Nov 20, 2013

Sierra Leone Parliament Passes Constitutional Amendment


The Sierra Leone Parliament yesterday passed a constitutional amendment that would remove the requirement that the Speaker of the House have the legal qualifications of a high court judge. Instead, the amendment now stipulates that only those who have served two terms in parliament are qualified to be Speaker of the House (the version of the bill that appeared in the official SL Gazette (see Sierra Leone Gazette 2013 Amendment to the Sierra Leone Constitution) is different from what was eventually passed, due, according to parliamentarians, to a printer’s error. The amendment mirrors a similar provision in the infamous 1978 APC one-party constitution that was expunged when the current, 1991, constitution came into force.


The bill apparently passed through the required three readings and the committee stage, and was subsequently voted upon, in a single day. The vote was by voice assent rather than by ballot.  When those against were called, the ‘nays’ were silent. The quasi-State run SLBC reported this as a unanimous vote in favour, although the opposition SLPP had previously made known their strong opposition to the  bill (see SLPP Press Release on Sierra Leone Constitutional Amendment). The bill appeared under the hand of the Attorney-General and Minister of Justice, Franklyn Kargbo, and was  read in the House by his deputy, John Bockarie, a sure indication that the amendment has the full blessing of President Ernest Bai Koroma and will receive his assent when it is presented to him, the final step before it becomes the law of the land.


The haste and ease with which the bill sailed through Parliament, and the timing of its introduction, shortly after the inauguration of a committee to conduct a thorough review of the Sierra Leone Constitution (see  Review of Sierra Leone Constitution Planned) have raised fears of ulterior motives of the ruling APC party (see APC Tampers with Sierra Leone Constitution).


The substantive Speaker of the House, Justice Abel Stronge, a former high court judge, was conspicuously absent during the day, and proceedings were chaired by his deputy, Parliamentarian Chernor Bah (Cherikoko). If the amendment were to be signed into law by the President, Mr Stronge’s position as Speaker for the remaining four years of this Parliament would appear to be shaky, given that he would clearly not meet the requirements spelled out in the amended constitution. In the murky world of the APC inner core, some believe that this constitutional amendment provides a more honourable way for the current Speaker to make his exit, than a vote of no-confidence, which has also been mentioned.



Meanwhile, following the passage of the bill, 28 civil society organizations issued a press release castigating the entire process (see Sierra Leone Civil Society condemns constitutional amendment).


The Speaker of the House of Parliament is administratively the number three man in the hierarchy of the Republic of Sierra Leone, and acts as President in the absence of the substantive President and vice President. In addition to this latest debacle, it has been widely reported for some time that the President and his vice are at loggerheads, and it has been speculated that plans are afoot to somehow extend the President’s term in office, which should end, according to the two term limit specified in the current constitution, in four years.