President Koroma’s announcement of the lifting of some of the restrictions of the Ebola emergency regulations that were promulgated by the country’s parliament at the height of the Ebola crisis in 2014, has provoked another political row and a serious constitutional debate.
A few days ago, the leader of the opposition PMDC party and experienced lawyer Charles Margai, questioned the legality of the president’s unilateral decision to continue the state of emergency without parliament’s prior approval.
This unilateral decision is yet another constitutional blunder, in a long list of what critics now regard as evidence of president Koroma’s dictatorship.
But supporters of the president disagree. They say that the president is simply exercising his right to veto any policy or aspects of the constitution that he disagrees with.
In reply, critics say that president Koroma cannot veto a decision to end or continue a state of emergency that has come to an end – both de facto and de jury. And SLPP’s John Benjamin says: Mr. President you are wrong.
As the political argument continues, the former chairman and leader of the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) John Oponjo Benjamin, issued a strong statement at a press conference in Freetown on the 12th August 2015.
This is what he said:
Mr. Chairman, Representatives of our International Partners, Civil Society Representatives, Members of the fourth estate and other eminent personalities attending this special press conference, I express warm hand of welcome to you all.
Before I proceed, let me humbly request all present to kindly rise and observe a minute of silence to the memories of other nationals and Sierra Leoneans who passed away since the inception of EBOLA, especially for those who died of EBOLA, not forgetting those who may be alive today had it not being for APC that denied them access to proper medical facilities.
About a year ago, when the scourge of EBOLA was ravaging Kailahun and Kenema districts, I made several visits with my team to various areas in the two districts. Following these visits, I presented a report to His Excellency and I was among those who urged him to invoke a State of Public Emergency.
My observations in the those two districts clearly and conclusively indicated that our country was facing imminent danger, as scores of citizens were dying at an alarming rate on a daily basis in those remote towns and villages in the eastern province.
After an initial period of hesitancy, the President eventually proclaimed a State of Public Emergency, following which, I held a press conference at which I, like many other citizens, welcomed and endorsed the State of Emergency. I even went further to plead with communities in those districts quarantined to comply in spite of the great inconveniences engendered.
Sierra Leoneans can never thank enough countries, agencies particularly the UN family, not to mention individuals, organizations whose altruism and care engendered and sustained the hope that we shall overcome and Sierra Leone will prevail against EBOLA.
Thank God we are nearly there. The equipment, food and other recovery packages, the laboratories, the treatment centres, PPEs’ drugs etc., are vivid testimonies of their assistance; the health workers – particularly the volunteers, some trained and others armed only with courage and patriotism, should serve as constant reminder of the moral obligations we owe them.
For members of the fourth estate, you guys have done a marvellous job. Today EBOLA is known everywhere in Sierra Leone, and the progress in containing it was fast-tracked by our actions. Let me recognize those selfless sacrifices by asking that we all give you a standing ovation.
One year on, the nation is required to critically examine the State of Emergency and whether its continuance will serve any more useful purpose, mindful that the EBOLA scourge ravaged not only Sierra Leone, but the Mano River Union basin – including sister countries of Liberia and Guinea.
But in the other two neighbouring countries, having had much limited period of public State of Emergency, they have shown a lot more success in the fight against EBOLA. So I come back to the question again: ‘is the State of Emergency of any further relevance in the people’s valiant fight against EBOLA?
We saw the public jubilation that greeted the lifting of some of the restrictions on personal freedom by our President on Thursday 6th August 2015 throughout the country. We should never allow the dignity of Sierra Leoneans to be brought so low through ineffective management of national crisis.
Let us be reminded that whilst we were engulfed with euphoria following the partial release from what I have termed “NATIONAL PRISON”, the president re-imposed the State of Emergency, this time opting to bypass parliament by not seeking its extension, thus disregarding the voice of the people which parliament represents.
Yes it is true that the State of Emergency did not send people to jail. But the celebrations we saw throughout the country gave the resemblance of Sierra Leoneans being freed from jail at last.
Indeed this State of Emergency has served its purpose in the fight against EBOLA, but the time has come for it to go. Let me add my humble voice to the several, who are now saying that we must no longer continue with the State of Emergency.
To my mind, mixed signals have been sent out with the removal of some restrictions, but at the same time our President stating that “in view of the challenges we still face with incidences of unsafe burial and the need for quarantining and placing restrictions on large number of persons who may be contacts of persons with EBOLA, I hereby proclaim another State of Public Emergency as provided by Law”.
State of Emergency gives sweeping powers to the president and suspends our constitutionally protected human rights and freedoms and rule of law in a limited form.
What is not clear is the President’s failure to justify his stance on making Sierra Leone a permanent State of Emergency.
IMPACT OF EBOLA – STATE OF EMERGENCY ON OUR ECONOMY AND GOOD GOVERNANCE
We as a nation are currently faced with a big setback in the management of our economy. mining companies are folding up and some banks are no longer registering profits. Our economic growth has been halted.
Our governance system is badly affected by the state of emergency and we are now seeing the concentration of authority in the hands of few people, thereby fostering arbitrariness in the use of such authority at the expense of due administrative and procurement process with consequential corrupt practices.
With reference to the new state of emergency proclaimed by the President, I take the view that it is unnecessary for among others the following reasons:
1) There is empirical evidence in abundance that serious and consistent enforcement of the Ebola prevention protocols such as regular hand washing, avoidance of body contact, early reporting of instances of sick relatives and loved ones to health workers and strict appliance of the guidelines for safe burial have demonstrated effectiveness in the management of Ebola.
In nearly all the districts of the Eastern and Southern provinces, it is the stringent enforcement of these protocols, codified into chiefdom by-laws by the local authorities in these communities that is principally responsible for tackling Ebola in these areas. The restrictions imposed in the context of the STATE OF EMERGENCY merely created untold hardship on the communities.
2) It will be recalled that in neighbouring Liberia, President Johnson Sirleaf imposed a STATE OF EMERGENCY for only nine months. In November 2014, the STATE OF EMERGENCY in Liberia was revoked and a nation-wide senatorial election was successfully conducted and there was no evidence of resurgence of Ebola at that time.
Liberia fought the Ebola outbreak to conclusion and was declared by WHO as Ebola-free after completing the mandatory 42 days of resilient zero new Ebola infections across the country. There is a huge lesson to benefit from this Liberian experience.
3) It is absolutely clear that there were lapses in implementing the regulations put in place to tackle Ebola by the executive branch of government.
4) We have also seen a significant growth in cases of corruption, as government functionaries set aside the provisions of the procurement law, and replace it with the use of Executive Clearance for sole sourcing of goods and services that even a restricted bidding process will accrue significant savings in government spending.
A glaring example that comes to mind is the sole sourcing of ambulances for which the supplier was paid the full contract amount, but ended up under-supplying the ambulances.
This procurement by Executive Clearance has continued to date and we saw it recently used by the Minister of Transport and Aviation in securing a loan to procure 100 buses for the Sierra Leone Road Transport Corporation (SLRTC).
The constitutional requirement to first obtain parliamentary ratification for all sovereign loans prior to the utilization of the proceeds of the loan was violated with impunity.
5) Another state of emergency will certainly not instill confidence, especially in private sector investors who have earlier put on hold a final investment decision to now proceed with their programs.
Such uncertainty is most counterproductive in a country with chronic unemployment, especially among our youths. How long are our youths going to wait for the jobs promised by the President during the electioneering campaign of 2012?
Rather than hastily proceed with slamming another infliction of a state of emergency on the country, it is appropriate for us as a nation to do some introspection at this point.
In searching for a solution going forward, we need to ask why the Ebola outbreak overwhelmed us when it happened in 2014. This was due to the fact that the healthcare system, notwithstanding the so-called government flagship Free Health Care program, was grossly dysfunctional and hence incapable of adequately responding to an outbreak of this magnitude.
· Also the government itself, especially the Ministry of Health and Sanitation was in a state of denial at the outset of the Ebola outbreak and as a consequence the response was, at best, ill thought-out, disjointed and disorganized.
· Added to these domestic factors, was also the initial slow response of the international partners until the realization dawned that the whole of humanity was only one flight away from Ebola outbreak when cases materialized in Nigeria, United States of America and Spain.
It is because of these considerations that I personally take the view that the government should focus its effort on completing the task in the few remaining areas.
This can be done through the public health ordinance, not through a state of emergency.
The most pressing need now in this sector is galvanizing support for building up a robust and highly responsive healthcare infrastructure.
The response by our International Partners and Donor community is very good, and this has resulted in the mobilization of over US $1 billion now pre-positioned for financing Post-Ebola Recovery Intervention.
This is the time we must as a nation rise up to the challenge and use this opportunity to lay a solid foundation for our future growth.
In the beginning of the EBOLA crisis when the government went on its own to resolve it, we had big failure. It was only when the issue was managed as a national issue in an inclusive manner involving major national stakeholders, which included political parties, traditional rulers, professional bodies, civil society organizations, SLAJ and women’s representative groups, supported by International bodies, which led to a robust management of the fight against EBOLA.
Similar strategy is now needed to agree on the manner the recovery program is going to be managed to avoid the risk of repeating the same mistake.
The strong recommendation would be to setup a secretariat to exclusively manage the Ebola Recovery Program, rather than put it under the office of somebody who has other responsibilities.
SLPP – OUR ROLE AS A PARTY
Our party is the main opposition party with 42 members in parliament out of 112 and in charge of 9 local councils out of 19 councils.
As a party, we are better together, and united we are more effective and stronger. I have always said that the only party that can defeat SLPP is SLPP itself.
We should put defeat behind us now and focus on winning. This party is bigger than all of us and the focus should be peace and unity. Let our individual ambitions not stand in our way.
The people of Sierra Leone are yearning for a change and want to see our country de-tribalised, corruption free and opportunities created for all our youth, regardless of party, tribe, religion or region.
For us in the SLPP, if we put all our interests in working together and say goodbye to our camp interests, we can be seen as a serious and responsible party that is pre-positioned to move into governance.
I appeal to my colleague aspirants, that we all come together and give one Flagbearer who must be supported by the whole party to become our next president.
As a nation, we have almost contained EBOLA of course: with the support of our development. Failure to contain corruption, ensure good governance and maintain operational independence of our institutions will be a shame and setback for us as a nation; more so those of us who, because of individual interest, failed to do the right thing at the right time to move us forward.