By Charles Davies
The Constitutional Review Commission must be seen as an opportunity to change the current system of government and replacing it with a system that will make governance better. To that extent, the APC government of President Ernest Bai Koroma should be commended for setting up the committee to review the 1991 constitution of Sierra Leone. However, it would have been helpful if, from the outset, the government had stated its intentions and what it wanted to review – and what the people should consider – as President Joseph Momoh did when he wanted to change the one-party constitution. It might have avoided the persistent speculation over term limits as the government’s underlying intention for setting up the commission.
Current speculation on a possible third term for President Koroma is a distraction from a whole range of other important issues; including governance and meaningful contributions to the debate itself for which the commission was set up. We are much more exercised with what we think is the President’s desire, rather than what we as a people want. President Koroma himself has stated that the Constitutional Review Commission will only serve ‘to make politics better’. The good people of this great nation must be guided by those words and make meaningful contributions to the commission by way of debates, conversations and submissions on what changes could be made to the 1991 constitution – comprehensive change or tinker around the edges?
On the substantive issue of the 1991 Constitution, one could accurately recall that it was initiated, drafted and passed through a referendum under the APC government of Joseph Saidu Momoh. The idea had been to transition the country from a one-party state which was introduced by former head of state Siaka Stevens 13 years earlier, to a multi-party democracy. Prior to the 1978 constitutional referendum that gave us the infamous one-party state, there had been a systematic decimation and annihilation of all opposition for over seven years, which paved the way for a one-party state.
The 1991 constitution was problematic and suspect even though it was passed at the time by “80%” of voters. For instance, it gave too much power to the executive president who single-handedly appoints almost all senior government functionaries in the country including members of the judiciary and members of the electoral commission. This leaves little or no room for the growth and independence of state institutions that are linchpins in democracies. It was that element of suspicion, and lack of belief in the intentions of the then president, Joseph Saidu Momoh and his party, which in part, led to his overthrow in 1992 by the National Provisional Ruling Council, even though he appeared to be moving away from an autocratic one-party constitution to a seemingly pluralistic system of government.
The then new 1991 constitution was suspended after the fall of the Momoh government and reinstated after the demise of the NPRC military junta in 1996. The present system of government in Sierra Leone under the 1991 constitution, somewhat of a presidential system, is open to manipulation by the executive and, therefore, problematic even for the singular reason mentioned above. If we have strong institutions, and a clear separation of powers between the three main arms of government i.e. the executive, the legislature and the judiciary, presidential powers and its possible excesses might not be so much of a problem. Consequently perhaps, a parliamentary system, modelled around the Westminster system – which by the way, we had previously – could be a way forward for Sierra Leone if an honest and open review of the constitution is encouraged and debated.
In such a parliamentary system, members of parliament (MPs) are to be elected by the people to represent the interests of their local geographical regions, and each member will have an affiliation to a particular political party or be independent. The party or group that governs after an election is the one with the highest number of MPs, and the leader of that party or group becomes the prime minister. The prime minister will then select a team from members of parliament to form a government, and the highest ranking of those will form the cabinet that run the different government departments. The government have a mainly executive function that decides how the country is run and how and where taxes are collected and spent. The role of the remaining members of parliament who are not in the government is mainly legislative, that is to approve and change the country’s laws, most of which will have been suggested by the government, and to scrutinise the work of the government.
The advantages of this system are that all the ministers, including the prime minister, are directly responsible to the people who elect them. There will be no term limits. The prime minister is also reliant on the support of his party or group; and as it is the party or group which has been elected and not the person, the party could change their leader and thus the prime minister, if he or she loses their support.
The government needs to retain the confidence of a majority in the parliament. If the parliament were to vote to indicate that it has no confidence in the government, either by defeating the government on a confidence motion or by defeating a policy that the government has indicated is a ‘matter of confidence’, then a General Election could be called. The main advantage of this system is that poorly performing governments can be removed without the need to wait for the fixed period of time to call an election.
With a system like this the head of state/ President will be purely ceremonial even though elected by the people, and his or her term can be made to overlap with the elected government. They would have none or very limited legislative or executive powers.
Another important feature of such a parliamentary system is the provision of a shadow cabinet. A shadow cabinet will be made up of senior members of parliament from the second largest party or official Opposition party. The opposition party appoints an MP to ‘shadow’ each of the members of the Cabinet and they will be paid to do so from the public purse. In this system the opposition can make sure that it looks at every aspect of the government and can question them thoroughly. It also means that the opposition has members of parliament that are ready to take specific jobs in the cabinet if they win at the next general election. They are also assured of jobs while waiting to form government without the need to cross-carpet in search of greener pastures as is often the case in Sierra Leone.
If Sierra Leone were to return to a parliamentary system of government, this would help to re-establish the rule of law as MPs would be there to make laws, and ensure that the people are governed by those laws. In addition it would foster transparency and accountability. With the Freedom of Information bill already passed by President Koroma’s government, and a fully functional shadow cabinet – together with a robust civil society and media establishment – government spending and policies will be open to thorough scrutiny and transparency thereby enhancing good and responsible governance.
It would also balance out the share of power, as at the moment all the power is in the hands of the President, who has the responsibility for selecting all staff, from the highest to the lowest ranking members of government. This seems too much for one man, too much for the executive, and bad for the country, as it does not allow institutions to grow and function properly. To quote President Obama, ‘Africa needs strong institutions, not strong men’, and a parliamentary system would help to develop these strong institutions, while a presidential system could potentially destroy them.
It is my considered view that a substantial constitutional change should be considered by the people and the review commission. This might just be what the country needs now, and potentially could be President Koroma’s biggest singular legacy to the country. This will indicate exceptional and transformational leadership qualities on his part. Together with some of the serious development already achieved by his government, introducing a parliamentary system with an open and transparent government would score high marks for President Koroma even in the Mo Ibrahim Index. It will also lift people out of poverty faster and pave the way for sustainable and equitable prosperity.
This system eliminates term limits, so a party or government can go on governing endlessly save for the small matter of keeping the electorate on side. The opposition will also have the opportunity to form its own shadow cabinet with some MP’s securing shadow cabinet jobs, thus preparing themselves to govern in the event the electorate decide to have a change of heart on the incumbent. More importantly, power is transferred to the people by this type of system because people will choose representatives based on merit, ensuring that those they elect protect and promote their interests, which is what democracy is all about.
President Joseph Saidu Momoh gave us the 1991 constitution, by eliminating the one-party constitution that brought him to power. Perhaps, President Koroma would consider returning Sierra Leone, once again, to a true participatory and representative democracy in the form of a parliamentary constitution by eliminating a presidential system, which to all intents and purposes is destroying democracy by concentrating power on the executive thereby weakening those institutions that are a vital part of the democracy.
The article is a part submission by the editor to the Constitutional Review Commission in Sierra Leone