Nicholas Charles Ognibene, Vol. 36 Associate Editor
In its brief post-independence history, Sierra Leone has experienced economic stagnation, brutal civil war, and dictatorship. Lately, however, it has been characterized by rapid (if uneven) economic growth and democracy. This growth has recently been checked by the Ebola crisis, which has created substantial suffering and uncertainty.
Complicating this uncertainty has been the recent constitutional crisis surrounding the office of the vice president. Vice President Samuel Sam-Sumana is from Kono District in the Eastern Province of Sierra Leone, known for its diamond production. He was educated in the United States before working in the mining sector in his home city of Koidu,[i] and was selected as the running mate of now-President Ernest Bai Koroma on the All People’s Congress (APC) ticket for Sierra Leone’s 2007 presidential election. The APC was victorious and regained control of the executive branch for the APC. Sam-Sumana’s tenure as vice president has not been not without controversy. In 2011, Al Jazeera published a report documenting undercover video footage of Sam-Sumana and two associates in which they appeared to assure a supposed prospective investor that timber-exporting licenses could be quickly and legally processed with the provision of bribes, despite a ban on hardwood timber exports coming into effect.[ii] Partly as a consequence of this, and also as a result of gradually deteriorating relations with President Koroma, there was speculation that Sam-Sumana would not be included on the APC ticket for Koroma’s reelection campaign in 2012. Nevertheless, Sam-Sumana was ultimately selected and reelected along with the president.[iii]
On February 28, 2015, one of Sam-Sumana’s bodyguards died of ebola and the vice president placed himself and his security detail in a 21-day quarantine.[iv] Meanwhile, previously fragile and partly-deteriorated relations between Sam-Sumana and President Koroma worsened, with various accusations being leveled against the vice president, including the instigation of political violence in his home district of Kono in an attempt to create a breakaway political party there, and falsification of academic credentials.[v] This led to his expulsion from the APC on March 6.[vi] Just over two weeks after the beginning of his self-imposed quarantine, a bizarre series of events unfolded in the capital. Federal soldiers arrived at Sam-Sumana’s residence in Freetown and withdrew his security detail; the soldiers refused to explain on whose orders they had been deployed, although the Information Minister provided an innocuous explanation for their presence. Sam-Sumana himself was nowhere to be found, later informing the media that he had effectively gone into hiding in fear for his life, and was seeking asylum at the embassy of the United States. [vii] Two days later, Sam-Sumana returned to office and a sense of normalcy returned, albeit briefly.[viii]
On March 18, the office of President Koroma announced that Sam-Sumana had been sacked as vice president for seeking asylum, and effectively abandoning his duties. The president cited “constitutional authority” to remove the vice president, referring to Section 40(1) and 40(3) generally, and relying primarily upon Section 41(b), of the Constitution of Sierra Leone.[ix]
Section 40(1) grants executive authority to the president,[x] and Section 40(3) states that the president shall be the “guardian of the Constitution.”[xi] Section 41 stipulates the prerequisite qualifications to serve as president of Sierra Leone; this is of relevance due to Section 54(2)(b)’s stipulation that no individual may be a candidate for vice president unless they meet the same qualifications detailed in Section 41. Of particular importance within Section 41 is provision (b), which requires membership of a political party.[xii] Sam-Sumana’s expulsion from the APC and thus lack of political party membership is therefore relied upon by President Koroma in his dismissal.[xiii]
The decision sparked immediate controversy.[xiv] Numerous groups within Sierra Leone criticized the decision as being unconstitutional, including the opposition Sierra Leone People’s Party[xv] and the national confederation of trade unions, the Sierra Leone Labour Congress.[xvi] Criticism was bolstered by the commentary of noted Sierra Leonean lawyer and constitutional scholar Abdulai Conteh, contesting the constitutionality of President Koroma’s actions.[xvii]
The constitutional criticisms of President Koroma’s decision appear to be merited. Section 40(1) contains no substantively specific provisions regarding the president’s power, and Section 40(3) appears to be of purely symbolic value. Neither provision grants anything resembling specific authority to the President to remove the Vice President. The President’s Section 41 claim is facially more relevant, but is also without merit. Koroma cites Section 41(b), requiring political membership to be qualified for election as President, in conjunction with Section 54(2)(b), stipulating that the same conditions shall apply to the Vice President.[xviii] Yet the language of Section 41(b) stipulates that no person “shall be qualified for election as President” (emphasis added).[xix] The use of the words “qualified for election as President”, in lieu of simply “as President” suggests a limitation on individuals assuming candidacy for the office, not for holding the office once elected. The words as written seem to refer to qualification as a presidential, and by extension vice presidential, candidate only.
Furthermore, the Constitution has express provisions regarding the removal of the vice president from office. Section 54(8) stipulates that the vice president shall be subject to the same procedure for removal as the president.[xx] The president is subject to an impeachment-like process through Parliament as per Section 51, but no other provisions for removal of the vice president are given.[xxi]
President Koroma’s edict would therefore appear to be in direct violation of the Constitution of Sierra Leone. The Constitution grants the Supreme Court jurisdiction over constitutional interpretation,[xxii] creating the possibility of judicial review, and there have been calls for impeachment of the president from the opposition SLPP.[xxiii] Troublingly, on March 20 a gathering of the Sierra Leonean bar association, assembled to discuss and ultimately condemn[xxiv] the president’s actions, was violently disrupted by police.[xxv] Not since the days of the civil war has Sierra Leone seen such direct and violent state interference with political affairs. It is hard to see how this situation will play out in the weeks to come, but these are worrying days for Sierra Leone’s fragile democracy.
[i] APC, Biographical Sketch of Mr. Samuel Sam-Sumana: Running Mate of the All People’s Congress (APC) party in the August 11 Presidential Election, Awareness Times (Jul. 5, 2007, 8:40 PM), http://news.sl/drwebsite/exec/view.cgi?archive=4&num=5930.
[ii] Africa Investigates: Sierra Leone: Timber! A story of corruption that is stripping the west African country bare, Al Jazeera (Nov. 26, 2011, 9:30 AM), http://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/africainvestigates/2011/11/20111123134340348960.html.
[iii] Abu-Bakarr Jalloh, Sierra Leone president and ex-deputy caught in a political quagmire, DW (Mar. 20, 2015), http://www.dw.de/sierra-leone-president-and-ex-deputy-caught-in-a-political-quagmire/a-18331302.
[iv] Umaru Fofana, Sierra Leone vice president places himself in Ebola quarantine, Reuters (Feb. 28, 2015, 2:42 PM), http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/02/28/us-health-ebola-leone-idUSKBN0LW0WQ20150228.
[v] Philip Neville, Vice President Sam Sumana, APC politics and ingratitude, Standard Times Press (Mar. 24, 2015, 4:51 PM), http://standardtimespress.org/?p=1202.
[vi] Clarence Roy-Macaulay, Sierra Leone’s President Fires VP After Party Expelled Him, ABC News (Mar. 18, 2015, 10:57 AM), http://abcnews.go.com/International/wireStory/sierra-leones-president-fires-vp-party-expelled-29718269.
[vii] Sierra Leone VP Samuel Sam-Sumana ‘goes into hiding’, BBC News (Mar. 14, 2015), http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-31885713.
[viii] Clarence Roy-Macaulay, Official: Sierra Leone Vice President Home After Fleeing, ABC News (Mar. 16, 2015, 2:17 PM), http://abcnews.go.com/International/wireStory/official-sierra-leone-vice-president-home-fleeing-29673754.
[ix] Press Release, State House, Freetown (Mar. 17, 2015), http://allafrica.com/stories/201503181187.html.
[x] Sierra Leone Const. art. 40, § 1.
[xi] Id. at art. 40, § 3.
[xii] Id. at art. 41, § b.
[xiii] Press Release, State House, Freetown (Mar. 17, 2015), http://allafrica.com/stories/201503181187.html.
[xiv] Sierra Leone VP Samuel Sam-Sumana sacked, BBC News (18 Mar. 2015), http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-31941025.
[xv] Press Release, Sierra Leone People’s Party, Disruption of Constitutional Order (Mar. 18, 2015).
[xvi] Press Release, Sierra Leone Labour Congress, (Mar. 20, 2015).
[xvii] Letter from Dr. Abdulai Conteh to Ernest Bai Koroma, HE the President of the Rep. of Sierra Leone (Mar. 18, 2015).
[xviii] Press Release, State House, Freetown (Mar. 17, 2015), http://allafrica.com/stories/201503181187.html; Sierra Leone Const. art. 54, § 2(b).
[xix] Id. at art. 41, § b.
[xx] Id. at art. 54, § 8.
[xxi] Id. at art. 51.
[xxii] Id. at art. 124, § 1(a).
[xxiii] Mohamed Massaquoi, Sierra Leone: SLPP Wants President Koroma Impeached, Concord Times (Mar. 24, 2015), http://allafrica.com/stories/201503241560.html.
[xxiv] Sierra Leone Bar Association calls VP’s removal unconstitutional, says he should be reinstated, Fox News (Mar. 21, 2015), http://www.foxnews.com/world/2015/03/21/sierra-leone-bar-association-calls-vp-removal-unconstitutional-says-should-be/.
[xxv] Abu-Bakarr Sheriff, Rumpus at Bar Association meeting, Concord Times (Mar. 23, 2015), http://slconcordtimes.com/rumpus-at-bar-association-meeting/.