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Launching of Government White Paper on Constitutional review: Statement by civil rights lawyer Emmanuel Saffa Abdulai

13 January 2022 at 23:49 | 3290 views

Courtesies: HE the President, the Vice President, Rt. Hon. Speaker of parliament, the Hon. Chief Justice, Hon. Members of Parliament and Ministers present, civil society colleagues, distinguished ladies and gentlemen,

Today marks an important democratic milestone for Sierra Leone. My colleagues in civil society have asked me to deliver a statement on their behalf. My brief remarks will focus largely on the invaluable role civil society has played and continue to play in the constitutional review process

Many people have described a constitution as a sacred set of laws by which a country should be governed. I agree, but I wish to add that a constitution is not only sacred, it is also the foundation of any democratic nation state. As we all know, no matter how beautiful a building is, if its foundations are weak it’ll just be a matter of time for it to collapse.

That is why - throughout this process- civil society actors have reminded the Government and people of Sierra Leone about the need to eschew partisanship and personal interests and focus on what’s good for our country simply because we generally make laws not to promote or protect the interest of a few people but the wider society. Keep in mind that when we make laws to protect the interests of a few people, those laws may very well be used against the same people in the future. At this why CSOs have never missed an opportunity to urge successive governments to expedite the review of the 1991 constitution in order to complete our country’s democratic transition - sometimes to the annoyance of some in government.

On behalf of civil society organisations in Sierra Leone, I wish to Congratulate the Government and people of Sierra Leone for having come so far. Whist the job isn’t done yet, it is undoubtedly an important step forward in the review process.

Mr President, almost 30 years since the Constitution of Sierra Leone 1991 was enacted, there is consensus for it to be reviewed to bring it in line with the significant changes that have taken place at both domestic and international levels.

Consequently, the Dr. Peter Tucker Constitutional Review Commission was set up to review the 1991 Constitution, taking cognisance of the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Report, TRC Report. The Commission submitted its report in 2008 and recommended that certain aspects of the 1991 Constitution should be amended to expedite national development and consolidate peace and democracy.

In 2013, the erstwhile Koroma administration set up the Justice Edmond Cowan-led Constitutional Review Committee (CRC) consisting 80 members, representing different stakeholders in Sierra Leone including political parties, government institutions, NGOs, civil society organisations, women’s and youth groups, the media, and key independent bodies. (I will keep this background out because the government will provide it).

The constitutional review process is not just anchored on legal justification for change, but historically the Truth and Reconciliation Commission recommended its review. Article 10 of the 1999 Lomé Peace Accord also alluded to a review to ensure that "never again" do we descend into the bestiality that characterized our civil war. Therefore, this process should never be viewed or used as simply an opportunity to promote narrow political interests, but it’s a fundamental conflict prevention and nation building effort.

My President,

Civil society appreciates your government’s acknowledgment of the contributions of CSOs in this process. Indeed, we have contributed a lot, including by making submissions to the CRC, supporting the consultations and keeping citizens informed and engaged, and most importantly, providing the platform for and amplifying the voices of otherwise voiceless citizens.

We do so because genuine transformation begins with a good Constitution that reflects the values, hopes and views of the people. It provides the broader rule of law framework for compatible subordinate legislation.

- The white paper is an important step forward in the process, but it is no way near the end.

- We urge the government to remain committed to the process by ensuring public education and consultations on the content of the white paper. Civil society stands ready to work cooperatively with government and development partners to popularize the white paper in order to enhance public understanding and ownership

We sincerely hope that the State will act in an expeditious manner to ensure that this process is concluded.

We further envisage that the next steps in this process should avoid a rigid approach and embrace flexibility in order to take on board views that could help enrich the final document. There’s need for public education and consultations going forward, especially in respect of any additional provisions or clauses that were not part of the Cowan recommendations.

Civil society wants a progressive constitution for our country, which is why we will continue to participate in this process to ensure that the outcome of this process reflects the real spirt of Constitutionalism: entrenched separation of powers, prioritizing the Rule of Law above the rule by men, reinforcing supremacy of the constitution, and the sovereign power of the people. It should also provide for inclusive political processes and outcomes.

Civil society envisaged that any Reforms, review and recommendations must be progressive and prospective. In this light we believe:

- That the constitution which will emanate from this process must reflect the real spirt of Constitutionalism: entrenched separation of powers, prioritizing the Rule of Law above the rule by men, reinforcing supremacy of the constitution, and ensures sovereignty lies with the power.

- Strengthen nationhood as against tribal and regional blocks and political platform. More especially devising a way for an inclusive political processes and outcomes.

- Fix Electoral calendars that overcomes the present Electoral calendar quagmire and make elections a lubricant for out very existence as a nation.

- Strengthen state accountability institutions such as cushioning the judiciary from external interference and subtle pressure that will interfere with its independence

- Promoting and protecting media and civil society as non-state actors and watchers of government

Mr President, our constitution must protect vulnerable citizens such as women, children and people living with disability. In order to do this, the constitution must make progressive strides by reforming the present discriminatory provision in the 1991 constitution and abolish all forms of discrimination against women.

The state must take on socio-economic obligations and make these rights justiciable, like it’s Counterpart civil and political rights. Doing this, Sierra Leone will join other progressive nations.

Citizenship clauses must be reviewed to meet modern trend of avoiding legal backstay to making some people stateless. Our recent past, and the very fact that we were once refugees and our compatriots are overseas as citizens, we should not deny people citizenship based on their color.

Mr. President, this exercise should divorce state institutions from political institutions

Ensures that amendment of the next constitution reflects the spirits and purpose of constitutionalism. Discouraging unconstitutional constitutional amendments by the legislation.

Civil society looks forward to a White Paper that will usher in a more progressive, robust and democratic Constitution that epitomises our history a long march to not only freedom but justice and democracy in a 21st Century Constitution.

Note from the Editor: Watch, by clicking on the link below, segments of the ceremony, courtesy of State House media.