March 22, 2016 By Joseph Dumbuya
The Constitutional Review Committee (CRC) is proposing four new chapters in the revised draft constitution – Local Government and Decentralisation; Citizenship; Land, Natural Resources and the Environment andInformation, Communication and the Media.
For this piece, I will focus on just Local Council Elections which fall under Local Government and Decentralisation. The draft recommends that ‘Local Council Elections should be non-partisan’. This in my view is not well thought out and this is why. Also, I am not sure this is a true reflection of the popular wishes of people at the nation-wide consultations.
I do not think it will add value to our democracy to have a no-party system at local level and a multi-party system at national level. I think we will gain a lot more if we stick with the multi-party system at all levels because it will develop our democracy. Having two different systems will achieve a lot less in terms of experience gained and shared, skill acquisition and knowledge transfer. What is more, it could even undermine our democracy.
Also, we should avoid sending mix messages, which is what this recommendation does, regarding the type of democracy we want for our country. It is either we remain a multi-party or a no-party democracy. With illiteracy being a huge problem, the two systems could be confusing to a sizeable chunk of the population.
No one should be surprised if politicians exploit it for selfish gains. What are we saying here? Candidate could run on a no-party ticket and still claim to have been endorsed by the dominant party in that Ward either out of necessity or design.
The idea of a no-party democracy at local level is a fairy tale to say the least. It will only exist in name and it will be a folly to assume the parties will sit idly by and watch their safe seats slip away to non-members or persons whose loyalty they are not sure of and risk losing them to another party.
There is no gainsaying the political parties must control local government to be able to do same at national level. They have to have an octopus grip on their bases to control power and resources which they will need for their survival and to remain relevant.
This is a two way strait. The so-called no-party candidates will need the political parties for resources and for an established platform to reach out to voters and most importantly get votes. Those no-party candidates who secure the support of parties – especially APC and SLPP – in areas that are their safe seats are sure to win except a miracle happens. But a party will not be able to unite around one candidate under a non-partisan election. This is complete rubbish. They would definitely do when there is strong competition from rival parties and faced with the prospect of losing control of a ward.
In addition and this is also important, the Local Councils are a grooming or training ground for new, young and inexperienced politicians. It is the natural spring board into national politics. The experience, education, networks and recognition which they acquire is brought to bear on the national stage. This is not unique to Sierra Leone. It is a common feature of democracies.
I have engaged opinions and have had heated arguments on the two systems on several occasions. Those who support a no-party system of democracy or elections not along political party lines have based their arguments largely on fear. ‘It is the surest way to rid our politics of tribalism and regionalism,’ one had argued. I had countered that they will get worse under a no-party system.
They contend that a no-party system will eliminate the divisions that are inherent in the multi-party system. They speak of opportunistic politicians – who are not? – exploiting anything – religion, ethnicity, race, gender etc – to gain power regardless of the consequences.
But the notion that non-partisan elections are the panacea to these problems is short-sighted. In both systems candidates will exploit anything that will give them an edge over their opponents. I have earlier said politicians are opportunists regardless which corner of the globe they find themselves. The former British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, had accused the Conservative Party in the United Kingdom of exploiting Englishness to win the 2015 general election at the risk of undermining the union. In our case, they will exploit religion, tribe, Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and gender whether it is a multi-party or no-party system.
It will get worse under the latter because the structures will be loose. Also, the philosophies, manifestoes and ideas where they do exist will not be as rich as those of political parties. More importantly, it is easier and less expensive to exercise control over politicians through political parties than having to deal with the tens of thousands of no-party politicians directly. Additionally, it will render the Political Parties Registration Commission irrelevant at local level.
Mind you these divisions also occur in other democracies. This is why in Britain we have the Scot-English divide. Before the emergence of the Scottish National Party (SNP) as a powerful political force in Scotland, the Scot had voted overwhelmingly Labour in both national and local elections. Labour would take 49 of the 50 seats from Scotland. Also, ethnic minorities vote overwhelmingly Labour. A survey conducted in 2009, which was reported in the Daily Mail, revealed that ninety percent of black people and two-thirds of Asians vote Labour.
In the United States the divisions are deep seated. There is the ideological divide between those on the Left (the Liberals) who would naturally vote Democrat and those on the Right (the Conservatives) who vote Republican. There is also the racial divide wherein Black people vote overwhelmingly for the Democratic Party. The Latinos also vote Democrat. White males usually vote massively for the Republican Party. There is also a North–South divide wherein some states have always remained Democrat while others are Republican.
In South African the racial divide is very deep seated. No thanks to the decades of apartheid rule.
Close to home, Ghana which is the most thriving democracy has its own serious problems. There is the divide between the Ashanti Region which vote predominantly for the New Patriotic Party (NPP) and the Volta and Central regions which vote National Democratic Congress (NDC). These divisions are so strong to the extent that in the last two Presidential elections the margin between the two leading candidates was so small. It was in the tens of thousands and for a voter population in the region of twenty million this is more than enough for any politician to cry foul and then go on to justify claims bothering on the credibility of the process.
The way to deal with these challenges is to eschew fear. Constitutions should not be built on fear rather bold actions that will enable the state withstand the challenges which are inherent in a multi-party system.
A no-party system is not the way to go about it. The draft constitutions should address these challenges like other countries have done. We need strong, viable and independent institutions that are immune to the remotest manipulations of the Executive arm, politicians and powerful interest groups.
The CRC should ensure these institutions – Courts, police, prisons, army, media, Political Parties Registration Commission (PPRC), Ombudsman, Legal Aid Board and civil society – are strong and independent. For instance, it is not just enough to say people have a right to demonstrate rather the constitution should make it very difficult, if not impossible for the approving institution to deny people that right. In addition, the approval should be time bound otherwise it is pointless to ask for one. Also, the punishment for breaches should amount to a slap in the wrist.
The appointment of heads of these institutions should not be left entirely in the hands of the politicians – President and Parliament. Professional and other bodies outside government should be involved with the initial scrutiny and selection before the ceremonial nomination by the President. In some cases, like an organ of government, the President should not be involved with the selection process.
The people have spoken loudly that the powers of the President should be reduced. This is what strong democracies have done with their constitutions and have been able to mitigate the challenges without resorting to a useless no-party system. I am sure we too can do the same.
We can also draw lessons from independent candidates under the current system to argue why the no-party system at local level will be a waste of precious time. Experience has taught that ALL those who go as independent or no-party candidates do so not because of any ideological differences with political parties but rather in protest at being denied party symbol. This is why once they are elected they return to their respective parties almost immediately and thus the name ‘Independent Councilor’ becomes a nomenclature only.
I should underline this is a decision they are forced into because those who voted them in did so in protest at what they perceive as an apparent injustice in the award of the party symbol and hence the decision to teach their party a lesson. But this is far from them disowning the party and becoming independents.
This brings to memory the case of the recently elected Councilor in Kenema who in less than one week after his election as an independent returned to his party the SLPP. The then Acting Publicity Secretary, Mr. Philip Tondoneh, went on air to announce that he has already returned to the SLPP. Mind you this is not an isolated case. It happens all the time.
This is the ugly situation the no-party councils is bound to create. The no-party councilors will be regulated remotely by the various parties they owe their victory to. We will then be faced with a situation in which we will not be able to hold parties to accounts for the actions of Local Councils even though they will be telling them what to do. The division we see in the councils brought about by the cold war within parties, battle for control of resources and contracts and allegiance to politicians will not go away. It will be business as usual. If anything they will get worse. As a matter of fact, nothing will stop them from aligning themselves with political parties and even becoming delegates and electors while masquerading as no-party Councilors. At least the CRC should spare us this kind of situation.