This is a guest post by Iris Navarro de Tomas, Senior Program Assistant at the National Democratic Institute (NDI) in Washington, DC
Sierra Leone’s March 8 presidential and parliamentary elections and subsequent March 31 presidential runoff marked an important benchmark as the country saw the second peaceful transfer of power between its two major parties since the end of a decade-long civil war in 2002. Julius Maada Bio of the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) defeated Samura Kamara of the incumbent All People’s Congress (APC) with 51.8 percent of the vote in the runoff. However, the APC maintained its majority in parliament, resulting in the first time in Sierra Leone’s history that parliament is controlled by the opposition party. The country is now faced with its first experience of minority government, and early indications are it is likely to be challenging.
A divided government
The SLPP won a close presidential race, but did not succeed in securing a legislative majority. In the first-past-the-post parliamentary elections, the SLPP only increased its representation from 42 seats to 49, while the APC won 68 in a parliament with 132 elected seats. With a divided government, the SLPP will need to find ways to govern effectively without a majority in the House, facing additional hurdles in passing legislation and government budgets. President Bio will need to rely on cross-party consensus to successfully implement his political agenda.
A few days after the run-off, newly elected President Bio made an appeal for cross-party cooperation as post-election violence erupted in Freetown, Kenema and Makeni after the announcement of results. The SLPP took to the streets to celebrate its victory, which led to violent clashes between SLPP and APC supporters, confrontations with security forces and rioting. Bio established a joint APC and SLPP commission to investigate the violent incidents. These developments seemed to be a sign that the SLPP could make concessions to the opposition in the interest of moving the country forward.
President Maada Bio’s strategic move
Despite early signs of cooperation, a recent political impasse in Parliament is a concerning signal that when presented with a divided government, the ruling party is ready to use all means to regain power in the legislature.
In late April, Sierra Leone saw a political deadlock as the High Court placed injunctions on 16 APC and two SLPP parliamentarians, barring them from participating in the opening session of Parliament and thus in the election of the speaker of the House. The injunctions are based on SLPP and APC claims that the MPs illegally received government salaries during the campaign period and tampered with election results. In advance of the first parliamentary session scheduled for April 24, the outgoing speaker of the House postponed the session indefinitely due to the uncertainty. President Bio, citing article 84.1 of the Constitution that gives the President power to summon a parliamentary session, proclaimed that the first session of Parliament would occur on April 25, despite the large number of APC MPs barred from taking oath. All APC MPs attended the session, prompting police to forcibly remove the 16 APC parliamentarians who could not be sworn in due to the injunctions. In a moment of political solidarity, the remaining 52 members of the APC also left Parliament. The APC and its supporters claimed that President Bio’s move was evidence of an attempt to undermine the APC majority in parliament and ensure that an SLPP representative became speaker.
As a result of the APC walkout, Dr. Abass Chernoh Bundu of the SLPP was elected speaker unopposed. While article 79.1 of the Sierra Leonean Constitution mandates that two thirds of parliamentarians must be present for the vote on the speaker, it does not clarify how the quorum is reached. SLPP claims that two thirds of the MPs who took oath were present, however APC interprets this requirement differently, claiming that at least two thirds of elected MPs must be present to elect the speaker, which would make this vote unconstitutional.
Bio’s push to move the vote of the speaker forward despite pending court cases appears as a strategic move to ensure a more favorable legislature to back his policy priorities. Not only does the speaker administer proceedings on the House floor and has the power to recognize MPs to make motions, but the speaker acts as head of government when the President and the Vice President are out of the country. Both the post-election violence carried out by SLPP supporters and the events in Parliament are concerning signals of the continued fragility of Sierra Leone’s nascent democracy.
Mediation efforts. In response to the events, a joint high-level delegation comprised of President of the Commission of the Economic Community of West African Countries (ECOWAS), Mr. Jean Claude Kassi Brou, and the Special Representative of United Nations Secretary-General for West Africa and the Sahel, Mr. Mohamed Ibn Chambas, began mediation efforts between the SLPP and APC leadership on April 29. Four days later, the delegation recommended that both parties establish effective channels and mechanisms for dialogue to resolve their political differences. The delegation also encouraged the judiciary to ensure prompt, fair, independent and timely adjudication of all injunctions, so all MPs can be sworn-in.
High Court proceedings. The High Court asked the SLPP and APC to provide evidence by May 4 to substantiate the injunctions on the parliamentarians, and after review of the evidence, the High Court lifted the injunctions on the MPs. The parliamentarians have all now been sworn-in, and the APC will likely ask for a re-election of the speaker on the grounds that the vote was unconstitutional. Considering the likelihood that the SLPP will not allow a re-election and given that there are no provisions in the Constitution governing such a situation, further deadlock in Parliament is probable.
Constitutional Reform. A constitutional review process was initiated in 2014 but was paused until 2016 due to the Ebola outbreak. While consultations with political stakeholders and constitutional experts have taken place since 2016, the constitutional review recommendations have not yet been passed by Parliament. As political parties interpret the Constitution to fit their interests during the impasse in Parliament, it is expected that civil society groups will apply pressure to push the review forward. Groups are primarily advocating for measures to reduce presidential powers and mandate that the speaker of the House be a High Court judge to foster neutrality.
Passing Legislation. President Bio will need to build consensus and reach compromises between SLPP and opposition parties moving forward if the country is to avoid an ongoing impasse in the legislature. This could benefit APC MPs who may leverage their majority in the House to advance legislation that would benefit their local constituencies. If the APC majority in Parliament becomes obstructive in passing legislation, the government may resort to using the extensive powers of the executive to force policy adoption and implementation. Particularly, education policy is a potential source of political deadlock, as the SLPP’s key campaign promise was the establishment of a free education system, which was strongly opposed by the APC. It should also be noted that there are significant divisions within the APC that emerged from the party nomination process and led to breakaway parties, which could make it easier for the SLPP to generate cross-party support on key issues.
While recent events in Sierra Leone are concerning for the stability of this nascent democracy, there remain opportunities for political dialogue and cooperation to strengthen democratic processes in the country. As Sierra Leoneans are anxious for change, with 80 percent responding the country was going in the wrong direction in the latest Afrobarometer survey in 2015, scrutiny of the government’s policymaking and demands for accountability and transparency are likely to be more sustained than under previous administrations. If the SLPP can overcome the current impasse and find ways to successfully manage a divided government, Sierra Leone would come out as a strengthened democracy.