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Why We Need A Presidential Transition Law

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Why We Need A Presidential Transition Law

By Dr. Lans Gberie.

One of the great challenges of emerging democracies is ensuring an orderly transfer of presidential power from one political party to the other. In some cases, it can be nearly as important as conducting free, fair and transparent elections. A poorly managed transition has the potential of poisoning the political atmosphere, and can upend important plans of the incoming administration.

Two developments since the election of (retired) Brigadier General Julius Maada Bio scarcely more than a week ago have, in bold relief, brought this problem to the fore. The first was the spate of random acts of violencein several parts of the country shortly after the announcement of the runoff presidential election result. The available evidence suggests that the violence was spontaneous and largely uncoordinated. Still, since Bio had already been sworn in as President – just a couple of hours after the chair of the National Elections Commission announced the result – some people have unfairly faulted him for not acting firmly or quickly enough to stop the violence. In any case, the violence is damaging to the country’s image. The other is the report of the disappearance of hundreds of government-owned vehicles, part of the frantic looting by officials of the former government. Culpability is easier to assign in this case, but recovering the stolen vehicles may not be easy.

The swearing in of a new president immediately after the vote is announced is now bandied about as ‘tradition’, even law. In fact, it is a very recent practice, beginning in 2007 with Ernest Bai Koroma. Ahmad Tejan Kabbah was sworn in as president nearly two weeks after he was announced victor in the runoff election conducted on 15 March 1996. The National Provisional Ruling Council had published a decree a week before the runoff vote stating that it would handover to the winner not later than 14 days after the result of the polls was announced. The result was a surprisingly orderly transition that allowed Kabbah to tap his ministers, and to send his emissary to the initial talks with the Revolutionary United Front in Cote D’Ivoire way before he had taken over office. During that short vertiginous period, no one would have held Kabbah responsible for any mishap; the NPRC was still in control.

An argument can be made that providing for a period of transition would allow members of the outgoing government to carry out serious mischiefs, now that they know they would be out of job in a week or two. Liberia provides a most glaring example of such an outrage. There, the constitution provides for the date of an election and for the date of inauguration of the new president, but not for the protocol and mechanism for presidential transition. In November 2005, shortly after presidential elections that Ellen Johnson Sirleaf won, members of the National Transition Government of Liberia began appropriating for their private use government vehicles, office furniture and in some cases even office carpets and telephones. The U.S. Embassy in Monrovia issued a statement condemning the looting as “unscrupulous, irresponsible, and contrary to the public interest of the people of Liberia.” But it was too late: the looting had been comprehensively done.

A record of sorts; but the recent alleged looting of government vehicles by Koroma’s cronies – perhaps the most compulsively acquisitive administration in the country’s history – makes the argument againstproviding a period of transition moot.

Once again, Liberia provides an important way out of the dilemma: the enactment of a law specifically designed to ensure a smooth and orderly transition. The law was drafted months before the election last year by the Governance Commission, under its very able chair, Dr. Amos Sawyer.

Liberia had not experiencedan orderly transfer of power from one democratically elected President to another democratically elected President in 70 years. The transition law, which amidst the charged political campaigning the legislature did not act to pass and was issued as an executive order by President Sirleaf, set out the appropriate protocol and mechanisms for the smooth transfer of power. A joint presidential transition team, made up of 15 nominees of the outgoing government and 15 of the incoming administration, was to begin meeting no later than 48 hours after the announcement of the final results of the presidential poll. The 15-member team of the outgoing administration was to have already begun work, which included making an inventory of all state’s assets, and ensuring the preparation of handover notes by all cabinet ministers and other senior presidential appointees. To underlie the gravity of this work, the outgoing presidential transition team included some of the most senior officials of government, including the Minister of State for Presidential Affairs, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Minister of Finance and Development Planning, the Governor of the Central Bank of Liberia, the Minister of Internal Affairs, the Minister of National Defence, the Director of the Executive Protective Service, the Minister of Information, Culture & Tourism; and others members to be appointed at the discretion of the incumbent President. The President-elect was to name his/her appointees to the Joint Presidential Transition Team not later than twenty-four hours after the declaration of the announcement of the presidential election result by the National Elections Commission.

The transition law made clear that non-tenured “presidential appointees shall be presumed to have resigned as of the date of inauguration. Notwithstanding, such officials shall continue to function until their successors have been nominated, confirmed, appointed and commissioned.”

The result of this arrangement was that, in a country where over 1000 vehicles donated by the UN and other agencies for the effort to stamp out Ebola disappeared without trace, there was zero evidence of any looting of state assets by outgone officials. Also, no postelection violence was reported: the outgoing government saw it as its responsibility to maintain order until a new President was sworn in. As everyone knows, swearing in a new President just after the election result had been announced does not automatically invest that President with the knowledge, gravitas and actionable authority to maintain that order.

Sierra Leone can learn from the way Liberia handled its transition. We must enact a similar law way before the next election in 2023.

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