From the moment Focus on Sierra Leone and other protagonists commenced the debate about creating a Government of National Unity, only as an interim measure, to help implement a focused peace agenda with greater resolution and commitment, the reactionary political (dis)order in Sierra Leone instinctively lined up its so-called learned law people to kill it. Leading the attack predictably was the robotically programmed Attorney General, Mr. Solomon Berewa.
There were few set debates in Freetown. One which I followed in reports that were filed at the time, was that between Berewa and the leader of the National Unity Party, Mr. John Oponjo Benjamin, at Fourah Bay College, the University of Sierra Leone. Berewa’s arguments were unconvincing and famously lacking in originality. Benjamin in contrast made the points that ordinary people were making, with consummate ease. He had been listening to their discussions in the streets. But it was to no avail. The minds of the rulers had long since been set against any idea that appeared to threaten their power base. So it was no change. The Constitution, they claimed, was a bar to all such suggestions. They even threatened treason charges against their opponents.
I have been left with one vivid impression of our intellectuals, in this case the legal luminaries, in Sierra Leone politics. It is that however subtle and nuanced their overall arguments, when it comes to the discussion of the bread and butter issues that concern the ordinary lay person, these so-called men and women of (literally) letters always betray a complete misunderstanding of the very Constitution which they say they are defending. They fail to do justice to its purport and intentions. Their arguments show clearly that they are only reflexively parroting the prejudices of their profession, such as the contempt in which they hold the ordinary person who is not a lawyer. I am, however, a lawyer and can spot a rogue one from the distance.
Some of our politically motivated lawyers have failed to appreciate the tension between legal principles and political necessity; or, as America's Thomas Jefferson once put it, between the need for justice on the one hand and the desire for self-preservation on the other. In all the arguments that they have paraded about the sanctity of the Constitution, they habitually miss out the importance of prudence and statesmanship in the conduct of political affairs. By statesmanship I mean aiming not merely at constructing political institutions that secure the principles of the Sierra Leone Constitution, i.e. the state (hence, I suspect, the protection of their personal power) but also, even crucially, at reinforcing human elements such as those institutions in our society, which form and reflect the character of Sierra Leoneans. They include societies’ fears, human tragedies and sufferings, economic conditions, community wishes, anxieties and experiences, etc; in short, people’s whole being and existence as citizens of the State. This is most desirable where, as in our case, Parliament has become merely a romp, shamelessly pursuing its own interest and showing scant interest in representing the demands of the wider public outside.
From my viewpoint, any Constitution that fails to take into its spirit and intendment these essential particularities of society is not worth a single British or UN bullet in its defence. I therefore consider everything that these knee-jerk constitutionalists are saying as unadulterated intellectual bunkum.
As for my distracters, let them be assured that I am not arguing against the Constitution. We need it, like every society does, as the supreme point of reference. Indeed we the protagonists of an interim government have never suggested that we do away with it or get rid of any of its vital components. All that we are saying is that it may not contain the answer to our 30 plus years of instability. Therefore it is by no means our sole recourse or a panacea for every ill that afflicts our country. It should not be used as a passport to domination over the rest of society, nor as an instrument for thwarting society’s attempts at improving the way it is governed. It does not, and cannot, cover every human issue. It gives broad guidelines, with occasional specifics, as to what may or may not apply in a particular situation. It is the reason why some countries do not have a written Constitution, preferring instead to look to other sources, such as their legislation, customs, traditions and conventions, as aides to interpretation. In a democratic society, the function of interpretation is an exclusive one reserved for the Judiciary. It is not a prerogative left to the whims of politicians.
I do not wish to embark upon a critical appraisal of Sierra Leonean legal scholarship because I am not a legal intellectual. I will let their more learned peers to take them on. But what I do find remarkable is that for all their learning, these people have failed to raise their thinking to the levels of intelligence and common sense of the ordinary Sierra Leonean in the street. At the risk of sounding patronising, I can tell that ordinary people are not interested in the politics of this civil war. They are simply hankering after their personal security, and the safety of the environments and the communities in which they live and work. They are saying to themselves, almost crying their hearts out, why don't we get everybody on board to help solve this problem once and for all? But see now how these learned law people come up with their crass argument about the Constitution, as if it is the beginning and end of Sierra Leone! The Constitution is being prostituted to the point of becoming the refuge of political scoundrels.
Some of us won't have it!
Still, I find it difficult to imagine that educated men and women would so quickly write off a system of governance, albeit experimental in our country’s experience, which we believed would make it possible for the best men and women to bring their talents to fruition for the sake and well-being of society. The defeatist argument paraded then was that it is impossible to create and put together such a process, and the Constitution will not allow it. But my question is, have they really tried to create one?
The fact must be recognised that we as a nation cannot continue with business as usual under the current circumstances. Co-operation is needed among the leaders of the entire political landscape, as well as with proven leaders of civic society, to deal with the myriad of problems facing Sierra Leone. All that we were trying to do, when we first mooted the idea of an interim arrangement for national unity, was not merely to alert the country to these problems but also, and even more crucially, to present an alternative way and means of meeting them headlong.
In this respect let me pose some more questions: Why should new and fresh ideas be automatically deemed to be anti-democracy, anti-Constitution, anti-SLPP or pro rebel? Has the Constitution, and by implication the quest to re-establish democracy in Sierra Leone, suddenly become a vehicle for stifling popular inspiration, or aspirations? Where in the Constitution does it say that those Sierra Leoneans, who have no truck with the present government, should forego their own fundamental right to be innovative in thought and expression, pursue their happiness and that of the rest of their own society, as they understand it or see fit? Is there no middle ground at all in present day so-called democratic Sierra Leone, where we can create a consensus on basic national goals to ensure that our country utilises its precious few and scarce human, physical and natural resources to maximum effect for the benefit of all? Who are these antiquated monoliths that are so selfishly arresting this small impoverished country's intellectual development and material progress?
These questions are pertinent for an understanding of where we are right now and where we might end up eventually; whether ultimately we find ourselves at each other's throats or are working in unity with one another to attain national progress, with set goals, within the shortest possible time. The answer to these and many other questions that impact on the day to day existence of the average person will not be found in the Constitution. As far as I can tell, even from this long distance away from my country, the Constitution has not stopped corruption; it has not stopped the civil war yet; it has not stopped the RUF doing horrible things in this country. Even when the trusted Constitution was called in aid to try, convict and later execute the core of Sierra Leone’s army officers, it did nothing to solve the crisis that their alleged actions precipitated, which continue to the present day. It did not stop the rebel invasion of Freetown in 1999 or prevent the 6 to 7 thousand deaths that occurred It has not forced the CDF or the RUF to disarm - instead we had to look to an agreement, conceived outside our Constitution, called Lome, to do that for us! Historically, also, it has to be said that our Constitution did not stop the NPRC or the AFRC staging their successful coups against the constitutional and legitimate governments of the day. Instead it proved to be absolutely powerless against these aberrant forces. So why these people religiously believe that the Constitution is the solution to every problem baffles me. I put it down simply to intellectual dishonesty.
What I am trying to say is twofold:
first, the issue of resolving the civil conflict and returning Sierra Leone to durable and sustainable stability, has long gone past the ego of everybody, including President Tejan Kabbah and Foday Sankoh, and any political party or grouping in Sierra Leone.
Secondly, it is not simply a case of law or legal principles. It is also about how we can cultivate, collate and synthesise the various expressions of public preferences and so create a harmonious and stable polity. It requires political maturity and a deliberate fusion of existing as well as traditional and innovative methods.
Some people need to be deprogrammed or, since we are desperate for quick solutions, deconstructed so that they can begin to see that present day Sierra Leone is not a normal so-called democratic country yet. Their pretences are just too painful to bear.
I will end by quoting a piece that appeared in the Zimbabwe Daily News on 26 June 2000, which advised President Robert Mugabe to heed the words of his home boy, Professor Stanlake Samkange, the founder of Nyatsime College. The professor wrote a book Hunhuism Ubuntuism soon after Zimbabwe's 1980 elections, in which he advocated for a government of national unity in which all political parties represented in parliament will participate "so that, with malice towards none and charity for all, we can all, with dignity, set about rebuilding and healing the wounds we have inflicted on ourselves".
President Kabbah and his retinue of legal and non-legal intellectuals, as well as his international minders, will ignore this wise counsel not only to their detriment but also that of the whole of Sierra Leone.