Seesaws, Claw Backs and the Tripod of Democracy in Sierra Leone

Democracy is at crossroads in the country. The feet of its tripod are being hit by seesaw situations and clack back actions.

by Sierraeye

Democracy analysts say that a country that has had two peaceful democratic changes of government could be justifiably assumed as consolidating its democracy. This seemed to be the promise in Sierra Leone in April 2018 when there was a peaceful transfer of executive power from an All Peoples Congress (APC) government to the opposition Sierra Leone Peoples Party (SLPP), which had won that year’s presidential elections. This was the second time there had been a change of government, the first being in September 2007 when the APC won the presidential and parliamentary elections of that year and executive and legislative power was handed over to them.

The 2018 democratic change was, however, a little different from that of 2007. Whilst the electorate returned the SLPP to the presidency in 2018, the APC emerged as the largest party in parliament, which put it in pole position to hold on to the Speakership of that august body. This was not to be. In a bizarre twist, on the first day of the new parliament, where the speaker was to be elected, police officers entered the well of parliament and forcefully removed ten APC MPs. The police were acting on an unprecedented ruling of a high court judge who had ordered MPs’ removal on claims by the newly installed president’s party, the SLPP, that the ten APC parliamentarians were not duly elected in the very same elections that gave the new government its executive mandate. Was this a seesaw moment in the country’s democratic march – a high point of the country respecting the electorate’s executive mandate while at the same time thrashing the people’s parliamentary mandate? The Ghanaian Kwesi Prempeh once wrote about the jurisprudence of executive supremacy, about the judiciary seeing itself as beholden to the wishes of those with executive power. Was this being replayed in Sierra Leone when the judiciary played its hand in the saga of the removal of the ten MPs? The judge would vacate the injunction after an SLPP member was elected speaker. The ten MPs resumed parliamentary sittings. However, a year later, the courts removed the MPs and installed nine defeated SLPP candidates as MPs in their stead.

The new government commenced an anti-corruption campaign with extraordinary panache, establishing a Government Transition Team (GTT). During the launch of the GTT report, a key official of the new government accused the previous administration of egregious ‘acts of corruption,’ called the new opposition APC ‘a vast criminal enterprise,’ named alleged corrupt officials on the basis of their ethnicity, and indicated that the government would set up a ‘judge led’ led commission to hold to account those found wanting.

Democracy watchers say democracy rests on a tripod of civic discourses, respect for procedures and meeting substantive material and other goals, particularly what has been referred to as the welfare functions of the state –or to use words that have become popular in Sierra Leone, bread and butter issues.

This tripod has been severely shaken since 2018.

A number of very visible actions were adjudged as violative of key procedures. These included the sacking of the erstwhile commissioner of ACC, a position that has secure tenure, requiring the occupant’s removal to go through the same process as that relating to the removal of a high court judge. Members and supporters of the new governing party claimed what they saw as a constitutional loophole relating to the removal – the president has ‘supreme executive authority’ to do it. This argument could be seen as an attempt to equate the sacking of the commissioner with that of an equally controversial removal of a vice president during the previous APC Government. Supporters of the new administration would utilize the same arguments to justify the removal of other tenured high officials, including the Ombudsman and Commissioners at the Human Rights Commission. Later, the Auditor General would also be suspended in a move many saw as controversial and an attempt to get out of the way a stolid voice for accountability. Her audit reports had revealed enormous losses to the state and irregular expenditures by government officials. These corruption revelations would gravely dent the image of a government that had touted the fight against corruption as key to its management of the state.

Another of the foot of the tripod of democracy that has been badly hit is civic discourse. Civic discourses issue forth from what is referred to as civic friendship – seeing other citizens, be they supporters of one’s political position or not, as people that one should interact with – in words and actions – respectfully. These are the governing, deliberative and social competencies that glue democracies, and they warrant respectful restraint in the choice of words and phrases used by political and civic leaders, partisans and ordinary citizens in public discourse on governance. The new administration in 2018 prioritized several worthy discourses on the national agenda relating to corruption and human rights, especially rights of and justice for women and girls that are sexually abused.

However, the hits on civic discourses – betraying a growing lack of civic friendship – started very early. The new government called the opposition party a ‘criminal enterprise’ and labeled its supporters’ terrorists.’ Widespread protests on August 10, 2022, by civilians, were called an insurrection by the government. Opposition activists also pushed up what would be called a politics of invectives, with insults against the mothers of opponents both within opposition ranks and in government becoming a staple and widely listened to discourse in the country.

Democracy is consolidated by its material dividend – the bread and butter issues. This has many components – including improving access to health, education, water, livelihoods and food security. The government has claimed improvements in electricity and lauded its flagship Free Education Programme on which it spends over 20% of the national budget. Seesaw discourses and actions also dogged these bread-and-butter issues of Sierra Leone’s democracy. Inflation is very high, food costs are bludgeoning, and the national currency, the Leone, is plummeting against the dollar, leading to decreases in real incomes for teachers, health workers and ordinary citizens. Increases in the education budget has seen increased enrollments at all levels of education, but learning outcomes and examination integrity are at very low ebbs. In the WASSCE Exams of 2022, the Government announced that the number of candidates achieving direct university degree programme entry requirements by obtaining five credits, including English and Mathematics increased by 1781%. This was an increase widely seen as impossible and which are allegedly attributed to the doctoring of the data.

This brings us to a discussion of the politics of numbers. Where democracy rests on a tripod of civic discourses, respect for procedures and meeting substantive material and welfare needs, numbers could be seen as the fire underneath. Democracy is very numeric; it is based on counting to decide many crucial things – from the elections of presidents, MPS and councilors to providing services. This warrants numbers that are largely reflective of the actual. There has, however, emerged huge credibility gaps relating to two big numbers schemes in the country – a controversial mid-term census in 2022 and a voter registration exercise later in the year. For instance, the mid-term census showed an incredible 40% decrease in the population of Freetown, a city considered a stronghold of the opposition APC. This decrease happened despite school censuses showing more population of school-going children in Freetown than the governing party strongholds, which the census showed as having great growths in number. Freetown’s mayor also presented a cartographic drawing of sprawling new settlements since the 2015 census – evidencing an increase in population rather than a decrease. The voter registration exercise would show slightly better figures, but again these would be blighted by the elections body’s restrictions on registration of new voters in Freetown and other opposition strongholds; and its non-transparency in the removal of over 250,000 registrants from the election rolls.

Electoral bodies are the referees in the numbers game that undergird democracy. The registration exercise and several other incidents – including the opposition boycott of parliamentary votes to confirm some of its commissioners – on claims that they were biased – are creating doubts about the country’s ability to hold free and fair elections

In its anti-corruption crusade, the government established three judge-led commissions of inquiries. Opposition MPs voted against the establishment of the commissions, saying it was a witch hunt against its members. The commissions’ establishment met the statutory requirements to pass through parliament. However, the government failed to establish rules of procedure for the commissions. The Sierra Leone Bar Association challenged this as violative of constitutional and statutory instruments and commenced court action. The court administration, however, failed to assign the case to a judge to determine the matter. The failure of the courts to assign several cases brought up against government actions would become a sore staple since 2018.

Democracy analysts often talk of clawback clauses in their discussions of seesaw situations in a country’s governance system. These are about rights and progressive legislations that are given with one hand being clawed back with the other hand. These clawbacks could be through other laws and regulations or substantive actions. The country has witnessed several great reforms relating to human rights and press freedoms being legislated and actions being taken to implement them. These included a stronger sexual offences act to protect the rights of women and girls and punish perpetrators; the repeal of seditious libel provisions in the 1965 Public Order Act that successive governments had used to harass journalists and gag the press; and the repeal of the death penalty. However, a new Cyber Security Act would be seen as revamping free speech restrictions for the social media age. The repeal of the death penalty did not stem killings at the hands of state agents, including the killing of scores of prisoners at the Pademba road prisons and scores more during widespread protests in August 2022.

Political parties and civil society organizations help to expand the civic spaces so necessary for democracy consolidation. Where political parties and civil society groups are roiled by enormous internal problems, patrimonial co-optation, or undemocratic external restrictions, democracy consolidation becomes very challenging. The major opposition party, the APC, has its share of challenges. Unhinged by its unexpected loss in the 2018 elections, its executive was receiving blows from reformers and dissidents within the party and also from its old nemesis, the SLPP, which now controlled the government. A visible faction within the APC – who constituted themselves into a body known as the National Reform Movement (NRM) – called for a new constitution that would do away with the party’s vaulted selection clause. They wanted the party to rely exclusively on elections to choose its executive members and election candidates. The executive had formed a nine-man committee to look into why it lost the 2018 presidential elections. The considered view relating to the report that the nine-man committee presented was the party establishment failed to implement the recommendations. The establishment also tried to stem the rebellion by establishing a constitutional review committee comprising members of the reformist voices. The NRM was, however, irked by a number of transitional clauses in the new constitution and continued their cases in court.

Many would see the court cases as offering the government an opportunity to meddle in opposition APC affairs. A number of the reformist voices were prevailed upon by reconciliatory voices to drop the court case and settle for an intra-party solution to the impasse. However, an APC member from the diaspora decided to continue the case. The judge, then on contract, and with his tenure as a contract judge in the hands of the executive, had already placed several crippling injunctions on the APC, including preventing it from holding conventions. In finally deciding the case, he dissolved the entire decision-making bodies of the APC at the national, regional, district and constituency levels, and handed over control of the party to a 21-man committee comprising two factions chosen by the leader of the APC in parliament, and the member from the diaspora respectively. The result was gridlock, with the party hardly able to render its voice on several key governance issues. At the time of writing, the party was still struggling with conducting internal elections that would lead to a delegate conference where a presidential flag bearer would be elected. Meanwhile, the SLPP has already, months ago, chosen – unopposed – its presidential flag bearer.

Civil society in the country has had to deal with the loss of its vibrant and critical voices through cooptation by the state either through direct recruitment as members of the government or indirectly as members of commissions, and boards of directors, amongst others. While civil society actors being within state structures could result in their accumulated progressive insights integrated into state decision-making, in Sierra Leone, the loss of these critical voices within civil society has often resulted in the civic space being occupied by persons with less deliberative competencies and poorer institutional memories of civic engagement. Many of these void fillers have become champions of new uncivil discourses and the exploding politics of invectives. Civil society actors have also complained about restrictions on their activities, including new registration requirements and onerous regulations relating to how they should operate in the country.

Democracy is at crossroads in the country. The feet of its tripod are being hit by seesaw situations and clack back actions. Civic friendship is being cut into shreds; the politics of invectives is rising; and the fires underneath the tripod are being smoldered by controversies over census numbers and voter registration figures.

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