State Of Emergency! SLPP Agrees APC Disagrees NGC Cautions

In order to be able to take tougher legal action against rapists and sexual violence offenders, the Government of Sierra Leone (GoSL) last Friday 22nd February, 2019 tabled a controversial motion in Parliament to declare a State of Emergency to deal with the social menace.

The proposal was however met with serious challenge from the main opposition All People’s Congress (APC) that has majority of seats in Parliament. The motion for the President’s 7th February, 2019 proclamation to make the penalty for sexual offenses a mandatory life sentence to become law needed two/thirds approval from the House. Apparently, without doing a head count, the Speaker of the House, Hon. Abass Chernor Bundu, based on just the “Ayes”, declared that the presidential proclamation had become law.

APC’s Hon. Daniel Koroma however raised the motion that instead of declaring an emergency, the existing parental Act on rape should be amended, citing that the crisis is not out of control like in the case of the Ebola outbreak.

Acting Leader of the APC in Parliament, the ageing Hon. Ibrahim Ben Kargbo reiterated that due process was not followed on grounds that MPs were not given the papers before they were tabled.

The Acting Leader made it crystal clear that their party was not against the motion, but the existing law, he insisted, must be amended. He added that the issue was not political and therefore has APC’s support.

Hon. IB Kargbo reiterated that they as a political party supports the government to protect the rights of women and girls, but averred that passing a state of emergency would send the wrong signal to investors and other concerned interests. He therefore noted that the state of emergency would not become a law since no ballot took place. “There is no state of emergency in Sierra Leone,” Hon. IB Kargbo concluded.

Hon. Osman Timbo of the opposition APC argued that rape is a national concern and commended those who have given prominence to the issue, noting that though rape is serious concern, no country has ever decaled an emergency to fight rape, citing India as the largest democracy with the highest incident of rape the world over.

The MP further argued that according to the rule of law, one is presumed innocent until he/she is proved guilty. He therefore feared the consequence of somebody being accused and charged to court on the presumption of guilt prior to trial.

An SLPP MP in the municipality popularly known as Tawa argued that the issue of women and girls is of great national interest, noting that about 56% of girls aged between 11 and 15 are subject to rape and sexual harassment. He asserted that the country would reach a point wherein there would be birth complications because of the violation of girls before they reach puberty stage. The MP therefore suggested that castration of perpetrators of rape would be more preferable than declaring life sentence for rapists.

Leader of Government Business in Parliament, Hon. Sidi Tunis referred to Section 29(1) of the 1991 Constitution to support the proclamation, adding that he wondered why the main opposition APC did not support it.

The MP further queried why lawmakers in the main opposition party think the state of emergency on rape could not be seen as a threat. “Is the raping of a three-month old baby not a threat?” he queried.

Hon. Sidi Tunis argued that the failure of erstwhile President Ernest Bai Koroma to declare an early state of emergency during the outbreak of the Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) in May 2014 led to the escalation of the crisis.

As the ruling party, the MP said, they want to ensure that they stand and fight for the rights of women and the girl-child, adding that the state of emergency was purely on rape and sexual violence offenses. “As MPs of the ruling party, we will support His Excellency in the House for approval of the state of emergency against rape and assault,” Hon. Tunis said.

The Speaker said they are dealing with a matter of extreme gravity, adding that the Fifth Parliament has not had such a debate and that they followed the same procedure in passing the three constitutional instruments into law. At that point, the Speaker did a voice vote, and declare that the “Ayes” had it.

The main Opposition Chief Whip, Hon. Hassan Kamara standing on SO 46(1) said instead of a voice vote, the House should be divided so that for the proclamation to become law it should have a two/third vote.

Hon. Marah said the law is supreme. He said the ruling party was going against the constitution, so why the need for it. He also insisted that a ballot be done.

The Speaker told him to read Section 46(1) in tandem with Section 29(3) of the 1991 constitution and adjourned the House to Tuesday, 26th February, 2019.

Contributing to the controversial debate, Leader of the National Coalition for Change, Hon. Kandeh Kolleh Yumkella representing Constituency 62 in the Kambia District said his party had held wide consultations on the SOE in the light of its legal, political and economic ramifications.

He observed that research carried out by his party shows that Sierra Leone is not among the top ten countries in the world worst affected by rape and sexual violence; India being the leading country where 70% of such cases are committed by family members.

Whilst maintaining that NGC supports the government in its fight against corruption, indiscipline and poverty, it also supports the fight against rape and sexual violence against women, citing that it is a menace with several ramifications including causing teenage pregnancy and early child marriage.

However, the NGC Leader in Parliament advised that the crisis should be addressed in a holistic manner, including amendment of the Sexual Offenses Act 2012 mandating the punishment for such crimes 15 years to life imprisonment.

He furthered that legislation should be supported by supplementary deterrence instruments, such as introduction of comprehensive sex education or family life education programme in schools and at the household level.

Such education and awareness raising programme, he said, will allow for constructive discussion on sex, rape and violence in communities targeting boys and men who are the perpetrators.

On the declaration of a SOE to deal with the menace, Hon. Kandeh Yumkella asked a rhetorical question: “is it useful to heal a social evil?”

Section 29, Sub-section2 of the 1991 Constitution, he said, is very explicit about the conditions under which the President can declare a state of emergency. He cited, when Sierra Leone is at war; when there is a breakdown of public order and safety generally or in some part of the country; when there is danger of breakdown of peace and safety in the country or some parts; when there is a disaster or natural calamity or one imminent; and when there is a threat to the existence of the state.

He therefore warned that if the country is not guided by history, it will repeat the mistake of the past. As such, he said, MPs must use their best judgment to provide an effective and holistic suite of policies for lasting and systemic solutions to the problem of rape and sexual violence in society.