By Foday Moriba Conteh
Sierra Leone embarked on its national Constitutional Review Process nearly eighteen years ago, aiming to address governance and human rights challenges. While commendable progress has been achieved, the process remains incomplete, leaving citizens eager for a new constitution. Acknowledging concerns, the Bio-led administration issued a Whitepaper accepting numerous recommendations from the Justice Cowan Report. However, the absence of a Constitutional Bill and citizens’ limited awareness of the process status raised questions.
To deliberate on the progress, identify gaps, and propose recommendations for a citizen-centered and expeditious constitutional review, the Centre for Accountability and Rule of Law Sierra Leone, (CARL-SL), with funding from the Open Society Foundation, has concluded a one-day national conference on Wednesday, 25th January, 2024. The conference brought together key stakeholders, including Government officials, civil society leaders, women-led groups, and development partners. The event took place at the Buxton Memorial Hall on Charles Street in Freetown.
Ibrahim Tommy, the Executive Director of the Centre for Accountability and Rule of Law, Sierra Leone, highlighted the protracted nature of the constitutional review process, beginning in 2006 with the Peter Tucker Constitutional Review Committee. Despite completing its report in 2013, the Government’s response was delayed. The current Constitutional Review Committee, established in 2013, reviewed the Tucker report, presenting findings and recommendations in 2018. The Government accepted and rejected certain recommendations in a White Paper, emphasizing the prolonged duration of the process.
Tommy outlined the purpose of the conference, expressing the expectation of an update from a Government representative, notably the Office of the Attorney General, Minister of Justice. Despite the absence of such representation, Tommy noted productive outcomes, including reflections on the government white paper. He emphasized that constitution-making should prioritize public interests and highlighted the need for a participatory and inclusive approach.
The Executive Director called for an expedited process, the integration of new ideas, and government engagement with civil society. He recommended the disclosure of a timeline for concluding the process and urged sincere engagement with civil society to address concerns. Tommy emphasized the collective responsibility to enhance the constitution, advocating for transparency and unity among civil society organizations.
Expressing disappointment in the delayed new constitution, Tommy urged the government to adopt an open-minded approach, welcoming diverse perspectives until the constitution is finalized through parliamentary approval and a referendum.
In her statement, Bintu Kamara, the program coordinator of the 50/50 Group, emphasized the importance of ensuring a gender-inclusive approach to the ongoing constitutional reform in Sierra Leone.
Kamara expressed gratitude for the positive steps taken to update the constitution and the issuance of a Whitepaper aligning with Justice Cowan Report recommendations, but however, highlighted the need for clarity on the progress of the constitutional reform, emphasizing its significance in reflecting citizens’ needs and concerns.
As a women-centered organization, 50/50 Group stressed the fundamental role of constitutional reform in achieving a transformative agenda for women, girls, and the country’s development. Kamara recalled the Women’s Solidarity Response and Recommendations to the Constitutional Review Committee’s Abridged Draft Report in 2016, outlining the collective aspirations of women for a revised constitution.
The 50/50 Group identified several gender dimensions requiring attention during constitutional reform. Kamara highlighted the problematic recognition of customary law, which lacks uniform rules and often perpetuates patriarchal norms, particularly in areas like land tenure, marriage, divorce, and inheritance.
A notable concern raised was Section 27 (4)(d-e) of the Constitution, which provides exemptions to anti-discrimination provisions, hindering due process and equal protection. The group called for the removal and replacement of that section.
The Program Coordinator of 50/50 Group advocated for an equity-focused constitutional approach, considering the existing barriers faced by women due to cultural norms. Positive discrimination or affirmative action, especially in areas of education, political participation, health, and economic empowerment, was proposed by the 50/50 Group.
She concluded her statement with a call for women’s active participation in constitutional discussions, asserting the constitution’s importance as a shared rulebook co-owned by all citizens, reaffirming 50/50 Group’s commitment to the constitutional reform process, and emphasizing the significance of inclusive and transparent dialogue.
Alfred Paul Juwah Esq, the Secretary General of the Sierra Leone Bar Association, emphasized the paramount nature of the constitution as the highest law in the country, stating that the Sierra Leone Bar Association serves as a moral guarantor of the constitution, calling attention to instances where Government actions may be perceived as violating constitutional principles.
Juwah highlighted the dual role of the Association, not only scrutinizing potential constitutional infringements but also commending and reminding the Government to adhere to constitutional provisions. The Sierra Leone Bar Association acknowledged the commendable progress made in the ongoing review of the 1991 constitution, a process initiated in 2006.
Expressing optimism for the adoption of a new constitution, Juwah raised concerns about persistent constitutional challenges and controversial cases associated with the existing 1991 constitution. He stressed the need for the ongoing constitutional review to address these challenges comprehensively.
The Sierra Leone Bar Association’s position underscores the importance of considering past constitutional controversies during the current review process. The Secretary General urged the Government to take a proactive approach to ensure that the new constitution is free from contentious issues that might necessitate immediate amendments shortly after its adoption.
Other speakers including the Chairman Education Committee at the Sierra Leone Labour Congress, Alieu Fofanah, PRO Driver’s Union, Mohamed Kaindoneh, President Traders Union, Haja Marie Bob Kandeh, the National Publicity Secretary of the All People’s Congress (APC), Sidi Yayah Tunis also made statements during the conference, followed by presentation:
The conference provided a platform for constructive dialogue and reiterated the importance of a constitution that reflects the collective will, safeguarding citizens’ rights for future generations.