With less than two months to go before Sierra Leone goes to the polls, the political debate presently dominating the country’s social and traditional media is whether citizens with dual nationality are or should be eligible to run for political office under the law.
It is a question that Francis Gabbidon, a notable Sierra Leonean Barrister at Law and university lecturer, brought to public notice late last year when he published an article on the subject, most likely sparked by the case of Australia’s former deputy prime minster Barnaby Joyce.
In it he wrote: “Dual citizens who take the risk of contesting for membership of parliament and win, can have their victory invalidated by a successful petition by their opponents in the courts.” This has been followed by a definitive opinion from the country’s Attorney General in recent weeks, stating the same.
Gabbidon’s legal opinion was based on a little-noticed Section of Sierra Leone’s 1991 Constitution Bill. Section 76 (1) Act No. 6 states that: "No person shall be qualified for election as a member of Parliament (a) if he is a naturalised citizen of Sierra Leone or is a citizen of a country other than Sierra Leone having become such a citizen voluntarily or is under a Declaration of Allegiance to such a country.”
The issue has become contentious because, although there were several dual citizens in the last parliament, political parties (including the ruling All People Congress and the opposition Sierra Leone People's Party) have opted to disqualify all political candidates who contravene s.76(1) from standing in the forthcoming elections.
It is a controversial decision which has divided Sierra Leoneans, in particular the country’s diaspora population. Estimated at around one million, they are vocal, influential, educated and engaged. They also contribute substantially to Sierra Leone’s GDP – with Government calculations estimating that they send home between $250 and $400 million annually, or 20-25% of GDP.
Impassioned though the debate has been, it has been conducted with noticeable transparency and inclusiveness. Furthermore, the recent action by political parties to avoid the risk of future challenge in the courts, by opting not to field dual citizens, marks an improvement in our respect for the rule of law. These are all signs of an evolving political maturity that should increase national and international confidence in the future of our democracy.
In the past Sierra Leone has suffered misrule, the advent of a one-party state, several coup d’états and the suspension of the constitution. All of these undermined the rule of law and affected the overall stability of our nation, culminating in one of Africa’s deadliest and most devastating civil wars.
This is not the first election since the assent of the 1991 Constitution. As a child in 1996, I remember joining my parents in prayer. The pinnacle of our aspirations was for the elections to be held without incident, and for our nation to return to democratic rule. Anything else seemed a luxury. However, as we have enjoyed growing peace and stability, and seen our democracy become even more entrenched, our aspirations have changed and our nation is demanding better governance, and a say in the way it is decided and delivered.
Since the ending of the war in 2001/2, we have seen three peaceful presidential and parliamentary elections observed as free and fair internationally, including a change of government; all indicators of a maturing democracy and the rule of law. The bar for #SierraLeoneDecides2018 has been set even higher. These elections have been marked by the demand for manifestos, presidential debates, increased female representation, and political parties who ensure that their candidates in all elections are eligible in line with the dictates of the constitution.
According to Sandra Day O'Connor - the first female to serve on the US’s Supreme Court: “Commitment to the rule of law provides a basic assurance that people can know what to expect whether what they do is popular or unpopular at the time.” The apparent application of the law without favour on such a high-profile issue is good for our democracy. It furthers the rule of law and strengthens governance.
Sierra Leone still has some way to go as it forges the strong institutions and good governance we need to really grow our society and our economy. In the process, debate such as this, which leads political parties across the spectrum to submit themselves to the laws of the land, can only be a good thing, entrenching the principle that no one is above the law and creating the culture of confidence our society needs to realise its potential.
PJ Mandewa-Cole trains and mobilises community leaders in Sierra Leone. He is a winner of the Queens Young Leaders Award and is the Executive Director of Lifeline Nehemiah Projects