Prime Minister in Sierra Leone: After more than 40 years of a presidential political system, the country is set to return to a political regime under which a prime minister will have executive powers – as was the case in the first 10 years of independence.
ON April 19, 1971 Sierra Leone became a republic, with Siaka Stevens becoming the country’s first executive president. He moved to this position from his role as Prime Minister. Now Sierra Leone is going back to the system it inherited at independence in 1961 – a parliamentary democracy with the Prime Minister exercising executive powers. Sierra Leoneans believe that it is about time to return to this system.
It is not a decision that has been reached on a whim. Altering the political system has been on the cards since the 1991 Constitution was enacted, which re-introduced multiparty politics. It came into existence just a few months before the country’s bloody civil war, which seriously hampered economic and political development.
So, once the war ended in 2002, and a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was established, the body called for the government to give “serious consideration” to the creation of a “new constitution”, in order to contribute to human rights and democracy in the country.
A Constitutional Review Committee was set up in July 2013 to prepare the country for a change to its political system. The Committee noted: “It has been long agreed by all political parties that the 1991 Constitution, while contributing to the development of peace and stability in the country, does not reflect the modern values of the country and requires amendment in order to facilitate the continued development of a democratic and stable country.”
President Ernest Koroma, in making a case for a constitutional change, said of the members of the CRC: “They must listen to everyone, and come up with a document that will make governance better; that will deepen democracy; that will make everybody feel part and parcel of the government machinery; that will mean that we give transparency and accountability for the management of our resources, our inheritance.”
Indeed, Sierra Leone needs a fresh start under a parliamentary democratic system. In most developed countries it is this system that has served them so well; where there are no term limits to hamper leaders from making long-term plans for their nations. In the US, the two-term presidential term has not affected politics in a country that is highly decentralised.
But for African countries that need to make very long-term plans for their development, the open-ended prime ministerial term is seen as the right answer these days to lay the foundation for building strong and lasting institutions. As US President Barack Obama has said, Africa needs strong institutions not strong men.
The current multi-party democracy has to a certain extent been an achievement. But that in itself is not enough. What Sierra Leone needs now, more than ever, is a parliamentary democracy underpinned by a free press; an independent judiciary; a robust audit commission and an independent anticorruption commission.
When Sierra Leone became a republic, the big mistake was that the president became too powerful as head of government and state. As a result, the chance to develop what should have been the most important political institution in the land, parliament, was lost.
If the country is to achieve any sort of lasting development, parliamentary democracy is a must. Only with such a system in place can talented politicians be tempted to enter into the political fray to genuinely serve and to create ideas to move back to where it was just after independence when things generally worked.
Agreed, population demographics and economic realities are different now. But that is only because of the failure to plan in advance, which is really a result of holding on to ineffective systems. The primary reason for Sierra Leone’s decline was the change of system from a parliamentary democracy to an executive presidency. When too much power is concentrated on one person, political safeguards go overboard. Without an effective opposition, a free press, an independent judiciary, a robust audit service and an anti-corruption commission with teeth these institutions that underpin a parliamentary democracy are made ineffective.
Sierra Leone now needs a political system that ensures transparency, accountability and fairness to ultimately counterbalance government power. It is about time Sierra Leone returns to a system that works for the people.
Britain and Sweden are two very successful models of parliamentary democracies. The head of state has authority but without power to meddle in politics and parliament. This then sets the tone for the separation of powers, crucial to a democracy. If the head of state is not at the same time head of government, he or she is kept out of law-making.
Sierra Leone will lose nothing but gain much more by returning to the parliamentary democratic system that will present a brighter future for the country. Like in the UK and other parliamentary democracies, there will be a prime minister as head of government. At state openings of parliament, he or she prepares a statement to be delivered by the Head of State or President – who would have just a ceremonial role – outlining a government’s fully costed policies for an upcoming parliamentary year or term of office. The prime minister can be held to account by both parliament and the public if his or her party in government fails to deliver.
A fundamental tenet of a parliamentary democracy is that the head of the opposition will be constitutionally empowered to appoint a shadow minister for every cabinet position, paid for from the public purse. This enables the opposition to question and challenge government decisions directly and effectively. The shadow cabinet is also able to present alternative arguments/policies through political debates for the consumption of the electorate. Not only would such an arrangement be educative, but inclusive and transformative.
A nation’s politics can only be deemed serious when it is tailored to benefit the people. With a proper parliamentary democracy, the opposition presents a counter-balance to the system. It discourages the scourge of tyrannical leadership not only in politics, but in the judiciary, legislative, civil service and public life in general.
President Koroma’s tenure might not have much time left but he still holds enormous potential to improve politics. National development cannot just depend on politicians. It requires citizens’ intervention too. During his visit to Kenyan earlier this year, President Obama underscored that point by urging Africans to organise and demand the change they want. In that sense, nothing is lost if President Koroma’s incumbency is utilised to usher a return to parliamentary democracy – that will be perfectly in line with his documented ideals around the ‘agenda for change’.
President Koroma has always been willing to listen to new ideas. Indeed, the setting up of the CRC is a great show of democratic commitment. Now that Sierra Leoneans have decided to subscribe to a new politics that ensures the independence of institutions, checks and balances will be possible and progress achievable. Parliamentary democracy guarantees accountability and Sierra Leoneans are agreed that it is the way forward.
President Ernest Bai Koroma seen here at the UN in September 2015. Milton Margai got Sierra Leone parliamentary democracy Ernest Bai Koroma seems poised to take the country back to that democratic system.