Right to protest, still a pipe dream in Sierra Leone

By Ishmael Sallieu Koroma

Picture showing activist Edmond Abu been loaded in a police truck as he was arrested during a peaceful protest on fuel rise in Sierra Leone

In Sierra Leone, many rights groups, citizens and organizations have been denied their rights to freely protest on issues affecting them.

Many people have been denied this right by successive governments through the Sierra Leone Police. Anyone wanting to protest must write through the Inspector General of Police to grant a leave to procession or whatever form.  But hardly do they grant this right to procession even if it is intended to be a peaceful one, sometimes with flimsy excuses from the law enforcement offices across the country.

Sierra Leone’s post-war Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report revealed that lack of respect for citizens’ fundamental human rights; corruption, nepotism and greed were some of the causes for its 11 years civil war – one of the most senseless wars in the world.

Sierra Leone’s constitution provides for the respect of the fundamental human rights and freedoms of the individual in chapter three (3), which makes rights to freedom of movement, freedom of expression to name a few justiciable and rights that should be accorded to citizens.  Yet, citizens cannot freely protest without prior police interference, which is itself based on the obnoxious Public Order Act passed in 1965 which instructs citizens to get consent from the head of the police force.

‘’Any person who intends to take part or takes part in organising or holding any procession shall first notify the  Commissioner of Police in writing of his intention to do so and any person who fails to give such notification as aforesaid shall be guilty of an offence,’’ the 1965 public order act states.

The law further states that the head of the police, where in his opinion, may disallow the holding of a procession in the interest of defence, public order, public safety or public morality.

In 2019, in an unprecedented move, the country’s Police force placed a ban on street jogging claiming it obstructs vehicular traffic and inconvenience to other road users. But critics say it’s a ploy to stop citizens from processing freely.

‘’However, in order not to deprive those that might be interested in jogging for health, physical fitness or for other multiple reasons, and in order to protect other people that might not be involved in the jogging, all individuals , groups, and organizations wishing to engage in street jogging in the major streets including those in the  Central Business District and those leading to the beaches and the beaches themselves, should give prior notice to the inspector general of police in writing for authorization and proper coordination in order to ensure the discipline and orderliness of the joggings and the safety of those engaged in the exercise and other road users,’’ the statement from the SLP stated.

Rights experts believed that the rights to protest freely enables and develop any country’s democracy as it is a breathing space to the growth of democracy and  by extension human rights.

The right to protest is a fundamental human rights and not a privilege as it is outlined in many international treaties and conventions notably the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR 1948) , the International Convenant on Economic , Social and cultural Rights (ICESCR 1966) among others.

Activists who disobey the process to attain the approval to protest have been arrested. One such is Edmond Abu, the Executive Director of the Native Consortium and Research Centre, a group that advocates for economic reforms and equality, who in 2018, during a peaceful protest in Freetown, was arrested by riot police officers. He was protesting over the rise in fuel prices. He was detained at the country’s Criminal Investigations Department but was later released after the force received pressure from Abu’s legal team and other rights groups in the country.

He’s not the only activist and rights defender that has been arrested. Other victims of the law include Thomas Moore Conteh, the Executive Director for Citizen’s Advocacy Network (CAN) and Edmond Alim B. Fornah, the Executive Director of Kids Advocacy Network, who were detained over their participation in peaceful protests on important issues.

Instances of citizens being manhandled locked up for daring to disregard the threats and police manhandling of peaceful protesters, are many.

In August last year, a group of women were arrested by the country’s police force, for peacefully protesting over the economic hardship they felt were caused by inability of the Bio government. They were arrested simply for protesting and for voicing their discontent over the sad state of affairs, yet the state saw it as a threat to the stability of the capital, an opinion human rights expert has always rejected.

For Marcus A. Bangura, Executive Director, Citizen’s Forum for Democratic Accountability (C4D), he believe that there is no need for an obnoxious law like the Public Order. He stated that it is draconian in nature and it’s the weapon used by  incumbent governments to oppress their opponents.

Bangura added that the Sierra Leone constitution makes provision on the right to protest but added that despite the right to assembly and the protection of fundamental human rights of the individuals, which in his estimation is in tandem with the right to protest, the Public Order Act of 1965 which governs assemblies in Sierra Leone out rightly undermines Section 26 (1) of the country’s constitution.

‘’In this respect, I implore state authorities to respect the right to protest as an important feature that upholds the spirit of democracy and the fundamental human rights of individuals. State authorities in Sierra Leone should be mindful of the fact that the right to protest is embedded in our constitution either explicitly or implicitly and it is comprised of the right to freedom of assembly, the right to freedom of association, and the right to freedom of expression, all geared towards the use of voice to demand accountability from government,’’ Mr. Bangura said.

Fatmata Kamara, 39, was one of those arrested during the August protests. She said she was arrested at the central business district of the capital, Freetown, with her placard denouncing the economic hardship of the Bio government with the inscription: ‘’ Bio must go; we are tired of this economic suffering. ‘’

‘’I was arrested by the Sierra Leone Police. I was manhandled that fateful day simply for coming out to peacefully protest as I wore black dress showing our anger over the Bio administration and the hardship we are experiencing. I have right to protest. I cannot understand that we still have an obnoxious law that criminalizes our right to protest. This is really absurd,’’ she said.

She alleged that police treated her and other women unfairly as they were locked up. She added that they were released on bail after sometime and freed by the then Inspector general of police, Ambrose Michael Sovula.

Kamara stressed the need for women and other people’s rights to be protected in the country, noting that if Sierra Leone’s democracy is to grow, they should respect and uphold citizen’s right to protest especially when it is peaceful, like the one she was arrested for in August last year.

Vol. 2, chapters 3 of the recommendation of the TRC echoes the need for a new constitution which is one of the many imperative recommendations that needed an urgent action from the Sierra Leonean government. Sadly this has not been met.

‘’The Commission proposes that Sierra Leone should consider the creation of a new Constitution, which should be the product of a wide and thorough consultative and participatory programme. Such a constitution must lay the foundations for a democratic and open society in which every citizen is equally protected by the law. It must free the potential of every Sierra Leonean. A  Sierra Leone that is united around clear constitutional rights, values and principles has a promising future,’’ part of the document states.

In 2014, the administration of then President Earnest Bai Koroma came closer to reviewing the 1991 constitution when he launched the Constitutional Review Committee (CRC) under the leadership of the late Justice Edmond Cowan. But he (Koroma) rejected most of the recommendations put forward by the CRC committee, after millions of dollars of donor funds pumped into the process went in vein.

‘’It was a missed opportunity for former President Ernest Bai Koroma. The Review of the 1991 constitution should have been Koroma’s legacy,’’the late Justice Cowan said on 98.1 Good morning Salone program.

More than thirty years on since Sierra Leone’s 1991 constitution came into being , the right to  freely organize protests still remains a tall dream despite the country’s constitution providing for free movement, protection from arbitrary arrest and detention, among other rights. Thus, the call for a new constitution is one of the many imperative recommendations put forward by the TRC Report.

This article was produced with support from MRCG, through the ATJLF Project on “Engaging the Media and Communities to Change the Narrative on Transitional Justice (TJ) Issues in Sierra Leone.

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