By Cornelius Oguntola Melvin Deveaux
First and foremost, I want to emphasize that democratic elections are the acceptable means through which the people can change a government and elect their representatives and President. In order to achieve this, the credibility of the electoral process, as well as the acceptance of its outcome by all stakeholders, is crucial for maintaining peace and national cohesion.
Undoubtedly, progressive electoral reform is the solution to the recurring disputes that undermine the credibility of elections in Sierra Leone.
It is through this path that the government and the APC have embarked upon in order to reduce political tension and strengthen peace and national cohesion.
They have done so by signing the Terms of Reference for the Cross-Party Committee on Electoral Systems and Management Bodies Review.
In my pursuit of truth and the desire for peace and national cohesion, I am writing to highlight concerns that may undermine the important task of electoral reforms and render it futile.
Firstly, I believe that such a significant and challenging task cannot be effectively and efficiently completed within the next five months.
The methodology adopted in the Terms of Reference (ToR) will be implemented in seven phases. These phases will include activities such as desk review, data collection, plenary sessions, and public engagements.
Additionally, the implementation will require the involvement of international experts and collaboration with key stakeholders, including government officials, election management bodies (EMBs), and political party representatives.
It is also crucial to extensively consult with the public in order to determine the recommendations that the Committee will present in its final report to the President.
Given the nature of these activities, it is important to allocate sufficient time and not rush through them without proper diligence.
In my opinion, a five-month timeline seems quite tight to effectively and efficiently complete this task, considering the significance it holds for our nation.
One of the provisions in the ToR grants the Committee the privilege to access all relevant documents, records, and information necessary for the task.
Additionally, the Committee will engage with various stakeholders and the public in order to gather valuable input.
Given that the Committee is not a creation of an Act of Parliament or a product of statutes, access to some relevant documents, records, and information has regulations.
This brings to mind the much-touted independence of the Electoral Commission of Sierra Leone (ECSL) and how it may hinder the work of the committee.
Any insistence that there are constitutional provisions that restrain ECSL from collaborating with the Committee questions the commitment of government and public service institutions to the much-needed electoral reforms.
There can be no serious examination of electoral systems, structures, and processes without the participation of ECSL.
According to the scope of the ToR, the Committee will examine procedures for the communication of results from polling point to announcement, the results announced in the 2007, 2012, 2018, and 2023 elections, and the procedures of the certification of the results, consistent with the law.
It will slur the essence of the scope of the mandate of the Committee if the participation of ECSL is discretionary because of its ‘independence’ and that a court order will be required to ‘compel’ them to release election data.
Another serious concern is that while the business of electoral reforms requires a national approach, the Committee lacks a national character.
The process of electoral reforms requires the involvement and participation of key stakeholders, such as EMBs, political parties, current Members of Parliament, and councillors.
The process of electoral reform should not be solely controlled by the government and APC. The Committee will engage with stakeholders and the public during the implementation of its ToR, but there should be greater inclusion of stakeholders, including other political parties and the people, as they should have ownership of the electoral reform process.
Some of the recommendations made by the Committee will need to be turned into legislation. It is crucial to involve the Office of the Attorney General, the law officers department, and the Legislative Committee in Parliament to steer the reform process.
The government and the APC should avoid pursuing political gains that could hinder the committee’s work.
At the maiden press conference of the Committee, Dr. Emmanuel Gaima and Dr.Kaifala Marah, the respective lead representatives of the government and the opposition APC, were not on the same page when explaining the scope of the mandate and the terms of reference of the Committee.
This disconcerted approach raises questions about the sincerity of both the government and the APC and the unity of purpose in implementing the mandate of the Tripartite Committee.
The interchange of the words ‘examine’ and ‘investigate’ in an attempt to avoid addressing whether the Committee has the authority to recommend a rerun of the June 24, 2023, elections is also concerning. The resolution that established the Committee and outlined its mandate and terms of reference does not mention the word “investigate”.
According to the agreement for national unity, the Committee’s mandate is to “examine” Sierra Leone’s electoral systems, structures, and processes.
This examination should be informed by previous elections as well as the 2023 elections, with the goal of identifying and addressing contentious issues and proposing progressive electoral reforms consistent with international best practices to enhance the credibility of future elections.
This context does not involve an investigation.
Although the words “examine” and “investigate” can be used interchangeably to mean “thoroughly reviewing details and facts to reach a definitive conclusion”, an examination is less extensive than an investigation.
According to compare.com, there are subtle differences between the two words that are important to understand.
“Investigate” means to conduct a systematic or formal inquiry to discover and examine the facts of an incident, allegation, or situation. It involves gathering information, analysing evidence, and drawing conclusions.
On the other hand, “examine” means to carefully inspect or scrutinize something in detail to assess its condition or accuracy. It involves closely looking at something to determine its quality or state.
This is precisely what the Committee will be doing: assessing the quality and state of Sierra Leone’s electoral systems, structures, and processes, and making recommendations for reforms that align with international best practices to enhance the credibility of future elections.
Considering the scope of the Committee’s mandate, the drafters of the agreement for national unity may not have made a mistake in their choice of words by stating that the Committee will “examine” rather than investigate.
Posing a further challenge to the work of the Committee are the perceptions of its outcomes. The penultimate phase in its methodology is to prepare a final report in which the Committee shall recommend necessary actions for electoral reforms.
These actions should focus on improving or amending electoral laws, procedures, and regulations to ensure a free, fair, transparent, and credible process for future elections.
The report will be accompanied by a reform roadmap that identifies key reform activities to be implemented, along with a timeline and resources.
Any expectation other than this is a misconception.
Another concern is that the Terms of Reference (ToR) state that if, during the examination, the Committee determines that certain individuals, groups, or institutions bear responsibility for undermining democratic elections in Sierra Leone, including the 2023, 2018, 2012, and 2007 electoral cycles, the Committee shall recommend appropriate action to the President, but not to the judiciary or law enforcement agencies.
This implies that the President’s goodwill is required for any action recommended against those responsible for undermining democratic elections and other recommendations in the final report to be implemented.
It is important to note that even with his supreme executive authority, the President cannot authorize everything.
For example, if the Committee recommends dismissal, prosecution, fines, or jail terms, the President can only carry out actions that the law allows him to.
The President can dismiss his appointee, but he cannot prosecute or impose fines and jail terms. If the President refers matters to the judiciary for prosecution, the courts are not obligated to act according to his directive.
There is a possibility that a person recommended for prosecution may be acquitted and discharged because the strength of a person’s case is dependent on their lawyers.
Therefore, the recommendations of the Committee must be legally applicable, or else the assumption that they should be actionable and implementable may not hold true.
The Tripartite Committee is considered the best thing to have ever happened since the introduction of multi-party democratic elections in 1996.
The importance of getting it right cannot be understated. Ensuring the success of the process of electoral reforms is crucial for peace and national cohesion.
A serious threat to the work of the Committee and its relationship to peace and national cohesion is the expectation of some members of the APC that the Committee will recommend a rerun of the 2023 elections.
Let me reiterate once again that the June 24, 2023, presidential election is concluded and finalized. President Julius Maada Bio is the President of the Republic of Sierra Leone, and that is why the Committee’s examination results will be presented to him.
The fate of the Tripartite Committee is in his hands.
There will be no rerun of the June 24, 2023, presidential election.
The mandate of the Committee, its Terms of Reference, and the scope of its recommendations do not mention a rerun election.
Even if the Committee were to foolishly recommend a rerun, it is not within the President’s supreme executive authority to authorize elections outside the framework of the National Constitution and other statutes.
I am not a fan of the circumstances that led to the APC and Dr. Samura Kamara losing the 2023 presidential election, but I also believe that those misleading our people by claiming that the tripartite committee will recommend a rerun are doing a great disservice to both the party and the country.
When there is no rerun in the end, our already disillusioned grassroots supporters will be further angered.
This could fuel the call for a political uprising.
As Sierra Leoneans who have embraced democratic elections as the acceptable means of changing a government and electing representatives and a President, it is the responsibility of well-meaning individuals to ensure the success of the electoral reform process.