The Struggle for Democracy: Tensions in Parliament over PR System- What Happened and Who is Responsible?

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By Melvin Tejan Mansaray, Parliamentary Analyst and Critique

  1. Introduction

The democratic culture in Sierra Leone has not been smooth, from ideological differences in when and how we attained independence, post independence governance and transitions of power, bad governance from establishment and makeup of political parties, the degenerative factor of one party system, military coups,the Constitutional review,the decade long civil war, the truth and reconciliation process,and the contemporary and situational issues undercutting the democratic culture.

Our democracy is struggling because of bad political actors who sees it as a taboo to hold frank dialogue and consultations in decision-making.

The President is not reaching out a lot and the opposition is using constitutional and procedural tactics to filibuster or gerrymander the proposals of the executive and unfortunately, sometimes violently.

In our democratic struggle, the Constitution itself ought to be reviewed to tolerate cross-party dialogue and consultation. Section 77.1k, terms of consultation not binding, Section 38A, Section 33, etc, can only be resolved by the Highest Court in the land.

Most recently, the struggle for democracy had it pivot moment after the 2018 general elections and it complex outcome, a hung Parliament elected by the electorate.

In this struggle for democracy, the electorate is being taken for granted and into deeper toxicity, more so with the reintroduction of an electoral system that is evenly divisive few months to election.

  1. Tension in Parliament: What Happened and Who is Responsible

On the tension in parliament, what happened and who is responsible, these are critical questions to answer apolitically and proportionately.

What happened is as a result of a cumulative effect of SLPP and APC unwillingness to hold frank and sincere consensus-building and decision on a key public interest matter (electoral system reform). The permutations around Section 38A of the Constitution can only be laid to rest judicially.

Firstly, the Executive (President, cabinet and ESCL are to be blamed squarely), the law is being applied perceivably unfaithfully and insincerely festering Political mistrust and breakdown.

It is a matter of Supreme Court interpretation as to whether the preconditions for applying PR are tenable in the case of the upcoming general elections.

The opponents of the PR and the judiciary have a duty to bear in laying this matter to rest with an interpretation of the quagmire prayer.

In Parliament a few issues to look at can be:

Was there a consensus decision at the business committee on the laying of the papers?

Are the papers well seated in parliament, considering the gazette factor?

Did the APC MPs explore the best option by attempting to confiscate the mace? No, they could have moved a motion for a debate. Would it have been enough? No, because even if a debate was to have been called, it penultimate end would have been the question put and voting on acceptance or rejection which should have warranted the need for a two thirds majority of 98 votes which none of the two parties have. The political endgame, is to drum up public sympathy or apathy to erode public trust or confidence in the electoral system and institutions responsible to conduct the elections.

The report of the Clerk is commendable for its spontaneous nature but the procedure and content of the report is arguable.

Among some of the arguments;

  1. Did MPs attack the Chamber or themselves?

2.Should the police have been invited? Did they act professionally?

  1. The role and involvement of some of the sergeant at arms must not also go unscathed.
  2. Did Mr. Speaker handle the matter well by not standing the House down for further consultations? No, I don’t think so.
  3. Again, should the speaker waive the immunity of the alleged violent MPs? No, because there should be an ethic committee hearing and report on the conduct of the MPs and subsequent recommendations to usher in the next step.

Again, the term attack on the Chamber of Parliament is subjective, because it is a case of two fighting, an independent and impartial investigation could easily rope in other violent actors.

The role of strangers in the gallery, when, how, why and who invited the needs a review before advancing to how to handle their misconduct. Of course, any stranger found wanting of even interfering lest to talk about physically obstructing the proceedings must be charged to court where the evidence abounds abundantly.

Of course, somebody must take a just responsibility for the damages caused in Parliament but is the attached cost of the damages a reflection of the real prices of the destroyed items?

  1. What next?
  2. Section 93 ( Committees of Parliament), (f) (the Committee of Privileges), in tandem with Standing Orders (SO) 70, (11),(b) duties of this Committee proscribes on who is to discipline the conduct of MPs if Section 97 (Responsibilities of Members of Parliament) is proven to have been violated.

It’s worth understanding what is Parliamentary Privileges as enshrined in Section 99.1 ( immunity from civil or criminal proceedings in court or outside of parliament by reason of anything said) of the Constitution of Sierra Leone. Here an argument can be mounted on the need or not for a police investigation.

However, Section 100 (Immunity from service of process and arrest ) is conspicuous on what kind of crime , things said or done by an MP in Parliament to be probe by Committee of Privileges.

  1. Standing Order 18 (Laying of Papers and Constitutional and Statutory Instruments in tandem with Section 170 (The Laws of Sierra Leone) subsection (7) (c) gives an hindsight on what is to be expected now that the papers are laid before parliament.
  2. To have an idea on what is a constitutional and a statutory instrument, Section 171 ( Interpretation) (1), items 3,&15 clearly defines the two and further more the legitimacy of the papers.

4.Section 33 (Functions of the Electoral Commission) gives ECSL power to make regulations by statutory instruments for the registration of voters for presidential, parliamentary or local government elections and referenda and other matters is something to greatly ponder over in light of Section 38A, and 38.3 in making a case for or against the PR.

  1. Conclusion

The UN Resident Coordinator’s (Babatunde Ahonsi) Advice could be the silver bullet is applied.

“…, the way politics is played in 2022 really matters. What Sierra Leone’s key political actors do this year will determine whether the country successfully holds elections in 2023 in a manner that helps to advance the process of democratic consolidation in the ensuing years.

The signals from 2021 were not too encouraging as we saw more evidence of tit-for-tat than give-and-take politics across the landscape to the detriment of accelerated pursuit of the nation’s development priorities.

We saw an unmistakable rise in political tensions in the land and louder expressions of anxieties about the democratic health of the country. These tendencies would need to be reversed in 2022 to lay the foundation for an enabling environment for peaceful and credible elections in 2023.

Protagonists across political divides and political leaders of all shades at the national, regional, district, and community levels must always remember that two wrongs do not make a right and an eye for an eye leaves both parties blind. They must be ever conscious of the fact that conflict prevention is always far better than peacebuilding.

Therefore, a recommitment to genuine dialogue between the leaders of the ruling party and the main opposition parties to address unresolved political grievances in a mutually satisfactory way before the end of 2022 is an absolute necessity.

The country needs more than ever before to return to the path of inclusive politics that builds bridges across ethnic, regional, gender, generational, and disability status divides. In a country like Sierra Leone, political parties cannot continue to merely function as vehicles for winning elections.

They must also serve as major contributors to the shaping of socioeconomic policies and governance processes so as to deliver enhanced life chances to all citizens as dividends of democracy. Continued failure to do so will only serve to weaken public trust in democracy and state institutions.”

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