columnBy D. Wah Hne
Participants at the just concluded constitution review symposium demonstrated interest in the review of the Liberian constitution. The issues raised seem to speak beyond the mandate of the President to the Gloria Scott's Review Committee. There is no doubt that the timeline of the commission cannot do justice to the numerical preponderance of constitutional contradictions.
The Scott's Committee is Described Timely as a Great Debate Begins
Ambassador Conmany Wesseh tried to convey the impression that the President's Mandate was to only deal with contentious constitutional issues and not to go beyond those or extending consultations to every cranny of society. He described it as a waste of the committee's time.
While others listened in shock to the views of this one time student union president who championed the cause of the masses, they silently concluded that Mr. Wesseh's role as a progressive or masses spokesperson has now metamorphosed into administration spokesperson.
Cllr. Pearl Bull, a bold faced outspoken critic of society no matter whose ox is axed, spoke clearly that the issues that are now being considered contentious should have been the President's first term priority for constitutional amendments. Some participants are of the conviction that the terms of service for the president, vice president and legislators are intended to strangle incomers since indeed President Sirleaf is serving her last term.
Drawing from major constitutional problems identified, participants are of the view that the timeline should be extended beyond 2014. President Sirleaf has already informed the nation that this is under consideration. Her mandate, due to the sensitive nature of the constitution, was not cast in stones.
The Liberian constitution is a sacred document. Like the Holy Bible and Koran which guides the existence of man, the Liberian constitution also guides the existence of Liberians, policies and legal decisions. The constitution at most, is referred to as the soul of the nation. For some years now, it has been an issue of debate in many quarters. Particularly, Article 54d has been viewed as creating an imperial presidency by its extensive powers to appoint local government officials.
It is reflected in our recent history that the 52nd Liberian Senate and the Presidency went before the Supreme for the interpretation of Article 54d as regarding the extent of presidential powers regarding the appointment of local government officials. The Senate contended that the position of mayor is elective according to an Act of Legislature which transferred power to the people; while the President contents it is her constitutional responsibility.
The Johnny Lewis' Supreme Court interpretation of Article 54d gave appointive powers to the President. The ambiguity of Article 54d which clearly states that superintendents and other government officials are to be appointed by the president did not mention the position of city mayors. This provision thus created constitutional controversy. The Act creating the City Corporation of Monrovia clearly states that the City Mayor has to be elected. As a result, the senate rejected the nomination of the President. As of this writing, the City Mayor remains Acting Mayor until that constitutional or legal crisis is resolved. This is just one of the demanding issues which necessitate the review of the constitution.
On August 30, 2013, the President of the Republic of Liberia established a Constitution Review Committee and mandated it to review the Liberian Constitution and make recommendations for amendment through referendum. Its mandate is to carry out extensive consultation with the Liberian people and stakeholders in the process with the technical assistances of the Law Reform Commission and the Governance Commission. The process is expected to be completed in time for referendum before 2014 elections. Counselor Gloria Scott heads the process.
The consultative process has begun and has attracted the interest of cross-sections of Liberians. On January 24 and 25, the James Flomoyan Conference Hall at the Elections Commission hosted a two day symposium geared towards identifying the necessity for reviewing the 1986 constitution and to develop methodologies.
A female representing the Civil Society says the constitution does not have enforcement powers and counter operates to protect the people. She claims Article 11b which deals with the rights of enjoying and defending life and liberty has not been implemented as far as women are concerned. She also contended that Article 97 be repealed as it violates Article 1 of the Liberian constitution.
For their part, Political parties' representative at the symposium, Mr. Abraham Mitchell, articulated the views of political parties on contradiction contained in Articles 1 and 54 of the Liberian constitution. Article 1 empowers the people to institute all free governments-meaning, national government and local government. Unfortunately, the people in whom powers are deposited as enshrined in the sacred document institutes the national government by electing the president, vice president, senators and representatives and deprived of their constitutional powers to elect local leaders. His presentation suggested that Article 54d takes away the people's power.
The parties contended also that Articles 27b and 97 should be revisited. 27b states that only people of Negro descent can become citizens of Liberia. They are of the conviction that the clause is racist and should be revisited. Both Mr. Kenneth Best and former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, His Honor, Henry R. Cooper as well as Cllr. Seward Cooper opposed the position of the political parties' representative. Cllr. S, Cooper gave the historicity of the clause and its rationale while Kenneth Best advised Liberians to stop "bashing themselves."
Best's debate on the issue was very forceful and thought provoking. "Liberia is not a racist nation. We are an accommodating people. The economy is dominated by foreigners, especially Lebanese. They control thousands of acres of land graciously given by Liberians. He further pointed out that Lebanese are married to Liberians and have children though it is not the case with Liberian men and Lebanese women. The mogul publisher of Liberia's prestigious newspaper, The Daily Observer gave instances of Ghana where foreigners cannot sell in markets nor drive taxis.
Mr. Best received ovation when he cited a case in the 1960s when a Lebanese girl was dumped in the well and killed by Lebanese for falling in love with a Liberian boy. This should be a wakeup call for all those who claimed Liberia's constitution is racist. Justice Cooper sounded a caveat that if that clause is tampered with, Liberians would wake up one morning and find all their lands possessed by foreigners, especially Lebanese. Recent national vision exercise conducted however emphatically gave the opinion of Liberians that the clause should be left untouched.
The two day symposium seems to have had informal consensus that article 97 is of no relevance and should be stricken out. Mr. Abraham Mitchell described it as the PRC exit strategy. The Law Reform Committee Chairman, Cllr. Jallah A. Barbu's presentation microscopes a provision within Article 3 which prevents a person holding a position in one branch of government from holding and exercising authority in another, including autonomous agencies. Contrary to this provision, a situation exists where legislators or justices hold position on the University Of Liberia Board Of Trustees. He notes the violation as the University of Liberia falls under the direction of the Executive. The Cllr. thinks this provision also has to be reviewed for clarification.
Cllr. Barbu believes the CRC has to study Article 22b of the Liberian constitution governing private land ownership in the country. The provision provides that private property rights shall not extent to any mineral resources on or beneath the land to any land under the seas and water ways of the Republic. Liberians have been debating such provisions for a long time. He thinks debates should be extended to that provision.
For a long time, politicians and legislators have spoken against imperial presidency. But unfortunately, their statements have been mere political rhetoric rather than action oriented. In the words of a youth, "they are toothless bulldogs who bark for popularity sake or meal attraction." Imperial presidency will always remain with us because it is more constitutional than rhetorical. Professor David C. Williams, Executive Director of the Center for Constitutional Democracy (CCD) of Indiana University Maurer School of Law who served as one of the panelists, says that "the Liberian constitution concentrates more power in the presidency than the legislature. The President of the Republic of Liberia is one of the most powerful presidents in the world. Some of the powers are cultural and some are constitutional."
The Indiana Professor says the constitution of Liberia should give Liberians the tools to deal with problems facing them- some of which are corruption, poverty, unacceptable government among others. He says some of the excessive presidential powers are presidential immunity while serving; un-enumerated powers; power over the budget; power over defense and security which makes the army and security loyal to only the President; veto powers; line item veto power; presidential term of office; powers of the central government, and appointment powers.
The Professor suggests that under the review, these powers should be keenly looked into especially the un-enumerated powers of the central government. He spoke extensively on federalism which gives powers to local governments and reduces presidential powers. However, he thinks Liberia need not rush into federalism but to take decentralization steps as designed by the Governance Commission as a means of getting there.
It is recalled that the National Union for Democratic Progress adopted a platform which presented a once for all solution to the excessive powers of the central government and the presidency. It is believe that this review would provide opportunities to Liberians to modify Liberia's governing structures constitutionally.
The Chairperson of the Constitution Review Committee assured Liberians of the independency of the committee and its openness to absorb all views, collate them, and make recommendations to the Government. She conveyed that the presence of government institutions such as the Governance Commission and the Law Reform Commission as ex-officio members is only for technical support and not to influence the works of the committee. Participants extended thanks to the Review Committee for the professional conduct of the Symposium. Of course, the man of rhetorical proficiency, Dr. Larry Bropleh was there moderating and regulating the Symposium with "all the powers appertaining."
The GREAT DEBATE BEGINS