From the Editor’s Keyboard

Berewa Escapes from YSLI Debate

26 June 2006 at 04:53 | 607 views

A debate organised by the Youths for Sierra Leone Improvement(YSLI) in which three of Sierra Leone’s presidential aspirants were to face each other had to be called off last Friday (June 23) at the last minute because the SLPP leader and Vice President of Sierra Leone, Solomon Berewa decided not to attend.
In this piece Leonenet-UMBC supremo John Musa carefully analyses the incident:

By John Musa

In the wake of Vice President Berewa dodging the debate scheduled for June 23, 2006, a number views have been interposed to condemn his failure to debate the issues of the day. Some background to the problem.

To that end, let us hurry with alacrity to the present cause of discontent between the Youth for Sierra Leone Development and the presidential candidates summoned to debate at the Miatta Conference Centre in Freetown.

As one privy to the arrangements and discussions leading to the collapsed debate, it it time to throw light on some of the things that led to why it was felled by the power of incumbency in politics.

The Youth for Sierra Leone Development is an independent, non-profit and non-partisan organization which is seeking to educate the voters of Sierra Leone about the various burning issues in the election campaign. It aimed to host a number of debates among the presidential candidates and others among the vice presidential candidates.

All nominated candidates - the Hon. Ernest Bai Koroma, Vice President Solomon Berewa and the interim leader of the PMDC, Charles Margai were invited. The United States Ambassador was poised to give the keynote address at the debate. The diplomatic corps, the United Nations mission to monitor democracy in Sierra Leone and all political leaders were also invited. A great moment was aborted by Mr. Berewa’s dodging of debate and our republic suffers as a result of behaviour of quitessential politicians avoiding to talk of real issues in favour of the panache of ashobie style gathering of campaigning.

APC candidate Koroma and PMDC’s Margai agreed to participate without reservation. Mr. Berewa, according to Michael Sho-Sawyer, M.D. (Chairman of the Youth for Sierra Leone Development), agreed to participate but on condition that he would appear and give a speech then have a party surrogate debate the opposition party leaders Koroma and Margai. Dr. Sho-Sawyer declined to the Berewa offer and asserted that the candidates be treated with parity on the same debate platform.

An impasse between the Youth organization and the prospective debaters ensued after the Berewa’s offer not to debate. APC candidate Koroma and PMDC’s Margai countered that they will not debate each other without the ruling party’s candidate. A fair proposition to underscore democratic practice.

Not long after that the Electoral Commission entered the fray and weighed in with the Letter of the Law of elections, that no debate can take place before the Commission declared the campaign opened. The law the Commission is relying on states as follows:

112. (1) The Electoral Commission shall, after the close of nominations, by Government Notice, determine and declare the period when campaigning by candidates and political parties may begin and end (THE ELECTORAL LAWS ACT, 2002).

Keep in mind that the Commission’s interpretation of this vague law is that debate is considered as campaigning. Thus, hosting a debate is breaking the law. The Youth organization desiring to conduct the debate in the public interest agreed to call the debate SENSITIZATION of the issues to avoid breaking the law cited above. All candidates agreed to this deprecation of political terminology for the convenience of the moment.

But the Constitution of Sierra Leone trumps this vague election statute when it beckons political parties thus:

"Political parties may be established to participate in shaping the people, to disseminate information on political ideas, and social and economic programmes to sponsor candidates for Presidential, Parliamentary or Local Government elections." (Section 35: Constitution of Sierra Leone 1991)

Section 35 is important because other democracies strive for this sort of public discussion of issues by candidates in debates. A United States Commission on Presidential Debates has observed,

"A primary responsibility of each major political party is to educate and inform the American electorate of its fundamental philosophy and policies as well as its candidates’ positions on critical issues. One of the most effective means of fulfilling that responsibility is through nationally televised joint appearances conducted between the presidential and vice-presidential nominees of the two major political parties during general election campaigns."

Thus if debates are not in concord with Section 35 now cited above, what else would the Constitution mean? Moreover, in constitutional law, any inferior law which comes into conflict with the Supreme Law of the Land - Constitution, that law must give way to the Constitution. Accordingly, to interpose an excuse to dodge debate that candidates will break electoral laws is blind fatuity and an unconstitutional reading of the law.

With this rapprochement to the Commission, the Youth organization was in gear again to host the debate. On the eve on the debate on Thursday June 22, 2007, the Berewa campaign declined to participate according to the organizers of the debate. The Hon. Ernest Koroma remained steadfast in wanting to debate his opponents on all sectors of government. Mr. Margai informed the debate organizers on Thursday that since Candidate Berewa was not showing up, he would rather be somewhere else ’sensitizing’ the issues, so he went on the political hustings in Kono District.

As a result of the Youth organization’s reticence in desiring this public debate, its representatives have alleged that they received threats and have gone into hiding. Meanwhile, their chairman, Dr. Sho-Sawyer will be a guest on a number of radio shows on Monday from Atlanta Georgia, to explain what really happened.

All of this aside, it is breathtaking to note that candidate Berewa would dodge debate, his adherents, sycophants and followers have all averred that he is prudent in statecraft (Thomas George) and we have been regaled by one Mr. Ed Smith that Berewa is the best candidate based only on his CKC schooling. We have ignored Mr. Smith’s suppositions for their emptiness and we have not heard that he actually speaks for the SLPP candidate in formal terms, hence our mortification at his dry musings on Berewa’s fitness to govern. Our just reply to Smith’s earlier postings is in the offing..

The compelling reason to debate is stated by Section 35 - to educate the public. To stifle that purpose under colour of law by the Commission is conduct unbecoming public officials on the Commission. That the Commission permits candidates to actually campaign under the silly word SENSITIZATION is a remarkable debasing of political terminology for sophomoric vocabulary to buffet the ruling party’s candidate.

The invited foreign guests at the debate must worry about what democracy means in Sierra Leone when debate is tantamount to breaking the law.

For PMDC’s interim leader to condition his appearance at a debate on Berewa’s attendance is irrational. He chose instead ashobie campaign style to avoid a better forum to talk to the people. Candidate Berewa is reported by the local media to be ’sensitizing’ the people about the issues as is Mr. Margai. We are hoping that Mr. Berewa will in the future consider himself equal on the debate stage with other candidates by showing up to discuss issues instead of merely giving an oration to the wind.

Let us conclude this essay. We are equally assured that hosting these debates are an essential part of the electoral process when we consider that the National Democratic Institute (NDI) in the United States has been promoting such debates to achieve the goals outlined above Reaching a similar conclusion as the Commission on presidential debates, the international pre-election delegation to Mexico organized by the National Democratic Institute (NDI).

From April 4 through 9, 2006, the delegation assessed the political environment in Mexico in advance of the July 2 presidential and legislative elections. The delegation conducted a series of meetings with Mexican political parties and civic leaders, electoral authorities and representatives of the international community and they reached the following conclusion:

"Debates give candidates the opportunity to articulate their positions on matters of national interest. A positive development in Mexico’s democratic development is the growing public appreciation for presidential debates as a means by which to learn about candidates’ political platforms."

Now, what would the National Electoral Commission rather have the candidates do - obey an inferior election statute or obey the Constitution and teach the people about the campaign issues? As for debate dodgers, it proves lack of preparation, and a serious undermining of the electoral process by choosing ashobie politics over debate.

Photo: Vice President Berewa in London