September 28, 2022

By Allieu S. Tunkara

Democratic accountability is an endangered concept in the state of Sierra Leone owing to the absence of rules that should guide government in the implementation of the State of Public Emergency (SOE) and the Commissions of Inquiry (COI).

An SOE was proclaimed by government in April, 2019 when the index case of Covid-19 case was recorded by the National Covid-19 Response Centre (NACOVERC), a body that champions the campaign against the deadly virus.

The main object of the pronouncement is to robustly resist Covid-19 which was struggling to gain a foothold in a country known for an eclectic health system.

Government was acclaimed by the citizenry and the international community for a proactive response to the virus.

Government action was seen as a lesson learned from the Ebola epidemic.

On legal terms, any proclamation of a state of public emergency must be accompanied by rules and regulations to guide state functionaries especially the police and the army in the implementation.

Section 29 of the Constitution of Sierra Leone confers power on the President to declare a state of public emergency in any part of or the whole of Sierra Leone when the peace and security is under threat by way of a virus strike or any other disastrous social phenomenon.

The same section also commands the President to make rules prior to implementation.

“During a period of public emergency, the President may make such regulations and take such measures as appear to him to be necessary or expedient for the purpose of maintaining and securing peace, order and good government in Sierra Leone or any part thereof,” Section 29(5) Act No. 6 of Constitution of Sierra Leone, 1991 reads.

The rules government is mandated to establish are safeguards for upholding human dignity, fundamental rights, civil liberties and freedoms of the individual.

The provision is crucial to the enforcement of the SOE.

In as much as police and army officers implement the SOE, they must do so within the framework of established rules to prevent them from despotism.

The establishment of the rules lends credence to the age-old political maxim:  “power corrupts absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

The argument goes that any exercise without rules is bound to abuse, and civilians are at the wrong end.

It happened in Sierra Leone in the lockdowns the country saw at the peak of Covid-19.

Grim video footages showed how the people’s rights and dignity were under threat owing to the unprofessional conduct displayed by a number of police officers.

During the emergency period, security operatives transcended the bounds of civility and professionalism as they subjected members of the public to torture.

Police officers whose mandate stops at only arresting, investigating and prosecuting offenders in courts quickly constituted themselves into magistrates and judges to lord it over the people.

Judicial power which the supreme law says belongs only to the judiciary was usurped thereby generating cries and condemnation of police action in the emergency period.

Judicial power is sacred implying that no one should underestimate the dangerous consequences that lie ahead when it is vested in wrong hands.

At Calaba Town in the east of Freetown, some peaceful residents who were arrested by the police were asked to lie on the ground as a form of punishment for an alleged flouting of the lockdown.

No mercy was considered by the law enforcers for the people who ventured the streets for welfare needs.

Most reports and voices of civil society activists indicated that most people had cause to venture the street to fetch water, and to go in search of food.

Sierra Leone is far from a welfare state spelling hardships and vulnerabilities in lockdowns and curfews in the Covid-19 period.

Torture is forbidden by the country’s supreme law which says no one should be subjected to any form of torture, punishment and degrading treatment.

In spite of the legal restrictions, no one was held to account for the alleged inhumane act thereby reinforcing a culture of impunity already deeply ingrained in law enforcement agencies.

The neglect by government to hold accountable those responsible for the alleged torture in the emergency period resulted into waves and pockets of resistance against forces of law and order.

The resistance showcased in several checkpoints where police officers had long running battles and scuffles with members of the public.

The scuffles were a defence against tyranny, oppression and incivility in a civilised state.

Normalcy and calm returned to communities when government lifted the curfew.

Government’s move was applauded by many Sierra Leoneans, but same time criticised for not bringing the alleged torturers to justice.

A genealogy of successive attorneys-general has failed the state for not formulating rules to guide the SOE.

The sacked Attorney-General who prides herself with a doctorate in law failed the country miserably for her failure to table SOE rules before parliament.

Anthony who is now attorney also failed to rectify the errors of his predecessor.

In his appearance before parliament last week, the current Attorney-General, Mr Anthony Brewah made it clear that he was not in the seat when the SOE was declared.

Since he was not au fait with the realities on the rules issue, the AG craved the indulgence of parliament for more time.

It is expected that the AG would come up with the rules in the next appearance, and in the interlude, the forces continue to operate on their whims and caprices.

Almost invariably, the COI which was set up to investigate the processes and activities of the former government lacks rules.

The absence of the rules at the outset of the COI constituted one of the most naked violations of a fundamental constitutional provision.

Section 150 of the constitution says: “…the Rules of Court Committee shall, by constitutional instrument, make rules regulating the practice and procedure of all commissions of inquiry.”

The rule being one of the most controversial issues of recent past was never conformed to from start to finish.

As the rules were absent, the main opposition, All People’s Congress which formed the previous government did not countenance the COI.

Government white Paper which is a product of a COI widely seen as “kangaroo-styled” is set to descend on those named in it.

Photos of former President Ernest Bai Koroma and his ministers continue to make the banners of newspapers in respect of the White Paper.

The former President and his ministers were said to be former public servants who amassed wealth at the detriment of the nation.

The COI reports tagged them as those who chose corruption as a path to success, wealth and fame.

The current economic catastrophe into which the country is trapped has been entirely blamed on the past regime.

The argument of the ruling Sierra Leone People’s Party goes that the failings of a government yesterday is hunting society today.

The argumentators although could not rule out other causal factors still continue to see the past government as the creator of the unparalleled economic hardship the country is going through.

They allege that the former government did not plough but plunder the resources of state to the comfort of immediate families and friends.

Consequently, an order not to travel without recourse to the AG’s office has been slammed against former government officials.

The aim is to get them restrained from evading justice.

The most embarrassing side of the White Paper is the pending confiscation of properties said to have been illegally earned.

The former President was not spared as he was accused of unexplained wealth, one of the weakest and most absurd charges known to the criminal law.

The charge for unexplained wealth is just the same as the charge for a driver who uses a vehicle other than its purpose for which it is licensed to wit: carrying passengers in a private vehicle.

How the police officer would know they are passengers when those in the vehicle will hardly say they are passengers.

Recent trends have shown that the risk behind losing a case of unexplained wealth is very high, and calls from legal circles have been made for the ACC not to attempt it.

They say an attempt to investigate the former President for an unexplained is a “big leap in the dark.”

The attempt is also the same as the uncertainty of a fisherman on a night fishing expedition.

But the bottom line in public domain is: how would persons of sound mind bow to the dictates of an agency without rules when even a ‘KICK SEED’ game is   guided by rules.

As government set to enforce the White Paper in the absence of rules, Sierra Leoneans wait to watch the drama that unfolds in the not-too-distant future.