Ponder My Thoughts | Sumana Saga: Government goes 'A Bridge Too Far'

The sacking of Sierra Leone's Vice President Samuel Sam Sumana seems to have knocked Ebola off the public agenda, writes leading commentator Andrew Keili. In the latest edition of his long-running Ponder My Thoughts series, Keili looks at the debate which has dominated social media.

“Where there is little or no public opinion, there is likely to be bad government, which sooner or later becomes autocratic government.”- William Lyon Mackenzie King

This quote is apt for the present governance of our state. For quite some time now the government has had the upper hand in directly or indirectly influencing changes in governance institutions or making decisions that may in effect result in the step by step dismantling of the democratic gains we have made as a nation since the end of the war.

Several governance institutions like the Police, National Commission for Democracy, Judiciary may have slowly deteriorated with adverse consequences for our fledgling democracy.

Their actions or lack thereof, coupled with several doses of spin by government spokespeople or propagandists have given the impression that the government could do anything it wants.

Unfortunately, the opposition, which should be at the forefront of keeping the government in check has been bedevilled by internal fights including court cases (the resolution of which has not been helped by the slow wheels of justice) which have not helped with having a united front in countering government misdeeds.

Perhaps buoyed by this and having an agenda that cannot be exactly fathomed at the moment, they set the stage for the ouster of Vice President Sam Sumana. They seem to have gone a bridge too far. The resistance has been swift.

I can only do justice to this piece by quoting directly from various parties-in their own words. The resistance has come left, right and centre from various groups in and out of the country and the debate has dominated social media conversations which are mainly against the government’s actions on the Vice Presidential issue. Some comments have not only been vitriolic but abusive and Ebola seems to have been knocked off the public agenda.

Here are a few of the views expressed on this issue:

“Furthermore, by the constitutional provisions, either the President or the Vice President is removable from office, but not at the will or instance or fiat of one or the other, but rather, by a Parliamentary process colloquially referred to as impeachment...But importantly, the exercise of executive power is expressly subject to the provisions of the Constitution... In plain terms, this means that executive power, whatever it may mean or import cannot lawfully be exercised in disregard of the provisions of the Constitution...Therefore, reliance on the expulsion of the Vice President from the APC as a warrant for his removal from office can find no justification in the textual provisions of the Constitution. ...I therefore respectfully urge that nothing should be done, least of all, in the guise of executive power, to defeat, disappoint and render nugatory the people’s will and choice.” --Dr. Abdulai Conteh

"I make bold to say that Alhaji Samuel Sam-Sumana has 18 days still open to him to appeal from NAC’s decision to the NDC of the party. By reason of the premise, the President’s decision to sack him as Vice President based on Section 41(b) of the Constitution of Sierra Leone Act No.6 of 1991 was precipitous.  Constitutionally, (meaning the APC constitution cited herein) Alhaji Samuel Sam-Sumana remains a member of the A.P.C until the 30 days aforesaid expires" -- Chrles Margai

“While the undersigned organisations cannot, and do not intend to interfere into the internal politics of any political party, there is sufficient reason to be concerned about the implications of the ongoing impasse for peace, security, social stability and constitutional order in Sierra Leone"--Joint statement by some civil society group.  

"By ignoring and circumventing the provisions of sections 54 (8) and  55 of the said 1991 Constitution that expressly states the circumstances in which the office of the Vice President shall become vacant and relying on the inapplicable provisions of sections 40 (1) and 41 (b) of the Constitution to justify this affront to the meaning and spirit of our Constitution and the aspirations of our fledgling democracy, is tantamount to taking our nation back to the bleak era of dictatorship and arbitrary rule...We therefore call on the President to forthwith withdraw their Press Statement referred to above and observe the due process of law in this regard--SLPP.

Various groups are calling for legal action and civil disobedience. Sam Sumana has had his lawyers file court cases on his behalf.

Rattled, the Government has tried to respond directly and indirectly through various groups. Some rival civil society groups have made lame attempts to defend the President’s actions. Press releases have come from the Police and ONS warning people not to take the law into their own hands. The Chief of Defence Staff has warned the Military to keep out of politics. The Bar Association has not been allowed to use the law Courts building for their proposed meeting on this issue and the Police has not granted them permission to meet. We are indeed living in interesting times.

It is the APC that has come out swinging widely than anyone else. Their press release reads:

“As a responsible party that cares for the lives and properties of our people, we therefore unequivocally condemn the press release issued by the SLPP with a motive to cause chaos and anarchy on an issue that is already before the competent court of law...... the SLPP needs to be reminded that during their tenure, President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah used the same supreme executive authority as a constitutional precedence to appoint RUF Leader Corporal Foday Saybana Sankoh as Vice President, thereby making redundant the elected Vice President Albert Joe Demby without any recourse to Parliament.”

Not satisfied with the illogical comparison to President Kabbah’s action on the Foday Sankoh issue, they have also trained their guns on the ”mortal enemy” SLPP by saying:

“Therefore, the APC believes that the SLPP’s shouting over the roof is a charade deliberately initiated to create unnecessary tension and to try to divert attention from the final push being crafted by Government and its partners in eliminating the Ebola Virus Disease and re-focus our attention in pursuing the Agenda for Prosperity.....The SLPP executive, having failed to win the hearts and minds of the people of Sierra Leone, and knowing very well that a similar fate awaits them in the next elections, are now using a constitutional matter that can only be settled at the Supreme Court as a smokescreen to pursue a diabolical and dangerous agenda.

Good to know APC thinks SLPP has a “dangerous and diabolical agenda” and that the government wants to refocus its direction to the Ebola crisis! Strong stuff though-the SLPP must have gone under their skin.

I however find the SLAJ press release most instructive. In plain language, they train their gun on a group that is suspected of always obfuscating on such issues at the detriment of our good governance-the judiciary. The same judiciary that gifted over two constituencies in which the APC got less than 25% of the vote to APC candidates. SLAJ seems to be telling them to take off their wigs for a moment and listen to the public outcry.

“SLAJ therefore calls on the Chief Justice and other Judges on the Supreme Court bench to speedily dispense with this case...The Chief Justice and Supreme Court Judges must be aware that they are themselves now in the court of public opinion, and the nation now looks up to them to do the right thing for God and Country...SLAJ therefore wishes to remind the Chief Justice and other Justices of the Supreme Court that the future of our country’s democracy, in terms of separation of powers and respect for the constitution now rests squarely in their hands, and whatever ruling they give will be judged by posterity.”

SLAJ President Kelvin Lewis also talks about the misuse of emergency powers:

“SLAJ is seriously concerned about the application of the Emergency Regulations by the Sierra Leone Police. We note that political party activists in party colours were allowed to process the streets and gather in large numbers, with no arrests made; yet the same Police moved in and disrupted the meeting of the Sierra Leone Bar Association, which we understand does not fall under “public meetings” as the Emergency Regulations require.”

But what, asked a commentator is the Government’s agenda with this VP issue? He attempted to answer himself by saying the play script is written as can be evidenced from the de facto VP Victor Foh’s statement at his inauguration.

"I hope Allah will help me serve him like S. I. Koroma served President Siaka Stevens that even when he was leaving, he said, "Yes, SI, go and nominate Momoh." He said "Yes, Sir." And he went and nominated Momoh. That is what the Vice President should be. The Vice President should not put up arguments with his boss, the President."

This would seem to give the impression that total servitude in order for the President to carry out his plan is his mandate. But what is that plan? One may not know for now. Has the government gone a bridge too far in its bid to realise some mandate? Whatever it is, present trends indicate that people are ready to put paid to this.

Digressing a bit, the idiom "a bridge too far" means a target that is too ambitious, particularly one that will end up causing problems or even dire consequences. The phrase is based on Cornelius Ryan's 1974 book of the same name, which was made into a film in 1977. Just like in the World War 11 film “a bridge too far” in which the Allied forces were able to seize several bridges but were delayed by the demolition of a bridge over the Wilhemina canal in Netherlands, encountering far more resistance than anticipated, President Koroma seems to have been stopped by the “Sumana bridge” after so many politically machinated successes in a row.

How this whole saga will fan out is anyone’s guess but there may be a lot of damage including collateral damage to the aspirations of many people. President Koroma is reminded that the Allied forces were overrun; there are believed to have been more than 15,000 dead, wounded or missing. Food for thought!

Ponder my thoughts.

Prior to founding an engineering and project management consultancy in Sierra Leone, Andrew Keili worked for Sierra Rutile Limited as chief metallurgist, chief mine planning engineer and operations superintendent. In these capacities he was involved in the strategic planning for the mine and in the process design of a new treatment plant costing up to US$ 30 million. He has been involved in work related to government policy issues in the areas of mining, infrastructure, the environment and privatisation.


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