By Lawrence Williams
Yesterday, President Julius Maada Bio (photo) performed one of his ceremonial constitutional duties as he addressed the First Session of the Sixth Parliament of the Second Republic of Sierra Leone. This ceremonial function, State Opening of Parliament, has its legal roots in Section 84 (3) of the 1991 Constitution (Act No.6 of 1991) of Sierra Leone. On this occasion, the president outlined his government’s agenda, priorities and policy direction including proposed legislation for the new parliamentary session. He also highlighted his government’s success, and spoke to the whole gamut of governance challenges confronting the nation and solutions offered to address them.
As usual, the ceremony was characterised by fanfare and merriment. Party members and supporters alike thronged parliament building to cheer the Commander-in-Chief of the Republic as he delivered the State of the Nation Address.
As announced by the Clerk, Members of Parliament (MPs) shall engage in a week-long debate (Motion of Thanks) on the president’s speech. During this debate, right-wing MPs would normally praise-sing the president’s speech while leftists are expected to critique it. The Paramount Chief Members of Parliament (PCMPs) are traditionally drawn to the ruling party’s line. So, with the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) dominance of 81 MPs backed by 14 PCMPs plus one semi-government bencher in the person of Hon. Mohamed Bangura – as parliamentary journalist Melvin T Mansaray describes him – it’s crystal clear that the debates would no longer be interesting or intriguing as no alternative views or opinions will be put forward to uphold the aspect of parliamentary scrutiny and bring checks and balances to bear on the executive.
This piece is a critical examination of the potential ramifications of such a political landscape and the overall impact on our democratic system.
Just before you start frowning at me for using ‘Tialelemia’, let me assure you that it does not convey tribalism in any way, shape or form, whether explicitly or implicitly. So in this context, ‘Tialelemia’ means, as we say in the Krio language, ‘na dem so so’. In essence, the word is used to portray a vivid picture of the one-sided configuration of the House of Parliament, highlighting the SLPP’s dominance and the absence of a functioning opposition in the legislative chamber, and drawing the ruling party’s attention to this ugly reality so that they can expedite the process of reconciling with their noisy neighbours in the All People’s Congress (APC) party.
Though it can be argued that the SLPP is not to blame for the one-sidedness of the current parliament, the situation however raises concerns about the lack of proper parliamentary scrutiny in the democratic process and its implications for good governance. The undermentioned thematic areas have been carefully considered to provide you a better understanding of the subject matter.
- Diminished Checks and Balances:
One of the key functions of the Sierra Leone Parliament is to provide adequate checks and balances on the executive. This is accomplished through thorough scrutiny and debates, probing of cabinet ministers and heads of government ministries, departments, and agencies, and investigations by committees established under Section 93 of the 1991 Constitution, among other methods. However, the one-sidedness of this parliament, where SLPP is the only party represented, would mean that the aspect of checks and balances has been eroded. This imbalance may result in hasty decision-making, inadequate debate, and the potential for laws to be passed without thorough examination, ultimately compromising the quality of governance.
A one-party legislature can be more likely to pass laws that benefit the party’s interests, even if those laws are not in the best interests of the country as a whole. Additionally, a one-sided parliament may be less likely to hold the executive branch accountable for its actions. This can lead to corruption and abuse of power.
A healthy democracy requires a balance of power between the different branches of government. When one branch becomes too powerful, it can lead to tyranny. The absence of scrutiny and accountability also jeopardises the principles of separation of powers and increases the risk of corruption, nepotism, and authoritarian tendencies. This one-sided parliament is therefore a threat to our democracy and rule of law.
- Emergence of a De Facto One-Party State:
A robust and functioning opposition is indispensable for safeguarding the integrity of the democratic system and preventing the ruling party from acting ultra vires to the 1991 Constitution. However, in a one-sided parliament like ours, there is technically no room to hold the ruling party accountable. Without a functioning opposition, the ruling party is essentially unchecked and can pass laws that only serve their own interests.
Furthermore, the lack of diverse perspectives necessary for robust policy formulation and lawmaking is constricted, and the representation of diverse interests, especially minority groups who struggle to have their voices heard in the political process, are often overlooked, thus allowing for a de facto one-party state to emerge.
When this happens, there is a growing possibility of corruption and abuse of power while public trust in government institutions diminishes. This then leads to a situation where the ruling elites capture the state and seek to consolidate their grip of power by employing tyranny and other means; putting the democratic system and citizens’ rights at greater risk, thus giving rise to dictatorship.
- Limited Policy Innovation:
A one-sided parliament may not feel the need to innovate or adapt policies. The absence of a functioning opposition often lead to a lack of alternative viewpoints as the ruling party may not be challenged on its policies. There is also the risk of complacency and lack of motivation to seek consensus or engage in meaningful dialogue with other stakeholders, leading to a decline in political discourse, reduced accountability, and a loss of public trust in the democratic process. Innovative policy solutions often come from healthy debates and discussions, which may be compromised in a one-sided parliament.
In addition, a dominant ruling party may be more likely to engage in corruption and self-serving behaviour, as they are less likely to be held accountable due to the absence of a functioning opposition. This then leads to a decline in the quality of governance and a decrease in the standard of living for the people.
Overall, the one-sided configuration of this parliament could have a number of negative consequences for our country. It is important to have a strong, functioning opposition in order to ensure that the ruling party is held accountable and that there is a healthy debate of ideas. Because there is no functioning opposition (APC) and the ruling SLPP is already in the majority, they can pass any sheet of paper they want.
The state opening of the one-sided parliament raises concerns about the implications for democratic governance. The diminished checks and balances, emergence of a de facto one-party state, weakening of democratic norms, limited policy innovation, and potential for abuse of power are all grave consequences of such a political landscape. It is crucial to uphold the principles of democracy and strive for a balanced and inclusive parliament to ensure effective governance and accountability to the people.