March 2, 2016 BY Abu-Bakarr Sheriff
Justice Edmund Cowan has come under a barrage of ad hominem attacks since the Constitutional Review Committee (CRC) published the “Abridged Draft Report” of the committee in February.
For starters, the retired Justice of the Appellate Court of Sierra Leone, former Speaker of the House and current Ombudsman, heads an 80-man committee, comprising political party representatives, professionals and civil society activists. As head, his task is simply to hold together various shades of views and ensure a level playing field, while the task of actually reviewing the constitution is done by the 80 people drawn from all interest groups in the country by former Attorney-General and Minister of Justice, Franklyn Bai Kargbo, plus of course the views of the people.
In his keynote speech at the launching of the CRC on 30 July, 2013 President Ernest Bai Koroma stated that the revised constitution should mirror the voice of the people.
“This is a committee constituted from people of every region, political affiliation and socio-economic group to perform a sacred task. The constitution is the supreme law of the land, and we must all ensure that this document captures our better habits, our better values and our better aspirations,” noted the president.
Accordingly, the committee had gone round the country to collect views from ordinary people, while various organisations made submissions as to what they thought should be captured in the new constitution. The committee also made study tours to Ghana and Kenya, and reviewed dozens of constitutions, all in a bid to get it right this time around, as all of us are of the realisation that the current constitution is inundated with loopholes – some deliberate, others inadvertent – which the framers hastily put together when the then APC government was pressed to make democratic reforms in the early 90s.
There is a world of difference between the process and procedure taken when writing the 1991 constitution and the current one; the former was largely written by few men in a party office, while the latter is participatory and people owned.
Acting on the directive of President Koroma, Justice Cowan has with alacrity and dexterity steered the CRC ship to near safe landing – with the majority of Sierra Leoneans, judging from responses so far, satisfied that the “Abridged Draft CRC Report” represents the independent, informed views and aspirations of the people.
But alas, there are those in this polity who think that whatever they disagree with should not be ironed out by dialogue or respectful debates, but diatribes and invectives. Thus, instead of comprehending the meaning of a “draft” they have gone to town with daggers drawn, aiming for the messenger’s jugular. History though is replete with such people – spoilers – whose stock-in-trade is at best mischief and shenanigans, and at worst baseless and unsound logical conclusions!
To insinuate that President Koroma had mistaken to appoint the respected jurist to head this all important process in our democratic experience is not quite complimentary to the head of state. But that is the level to which some people can go in their bid to tarnish the hard won reputation of folks who have dedicated their entire adult life, both during war and peace time, to serve our society. But the bad news for them is that, Sierra Leoneans are clever enough to decode their parochial partisan interest, and ignore or dismiss them with a scornful wave of the hand.
Justice Cowan may be in his seventies (not an octogenarian as erroneously stated by his bashers) but he continues to be physically fit and mentally alert as a man in his prime. At his age, he is still highly regarded even outside Sierra Leone such as he is recognised highly among ombudsmen on the continent. But that is not the point now. What instead is the issue at hand is that he has never been caught sleeping on duty, metaphorically or otherwise, while carrying out this exercise during the last three years. The thing any enquiring mind would discern is that those ageists who are now calling for his dismissal had kept quiet when he was appointed, probably because they thought he was pliable to do theirs or their master’s bidding. No way!
As a judge and while serving as Speaker, he believed in and applied the principles of equity to all, regardless of tribe, region, race, sex or party affiliation. It therefore came as no surprise that the then minority leader, who later became president, appointed him to key positions which require integrity, independence and impartiality.
Like Kenya did with their 2010 Constitution, our revised new constitution should strive to remedy the mischief of past constitutions, which have largely promoted division, patriarchy, discrimination, sexism, racism and bigotry. What the CRC headed by Justice Cowan has achieved is to banish those past demons which undermined good governance and constitutionality in our land of unity, freedom and justice.
Thus, retrogressive clauses like the citizens’ qualification and discriminatory provisions against women in our current constitution ought to be expunged immediately because they do not belong to the 21 century. That is what the Justice Cowan led CRC has positioned itself to doing, which naysayers in their jaundiced mind think he has been compromised.
Also, to propose that local council elections be conducted on non-partisan basis, while merely a proposal, could be the right step in the right direction because local issues are unique to locals, hence you need real grassroots, not those in the capital at party headquarters, to govern and perform in the interest of the people. Hence the rational for a new and separate chapter on Local Government and Decentralisation.
Other provisions in the abridged draft report propose changes to the age of judges, insist on the sovereignty of the people by ensuring that no party caucus can diabolically expel a vice president or the president and expect to torpedo the wishes of millions of voters, not necessarily party members, who elected them.
The frustration of folks who are calling for the resignation of Justice Cowan and a handful of officials who have given their time and energy to a laudable process could be discerned from the fact that the CRC did not meet their warped and unpatriotic expectation of another constitution that is susceptible to loopholes and rigmarole, one that cannot stand the test of time by way of interpretation. Rather, what Justice Cowan and his committee have achieved within a record period of time is a constitution all progressive and (real) democracy-loving Sierra Leoneans should be proud of.
Thus, instead of pooh-poohing their work and taking their names to the cleaners, they should be celebrated and congratulated for a job well done. We expect that only few changes could be done to the draft revised constitution, in the interest of peace and stability of our nation.
Kudus Justice Cowan and the CRC!!!