Attorney General and Minister of Justice's Firing: Another One Bites the Dust
By Andrew Keili (30/06/18)
Two months and two high profile sackings! Both were unexpected but had generated considerable and diverse comments in the press and social media.
The erstwhile Secretary to the President was a close confidante of the President. The short-lived Attorney General, Charles Margai has been a colossus bestriding the political landscape of Sierra Leone. His appointment two months ago was however unexpected. Though his party had supported the SLPP in the runoff, he had made some caustic remarks about President Bio’s record during his NPRC days. His appointment was greeted with a mixture of enthusiasm and trepidation, depending on one’s political proclivity. To rabid SLPP supporters, who perhaps were looking for political revenge and investigating misdeeds of the past government, this was manna from heaven. Rabid APC people saw in Margai a vindictive political apparatchik with several axes to grind.
APC had valid reasons to be worried. Margai was the one who helped APC wrestle power from SLPP in the 2007 elections with his formation of the PMDC. Since then he and the APC had been strange bedfellows with the relationship swinging to and fro from love to hate. He represented Sam Sumana in the VP constitutional case before the Supreme Court, often taking pot shots at everyone including the Supreme court judges, much to their chagrin. During the tenure of the last regime he was constantly giving his opinion on what he considered excesses of government, especially as they relate to constitutional issues. This brought him into conflict with many people in government. A classic public feud that ensued between himself and the Attorney General at that time Frank Kargbo is worth recalling.
It all started over a fairly innocuous letter written by Margai to Frank Kargbo as Attorney General over the extension of the State of Emergency by President Koroma. Margai sent Kargbo what amounted to a lecture on the constitution. Frank Kargbo then wrote back: "I note the intemperate and "beneath contempt" language in your letter.... But for my previous knowledge of you (I sincerely hope things have remained the same), I would certainly have ascribed the contents to a person with a profoundly disturbed mind. However I also note and put it squarely to your continued sad and unsuccessful quest for relevance in the national political discourse……..You lack less than the competence and credibility to be judge of my effectiveness or otherwise as Attorney General and Minister of Justice as you have never been one. And alas at twilight it certainly appears too late. What fortune Sierra Leone."
Margai gave as good as he got: "When I spoke to Mr. President some time ago about your incompetence, his reply was apt. As the conversation between him and I was confidential, I shall refrain from divulging what was said. You have always ill-advised him on matters of national importance due to incompetence."
Well history has a way of turning the tables. Margai did indeed become Attorney General and APC had cause to be jittery. President Bio has made some very negative comments about the justice system and its excesses and promised to embark upon reform. Charles Margai was the one tapped to head this reform. Over the past week or so there have been considerable rumblings in the press and social media about what his detractors call his unconventional actions, including threats and intimidation of people. The government has not been particularly forthcoming on the reasons for his sacking and Information Minister Mohamed Rado Swarray’s excuses have ranged from justifying it based on the fact that he serves at the President’s discretion to being a little bit forthcoming to say he did not share the President’s vision and to reluctantly admitting that there may indeed have been injudicious indiscretions. One could sense perhaps, quite rightly that the government wanted this to go away and did not want a fight.
Indeed one can only conjecture the real reasons for his sacking. If social media is to be believed, his propensity to threaten occupants of high profile protected jobs to resign, threats to senior personnel within his own Law Officers Department and trying to influence the ouster of judges were cited. A leaked letter whose authenticity was questioned by his spokesman, Adrian Fisher was roundly derided in social media and the press causing considerable embarrassment to the government.
Whatever the reason, Margai has been dismissed as Attorney General and replaced by the eminently qualified Dr Priscilla Schwartz, who becomes the first female Attorney General. She comes in with stellar credentials. She is an international business lawyer with considerable years of experience who has advised governments and private and international companies operating in energy, natural resource and infrastructure sectors in developing countries. She has six years’ experience working as State Counsel and the Personal Assistant to the former Attorney General and Minister of Justice, Solomon Berewa advising on energy, telecommunications and mining (petroleum and minerals) related legislation and policy providing regulatory advice on structuring of projects in these fields.
Priscilla is also a distinguished UK academic who has published widely in various fields of international business law and economic development issues. Her book, which I have read, based on her PhD thesis, with a focus on Sierra Leone, explores the conflicts between pursuing mining activities to foster economic development and protecting the environment in which such activities take place. We have an Attorney General with practical hands on experience as well as a knowledge of the inner workings of the corporate world as well as of community expectations in the natural resources sector. This is good blend for addressing our development aspirations from the legal standpoint and if harnessed well can augur well for Sierra Leone.
Dr Schwartz’s appointment has met with some rave reviews, some from unexpected quarters. Kabs Kanu’s review in Cokorioko wryly succeeds in touting the virtues of Schwartz whilst deriding APC’s public enemy number 1, Charles Margai. He writes: “I wish to commend President Maada Bio for appointing a woman as the Attorney General and Minister of Justice. That is a massive boost to womanhood and gender parity and empowerment in our country.
It will even be greater if women are also considered during the forthcoming appointment of ambassadors and diplomats. Not resisting the urge to praise his former boss’s appointment of women notably the likes of Zainab Bangura, Khadi Bassir, Haja Kalay Kamara, Dr. Sylvia Blyden etc. into high positions, he waxes effusive about Dr Schwartz. Then comes his hammer: “Thank you, President Bio for also being very decisive to remove a man who was full of so much bitterness and resentment for President Koroma that he would have acted foolishly and besmeared the name of your government. Thanks for not giving him a chance. We do not need the politics of revenge in Sierra Leone. His replacement was superb and I see a very bright future for our judiciary.”
We now have a new Attorney General, who should be the Principal adviser to government on legal matters. Whatever the reasons for the change, it is quite obvious that the public wants due process to be the watchword in handling issues related to the changes of personnel in government - an inevitable part of our governance system. Though we have what is essentially a “winner takes all system”, things must be done right.
Our history is replete with several instances of the politicisation of the Attorney General’s role. They have either been too compliant and subject to the whims and caprices of the President or when they choose to be insistent on a particular line of action are dismissed. After Attorney General Berewa, F. M. Carew and Eke Halloway were probably much too compliant. The combative Serry Kamal was dismissed by Ernest Koroma and Frank Kargbo also after an initial compliant stance was ostensibly dismissed because he had a different view of the Sam Sumana ouster.
The politicisation of the AG’s role comes in substantial part from the AG’s membership of the cabinet where key policies are made and scandals covered up. The fear is that if the AG sits in the cabinet, he or she is likely to be influenced more by politics than the law in interpreting the law. An AG for example has responsibility to protect the interests of the public when the government is pursuing policies which violate human rights. A conscientious AG should stick to the constitutional mandate to promote the rule of the law and protect people’s interests, and persuade the government to change its policy, if possible. More often than not as we have seen in the past they have not had enough courage to tell the President of his unlawful policy or acts.
The late distinguished British law lord, Bingham once argued that since the advice of the AG to the government is a matter of public concern, it should be made public. This is even more imperative as the constitution places so much importance on transparency and accountability. No AG must however be allowed to arm himself with massive powers to flout the constitution and systematically destroy the rule of law.
The Priscilla Schwartz I know is respectful, bright and animated. She is a breath of fresh air with a considerable experience which should bear positively on our legal system. We very much hope the government will keep to the undertakings in President Bio’s speech. He talked about reforming laws and undertaking an overhaul of the judiciary and the justice delivery system in the country with a view to restoring public confidence. His statement that “State governance has been treated as if there are no constitutional injunctions or limitations under the 1991 Constitution” should ring in the ears of Dr Schwartz. He also made a personal pledge to refrain from acting unconstitutionally and to scrupulously respect the rule of law in the best interest of national development and stability.
Congratulations and good luck to Dr Schwartz. But what happens now to Charles Margai. Many say it is the end of his lively political journey but those who know Charles Margai say “it ain’t over till the fat lady sings”. It is surprising that we haven’t heard from him yet to get his own side of the story. Someone says that one who knows a lot about the inner workings of government and the idiosyncrasies of the various characters we now have in government should only be totally cast aside at the government’s total peril. He most certainly cannot be condemned into irrelevance as he could be an articulate gadfly and knows more than a thing or two about several current players.
Just as an aside, to conclude, I understand Dr Schwartz was actually recommended for another position-to head the Law School by Charles Margai. What an irony? One request I have though for Dr Schwartz as an “Old Boy” of CKC (Yes COBA is CKC Old Boys Association), would you consider legislating that such discrimination against women should be discontinued? Well I don’t expect Dr Schwartz to answer just yet but perhaps I will ask her at our “Old Boys” reunion.
Courtesy: PONDER MY THOUGHTS: By Andrew Keili, NGC Party Running Mate