Sierra Leone: Challenge to Constitutional Review

An opposition t-shirt.

The people of Sierra Leone have agreed on a review of their 1991 Constitution. But in this small West African nation of about 6 million people, no one foresaw the problems that have arisen from the review process.

In the build-up to its civil conflict (1992-2002), political analysts maintain that late President Joseph Saidu Momoh commissioned the formulation of the 1991 Constitution, which focused on reinstating a multi-party system in Sierra Leone, mainly to avert the looming conflict then. His efforts were fruitless. The dissenters’ plan to take power by force was well underway and the rebel war that ensued thereafter would rage for 11 years.

But as the nation is moving away from that ugly path—erasing its tinted image of a fledgling democracy, thereby attracting global and regional accolades for its democratic, good governance and elections credentials—the inadequacies of the 1991 Constitution now lay bare.

To agree on a constitutional review is one thing; to agree on what to review in the process is another, and it has posed tough challenges for the government, political parties and the people.

Women are determined to ensure that their interests are adequately represented in the new text. They have highlighted all the gender flaws of the 1991 Constitution, especially its paternalistic disposition. One strong feminist activist wants to see that the reviewed constitution makes equal reference to both genders. Indeed, the 1991 Constitution’s section on becoming ministers and deputy ministers of government states:"A person shall not be appointed a Minister or Deputy Minister unless he is qualified ... he has not contested... and his nomination is approved..." The use of the masculine pronoun is consistent across the Constitution, and the women think it is discriminating against them.

A variety of special interest groups, pressure groups and political parties have their own interests at stake. For example, some members of the Lebanese and other non-Negro communities, with more than 100 years of family history in Sierra Leone, think that the Negro citizenship clause of the Constitution is racist, just as women think the grandfather clause is paternalistic.

In the same token, the youth think the requirement that anyone running for president be at least 40 years old is discriminating against them. Sierra Leoneans in the diaspora are mustering ahead of the review process to interject into the process diaspora rights and obligations, including voting rights.

The way the review process is handled could be seen broadly as a test case for the country’s peace and security. The population is highly polarized on whether to cherry-pick what to review or to treat the process holistically.

A third term for President Ernest Bai Koroma has become a sticking point. Some members of the opposition Sierra Leone People's Party (SLPP) have adorned t-shirts that say “No Third Term." In response, a throng of people came out to show their support for President Koroma at the opening ceremony of the newly constructed Regent/Grafton highway, wearing t-shits in support of "continuity" if translated literally from Krio. Approval of the president's development programs (Agenda for Change and Agenda for Prosperity) is very high in Sierra Leone.

If "continuity" is for the incumbent All Peoples Congress (APC) government, then APC supporters would only have to wait for the next presidential election. On the other hand, if it means continuation of President Koroma's administration, they still have a chance to strike term limits from the new Constitution. Those in favor of a holistic approach to the review process argue that there are many stable democratic governments around the world that don't have term limits.

In my view, the attention of proponents of “no third term" has been clouded by partisan emotion and sentiment. The debate should not be about "third term" or "no third term." Instead, it should focus on "term limit," an entrenched clause in the Constitution.

Regardless of how the review process goes, President Koroma's democratic credentials will not be shaken by whatever happens because the very "term limit" is open to the review process, and would only have to uphold the views of the people, which will be reflected in the outcome of the review process at the end of the day.


Karamoh Kabba is the deputy minister of political and public affairs for the government of Sierra Leone.

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Karamoh Kabba.