By Sulaiman Banja Tejan-Sie Esq.
Today’s topical issues as we approach another election cycle in our growing democracy are the violent trend of our youth in parliamentary bye elections, political leaders’ complicity in that malaise, the challenges in our Courts and most importantly the ever – increasing threats that these anomalies pose to our nascent democracy.
The case for the President and the Electoral Commission Sierra Leone (ECSL) aka National Electoral Commission (NEC) to invoke section 38A of the Constitution of Sierra Leone (Amendment) Act No. 15 of 2001 is more compelling today than any other period since the 2002 Presidential and Parliamentary elections. Dr Julius Spencer’s brilliant elucidation of the merits of this not-so-novel electoral concept on the eve of the 60th anniversary of our country’s independence was as candid as it was both inspiring and eye opening.
Contrary to what the normally not-so-credible main opposition APC may want us to believe, Section 38A of the Constitution of Sierra Leone (Amendment) Act supra amended the 1991 Constitution Act No. 6 of 1991 by adding a new section 38A which established an alternative electoral system of electing Members of Parliament notably the district block representation system in a situation where “… a date for a general election of Members of Parliament has been appointed but constituencies have not been established in accordance with subsection (3) of section 38 for the purposes of such election,..” then in such a situation “.. the President may, after consultation with the Electoral Commission, direct that such election shall be conducted on the basis of the existing districts in a manner to be known as the district block representation system instead of constituencies.”
Subsection (3) of section 38 of the 1991 Constitution referred to above provides that “The boundaries of each constituency shall be such that the number of inhabitants thereof is as nearly equal to the population quota as is reasonably practicable:”, in addition to other factors that should be taken into consideration in the delineation of constituencies under the said 1991 Constitution. Quite recently, in a further bid to undermine the president’s authority to hold elections under a PR system on the advice of the Chief Electoral Commissioner if the situation so demands, the Parliamentary leader of the opposition APC quite recently, to the amazement of many told this nation that Section 38A which gives the President this unambiguous and unequivocal authority was in fact an entrenched clause which requires the acquiescence of the majority of the people in a referendum for it to have force of law. Honourable Chernor Bah couldn’t have been more wrong and misleading. Section 38 is NOT an entrenched clause it has been amended by the addition of Section 38A. The entrenched clauses in the Constitution are specified in Subsection 3 of section 108 as follows: Sections46,56,72,73,74(2),74(3).84(2),85,87105,11119,120,121,122,123,124,128,129,131,132,133,135,136,137,140,151,156 and 167; in addition to section 108 itself and the whole of Chapter III of the said Constitution.
It is an irrefutable fact that the constituency based “first past the post” electoral system, has in large measure helped perpetuate elections violence, especially during and after the 2007 General and Presidential elections. The reasons for this are as myriad as they are incontestable. By its very nature, the constituency-based election system requires the demarcation of a particular land mass called a constituency, and an ascertained aspirant called the candidate. A scenario of this nature brings contesting aspirants and their supporters into a faceoff, and put them at daggers drawn as they are in direct contention for a seat in a particular locality. In a situation of this nature where stakes are high and emotions are at molten level, the constituency-based system creates a fertile breeding ground for political chicanery, subterfuge, intimidation and violence. The constituency based electoral system also exacerbates ethnic tension as the various candidates are specific and discernible by both their looks, ethnic background and creed. This scenario could easily make them targets of intimidation and ethnic based violence or other forms of malfeasance. Such intimidation, chicanery and subterfuge are normally perpetrated by party stalwarts, amazingly under the watch of their political leaders, with resultant injuries and in some cases even death and the destruction of property.
Constituency based elections place an undue economic burden on our government’s lean treasury. The delimitation of boundaries into constituencies and the disaggregation of populations say in a district by constituencies require enormous material and human resources. Valuable resources as such can be better spent on various critical public services like health education and nutrition in a country as desperately poor and aid dependent like ours.
The proportional representation district bloc system for its part, greatly ameliorates the challenges that characterize the “first past the post” system. Since PR does not make provision for the delineation of districts into constituencies, valuable resources that would have been spent on such activity would be transferred to other needy sectors of the economy, and help in critically consolidating the nation’s poverty reduction strategy. Furthermore, because the PR system does not make provision for demarcated and discernible constituencies and ascertained voting populations, the risk of faceoff confrontations between a particular candidate and his supporters with that of his opponent is greatly reduced. It involves each party drawing up a list of its candidates in order of preference in a district and the seats are then shared on the basis of the proportion of votes won by each party in that district. The PR system further helps lessen ethnic tension as candidates are not ascertained, as a result, the chances of them being targeted for intimidation as a result of their creed and ethnicity is greatly reduced. Perhaps one of the finest benefits of the PR system is that it helps eliminate the idea of a bye-election in case of the death or incapacity of a sitting parliamentarian.
The elimination of bye – elections will not only nullify incidents of violence, it will also save the nation valuable resources that would have been spent on such an expensive enterprise. PR also helps bring into the country’s body politic skilled, educated and worthy Sierra Leoneans, who may not have the fortitude to handle the hassle, molestation, intimidation and violence that has come to mark our elections in recent times. Such endowed Sierra Leoneans will bring a breath of fresh air to the stale, adversarial, constituency-based politics of post-independence Sierra Leone. The constituency-based system is elitist because it requires vast amounts of money to go through this tedious process, poorer but worthy Sierra Leoneans, will not have the opportunity to bring their critical skills to bear on the developmental aspirations of our country and our country can only be the poorer for that loss of valuable human capital.
For our women folk across the country, the proportional representation district block system will guarantee them a 30% quota in Parliament. This will help consolidate not only the empowerment of the opposite sex, but will greatly strengthen the inclusivity we have all yearned for in our national politics. Women make better economists and managers and so by consolidating their inclusion under the PR system, the exceptional and valuable skills they will bring into our politics and law making will only help fast track our national cohesion and development far more than the existing ‘first past the post’ system, which has continuously failed to live up to these aspirations in that regard.
For us older folks, we just have to reflect back on the quality of our parliament from 1996 to 2007 and the tranquil political atmosphere in those two electoral cycles to fully grasp and appreciate the virtues and urgent need for us to revert to an electoral system (proportional representation) that will save our lives and money, protect our properties and guarantee an effective legislature with gender equality and quality representation across the aisle.
In light of the foregoing, I am of the firm conviction that the PR system more than the constituency system is better equipped to lessen elections violence and intimidation, promote national cohesion, enhance quality representation, accelerate gender empowerment and inclusivity as a result of the fact that it is inherently inclusive i.e., it does not expose candidates to ethnic and/or religious based discrimination. The PR system enhances quality representation as it helps increase women’s’ participation in national politics and creates the opportunity for better skilled Sierra Leoneans who may not afford the time and energy to participate in divisive and adversarial partisan politics. The PR system is economically viable as it saves money on boundary delimitation and fratricidal and normally violent bye elections. For a poor and relatively unstable post war country, I am of the conviction that Sierra Leone cannot afford the divisive, economically burdensome and ethnic violence prone western style constituency-based elections.
Note: The author is a legal practitioner of long standing and a politician.