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Resolving Sierra Leone’s Constitutional Crisis: How Long Shall the Nation Wait?

May 22, 2015 By: Ibrahim Tommy

Following President Koroma’s decision to relieve the elected Vice President Samuel Sam Sumana of his duties, there have been impassioned arguments among Sierra Leoneans across the globe as to the constitutionality or otherwise of the said decision. A March 17 press release from State House said the President relied mainly on Sections 40 and 41 of the 1991 Constitution. The Vice President was sacked a little more than a week after he had been expelled from his party, the ruling All Peoples Congress (APC). The sacked Vice President has reportedly filed an appeal against his expulsion.

While the debate was ongoing, the President went ahead to appoint Ambassador Victor Bockarie Foh as the Vice President of the Republic of Sierra Leone. Since a parliamentary confirmation of an appointed Vice President is not required, Ambassador Victor Foh was immediately sworn into office on March 18.

The controversy has now wound up in the highest court of the land. In March, lawyers representing sacked Vice President Sam Sumana filed a suit with the Supreme Court seeking a determination of the following questions:

a)     Whether the Constitution of Sierra Leone empowers the President “to relieve the Vice-President of his office and duties” in any way other than by the procedure set out in Sections 50 and 51 of the Constitution; and

b)    Whether the “supreme executive authority” of the President mentioned in Section 40 (1) of the Constitution of Sierra Leone includes the power to “relieve the Vice-President of his office and duties”, other than by the procedure set out in Sections 50 and 51 of the said Constitution.

If the answer to both questions is no, the lawyers are praying that the judges declare the President’s action a nullity, and reinstate the elected vice president Sam Sumana. The suit is also seeking an injunction to restrain the “said Vice President” Victor Foh from acting in the Office of the Vice President.

Meanwhile, the opposition Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) and some sections of civil society have discussed the possibility of undertaking civic and political action, including peaceful demonstrations and boycotts aimed at expressing their dissatisfaction at the President’s action. Most government officials and, not surprisingly, the police have spoken openly against plans to stage peaceful demonstrations in protest over the President’s decision. In fact, the police have gone one step further – perhaps a step too far – to order that all proposed meetings exceeding nine persons would now require police clearance. So much for our professed commitment to democracy!

The government – through its many agencies – has urged everyone to wait for the outcome of the matter before the Supreme Court. The judiciary has also weighed in. On March 31, the Registry issued a statement advising the media to stop discussing the matter until the matter is determined by the Supreme Court. The waiting period has effectively started.

While the waiting period may be long for many, a more serious issue that is worth keeping in mind is that not everyone will be happy with the judgment. If truth be told, no court decision ever leaves everyone or all the parties happy. But the most important thing is to bring closure to this crisis through a judgment that doesn’t necessarily leave every Sierra Leonean happy, but one that all of them are proud to live with. Given the huge public interest this matter has attracted, the outcome of the suit will definitely go to the wires.

Time is absolutely critical in bringing closure to a legal dispute. Without sacrificing procedures, it is important this matter is expeditiously dealt with. Obviously, an expeditious proceeding would require the cooperation of all parties. The Court has a huge role to play, but the parties should avoid unnecessary delays and ensure that the matter is disposed off without delay. Everyone is expected to remain calm until the end of the proceedings, but the key is to ensure that the waiting period is not unnecessarily long. Any suspicion among the public that the matter is taking unnecessarily long is bound to cause disquiet, and weaken public confidence in the proceedings. In spite of the huge media attention this matter has received, it has at least shown that Sierra Leoneans are more willing to rely on state institutions to resolve major national issues.

It’s now time to repay the faith Sierra Leoneans have reposed in the judiciary by expeditiously hearing this matter. It is important to keep in mind, though, that the judiciary faces a perennial perception gap not only because of the lengthy delays in trials, but also because of the seemingly controversial judgments our courts have handed down in a number of high profile cases. The Supreme Court – even if not entirely the current members of the bench – has reached a couple of controversial decisions in the past. For instance, when the opposition Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) filed a suit with the Supreme Court in 2007 challenging the legality of invalidating votes from 477 polling stations by the then Chairperson of the National Electoral Commission, it took the Court nearly five years to hand down a ruling. The judgment did not necessarily focus on the substantive issues brought by the petitioners; instead it was dismissed on the grounds of technicality. Not surprisingly, the Court received flak from the public for both the delay and the nature of the judgment. In 2012, the opposition SLPP also filed a petition challenging the outcome of the 2012 Presidential election. Again, the judgment was not based on the substantive issues brought before the court. Among other reasons, the petition was dismissed on the grounds that it did not comply with Section 55(1) of the Public Elections Act and the election petition rules; that it was filed out of time; and an address for service was not provided by the petitioners. In essence, the public did not get a chance to listen to the merits or substance of the petition. The decision raised a fresh debate about whether the highest Court of the land should lend more weight on technicalities than public interest.

The current constitutional matter has little or no similarity with the aforementioned cases, and it is perhaps the dissimilarities that make the current matter even more interesting. If not for anything else, this is clearly the first high profile constitutional matter that has attracted such huge local and international attention.  While there have been demonstrations by Sierra Leoneans in Europe and America for and against the President’s action, it seems like the unsaid consensus in Sierra Leone is for everyone to wait for the judgment of the Supreme Court. The waiting period can be made shorter if the proceedings are expedited and a judgement handed down within a reasonably short period.

*Ibrahim Tommy is Executive Director at the Centre for Accountability and Rule of Law

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