Socialize

FRAMING AND BALANCING THE TOXIC “MORE OR NO TIME” DISCUSSION

January 19, 2016 Moses Massa

Democracy is a governance system of citizens electing their leaders through periodic, transparent and fair elections. It is based on the RULE OF LAW, where the few are given power and authority to protect and promote the interests of the people. Although democracy has many descriptions, it is commonly characterized by citizens’ participation and cooperation. Given the majority rule is tenuously postulated as a cornerstone of democracies, it is only through the participation and cooperation of everyone, including the minority, that democracy can be strengthened.

The current “more or no time” discourse in Sierra Leone is a product of democracy and like in all democracies, people’s views, positions and interests differ; not least ours. Yet, having followed it so far, it is harder to pigeonhole it to a debate or discussion, because the two sides are heading to a “dark tunnel to nowhere”. For me, the epithet, “dark tunnel to nowhere”, is more or less a political discussion than a political debate.

A discussion differs from a debate and a political debate should not be confused with a political discussion. A discussion hinges on a question, whereas a debate focuses on a proposition. A debate brings out conflicting views to the examination of the public, as well as providing objective, informative and dynamic decision making process. A proposition is a statement of intent, while a discussion is not. Now if we are to have many views on the recent Ebola reported death in Tonkolili, a political discussion might center on the question: what should the government do now that the Ebola has resurfaced?

In a discussion, there are many positions, some of which may or not be clearly defined. But if we are to debate the issue for example, the question will be framed: should the government quarantine the area now or trace the recent contact persons of the victim before doing so? In a debate like this, there are two positions- proponents and opponents of the issue. Debate is decisive because it answers a question with one outcome, whereas a discussion often fails to answer a question with a specific response.

Coming back to the topic, the unspoken issue which the two sides are running away from is that their discussion centers on power politics. Politics is a struggle for power where people conflict with their positions and interests. A position is made public on what one wants over the other; interest is the personal reason why we want what we want over the other. There is no doubt that this issue has the potential of violence, which demands our response, and doing so, it is important we know and define these interests so that we can plainly appreciate, understand and resolve what is becoming a toxic situation.

Against this backdrop, let us frame and move the discussion into a political debate with the question: Should the Parliament, and by default the President, stay beyond its constitutional five year tenure? My arguments will be premised on the 1991 Sierra Leone Constitution, which is or should be our guiding principle of governance.

Simply, the crux of the more or no time narrative is this. The “more timers” say due to the Ebola epidemic the President lost time to finish his good works and he needs time to do so; fair enough. The “no timers” say the President did not lose time; the Ebola affected our socio-economic life but not governance; fair as well. But what the narratives have not been able to bring out is the constitutionality of their position.

I now respond to the above question for debate in a form of a question and answer. To start with, what is time? Time is many things to people and we all know what it is. It is for instance when the clock rings, our birthday, when it’s Christmas, Easter, New Year. Even the date of the New Year differs from continent to continent.

What is this more time? It simply means extending the constitutional term limit of the Parliament and by default the President.

And if so, is it constitutional? Yes! But the Constitution is clear on when and how more time can be added to the 5 year expiration of the President and Parliament.

Who is authorized to do so? S. 73(1) of the 1991 Constitution says Parliament can because it is the supreme law making body in Sierra Leone.

When and how should it be done? S.85 (1) says Parliament’s tenure is 5 years on a normal time. But in s.85 (2) Parliament can extend it only, according to s. 29(2) in a state of emergency where the President considers it is not practicable to hold elections, and may do so by Resolution, to not more than six months (saying may do so by Resolution means an extension is not guaranteed except the MPs vote to agree).

Are we in a situation where it is practicable not to hold the elections and have the six months extension? Emphatically no, because such a situation existed during and ended after we were declared Ebola free. So Parliament cannot justify another six months but the recent and controversial reported case of Ebola death is worrying and has the smell of a dead rat.

Will the six months extension affect our 2018 Elections? The question is not if the six months will be added but will the elections happen in 2018. The President and Parliament’s tenure is five years respectively. Assumed calculating the five years of the President’s 2nd term is easy to do, the answer will be (December 2012 + 5 = December 2017). But there is a twist. S.43 says after the President’s tenure he could STAY in office for another three to four months (i.e. December 2017 – March 2018) but not more, and NEC should have had consultation with the President to declare when the elections should be held- s.43(2) Public Elections Act 2012.

Are there any realistic hurdles to prevent this? The 2014 Census which was not conducted by Statistics Sierra Leone was a problem because NEC said it could not do boundary delimitations, either affecting us or taken us beyond 2018. Thankfully, that is past us since Statistics Sierra Leone conducted the Census in December 2015, and hopefully will give us the report sooner in 2016, to enable NEC begin and complete its constituency delimitations between 2016 and early 2017.

Is it the best option? Provided nothing happens that threatens our national security, even if Parliament extends its tenure for six months, the elections will not go beyond 2018.

In conclusion, the discussion should be framed into a debate for us to arrive at a decision (Should the Parliament, and by default the President, stay beyond its constitutional five year tenure?). The beauty of democracy with debate is that it allows us to disagree to agree, where we use our ideas and not weapons to persuade and score points. If that is done it is prudent to exercise caution and patience because realistically even if the six months is added, it does not pose any existential threat to us, and we have to respect our 1991 Constitution, and those calling for and those- if they choose to– who eventually authorize the more time, SHOULD NOTE IT IS ONLY FOR SIX MONTHS (no more no less). And we can still have the elections in 2018.

*Moses Massa is a Senior Chevening Fellow on Conflict Prevention and Resolution