minister somehow preventing the President to exercise full authority? Is the lack of efficiency which the President himself has highlighted due to the fact that Governmental powers seem divided?  Are the lack of promptness of delivery, actions of ministers which may seem ultra vires the rule of law, inefficiency in service delivery all due to confusion in that no one knows who really report to or who is in charge or who wields the power? Does the office of the Chief Minister create duplicitous authority? Or does the office simply need redefining and clearer guidelines? Or should it be abolished so the President again assumes direct control and co-ordination over all Ministries rather than the Chief Minister exercising those powers?

The ultimate decision on the way forward lies with the President because ultimately the Constitution of Sierra Leone makes him not only our leader but puts him solely in charge of Sierra Leone. How he decides to exercise those powers or delegate them again is his sole prerogative. However in the end the people must see that their leader is in charge.