By Lans Gberie.
With barely a week to presidential elections, the Supreme Court has been asked to decide two cases that are directly relevant to the conduct of the polls. The first was filed on 5 February by one David Forna, an activist of the ruling All Peoples Congress party, claiming that Kandeh Yumkella, the standard bearer of the National Grand Coalition, is a “naturalised citizen” and therefore unqualified to contest the elections. The second, authored by Charles Margai, a veteran politician, claims that the APC’s standard bearer is unqualified to run for president because he is a dual citizen and did not resign his ministerial position – for which he was paid from the state’s consolidated revenue – long enough to meet the constitutional requirement.
The court has set up a panel of three judges to determine the case against Yumkella. There is no indication yet whether it is planning to do the same with respect to the case against Kamara.
For the sake of our democratic stability, the Court should beg itself off these wholly malignant controversies by not making any ruling.
For the base political motivation of the first case, which probably triggered the second, is obvious. Shortly after Yumkella announced in January that he had been nominated to run both for parliament and for president, the APC filed a petition against his candidacy on the grounds that he was not qualified for an elected office of state because he allegedly holds a foreign nationality. On 24 January, the National Elections Commissiondismissed the petition as lacking merit, burnishing a growing reputation for independence of Mohamed N‘fah-Alie Conteh, its chair.
The 26-page filing by Forna is dressed up as an anodyne request for the court to rule whether the constitution allows a “naturalised citizen” to contest parliamentary and presidential elections. It names the defendants as Yumkella, N’fah Conteh (NEC’s chair), the Attorney General and Minister of Justice (suggestively unnamed), and the NEC itself as an entity. It is unclear why the filing makes a distinction between Conteh and the NEC but does not name the Attorney General as a person. But we know that the APC is outraged by Conteh’s independence; it long regarded the NEC, under Christiana Thorpe, as basically an occasionally crucial branchof the APC. The Attorney General, Joseph Fitzgerald Kamara, is a committed APC activist who was once a frontrunner for the party’s standard despite the fact that he reputedly holds dual nationality (American and Sierra Leonean).
The sedate language of the filing – a request to the court to make a “determination of the public interest questions” raised by Yumkella’s candidacy – masks its churlish substance. It declares Yumkella “ineligible and or disqualified from contesting to be elected” President or Member of Parliament, and names him the first defendant “by virtue of the fact that he is a candidate for upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections in the Republic of Sierra Leone.”
The filing declares Forna, the plaintiff, whose obscurity of background mocks the purpose of this case, as “a Sierra Leonean and a registered voter,” and Yumkella, from a prominent and nationally famous ruling house, as “born in Sierra Leone and registered as a voter.” That fact alone, of course, makes Yumkella a native born – in contradistinction to ‘naturalized’ – citizen of Sierra Leone.
The linchpin of the APC case is that section (76)(1)(a) of constitution of 1991 – “the GRUNDNORM of the Republic – states: “no person shall be qualified for election as a Member of Parliament if he is a naturalized citizen of Sierra Leone.”
Has there ever been a case where a native born citizen is suddenly transformed into “naturalised” citizen simply because he has political ambition? The primitive and rudimentary thinking behind this politics and legal filing pushes itself, without any assistance, to a reductio ad absurdum: just why should a ruling party get itself so worked up?
It gets more absurd. One of the judges on the panel holdsdual citizenship – British citizenship as well as Sierra Leonean. Another is said to have strong familial and other connections with the APC. Both were part of the panel that ruled in favour of President Koroma against former Vice President Samuel Sam Sumana on 9 September 2015. The last is retired, and has actually expressed discomfort about the role to associates.
The court has said it will sit on the case on 28 February. The plaintiff says in his filing that he will not call any witnesses.
At least two judges of the Supreme Court hold dual citizenship. The Chief Justice was a paid up member of the APC: his name was gazetted as one of the APC’s candidates on the proportional representation list in 2002.
Can one doubt why this case induces so much anxiety with respect to our democracy? One can only hope that at this critical moment the court will rise to the occasion.