By: Fayia Junior Moseray and Julian Koroma
With barely three months to Sierra Leone’s presidential and parliamentary elections, the country is sitting on political tenterhooks following the controversial declaration to use an even more controversial system to elect Members of Parliament.
The country’s Chief Returning Officer – Mohamed K. Konneh, announced that on June 24, 2023, Presidential and Parliamentary national elections would use the “Proportional Representation (PR)/District Block System” to elect Members of Parliament, as can be seen in the letter below.
A public notice from the Electoral Commission for Sierra Leone indicating a directive to Use the PR system.
The revival of this PR System into Sierra Leone’s public elections has been a thorny political issue with deep partisan effect. The governing party led by President Maaba Bio vehemently pushed the PR agenda whilst opposition elements strenuously fought against it.
Earlier, the Deputy Minister of Justice, Napoleon Koroma, Esq, tabled the “2022 Public Elections Bill,” now passed into law by the Sierra Leone Parliament, to regulate the conduct of the forthcoming 2023 presidential and parliamentary elections, and possibly subsequent elections in Sierra Leone. MPs from across the isle traded mixed feelings regarding the controversial Clause/Section 57 in the then Public Elections Bill, which provides for the forthcoming presidential and parliamentary general elections to be conducted under the Proportional Representation Electoral System, which is also known as the District Block System. The debate on the floor of the house was partisan and feisty.
Citizens within and outside the country were not also left out of the controversy. They expressed varying thoughts concerning the law and the legal authority of Mr Konneh to announce that the 2023 parliamentary elections would be conducted using the Proportional Representation (PR) Electoral System.
The media, both traditional (radio, TVs) and new media (Facebook, Whatsapp, Twitter etc.) have become battlegrounds where politicians, civil society activists (CSOs), legal practitioners, and ordinary citizens, students inclusive, engage in a battle of words concerning the mandate the National Returning Officer has, to make the declaration. And given the timing of the declaration, opinions have also been feisty.
Given the controversy of the system, DUBAWA decided to explore the PR System and its history in Sierra Leone and assess how its reemergence could potentially impact the peace and security of a country that is no stranger to political violence.
What is the PR System?
It is essentially a type of electoral system whereby political parties submit lists of their candidates contesting for the position of Members of Parliament.
After collating the entire results for the particular area/block, the electoral body will allocate seats to the names submitted to them by order of preference and/or merit. For example, in Freetown, political parties would submit names of the candidates who should serve as MPs. The electoral body would allocate seats to a particular party as per the number of votes each political party secured during the elections.
DUBAWA did a vox pop to analyse the depth of people’s understanding of Proportional Representation. Out of 10 respondents, only three had an idea of this voting system. The other seven individuals were a mix of veteran and virgin voters who did not know how to navigate the PR system, nor could they recount how many times Sierra Leone had used this electioneering system.
To confirm the apparent lack of understanding about the system, the National Council For Civic Education and Development‘s Communications Coordinator, Patricia Conteh, in an interview (from 10:02 to 11:56), said they are yet to execute the outreach programs that will educate the larger population about the PR system.
So when was the PR System used in Sierra Leone, and why?
In Sierra Leone, the political system that has been in operation for years before this declaration – is the “Presidential System of Governance”, and the type of electoral system that is currently practised is the “First Past the Post/Constituency-based” electoral system. Research shows this electoral system was used in 2007, 2012 & 2018. On the other hand, the Representation System of Electing Members of Parliament (MPs) was used to conduct two national elections, 1996 & 2002, out of the five successive elections in the country.
In a debate organised by the Sierra-Eye Magazine for senior citizens, which DUBAWA monitored, Dr Juluis Spencer, who served as the Minister of Information in the 1996 – 2002 Sierra Leone’s Cabinet, shared his opinion on the PR System.
According to him, the system came to the limelight in the country’s electioneering process in 1996 during the civil war in 1992. He added that some parts of the country were inaccessible because the rebels still resided in some areas/regions.
“For me, I consider the PR System a better option to the Constituency-based electoral system because it creates room for unity among the electorates and eradicates or drastically minimises electoral violence that is always part of our elections,” he disclosed.
According to Dr Spencer, this Parliament was the most inclusive Parliament Sierra Leone ever had, adding that the executive arm was also composed of persons from other political parties who served in various ministerial and agency positions. This, he said would help to promote inclusive governance and will discourage the culture or, better still, the philosophy of “Winner Takes It All,” which is evident in the FPTP or constituency-based electoral system. He stated the PR system would promote love, unity, inclusiveness and a violence-free election in June 2023.
In that same debate, Abdul Kargbo, an opposition Member of Parliament representing Constituency 077, argued that Section 38(A) of the Constitution allows the president to declare the PR system in consultation with the Chief Electoral Commissioner. However, the same Section provides the conditions or situations that should precipitate such a declaration by the president. He added that those situations, as provided for by the Constitution, have not surfaced for the president to have instructed the electoral body boss to announce the June 24 parliamentary election to be conducted using the PR system.
Section 38 of the Constitution in part, states:
“(1) Sierra Leone shall be divided into such constituencies to elect the Members of Parliament referred to in paragraph (b) of subsection (1) of section 74 of this Constitution as the Electoral Commission, acting with the approval of Parliament signified by resolution of Parliament, may prescribe.
(2) Every constituency established under this section shall return one Member of Parliament.
(3) The boundaries of each constituency shall be such that the number of inhabitants thereof is as nearly equal to the population quota as is reasonably practicable.
It is provided that the number of inhabitants of such a constituency may be greater or less than the population quota to take account of means of communication, geographical features, the density of population, the distribution of different communities, the areas and boundaries of the Chiefdoms and other administrative or traditional areas.
(4) The Electoral Commission shall review the division of Sierra Leone into constituencies at intervals of not less than five and not more than seven years and may alter the constituencies in accordance with the provisions of this section to such extent as it may consider desirable in the light of the review:
Provided that the Commission may at any time carry out such a review and alter the constituencies in accordance with the provisions of this section to such extent as it considers necessary in consequence of any alteration in the number of Members of Parliament referred to in paragraph (b) of subsection (1) of section 74 because of the holding of a census of the population of Sierra Leone in pursuance of an Act of Parliament.”
Agreeing largely with the views of Abdul Kargbo, the Executive Director for the Forum of Sierra Leonean Youth Network (FoSLYN) – Thomas P. Babadie in an interview with DUBAWA, said that the PR system is not appropriate for the country, more so, at this point.
He argued the elections are only a few months away with insufficient education or publicity for the electorates to know and understand the intricacies of the PR system as a whole. According to him, “the view that PR system promotes national unity and national cohesion and development in the country, is blatantly false,” adding the system makes politicians elected to Parliament more corrupt and less accountable to the electorates whom they should represent.”
Debate on AYV Sunday Show
Ibrahim Tommy, Esq., a “Human Rights, Democracy and Rule of Law Activist in Freetown, is a well-known and a strong proponent of the PR system. Tommy, Esq., who is also the Executive-Director for the Centre for Accountability and Rule of Law (CARL) – a civil society organisation that advocates for human rights, good governance, the rule of law and democracy, told the Africa Young Voices Television (AYV-TV), on the popular program tagged: “AYV On Sunday” on the “Public Elections Act of 2022” – that the PR system will be the best electoral system for the country, adding that it would help to build the country’s governance architecture because it will grant minority parties to have representation in Parliament and the executive.
Another panellist on the “AYV-TV – Gud Morning Salone Show” — Ady Macaulay, Esq., former Sierra Leone’s Anti-Corruption Commissioner, and a Strong Opposition against the PR System said that the system is totally not appropriate for the country (Sierra Leone), adding that the PR system can operate accurately in a country where the Parliamentary System of Governance is in operation.
Lawyer Macaulay noted that it would do the country no good if the PR system is forced upon the citizens, noting that Sierra Leone operates on the Presidential System of Governance; thus, the PR system would only help to create unnecessary political tension in the country.
PR from the global perspective
From a recognised total of 195 countries in the world, the World Population Review counts 81 countries that practise PR systems. Defenders of the PR system argue that this system of conducting elections paves the way for more than one contender to be selected from their constituency as the political parties get seats in proportion to the votes they polled. Additionally, using the PR system reduces the potential of a run-off during elections.
The misunderstanding notwithstanding, the PR System appears to have come to stay, at least for the upcoming elections. Whereas voters in the past used to vote for parliamentarians directly, they are now being urged to rest their fates on political parties to select their parliamentarians for them. With 16 Districts and varying amounts of parliamentary seats, political parties will now present a list of candidates to represent them in Parliament.