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Sierra Leone: Constitutional Amendment Passed by Legislature

(Nov. 26, 2013) On November 19, 2013, the House of Representatives, the unicameral Parliament of Sierra Leone, passed a controversial amendment to the country’s Constitution. The change affects the criteria for serving as Speaker of the House. (In Sierra Leone Speaker Criteria Amended in 2013 Amendment Act, AFRICATIME (Nov. 22, 2013).)

The Constitution of 1991 specifies in article 79(1):

The Speaker of Parliament shall be elected by the Members of Parliament from among persons who are Members of Parliament or are qualified to be elected as such and who are qualified to be appointed Judges of the Superior Court of Judicature or have held such office:

Provided that a person shall be eligible for election as Speaker of Parliament notwithstanding that such person is a Public Officer or a Judge of the High Court, a Justice of the Court of Appeal or a Justice of the Supreme Court, and such person, if elected, shall retire from the Public Service on the day of his election with full benefits. (The Constitution of Sierra Leone, 1991 (Act No. 6, 1991), THE LAWS OF SIERRA LEONE ON THE SIERRA LEONE WEB.)

Where the Constitution referred to the requirement that a candidate for Speaker be “qualified to be appointed Judges of the Superior Court of Judicature,” that meant that the person must have had at least ten years of experience as a lawyer. (Sierra Leone Speaker Criteria Amended in 2013 Amendment Act, supra.) The new requirement stresses legislative experience, stating that the candidate must be a Member of Parliament with at least five years of experience with the parliamentary process or a former member who had served two five-year terms. The amendment also ends the practice established in article 80 of the Constitution that a new Deputy Speaker be picked at the beginning of each session, substituting a rule that the Deputy be selected at five-year intervals. (Id.; Poindexter Sama, Sierra Leone News: Ahead of Constitutional Review…APC Plans to Twist 1991 Constitution- SLPP, AWOKO (Nov. 1, 2013).)

Sulaiman Banja Tejan-Sie, of the Sierra Leone People’s Party, criticized the amendment in advance of its adoption, stating that the existing provisions had been included in the Constitution because of the “decadence that prevailed in Sierra Leone as a result of years of one party rule” and that the drafters of the Constitution had wanted someone with a legal background to be Speaker, because such a background would make the Speaker independent and able to arbitrate parliamentary proceedings impartially. Legal training would also help the Speaker understand the “intricacies of the law making process” and comprehend constitutional provisions, the politician stated. (Sama, supra.)

In a press release issued the day after the vote, 27 civil society groups also expressed their opposition to the amendment. The organizations condemned the change, stating that it “emasculates the criteria for the position of the Speaker of the Parliament” and that it “grossly weakens” the constitutional requirements for the post. (Press Release, Civil Society Organisations, In Sierra Leone, Civil Society Urges President Koroma Not to Give Assent to the Speaker Bill (Nov. 20, 2013), AWARENESS TIMES ONLINE (Nov. 22, 2013), World News Connection online subscription database, Doc. No.201311221477.1_0611004397a23a76.)

The civil society representatives also were dissatisfied that the process for adopting the amendment was too quick and that it was not open and inclusive. Emmanuel Saffa Abdulai, Executive Director, Society for Democratic Initiatives, Sierra Leone, one of the groups that signed the press release, stated, “[c]onstitutional reform processes are national processes that should be consultative and participatory.” (<!–?Id.)

Speaking in favor of the amendment, the Majority Leader, Sheku B.B. Dumbuya, noted that the change conforms to international best practices and that many other countries have systems that make a Member of Parliament the Speaker