New Bar Association Leadership: A Revenge of Dictatorship in Sierra Leone

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following article was first published by the Africanist Press on 7 June, 2016 following the controversial 2016 Sierra Leone Bar Association’s executive elections. The article was republished by several newspapers in Freetown, including The Independent Observer, and Global Times. We republish it today to underline that the current crisis of the Sierra Leone Bar Association, following the staged controversy of this past weekend in Kenema, is symptomatic of the current crisis in Sierra Leone; an internal middle class crisis accelerated by political corruption, and fueled by vacillating greed and vaulting ambition of young professionals within the SLPP and APC.  This article was first published in 2016 when Ernest Bai Koroma and APC.  

By Chernoh Alpha M. Bah

Two important elections have concluded this past weekend in Sierra Leone: that of the Sierra Leone Bar Association (SLBA) and the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ). The contests and, most especially, their outcomes point squarely to dangerous signs facing the practice of democracy in a country still recovering from the ashes of war and a recent health catastrophe that claimed the lives of four thousand people. These recent developments, especially the contests and outcomes of the past weekend’s internal elections of the two professional associations, make it absolutely necessary to interrogate the role, and perhaps the rason de etre, of these formations among the masses.  

These two associations are among the few organizations of professionals (lawyers and journalists) in Sierra Leone. The country’s population of more than six million constitutes a largely uneducated young people (eighty-seven percent of which is below 35 years) and they remain continually deprived of jobs and nearly all social services required for human existence.  In such a country of mass illiteracy, rising levels of unemployment, and endemic poverty, lawyers and journalists occupy strategically important social positions. Educated and well positioned, journalists and lawyers are certainly the few privileged that are able to participate in the daily dialogue that shape discourse and help influence public policy in the country. The large army of young, energetic and able-bodied youth, living mainly in congested city slums without education and jobs, rely on the men and women in the media and the legal profession to stand up for them against the continued violations occasioned by a predatory political class now largely identified as the leading culprit in eviscerating the society. 

Members of the outgoing executive members of the Sierra Leone Bar Association visited Julius Maada Bio at State House to report their achievements on Wednesday 14 February, 2024

This past weekend, the Sierra Leone Bar Association – the only professional body of lawyers in the country – met for its annual conference at the new Bintumani Hotel, one of the most luxurious hotels in the most affluent sections of west Freetown. Bintumani and Radisson Blu are the new rendezvous of affluence. Doted on the coastal strip of the city, they are favorite meeting places for politicians and other segments of the middle class who live a contradictory life of material comfort in a country haunted by induced poverty and inflicted underdevelopment. Many of the lawyers at the conference form today’s new cadre that has been added into the country’s tiny petit bourgeois element who are passionate about capital and accumulation. Along with cocktails and the stylistic exhibition of class, glamor and grandeur of the event, the single most important item on the conference’s agenda was the slated election of a new executive to run the Bar Association. The food and wine – plentiful in this occasion – could not conceal the air of anxiety that surrounded the fiercely contested internal leadership battle among the lawyers. 

The results have been announced and loud jubilations followed. The joy echoed right inside the center and corridors of power. The rank and file of State House jumped in celebration. It was the propagandists of the All People Congress – the ruling party – who first broke the news: they reported that a group of contestants sharing the same platform have taken all the executive positions away. The news of the outcome has obviously pleased those on and near the seat of power. State House officials have been jubilating on the outcome, and they may have emptied many wine bottles and even broken some of the glasses in the course of countless toasts of joy and smiles as they likened the results to the statistics of the 2012 national elections. 

The question as to who would lead the Sierra Leone Bar Association for the next period has now been settled. 

But as ruling party supporters and leaders continue to celebrate the results, the outcome itself has provoked a significant debate, and along with it arises a critical question: Is the new Bar Association executive a group of lawyers belonging to the APC, the party whose leaders and supporters are celebrating the victory? 

This question does not only interrogate the role or independence of the Sierra Leone Bar Association, but it directly points towards a necessary discourse on the qualitative nature of democracy in Sierra Leone today.  What, perhaps, has happened to democracy since Ernest Koroma assumed power in 2007? 

From the developments now unfolding before us (evidenced by the punctuated jubilations of ruling party officials) it is clear that the new Bar Association leadership is indicatively a compliant group of lawyers—individuals closely associated and sympathetic to the APC. Some of them might even be card-carrying members of the ruling party.  While the names of the newly elected executive members directly echo the compartmentalization that characterizes national political contests today, the Bar Association elections results have demonstrated just one basic problematic fact: That Party politics in Sierra Leone destroys even the ability of men and women with letters to decide for the good of the country and its uneducated majority and exploited population. Certainly, the Bar Association is supposedly an organization of the educated folks (what you might call a sector of the intelligentsia whose greatest trade mark is its chest-beating learnedness). But none of its members, including those who are now in the new executive, can deny that the results of the votes were induced by national party politics. 

In 2016, Ernest Bai Koroma also hosted the controversially elected Sierra Leone Bar Association executive at State House in Freetown

The contending parties did not interest themselves with challenging questions facing the legal profession. They did not focus any serious attention to the scandals of the Law School, particularly its deliberate failure of Law School students at Bar Examinations. There are also the unending matters of the criminal justice system: the unlawful imprisonment of innocent citizen, the rising cases of police brutality, the wrongful arrests and detentions of ordinary people, the delayed trials, the problems of juvenile justice, and all the other burning issues relating to human rights and civil liberties were never part of the agenda of the elections.  

In all of this failure, two key facts compete for acceptance. Firstly, that the new Bar Association executive is a compliant group of lawyers associated with the APC, and secondly, that the Bar elections outcome is a symptomatic manifestation of the jaded nature of elections that permeates the country. It is disappointing that the group of “learned colleagues” of the Bar Association has been unable to free themselves from the entrapment of partisan politics.

The picture, accentuated and painted by the jubilations of ruling party officials and supporters, points to only one basic truth: that this particular Bar Association election and its outcome represents the revenge of the APC and Ernest Koroma against a specific set of lawyers in the Bar Association who stood up, during the Ebola outbreak, to question the constitutionality of his action to dismiss the elected vice president of the country. Some of the lawyers who lost the just concluded elections were the adherent defenders of the constitution from the political stampede of Ernest Koroma and his partisan forces on that occasion (unfortunately they are very few and completely lack influence within the judiciary – both bench and bar).

Ruling party politicians and their supporters obviously deny this reality. They seek to rationalize the partisan results with the so-called number game in “electoral contests” (the botched consensus around the crooked idea of a simple majority carries the trophy) even when the balance of forces supporting the conditions for a free and fair contest are markedly absent. If a real debate on the numbers were to be held today, it will surely not end with a validation of the supposed popularity of the candidates now in leadership of the Bar Association. It will be one that unearths the fundamental problems surrounding not just the Bar Association, but also that of the legal profession itself. The myths and scandals that now characterize admissions into the Law School, the practice of turning out lawyers mainly from a specific sector of the country’s population, and the willful rejection of others following questionable failures at Bar examinations, all need to be fairly discussed and contextualized. It is only through such a holistic discussion that a real account for the imbalance percentage of admissions into the legal profession over the last eight years (beginning in 2007) that the numbers, which translated into victory for the current executive, can be genuinely explained. Until that is done, what we just witnessed is an ugly race towards the misguided road to partisan compartmentalization, which sadly clouds even the minds of the expected “men of letters” who elected the new Bar Association leadership. 

This problematic development, however, brings out a critical question on why ruling party politicians and their supporters raised wine glasses in honor of the newly elected Bar Association leadership? The answer certainly points to the fate of democracy in a country where politicians in power are seeking to undermine and even take over every independent professional or community organization aspiring to protect the massively uneducated population. The Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ) itself, a victim of the same war, had barely managed to save only its own head giving up the lower parts of its organizational body to the beast of political dictatorship. This is certainly what the new Bar Association leadership represents. It directly fulfills the revenge of dictatorship and a tendency to arrest democracy.

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