President Koroma’s subvention to NEC nomination fees not good for our democracy, and undermined our parliament
I have been approached almost daily to express my views on the Government, the Opposition or the issue of the moment in Sierra Leone. Generally, I have resisted, as well I know, government is a tricky business. (Photo: Messeh Kamara, author)
But I do believe that if we do not act now, then it may become too late. In such a situation it is necessary to speak out. And – perhaps – it would even be cowardly not to do so. After all this is a democracy and my freedom of speech is guaranteed in the universal declaration of human rights.
I am not for the Opposition. I am not for the Government. I am for the people – poor Sierra Leoneans who have been ripped-off by both the Government and the Opposition, to satisfy their selfish political interest. It is their own behaviour that has brought this about.
As a scholar of law and government, I am disturbed by President Koroma’s action to subsidize the National Election Commission (NEC) nominations fees. The President’s action is not good for our democracy, and undermines the sovereignty of parliament. His decision is not about the furtherance of democracy, but the hindrance of democracy. The President would say ‘’it is expensive but we can’t afford the alternative”. But what is this alternative that has not being tested or explained? This is just a political maneuver, to justify the misuse of public funds.
The President may have a good intention, but his intention in this circumstance is not good for our democracy. I do not pretend that we have reached the point at which this is irreversible. I am very angry at the decision to use public funds to subsidize NEC nomination fees, at the expense of the poorest in Sierra Leone. This has no merit as a way to promote peace and democracy, it has no merit morally, it has no merit legally, it has no merit economically, it is frankly a horrible decision.
Money that will be used to subsidize the nomination fees could have otherwise been used to support the countless number of children perishing and sleeping in market stalls across the country, or otherwise use that money to create jobs for the 80% unemployed (including the under-employed youth). I do not believe that public funds should be spent on politicians who have failed to perform their responsibility in Parliament.
The nonchalant attitude of MPs to debate the NEC nomination fees has no justification whatever and we must condemn it in the strongest possible terms. There can be no motivation for this action other than greed! Delay of legislative business appears to have become a political strategy, with political parties dodging informed and incisive debates on policy matters. This is simply unacceptable.
The government uses its majority as a rubber stamp. The opposition is ignored or suborned. Complex Bills are poorly scrutinised as the Government is bound to get its way. And if the opposition attempts to block or amend legislation, which is its legitimate role, it is discredited and attacked. In a democracy, Parliament is the forum for the Opposition to debate government policies, not a battle field.
Parliamentary sovereignty has been undermined because MPs have chosen to ignore the interest of the voters and failed to do their jobs. As a result of the President’s decision, Parliament has surrendered decision-making within the legislature to the executive (a very big blow to the principles of separation of powers). This is irresponsible and also undermines democratic principles and the autonomy of NEC. MPs are expected to act as representatives of the people, they are the eyes and ears of their constituents; they debate and adopt legislation to benefit all.
If the President had wanted to help our almost bankrupt political parties, it should not have been done in a fashion that was politically motivated in order to score political points; that was a one-way advantage for politicians at the expense of poor people; and that distorted the electoral make-up. The President waited too long and too late to act…what an error! The President has ignored, bypassed and disregarded Parliament.
In the case of the NEC’s nomination fees, an exorbitant amount – the President should have revert the issue to Parliament to deal with the situation despite the time constraint is the only way to restore the reputation of parliament. And yet the Government refuses and agreed to use public funds to cover the fees. The Government and the Opposition failed to do due diligence to NEC’s nomination fees in parliament, and now the poor people have to pay a very high price from our almost broke confers.
The argument for NEC’s budgetary constraint is preposterous – NEC has a responsibility to use public funds wisely and prevent mismanagement. If NEC needs more money to conduct the elections, then it should ask the Government to increase its budget, and not to rely on nomination fees. People should understand that the nomination fees have NOT been reduced – it still stands! But it is the government that has agreed to pay the outstanding amount in order top-up the fees as prescribed by NEC.
But, what is the guarantee that political parties would be able to cover the prescribed nomination fees in future elections as parliament has already approved the fees by default? What may if the Opposition stood on it toes again and refuses to pay because the fees is just too unrealistic and practically impossible for now and future elections? That’s why it could have been better for Parliament to resolve the issue once and for all, than allow this political uncertainty to follow us in future elections. This is a bad precedent.
Having the President who commands the majority in parliament, he could have rallied his MPs and lobbied for the legislation to be reconsidered and fast-tracked or otherwise implores NEC to revoke the legislation and reduce the fees. Unlike primary legislation, delegated legislation such as the nomination fees can be challenged in the courts by affected parties and they can even quash the legislation. Why? This is because they are created by non-directly elected people (NEC) and so there should be limits on their power. Only Parliament could have remedy this lacuna in the law and resolve this political crisis by debating NEC’s proposed subsidiary legislation or otherwise the same parliament could enact a new amendment of the Public Elections Act 2012 and by way of prescribing the Nomination Fee in the body of the legislation.
The President is well placed to canvass MPs to act wisely and accordingly, in this case, it was insufficient. The President determined what bills Parliament considered; after all he gives the final assent to a bill and had the right to query from the resulting legislation anything he deemed not to be in the public interest. This he did not do.
I can understand the exigency of time as the elections are just by the corner, but it better to do the right thing now and save our democracy than sweep sensitive issues like this under the carpet just for the sake of moving forward. In fact it would take less time and less hassle for NEC to go back to Parliament and revoke the nomination fees, and the election can still go on as planned and on time.
The President apparent contempt of our Parliament has swept away the rule of law. Rushed, ill thought-through subvention of NEC fees has been introduced in the name of peace and democracy – action that imperils the soul of the Constitution and leave democracy and parliament weaker and poorer. Even where there is a case for parliament to act wisely – the Government has bungled it.
NEC neglected its responsibility to consult with the affected parties, and presented the nomination fees to parliament as a decision to be rubber stamped. And now the Opposition has been relegated to poor beggars protesting for ‘chicken change’. It seems NEC, Government and the Opposition designed this political strategy and game-plan that would result to this decision. This is a farce and a deliberate attempt to exploit public funds. By their action, I would like to infer that some of these mushrooms political parties maybe have been created by the Government or Opposition and now they need money to bail them out to contest the election, at least they can count on their votes and defection/allegiance in the event of a run-off election.
Democracy has been tested! The Opposition has tested President Koroma’s leadership abilities and now they know he can always backdown and make a u-turn even with issues to be addressed by parliament. President Koroma should be prepared to hand-over power in the event that the Opposition refuses to accept the final results of the elections. The President will have no choice but to hand-over power, if he wants to be seen as the ‘messiah of peace’ and to underscore his claim of ‘for the sake of peace and democracy’.
Previous and current governments’ style of governing – and its adoption of ‘defection’ and majority bulling in parliament as its weapons of choice – has done immense damage to politics. But if the institution of Parliament declines; if respect for it is lost; if politics is seen as a game, not as an essential bulwark of our constitution and our liberties; if President bow the head to the Opposition and ignore the people; and if the public loses its trust in the integrity of parliament, then we are in serious trouble.
Political failure and the inadequacy of our democratic institutions contributed aggressively to our political crisis. It was political decisions that resulted to the decade civil conflict. I believe that in a democracy the culture of the majority determined a country’s legal structure. But majority practices that offended the fundamental moral standards of the minority had to be abandoned. It is clear now that political parties can over-ride Constitutional checks and balances.
Although perfect political equality is an unrealistic goal, representational biases of this magnitude call into question the very democratic character of our society. Our institutions, as they currently operate, do not appear to be capable of imagining and developing the new models of governance, economic strategy, or social relations that might promise a more equal, sustainable and participative society. It seems they cannot look beyond recreating the – troubled – past.
As long as political parties believe they can win elections by changing the ground rules, the battle over election will continue. And as long as the government is usurping the function of Parliament for political purposes — as the President most certainly does – civil society must aggressively pursue the Government and Opposition to do the right thing.
Democracy in Sierra Leone today is in deep trouble. Weak, shallow, dangerous, and corrupted, it is the best democracy that money can buy. When a group of people minds are beclouded with personal interests and corruption, they try to cleverly take everything from the poor there by making them poorer and poorer. Such is the case of some of our lawmakers and politicians who have destroyed and continue to destroy almost everything that must exist for our country to survive.
MPs have done absolutely nothing to tell the President he is not a king and we do not live in a monarchy. They are allowing him to undermine parliament and trash the constitution because most of them know nothing about the Constitution and are concerned only in getting themselves re-elected.
Is it too late for parliamentary democracy? Has the President tolled the hour for our constitution and parliamentary sovereignty? I think not. I hope not. But the danger is clear and present. And effective parliament enshrining the sovereignty of the people remains the yardstick for any serious measure of democratic reform. President Koroma government’s role in the NEC nomination fess absolutely undermines the basis of our democracy.
The Author, Messeh Kamara based in the UK, is a human rights activist and democracy advocate. Messeh started the Young Leaders of Sierra Leone Organisation (YLSL), launched by the then President of the Republic of Sierra Leone. Messeh is currently the Secretary General and Ward Organiser for the Labour Party Branch for Wandsworth and Earlsfield in London.
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