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Sierra Leone News:CHETANYA’s View: Paramount Chieftaincy must be made more democratic

CHETANYA

CHETANYA

Sierra Leone’s Paramount Chieftaincy system is undemocratic and unjust. Of course, for a government position to be undemocratic isn’t inherently bad. In a democracy, not all of these positions are decided by election. Some must be appointed. So it would perhaps be understandable if there were some local administrative positions similar to that the Paramount Chief that were appointed. But the fact that there are elections for Paramount Chiefs at all suggests that the position is supposed to be democratic. But it isn’t, because just holding elections doesn’t go far enough if those elections are restricted.
Paramount Chiefs are, as far as I’m aware, the only elected position in the country that explicitly forbids people of a certain family background from participating. Only members of ruling families may participate. The problem is, Paramount Chiefs have jurisdiction over everyone in their local chiefdom, and in effect over the whole country, given their presence in Parliament. Preventing people from representing the interests of their region just because of who they happen to be related to is closer to monarchy than democracy.
And there is an importance difference. Mohamed N’fah-Alie Conteh, Chief Electoral Commissioner and Chairman of the National Electoral Commission, acknowledges there is a contradiction between Paramount Chieftaincy and democracy, but dismisses it as irrelevant. “To some extent, yes there is some conflict, but democracies generally have some limitations,” he told me. He points out that elections in any democracy are restricted by age, nationality or political affiliation.
But this is a false equivalency. Candidates are restricted by age presumably so that they will be mature and experienced enough to hold office. And they’re restricted by nationality for obvious reasons; only someone with the nationality of a country should be able to represent the people of that country. But being born into a royal family doesn’t give a person any inherent advantages over anyone else. An accident of birth does not make someone more fit to hold office.
Conteh agrees that some reforms must be made to the Paramount Chief system, specifically that the terms should not be held for life, and women should be allowed to run in all regions (they are barred in some). But if you follow the logic of allowing women to participate, the conclusion should be that people outside the ruling family should also be allowed. The only reason to ban women is tradition; there is nothing about women that makes them incapable of being Paramount Chiefs. Similarly, the only reason to insist on restricting candidacy to members of the ruling family is tradition. But this simply isn’t a good enough reason.
For one, the “tradition” of Paramount Chieftaincy as it stands today only dates back to 1961, when the British set up the system upon granting Sierra Leone its independence. There were chiefs before this of course, but the political system of Paramount Chieftaincy did not exist. According to a Harvard study from researchers Tristan Reed and James A. Robinson, the British colonial creation of Paramount Chieftaincy was actually less accountable than the older, pre-colonial system. What exactly is the virtue in upholding an old, unaccountable “traditional” system that isn’t very traditional in the first place?
And even if Paramount Chiefs were traditional, that’s not a good enough reason to prop up a semi-hereditary political system and give it genuine power. The British monarchy is traditional, but that doesn’t mean the Queen should have a powerful political role. Personally, I think the monarchy in Britain has far too much power and influence as it is for a position that was never chosen by voters.
Think of the people affected by the policies and governance of Paramount Chiefs, who might want to run for office themselves, but can’t simply because of their family background. If they don’t like the way a Paramount Chief is doing things, they can’t take matters into their own hands and try to run for office. Furthermore, the fact that members of the ruling family won’t have to worry about losing their power to candidate outside the family, they have far less incentive to act accountably.
Paramount Chieftaincy should be as democratic as any other elected position, with limited terms, gender equality, and a minimum of restrictions for candidacy. Either that, or the position should be stripped of much of it’s power. If the symbolism and tradition of Paramount Chieftaincy is so important, it should become a predominantly symbolic position like the British monarchy. Having a position that combines the two is simply unjust.
*Chetanya Robinson is a journalism intern from the University of Washington in Seattle. He is the 7th intern in as many years in an internship program with Awoko Newspaper
Thursday July 28, 2016

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