For CSOs’ Challenge of Parliament in Perception Surveys…  Speaker of Parliament in Sierra Leone Gives Ultimatum to CARL & IRG

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Speaker of Parliament, Dr. Abass Chernor Bundu

By Foday Moriba Conteh

The House of Parliament held a Press Conference on the 30th September 2020 at Parliament Building on Tower Hill in Freetown to deliberate or shed light on two perception reports alleging that Parliament is the second most corrupt institution in the country.

In attendance was the Leadership of Political Parties in Parliament,

Hon. Members of Parliament, Development Partners, Civil Society Organisations, and Members of the Media.

In his statement, the Speaker of Parliament, Hon. Dr. Abass Chernor Bundu welcomed all to what he said is the first Press Conference since he assumed the office of Speaker of Parliament.

He said at the very outset that Parliament is not a corrupt institution and still less the second most corrupt institution in Sierra Leone. Hon Bundu maintained that for the current Fifth Parliament, of which he is the current Head as Speaker, he can state categorically that the Fifth Parliament is not corrupt saying he challenges the veracity of all publications that assert to the contrary.

The Speaker said in that regard, he is referring particularly to the allegations contained in the 2019 Corruption Perception Report published by the Centre for Accountability and the Rule of Law (CARL), a civil society organisation reportedly funded by various international development agencies including DFID.

He said he also refers to the allegation contained in a 2020 Report by the Institute of Governance Reform (IGR) funded by the Afro Barometer Institute and the Ghana Centre for Democratic Development.

According to Dr.Abass Bundu, the Parliament of Sierra Leone is the supreme legislative body in Sierra Leone that is vested with authority by the 1991 Constitution of Sierra Leone (Act No. 6 of 1991) to hold the Executive accountable.

He said quite apart from that, Parliament is also the national nerve centre for public accountability and transparency in Sierra Leone in addition to the power vested in it to make laws for peace, security, order and good Governance of the country.

“Thus empowered, whatever its imperfections, Parliament is designed by the framers of our Constitution to be the central nervous system and oxygen of our democracy, be it parliamentary or presidential.

It is imperative therefore that it works, or made to work efficiently and effectively, above all, in the overarching interest of our country at all times. This means it must be enabled to work in a corruption-free environment and must itself be incorruptible and seen by the people as such.

This is so because Parliament is the main organ of Government that carries the trust of our Sovereign, the people of Sierra Leone.

Therefore, for Parliament to be accused of corruption, it must of necessity be viewed as committing a crime analogous to Treason, the crime of betraying one’s country.

It strikes at the very heart of our central nervous system and that must never be taken lightly. In such circumstances Parliament must either emerge triumphant or atrophy,” the Speaker highlighted.

He said in essence, therefore, the charge Parliament is facing today is a charge that can be likened to Treason; betraying the public trust.

From time immemorial, the Speaker intimated, no charge can be greater saying they stand accused before the highest court of politics; as it were before the Supreme Court of Public Opinion.

He said that they also know that their accusers are all men made of sterner stuff , occupy a special place in society and precisely because of that they the accused must hold them, and them alone, to bear an undivided onus of proof.

“And the evidence they must adduce must be of unimpeachable quality and the standard of proof cannot be anything less than the highest possible standard, that is to say, proof beyond all reasonable doubt; indeed the standard of proof must be commensurate with the crime charged,” he said in strong terms.

Hon Dr. Abass Bundu stated how they shall settle for nothing less because it’s time they make it pellucidly clear to all the citizenry that in the current dispensation, there is no more free licence to defame and slander; to curse and abuse; no more room for careless talk; no more room to exploit the public at will; indeed no more room to talk and act with impunity.

“Enough is enough! On the contrary, we have just arrived on the shores of a new Sierra Leone, the land that we love and call our very own; the land that is poised to rise to even higher heights of achievement in human capital development; of responsible leadership and freedom and of progressive and inclusive national development,” he underscored.

The Speaker said the Second, Third, Fourth and the current Fifth Parliaments have all passed substantive legislations as well as made significant amendments to existing laws, all aimed at combating the scourge and menace of corruption.

And all these Parliaments, he said, have done so by way of strengthening, revitalising and reinvigorating the Anti-Corruption Commission.

“The latest in this series is the Anti-Corruption (Amendment) Act 2019 passed by this current Fifth Parliament. Thus the Commission now has enough strong muscle of its own to stand and fight to rid our country of graft through the law. And if the law is found to be inadequate, this Parliament stands ready to give the Commission more strength,” he noted.

He said whereas the Executive will always be held to account by Parliament, Parliament is in turn answerable to the people of this country.

This, he continued, is an obligation they as a Parliament fully recognise and respect as enjoined by paragraph (a) of Subsection 2 of Section 5 of the Constitution of Sierra Leone.

That provision, he maintained, is like no other in the Constitution; it recognises the basic tenet that the people are the Sovereign of this country and it is from them through the Constitution that power, authority and legitimacy flow. No more and no less.

He said bearing that tenet in mind and guided by it at all times, the Fifth Parliament wishes it to be known that it registers its utmost objections to the allegations of corruption levelled at it by CARL and IGR for the following reasons: First, both the so-called surveys lack substance.

The Speaker said they are based on public perception and not reality furthering how they say clearly and loudly that public perception is not enough basis for an indictment.

Head of Parliament said secondly, the perception is that of the very few, some might even say infinitesimal, number of people who mostly reside in the urban areas of the country; not of the multitudes who reside and toil in the rural areas.

He asked the rhetorical question: Are CARL and IGR telling this nation that the lives of the people who dwell in the rural areas do not matter?

Dr. Abass Bundu said thirdly, even of those few in the urban centres, they engaged only 2, 619 persons in the case of CARL and only 1,200 persons in the case of IGR.

He pointed out that in other words, in a country of over seven million presently divided into 132 Constituencies, they engaged an average of approximately 20 persons per constituency out of a population of 55,000 in the case of CARL and only 9 persons per constituency in the case of IGR.

“Is this sample really large enough or reliable enough to deduce a national perception?” he again asked.

The Speaker said their Pay Masters must ask themselves whether they really got value for their moneys or whether this is best way to spend the precious moneys of their taxpayers?

“Moreover, what really do they stand to gain from such inconsequential surveys?” he quizzed.

Fourth, according to Hon Dr. Abass Bundu, it bears repeating again and again until those who refuse or seem impervious agree to understand that Members of Parliament are neither Vote Controllers nor responsible for the development of their constituencies.

He said their function is to scrutinise and pass the National Budget each year from which funds are appropriated to Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs) of Government and the Local Councils who are then required to undertake development programmes in their various constituencies.

The Speaker revealed that such was precisely why he purposely changed the nomenclature of the meagre amounts given to MPs to Constituency Facilitation Allowance (i.e. to facilitate interaction between MPs and their constituents) from the previous Constituency Development Fund, which ,he said, was a complete misnomer.

He added that let truth be told, it was that misnomer that most of the present crop of MPs capitalised upon to vanquish their erstwhile incumbents which also largely accounts for the over 80 per cent rate of attrition in the composition of this current Fifth Parliament compared to the Fourth Parliament.

The Speaker said fifthly, it must again be emphasised that their Parliamentary Rules and Practice do not permit canvassing of MPs by Presidential Nominees when they come for confirmation hearings and subsequent approval by the Plenary of Parliament.

He said the Committee on Appointments and the Public Service solicits information from the general public who are often encouraged to come up with evidence about the suitability or otherwise of Presidential Nominees during scrutiny.

Hon. Dr Abass Bundu said they must also remind the public that not too long ago the current Parliament wanted to table proposals for improved conditions of service for MPs in line with conditions of service enjoyed by their counterparts in neighbouring African countries.

He said, however, that was immediately abandoned when there was a public outcry saying that wasn’t all.

Again, when there was public dissent last year,he said, Parliament agreed to expunge from the Finance Act it had already passed into law a provision giving a non-accountable overseas travel imprest to the President, Vice-President and the Speaker of Parliament.

“How more responsible and responsive can this Parliament get?” he asked.

He said all what that show is that the current Parliament is a listening Parliament.

“It listens to the opinion of the public and always endeavours to resonate accordingly even though the Constitution of Sierra Leone gives it the plenitude of power under Section 74(4) to determine its conditions of service as well as the power of the purse. Parliament will in due course exercise this power but will do so responsibly and responsively,” he asserted.

The Speaker told those in attendance that Parliament regularly and openly now conducts its business both at Committee and Plenary in the full visibility of the public as most if its proceedings are streamlined live on radio, television and other social media platforms.

“How more open can a Parliament get?” he demanded.

He said last year, for the first time in its history, Parliament organised an Open Day ceremony lasting several days in the City of Freetown.

“It opened its portals to the full view of the citizenry and the donor community alike. This was deliberately and consciously designed to demystify Parliament and open its inner sanctum, so to speak, to the full view of the public, to promote public awareness and understanding of how Parliaments works. I want to assure the public that this is not a one off stance; we plan to repeat this as often as practicable and to also take the Open Day of Parliament to the Provincial Headquarter Cities in the near future,” he revealed.

He said Parliament operates as a democratic institution and most certainly it cannot and will not do otherwise as it is under a constitutional injunction to do so.

The Speaker said of course, as the supreme law maker Parliament must act under the Rule of Law.

“This obligation has received reaffirmation in the Bo Declaration and that is why it has openly settled its differences, wherever and whenever they exist, through open instead of secret ballot under Standing Order 46. Members of Parliament are required to stand up and be counted in the full view of the public. This has happened almost half a dozen times in this Fifth Parliament. Notably it happened when Parliament approved the State of Emergency to address the rising spate of rape and sexual offences in 2019; for the approval of Justices of the Court of Appeal in 2020 and more recently for the approval of the Chairman and Chief Electoral Commissioner,” he said.

He said one of their own, Hon. Moiwo Hindolo Gevao, erstwhile Chairman of the Parliamentary Legislative Committee, confirmed over the popular BBC Focus on Africa Programme broadcast on 9 September 2020 that there were corrupt practices in this Fifth Parliament as alleged by Mr. Ibrahim Tommy of CARL.

The Speaker lamented that when questioned by the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) to adduce evidence to substantiate his claims beyond the mere statement of generalities, he failed woefully.

He said now the ACC is inviting the general public to come forward with evidence, if any, that could substantiate Gevao’s puerile claims.

“This singular incident is not only a grave affront to the image and dignity of Parliament, it has placed the Honourable Member in a situation that is prima facie in gross violation of his responsibilities to Parliament under the provisions of Section 97 of the Constitution of Sierra Leone for which appropriate disciplinary action is currently under contemplation,” he claimed adding how  upon the resumption of Parliament after its recess the matter will be duly committed to the Parliamentary Committee on Ethics and Privileges for investigation.

To the Civil Society Organisations similarly involved in making frivolous and unsubstantiated allegations against Parliament, the Speaker said he would advise that they take notice now, together with their financial backers, that appropriate steps will soon be taken by Parliament to redeem its good image and reputation.

He said the current Parliament is one that respects the doctrine of Separation of Powers and the Rule of Law and is also obligated to respect the cardinal principles of openness, transparency and accountability.

Dr. Abass Bundu said more importantly, it is a Parliament that respects fully its duty to always remain answerable to its Sovereign, the People of the Republic of Sierra Leone and, under his watch, it will never compromise those obligations.

He said immediately following the publication of the allegations of corruption by CARL he spared no effort to grant an interview to Umaru Fofanah of the BBC during which he expressed utter shock and consternation over the allegations of CARL.

“I made it abundantly clear that the people of Sierra Leone do not expect their Parliament to be corrupt by any stretch of the imagination, let alone the second most corrupt institution in the country as alleged by CARL,” he disclosed adding how he promised that if ever such practices as alleged are taking place, then he do consider such as an opportunity for self-introspection and for full investigation.

He disclosed that already the Leadership of Parliament has unanimously resolved to establish an ad hoc Committee to undertake such investigation without prejudice to the matters being committed to the Committee on Ethics and Privileges.

The Speaker highlighted that in the meantime, Parliament unreservedly condemns the outcome of the so-called perception surveys to the extent that they constitute an unmitigated affront to the dignity and image of Parliament.

He said they also cannot conceal their displeasure at what appears to be a deliberately orchestrated and calibrated conspiracy to damage the good name and reputation of Parliament and Parliamentarians.

Hon. Dr. Abass Bundu said they therefore challenge both CARL and Afro Barometer and all their financiers to bring forth evidence to substantiate their allegations or else run the risk of being found guilty of contempt of Parliament with all its attendant consequences.

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