Opinion: Collective responsibility, excuse for extra judicial murders

By John Lansana Musa

Collective responsibility is a Cabinet convention dating back to the 19th century. The Constitution of Sierra Leone refers to it thus: “The Cabinet shall be collectively responsible to Parliament for any advice given to the President by or under the general authority of the Cabinet and for all things done by or under the authority of any Minister in the execution of his office, Section 60. (1).”

What is more, the Sierra Leone Government Notes on Cabinet Procedure include the Doctrine of Collective Responsibility that is in conformity with that found across the Commonwealth nations in letter and in spirit as undertaken in the discussion below, but contrary to the views already expressed by some compatriots when referring to Dr. Kadi Sesay’s stewardship.

The want of knowledge on this doctrine compounded by loose reasoning has often led to extra-logical considerations in discussions of Government by even well-meaning compatriots eager to shoot a quarry in an opposition political party. The following discussion arises from Sierra Leone Peoples Party (SLPP) Presidential Candidate Julius Maada Bio’s tenuous understanding of this doctrine.

Let us go to the discussion now. The thing to keep in mind when discussing the doctrine of collective responsibility is this: acceptance of Ministerial office means accepting collective responsibility for Government decision-making. Decisions reached by the Cabinet or Ministerial Committees are binding on all members of Government. Once Cabinet makes a decision, Ministers must support it regardless of their personal views and whether or not they were at the meeting concerned.

The term, collective responsibility has been loosely used by some Sierra Leoneans to assess the assertions of Julius Maada Bio on the question of allegations of Extra-Judicial Executions of 29 fellow Sierra Leoneans. The context in which Maada Bio defends his position on the grave question is misleading and contrary to the Collective Responsibility Convention.

Counter-posing allegations by his accusers of the extra-judicial murders, he retorts that he was not individually involved. The notion that one conjoins in collective responsibility while having a point of departure that he was not involved is incongruous to this doctrine. This supposition is specious and perverts the doctrine.

When one accepts collective responsibility, you must remain quiet and support the proposition or defend it on pain of resignation or dismissal by Government. Julius Maada Bio’s assumption of collective responsibility will have little weight with those who can properly estimate the mischief in the ambivalence of being against an action while also supporting it. This point has escaped the notice of Julius Maada Bio and his obsequious supporters.

Geoffrey Marshall, an authority on Government, has written that the convention is underscored by the unanimity principle which professes that: a Minister must not vote against Government policy. Thus, Julius Maada Bio cannot say, “the National Provisional Ruling Council (NPRC) Boys killed those people, I did not kill anybody, but I support their extra-judicial murder.”

In short, conjoining in collective responsibility takes place when decision-making is taking place contemporaneously by Cabinet or an absent or new Minister must adopt the policy already made unless he or she is prepared to resign or be sacked. Julius Maada Bio was advised of the proposition to kill 29 people or should have had reason to know as Information Minister as an NPRC Cabinet decision. Did he assume collective responsibility then or later on the morrow of 29 innocent people dead?

Moreover, unanimity of Cabinet members is the fundamental kernel of Collective Responsibility – that all members of the Government speak and vote together in Cabinet except in situations where the Cabinet makes an exception such as a free vote or an ‘agreement to differ.’ (Geoffrey Marshall, ‘Ministerial responsibility,’ (1989) pp 2-4).

There are exceptions to the Doctrine in certain instances. Normal principles of collective responsibility with regard to ministerial unanimity may be suspended where the ‘free vote’ (or ‘open question’) and the ‘agreement to differ’ are in place.

One of these exceptions is the permission of Free Votes on questions in Cabinet. Free votes are invariably recognized in issues of conscience, for example social, moral or religious questions such as capital punishment, abortion or gay rights among other things.

Another exception referred to by scholars is the agreement to differ. They have argued, that an agreement to differ is itself a collective Cabinet decision in which a split between fellow ministers is not a breach of collective responsibility, but an exercise and product of it.

Cabinet practice of free votes and agreements to differ have not yet germinated in our democracy and would have been unheard of in the tempestuous and heedless military regime subsisting from 1992 to 1996.

Contrary to the Collective Responsibility Convention and its exceptions stated above, Julius Maada Bio has carved out his own notion of the doctrine to escape culpability for the extra-judicial murders. Accordingly, his notion of the convention is at odds with the normative principles of the doctrine. The excuse pales in truth of the doctrine.

A fortiori, Julius Maada Bio, is saying, I accept the policy of the NPRC killing of 29 innocent people including a pregnant woman, but I was not one of the killers who shed their blood without due process of the law and I apologize for it retrospectively when confounded by the wailing widows and children of the killed in the offing of a watershed election.

If we entertain the fallacy nurtured by Julius Maada Bio as a fig leaf to cover abuse of human rights, and that he took no part in the mass murder of Sierra Leoneans, but accepts collective responsibility fashioned by the NPRC, to order the homicide of innocent people, then he does not understand this doctrine at all. For Ivor Jennings in Cabinet Government, 1965, p.277, says, “A Minister must not speak against government policy. He asserts that ‘a minister who is not prepared to defend a Cabinet decision must, therefore, resign.’

Before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Julius Maada Bio never testified that he tendered his resignation or the NPRC High Command offered him a free vote or an agreement to differ with his colleagues on grounds of being a conscientious objector to extra-judicial killing of 29 people roused at dawn to die for nothing.

In essence, Julius Maada Bio’s subscription to Collective Responsibility is a clear public expression of a minister’s support for a government decision regardless of that minister’s personal opinion or his non-involvement in the matter. Hence, Maada Bio’s dissenting vote if any, would have led to immediate dismissal if there were no voluntary resignation.

Apart from resignation emerging from dissent on policy, did Julius Maada Bio abstain from the execution of the decision to kill 29 persons when the matter was first mooted? Experts on Government say that in general, an abstention should lead to the same consequences, as maintenance of the doctrine is said to require not just the absence of dissent but the expression of positive support.

Since there is no evidence that Julius Maada Bio, expressed dissentience, abstained or was offered a free vote or an agreement to differ by the NPRC High Command in the prelude of the order to kill, his acceptance of collective responsibility is tantamount to an expression of positive support for extra-judicial killings of 29 Sierra Leoneans.

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