Opening courtesies and remarks
Let me start by acknowledging the fact that the previous speakers have all done justice to the topic for this symposium. So I will not repeat the meaning, tenets and principles of democracy; and what type of democracy we are practicing, and whether in fact we are only toying with the democratic idea.
Yet, I will basically be saying the same things but in a different way, and I will try to be as practical as I possibly can.
What is the role of the Media in our democracy?
In the CSO/NGO world there is a component in the implementation of projects called Monitoring and Evaluation. Monitoring and Evaluation Officers, as the name implies, monitor and evaluate the implementation of projects to find out gaps and challenges and raise them up with the donors and implementing partners, all in a bid to ensure the projects are executed according to plan and desired impact is achieved.
Similarly, in a broader sense, that is the same role the media plays in our democracy. The media monitors and evaluates the social contract between the Government and the Citizens.
Apart from the traditional role of providing (accurate) information, educating and entertaining, the media has the sacred responsibility of holding the Government and public officials to account.
We also support the fight against corruption as the traditional whistle blowers in exposing corruption.
We provide the platform for healthy national (democratic) debates, and we set the agenda for public discussions.
Is the media performing these roles efficiently?
Is the media independent?
I encourage you to ponder on these salient questions and let me hear your comments during question time.
Now, to the prospects of our democracy.
Since the introduction of multi-party democracy in 1996, Sierra Leone has successfully held four national post-conflict Presidential and Parliamentary elections from 2002. Two of those elections (in 2007 and 2018) have seen a ruling party handing over power to the opposition.
The conduct of those elections were widely regarded as credible, and Sierra Leone is now being looked upon as a beacon of democracy in West Africa.
Sierra Leone has a remarkable number of institutions to support the maintenance and sustenance of our democracy.
We have the Audit Service Sierra Leone (ASSL) and the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) to fight corruption and maintain transparency and accountability in public office and governance.
We have the election management bodies- the PPRC to register, and regulate the conduct of political parties; the NEC to conduct periodic elections at all levels of governance; and the Sierra Leone Police to provide security during the elections cycle, generally.
We have the National Commission for Democracy (NCD) and the National Council for Civic Education and Development to promote democratic ideals and practices among citizens and raise awareness on roles and responsibilities of the government and the governed.
We have the Independent Media Commission (IMC), the National Telecommunications Commission (NATCOM), and the Right to Access Information Commission (RAIC) to promote media pluralism and access to information.
We have the Human Rights Commission of Sierra Leone (HRCSL) to protect, defend and promote human rights.
We have the National Commission for People with Disabilities to ensure inclusive governance, and that no one is left behind.
We have the newly established National Peace Commission (although I have my reservations about its relevance) to promote peace and cohesion among political parties and citizens.
The National Broadcaster
The Sierra Leone Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC) to provide public information to the people across the country, and give equal space and access to all voices including critical and dissenting voices.
We have a group of 11 CSOs, media and EMBs that have come together to form the National Political Debates Committee (NPDC) with a mission to promote democratic culture through the organisation of national political debates and public education on democratic values.
Cabinet has approved the GEWE Bill to promote gender equality and increase the number of women in politics and governance.
We have the landmark three gender Acts passed in 2007, and the Sexual Offences Act of 2012 and amended in 2019, all seeking to empower women and girls, protect them from all forms of abuse, including sexual violence, and creating opportunities for safer communities for women and girls.
The passing of the FOI Law in 2013, the historic repeal of the 55yr-old obnoxious criminal and seditious libel law in 2020, and the IMC Act 2020 are big boosts to our democracy, in the area of upholding freedom of expression and of the press, and promoting professional journalism, and increasing the space for civic discourse, engagement and dialogue, which are essential for any democracy.
Government has initiated the Government-CSO platform where they both meet to dialogue on critical national issues.
New face of the Judiciary
We should be encouraged by the recent ruling of the highest court in the land giving victory to an opposition politician in the high profile political matter of dual citizenship.
We should also be encouraged by the new public face of the once very conservative Judiciary arm of Government, now operating a Public Relations department to interface with the public. The fact that the Judiciary is also now allowing media cameras and recorders in court rooms during high profile public cases is a good prospect for justice.
Under the current Chief Justice, magistrates have been deployed in all Districts in the country, including Falaba and Karene.
For the first time places such as Kailahun District, Port Loko District, Moyamba District and Koinadugu District now have resident High Court Judges.
The Sierra Leone Judiciary was rated high above Nigeria, Uganda, Turkey, Mexico, Niger, Pakistan and a host of other countries in the World Justice Project (WJP) Rule of Law Index 2020.
Another remarkable stride by the Judiciary that we must commend is the effort to go digital with the first virtual court being established and a responsive website where all judgments are now posted.
Internal Party Democracy
We should further be optimistic by the latest development in one of our two main political parties, the All People Congress (APC), adopting huge internal democratic reforms during their just concluded emergency national delegates conference.
These are all together enormous prospects for deepening of our democracy.
Lack of both financial and human resources for most of our democratic structures undermines their efficiency and independence. Every institution has to lobby the Ministry of Finance to release budget allocations; some struggle the whole fiscal year with only one quarter allocation.
I listened to the People’s Commissioner, Francis Ben Kelfala, the other day lamenting the logistical challenges they face at the ACC- an institution charged with the herculean task of fighting corruption in the mother land. Seven investigators sharing one laptop! Can you imagine that?
The NCD struggled to organise this symposium because of lack of funds.
Earlier today, in this big room, we all heard the PPRC staff appealing to the Minister of Political and Public Affairs to press some buttons at the Ministry of Finance on their behalf for the release of their second or third quarter allocation.
The story is the same for the RAIC, IMC and others.
Apparently, we all know Government is challenged financially and there are many competing priorities in the midst of the COVID-19. Simply, the Ministry of Finance cannot give what it does not have.
So this is a huge challenge to deepening our democracy. It is one thing to have the right institutions, it is quite another to fund and equip them with the requisite human resources for efficiency.
One thing we must totally try to avoid is to allow these democratic institutions exist to a larger extent as scare crows.
Corruption: In spite of its numerous institutional challenges, the ACC has made tremendous gains in the fight against corruption; the international indices are very encouraging and the Commission has recouped billions of Leones from public officials and politicians who have cases to answer.
A lot of public education is ongoing as a form of prevention, and prosecutions as well as deterrent but the problem persists and it is taking new forms.
There was political will with the former President declaring zero tolerance on corruption. But we all see, after 10 years the pillage of state resources and abuse of public office that took place.
There is political will now, and we are seeing the same signs and symptoms of corruption. Do we have to wait until another 10 years before we find out that public officials have misappropriated state resources?
I have said before, and I will say it again: as long as it is the President appointing the head of the ACC the fight against corruption can only go as far as the President wants it, not the Commissioner. There are lines that he/she, the Commissioner, cannot cross.
Access to justice: Despite the positive reforms taking place in the Judiciary, access to Justice still poses a huge challenge not only in Sierra Leone but Africa in general. This, again, is mostly attributed to lack of financial support by the Governments or a deliberate attempt by the politicians to stifle justice and redirect it in their favours.
In Sierra Leone, considering the number of Judges amidst the growing population of around 7million +, according to the census conducted by Statistics Sierra Leone, there are still not enough judges to dispense effective and efficient justice. Findings are that justice is usually delayed and access to it is either difficult or selective.
High profile and sensitive political cases are mostly delayed or set aside and sometimes those political cases are not even called for proceedings.
So people are still blaming the Judiciary for being selective in the administration of Justice.
The Court system punishes even the most minor of offences (such as failure to pay micro-credit) with imprisonment.
Now, His Excellency the President, as head of the Executive arm of government has the power to appoint people to public offices, and Parliament as the legislature vets these appointees. Is the vetting process of Parliament thorough? In the end what we actually get as public officials are what Parliament gives us, not what the President gives us.
Again, we don’t have to blame Parliament entirely because we are the same ones that will mobilise to influence our MPs for our /family members or friends who are appointees to go through even when we know they will not be up to the task.
Meanwhile, just last year Parliament made history by repealing the 55yr-old criminal libel law; now a year later they are making an unfortunate history as the first Parliament in the entire democracies of the world to appoint an interim executive for an independent group of journalists to hold them (Parliament) account.
The Sierra Leone Police- is still subservient to the powers that be. They have constantly been accused of arbitrary arrests and unlawful killings – the Tombo and Makeni riots as examples.
Physical attacks on journalists and notable violations of human rights, including killings and unlawful detention.
Winner takes all- we run a patronage political system, where only those in power and those who are connected to that power have access to opportunities; this undermines national cohesion and our democracy.
Regional/Ethnic/Tribe politics divide- this is fueled by politicians in their inordinate desire for power and the spoils power brings.
Political propaganda- political propaganda is spewing hate speech mis/disinformation and fake news. Unfortunately, politicians are allegedly behind the proliferation and this is a major cut back to one of the foremost principles of democracy which is freedom of speech and expression; and it’s a potential for conflict.
Political tensions at inter and intra party level also exist.
There’s little or no engagement of the media and CSOs in the current constitutional reform process. As SLAJ President, I only came to learn here this morning that the process is on.
The National Peace Commission
Why do we need a national peace commission? In the first place, we have a lot of democratic institutions that are struggling because of lack of state resources and now we have added another one to further strain the national purse.
In the second place, what peace do we need? Political peace? I don’t know but we are peaceful people. The only thing that is putting us up against one another is our politics. Take the APC-SLPP politics out of the equation, we are one heaven of a people. There are ways to diffuse such political tensions, other than creating a whole Commission that is even struggling to hit the ground running.
I ask, what does it take His Excellency President Julius Maada Bio to drive to Makeni into the compound of former President Ernest Bai Koroma to have a chat?
Both Presidents have been there before and so they have knowledge about deep seated national challenges that are stagnating this nation. So there’s a lot they can talk about in the interest of the people of this country.
They can discuss the potential for an Ex-Presidents Club, which will make them relevant and useful to national cohesion after the presidency. This can be factored into the current constitutional reform discussions.
I ask again, why is former President Ernest Bai Koroma conducting himself like he is an opposition President?
I further ask, why did President Bio not attend the opening of the New City Hall?
To achieve political national cohesion and peace we need leadership by example. That’s all we need. The ordinary people follow their approved leaders. They believe what they say and they are inspired by what they see.
Now to the Media.
So from the media’s perspective, there are obviously good prospects for deepening our democracy. However, the lack of patriotism and the divisive politics which have succeeded in polarizing our society into North West against South East, into red or green, or Paopa against Tolongbo appear to be the main barriers stifling all efforts.
The media too has become an unwilling player in fostering this, because one government came in and appointed media practitioners as Press attaches. The result is because of the attendant financial benefits, media practitioners have now largely become propagandists such that their stories are now tilted to support whoever might come in, or now has the power to transform their lives financially.
This was the dilemma of the Media organizing a debate for political leaders in the 2018 elections. The public were at pains to believe in the neutrality of the media and, of course, there were serious trust issues with the CSOs too.
It is debates like the Presidential debates of 2018 which go to deepening our democracy by putting the politicians on stage and subjecting them to scrutiny. The media did well in 2018, and the challenge now is how can those gains be built upon in a situation where party politics and deep tribalism are the order of the day.
The media is not insulated from all the challenges facing this nation. In fact, they say the media is very often a reflection of the society it operates.
So politicization of the media is a huge challenge, to the extent that independent journalism is gradually dying.
Yes, over the years we have played our own part in the development of our democracy and national emergencies. I make bold reference to national elections and the role of our IRN platform; our role during the Ebola outbreak, the mudslide and now COVID-19. These are all positives that we can build on.
However, Media poverty is still undermining professionalism and independence of the media and media practitioners.
My view is that the National Commission for Democracy and the National Commission for Civic Education have the most important task.
I say so because it will be difficult to change the mind set of us the older generation. So the NCD and NACCED must go into the schools and begin to teach the young Sierra Leoneans about the values which will make our country better. It is the children who are the future who we must train to become good citizens, with patriotic love for their country, by imbibing the values of hard work, labour and expect, honesty, integrity and decency. Bringing them up to debate issues and take honest views without fearing any recriminations at their young age is one of the best prescriptions to deepen our democracy.
Unfortunately, the truth is after watching the Convention in Makeni and before that the Regional Elections in Kono, Kenema and elsewhere, the honest conclusion is that our generation is irredeemable. If we try with the very young, we might still have a chance.
Thank you for listening to me.