Constitutional Review and APC’s Self Succession Plans

Dear Mr. Chairman,

Kindly permit me few moment of your time to deliberate on the contentious issue of power extension in Sierra Leone as currently preached by some members of the ruling All Peoples Congress Party. I am undertaking this venture because Sierra Leone, like many other Africa countries such as Algeria, Burkina Faso, Chad, Uganda, Niger and potentially many more Africa countries to be added in the future years, is now being tortured by the ‘big man’ syndrome of presidential self succession. The initial hope of cosigning that syndrome with the introduction of a new two-term power limit constitution in our country, like in various Africa countries in  the early 1990s, appears to have been eroded by a new version of non-violent constitutional coup d’état of power extension cushioned by an in-built mechanism of constitutional review or amendment. Thirty-three of the 48 new constitutions in Africa until 2002 contained the two-term limit proviso, at least for some time.

Suffice to say that, with more than three decades into Sierra Leone civilian politics, our national political culture under the aegis of the ruling All Peoples Congress (APC) party still remains the same; the attraction to stick to power by every APC leader – from late Siaka Stevens, through Joseph Saidu Momoh down to the incumbent President Ernest Bai Koroma – the attraction to stick to power still remains strong for these APC leaders…just check the history. And this could also be sufficiently seen in recent weeks by the number of statements and innuendoes that tend to signal interest on the part of the incumbent to extend his tenure beyond the constitutionally permitted number of terms, or maintain power via a back-door strategy of constitutional review.

Last week the government’s ad hoc spokesman, Abdulai Bayraytay, ambiguously told a local radio station that “President Ernest Bai Koroma has no intention of running for a third term under the 1991 Constitution and HE will respect such constitution in the first place”. Bayraytay never mentioned whether Koroma will run for presidency under the deliberated 2015 Constitution. The 1991 Constitution, amongst many things, expressly calls for a two-term presidency.  In analyzing the government spokesman’s statement and the much ubiquitous self succession cliché (After U Na U) as propagated by some elements of the ruling APC, it is prudent we start at the beginning – our constitution, the process, need and objective of a constitutional review.

We can adequately do this firstly by introspectively looking for answers to the following questions: What is the fundamental 1991 Constitutional proviso for Executive Tenure of Office? What does the Statute book say are the prerequisites for Constitutional Reviews/Amendments? What does (if any) the leadership ethics provide as motives behind the push for such constitutional reviews/amendments? Does such a motive derive from altruistic dividends to the generality of the people? Or is it aimed at satisfying the whims and caprices of the ‘big man”, or of particular benefit to a select few group?

The 1991 Constitution, which was promulgated into law, provides tenure of five years for an elected president. Thus it should imply that the same constitution equally disqualifies any Sierra Leonean who would have been elected to such office at any two previous elections. This unambiguous legal establishment ensures the unequivocal proviso of only a term of five years at the first instance and another term of five years upon re-election; a rule of political engagement which has become a norm in our national body politic since 1991. This clause of Executive Tenure of Office is also in tandem with one of the basic tenets of democracy – the periodic renewal of electoral mandate, the supremacy of the law as well as respect for the Rule of Law.

With the ascension to power by the APC in 2007, the above national political disposition is slowly being tilted towards constitutional obliteration as is now done by some African political leaders. In today’s Africa there is a worrisome chronicle of sit-tight self succession precedents dating back to Mobutu Seseseko of Congo (32 years), Idi Amin of Uganda (8 years), Gnassigbe Eyadema of Togo (38 years), Omar Albert-Bernard Bongo, Gabon (39 years), Blaise Campaore of Burkina Faso (19 years), Hosni Mubarak of Egypt (25 years), Muammar Gadaffi of Libya (37 years), Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe (26 years) even at age 82 years, Paul Biya of Cameroon (24 years) and Yoweri Museveni of Uganda (20 years) in the saddle. For Sierra Leone we should focus on Blaise Campaore of Burkina Faso and Museveni – two African despots who successfully amended their respective country’s constitutions thereby securing third term tenures in office.

Sierra Leoneans should remain very skeptical of President Ernest Bai Koroma’s relinquishing of power due to his failure to bluntly say that he would vacate office whether the constitution is amended or not. The recent statement by Bayraytay regarding Koroma’s non succession plan, which he predicated on the 1991 Constitution, is very ambiguous and lacks any radar reading. Koroma himself is making a terrible situation worst by merely keeping quiet. After all former President Kabbah also had every opportunity to go for re-election in 2007 under the guise of constitutional review or amended so say the least. The same applies to former president Nelson Mandela of South Africa who in fact quit power during his first tenure.

Sir, constitutional reviews and presidential self succession most often leave a country shaken to its knees. In the first half of 2011, Burkina Faso was rocked by anti-government protests and army mutinies, followed by an increased level of violence and instability when President Blaise Compaoré called for constitutional amendment which later saw him elected for third term as President. Compaore’s self succession has impoverished that West African state to the extent that Burkina Faso now ceases to be an electoral democracy.

As a way out of this political quagmire, we as a nation including HE the President should first consider the importance of term limits. Presidential term limit offers a timely and responsible departure from power in a democratic politics. Term limit thus constitutes an integral component of responsible leadership and leaders who failed to understand the importance of such tenet are often said to be undemocratic. It also offers a periodic guarantee of personal change and thus enhances the possibility of change of party in government. This is significant, as power alteration is an important feature of a democratic polity. For African nations, the most-often cited reason for the adoption of term limits was to prevent arbitrary and violent rule often associated with lifelong presidencies. It is hoped that after reading this the ruling APC will understand that for our fledgling democracy term limit has a positive impact on power alternation which also contributes to more democratic consolidation. This is so because elections in Africa are heavily burdened by advantages which the incumbents have at their disposal, and these make electoral change more difficult than in established democracies like the United States, UK. Thus, if Koroma doesn’t respect the term limit it will continue to offer him and his APC an unfair advantage with a tight grip on our electoral system wherein HE appoints the Electoral Commission; has access to slush funds for APC campaign; determine the date of election; has opponents disqualified or harassed by the legal system; controls much of the media as well as having the advantage of exposure and familiarity before the general public. These all will invariably lead Sierra Leone into a one party democracy.

President Koroma can do himself proud and Sierra Leone a huge service by leaving honourably after his tenure expires in 2017. In Africa we are only fortunate to have nine or so presidents who left office in an honourable fashion: late Ahmad Tejan Kabbah of Sierra Leone, Mathieu Kerekou of Benin, Mascarenhas Monteiro of Cape Verde, Jerry Rawlings of Ghana, Daniel Arap Moi of Kenya, Alpha Konaré of Mali, Joaquim Chissano of Mozambique, Miguel Trovoada of São Tomé & Príncipe, Benjamin Mkapa of Tanzania and of course the one-term President of South Africa, Nelson Mandela.

Seven veteran African presidents, most of them long-serving leaders of their countries, secured constitutional amendments and won subsequent re-elections: Blaise Compaore of Burkina Faso, Idriss Deby of Chad, Omar Bongo of Gabon, Lansana Conte of Guinea, Sam Nujoma of Namibia, Gnassingbe Eyadema of Togo and Yoweri Museveni of Uganda. Three countries’ presidents – Zambia’s Frederick Chiluba, Malawi’s Bakili Muluzi and Nigeria’s former President Obasanjo – experienced unsuccessful attempts to have their constitution changed to allow them an additional term in office.

Sir, for us to forestall a third term bid by anyone, let’s understand how some leaders found it easy to prolong their stay in power as well as what makes the national constitutions of other countries proved to be a powerful reference point that constrained the leader’s behaviour. What are the determinants that account for the varying outcomes of third-term amendment struggles? I will attempt to lay few of those factors that make it easy for leaders to prolong their stay in power such as level of popular dissatisfaction with incumbent president, the strength of the civil society and the level of our local media’s independence. Within our national polity, pro-power prolongation factors include the ability of the incumbent president to suppress opposition and opposition political parties, the size of parliamentary majority of the ruling party, and those factors that affect its coherence both within and outside the wells of parliament. There are also extraneous factors such as international pressure and factors affecting the leader personally; that is, the possibility of impunity after the incumbent president would have left office, opportunities for retired presidents and president’s dedication to constitutionalism.

So the parting question now is how do we as a nation go about denying a seating president from becoming ‘president-for-life’ following a constitutional review and the emergence of a new constitution? We do this first by appealing to the consciences of the incumbent and his party for the former to step aside as mandated by the constitution that brought him into office in the first place. One believes that the incumbent president, by respecting that major constitutional proviso, will invariably lead to an increased adherence to term limits by incoming leaders which in turn will lead to the emergence of a nascent norm which may contribute to further change. Cases where leaders are seen to observe constitutional term limits have turned out to be precedents delineating acceptable behaviour. Increasingly common examples of the observance of term limits have the potential to become a powerful reference point that could make it more difficult for future third-term attempts or power extension to gain popular and international acceptance.

Secondly, this appeal should be backed by a clause that gives retroactive powers to the new constitution that is being deliberated. This was the mistake Burkina Faso made when they amended their constitution in 2011 by failing to make it retroactive thereby making it possible for Blaise Compaore to win a legal suit which subsequently made him a third term president of Burkina Faso. The retroactive power should not be treated lightly in the case of Sierra Leone looking at the political landscape of the country. The attraction of power is still strong, and many African leaders including Koroma may be still keen to stay in office for as long as they can.

Yours faithfully

Jia Kangbai