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The Legal Conundrum of Pastor Ajisafe’s Statement

HomeAYV NewsThe Legal Conundrum of Pastor Ajisafe’s Statement

The Legal Conundrum of Pastor Ajisafe’s Statement

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It is my view that whether or not Pastor Ajisafe’s statement is unjustifiable, it is necessary to subject the issue to a legal analysis in order to assist the wheel of justice and help Sierra Leoneans to have a better understanding. A proper legal analysis will however not be done on such an issue without bringing into play certain legal issues including hate speech, freedom of conscience and religion, freedom of expression and the press and the corresponding limitations. 

Firstly, according to the audio circulating on social media Pator Ajisafe stated that Mufti Ismail Menk made a public pronouncement that Sierra Leone is an Islamic state. And to this Pastor Ajisafe directly responded and said that the he is a liar. I know that Sheikh Mufti is not a Sierra Leonean and so I don’t know how he came to that conclusion if at all he made such a statement. What is however certain is that he came as a religious figure and such a public pronouncement has both religious and legal implications for our nation. It is therefore natural for a religious figure from the Christian faith to respond. Nonetheless, Pastor Ajisafe could only be said to be legally justified in his response if it is true that Sheikh Mufti actually made such statement. If Mufti Ismail Menk indeed made such statement then it is not unconstitutional for another religious leader to respond. Section 24 (1) of the Constitution of Sierra Leone Act No 6 of 1991 states as follows:

“Except with his own consent, no person shall be hindered in the enjoyment of his freedom of conscience and protection of freedom of expression and the press. For the purpose of this section the said freedom includes freedom of thought and of religion, freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom either alone or in community with others and both in public and in private to manifest and propagate his religion or belief in worship, teaching, practice and observance.”

In addition, the right to freedom of expression is further enshrined in Section 25 of the 1991 Constitution of Sierra Leone. It is these provisions in our laws that give every individual the right to publicly express his or her religious views regardless of his kind of dogmatic belief or opinion. Indeed this is one of the defining features of a true democratic state. I may not agree with what a person said, but does not mean the person’s right to say it should not be defended.

Secondly, I do not agree with what Pastor Ajisafe said regarding ‘all terrorists being Muslims’ or ‘Sierra Leone having a history of only idol worship and Christianity’. The history of Sierra Leone is clear on the fact that apart from Christianity there had been two other major religions practiced by some people in Sierra Leone; the African Traditional Religion (ATR) and Islam.

However, I also understand why Pastor Ajisafe referred to the African Traditional Religion (ATR) as ‘idol worship’. This is simply because in Christianity, the worship of any deity that is not the trinity is regarded as a form of idol worshiping as provided in Exodus 20 verses 2 and 3, and this is also similar to what Islam refers to as ‘kafiri or infidel’.

On the other hand Pastor Ajisafe’s statement in the same audio that ‘all terrorists are Muslims’ should not be taken to say or interpreted as ‘all Muslims are terrorists’; he clearly did not say the latter. If he had said that ‘all Muslims are terrorists’ then that could have clearly incriminated him for making hate speech, but I am yet to see a law that deals with hate speech in Sierra Leone. This is therefore a grey area in the law that Parliament needs to consider for new legislations.

In essence, it is correct to say that the law allows Pastor Ajissafe to express his conscience and state his opinion. However, his right to do so is not absolute and can therefore be limited in certain circumstances. Subsection 5 of Section 24 of the Constitution of Sierra Leone Act No 6 of 1991 provides that a person’s freedom of conscience or religion can be limited under the following circumstances:

a.   in the interest of defence, public safety, public order, public morality or public health; or

b.   for the purpose of protecting the rights and freedoms of other persons including      the right to observe and practice any religion without the unsolicited intervention of the members of any other religion;

And except in so far as that provision or, as the case may be, the thing done under the authority thereof, is shown not to be reasonably justifiable in a democratic society.

It is therefore clear that even though there may be no law criminalising hate speech in Sierra Leone, the right to practice one’s religion and freely express opinion may be curtailed in the interest of public safety and public order as provided in Section 24(5) of our Constitution. And this is why I would commend the Government authorities for their timely intervention in the matter at hand.

But it is also important to note that our Constitution is against any limitation that is not reasonably justifiable in a democratic society. This therefore brings into question the justifiability of the action of the Government authorities in closing the church of Pastor Ajisafe and all its branches and suspending its registration certificate.

By press statements dated 26th September 2017 the Ministry of Social Welfare took two major actions against Pastor Ajisafe and his Church:

1. A temporary closure of Christ Revival Evangelistic Ministries and all its branches in Sierra Leone pending the investigation of the matter by the Police.

2. A temporary suspension of registration certificate of the said church.

The Ministry of Social Welfare, Gender and Children’s Affairs and the Independent Media Commission have both issued press statements indicating that the matter is being investigated. However I also noticed that even though the press statements dated 26th September 2017 from the Ministry of Social Welfare are indicative of the fact that a certain line of action is being taken, the Ministry was quick to conclude that the Pastor’s statement was a ‘preaching of hate message based on totally false and unfounded foundation’.

This in itself raises some questions as to how the Ministry of Social Welfare arrived at such a conclusion since it was not stated that any legitimate, credible and impartial investigation was conducted. It is my view that the Ministry of Social Welfare, and every other Government authority, should endeavour to portray itself as neutral and impartial on such a sensitive issue.

Subsection 3 of section 24 of the 1991 Constitution clearly states that “no religious community or denomination shall be prevented from providing religious instruction for persons of that community or denomination in the course of any education provided by that community or denomination.” This right as provided in subsection 3 of section 24 can only be curtailed in accordance with subsection 5 of section 24 which means that any such curtailment or limitation must be in the interest of public safety, public order and must be justifiable in a democratic society.

Although it seems apparent that the Ministry of Social Welfare based its decisions to close the church and suspend its certificate on public safety reasons, whether or not such decisions are justifiable at this stage is a totally different matter.

It is my candid view that the automatic closure of the said Church and all its branches in the country is not a proportionate response to the situation. Such an action is harsh and disproportionate because it was not based on any legal and procedural parameters, and it is tantamount to punishment before enquiry or investigation. Besides, there is no stipulated time when the Police would conclude their investigations and therefore the closure of the church ‘pending investigation by the Police’ is in itself not temporary because there is no timeframe for police investigations.

This is not to say that the Police cannot investigate the matter; rather it simply means that we live in a society where the presumption of innocence is fundamental to every operation of law and procedure regarding someone who is being accused of wrongdoing. The best that could have been done was to issue an admonition to Pastor Ajisafe and get him to retract his statement and allow the Inter-Religious Council and the Police to handle the situation.

It is therefore my view that the robust response and heavy handedness by the Ministry of Social Welfare are not in line with what is reasonably justifiable in a democratic society as envisaged by Subsection 5 of Section 24 of the Constitution of Sierra Leone Act No 6 of 1991.   

There is also no indication that any of the members of Pastor Ajisafe’s church or a Christian has violated the law or acted wrongly based on the said statement. If indeed the said statement was broadcasted on Radio I AM then it is for the Independent Media Commission to conduct and enquiry and take necessary actions as provided in the Media Code of Conduct.

It is clearly not wrong to condemn a statement that seems hateful and inciting, but it is wrong for the person himself and, in this case, his church to be condemned.  Pastor Ajisafe is not the only member in the said church; the church constitute thousands of members who also have a right to worship. Hence, the closure of the church, even if temporal, has the capacity to infringe on the rights of other people who have no business with the current issue.

This is therefore a call to the Government and all concerned to treat this matter with the wisdom and prudence it deserves and not allow any individual or group to influence decisions that will have irreparable consequences.

It is my view that the situation is still manageable and the closure of a church is certainly not a way forward and therefore recommend that the normal functioning of the Church be reinstated by the Ministry of Social Welfare.

The purpose of this piece is not to say that Pastor Ajisafe is either wrong or right, rather it is a call for caution for the Government authorities to handle the situation with the utmost care, sensitivity, fairness and impartiality with the view that Sierra Leone is an open democratic society.

In the nuances of the current situation, what is paramount is the longstanding unity of our nation and I therefore respectfully implore both the Christian and Islamic leaders to come together and work out a solution. I also particularly call on the members of the Muslim Community not to interpret the statement of one Christian as the statement of all Christians. Let us all treat this matter as one that deserves forgiveness and reconciliation in the interest of unity.

God bless Sierra Leone.

Joel Tejan Deen-Tarawally is Barrister and Solicitor of the High Court of Sierra Leone

LLM, BL, LLB, BA

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