The Analyst (Monrovia)

Liberia: Pres. Sirleaf Wheels Into Prison Brouhaha -Suspends Fugitive Kpaan, Bravado Broh -Will That Pacify The House?

All seemed bleak for the rule of law late last week when a non-military high-ranking official of the municipal council of Monrovia intercepted the execution of a verdict of the plenary of the House of Representatives. Now, from afar, President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf has wheeled in to break what promised to be a violent standoff with the potential to snowball into full-blown constitutional crisis. The question many are asking now is, "Will that placate the House and prevent it from falling into the temptation to breath over the neck of the Executive Mansion?" The Analyst has been finding out.

President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, last Friday, announced the immediate indefinite suspension of Acting City Mayor Mary Broh and embattled Montserrado County Superintendent Grace Kpaan, apparently for their insolence to the House of Representatives.

The suspension of the two officials came ahead of a House emergency session Friday afternoon to take additional steps to enforce its previous verdict. The House was due to meet to discuss the action, last Friday, of Monrovia City Acting Mayor Mary Broh, who along with a group of women reportedly prevented Hollywood style, the imprisonment of Superintendent Grace Kpaan at the Monrovia South Beach Prison.

The question observers are asking is, "Did the president go far enough to prevent any standoff with the House as was the case when the latter demanded Mary Broh's suspension last year?" But before that, the background.

Culminating events, prospects

"Pending further consultations, President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf has directed the immediate suspension from office of the Acting City Mayor Mary Broh. The Liberian leader who is in Freetown, Sierra Leone, attending the inauguration to a second term of President Ernest Bai Koroma, has also instructed suspension from office of Mrs. Grace T. Kpaan, Superintendent of Montserrado County," an Executive Mansion release said last Friday.

It noted further that the president announced the indefinite suspension of the two officials early Friday, immediately after Vice President Joseph Boakai informed her late Thursday of incidents involving the two officials and the House of Representatives.

Vice President Boakai was acting as president in the absence of Sirleaf who was due in Monrovia late last Friday after attending the inauguration of President Ernest Ba Koroma in Sierra Leone.

If the goal of the president's preemptive action was to ease budding tension within the lower house on Capitol Hill, observers say, surging tension has masked its effect, for the House went ahead late Friday to vote unanimously to re-arrest the suspended officials without recourse to the Executive Mansion.

"Distinguished Colleagues, it has been moved and seconded that the city mayor of Monrovia Madam Mary Broh and the Superintendent of Montserrado County be ordered arrester by the Sergeant at Arms and be incarcerated for thirty days and furthermore that this body communicate with the President of the Republic of Liberia on the issues as raised in the motion which is that the two individuals are no more governmental materials," Speaker Alex Tyler said Friday. He was reading a seconded motion of Rep. George Mulbah, which plenary passed unanimously.

Just as the House was working to reinforce the jail order, House sergeant-at-arm was assuring lawmakers that the manhunt for Kpaah was still up.

"At present, I am still in pursuit of Grace T. Kpaan. I remain resolute and wherever I find Grace Kpaan, she will be arrested. As we speak Grace T. Kpaan is still on the run, but the mandate of the plenary still stands," he said.

There was no word on the whereabouts of the superintendent and the acting mayor up to press time yesterday.

The outraged emergency session of the House had gathered Friday to regain its sanctity, which it felt Acting Monrovia City Mayor, aided by some influential women, desecrated when she obstructed the detention of Montserrado County Superintendent Grace Kpaan at the Monrovia South Beach Prison on Thursday.

The lingering question in the minds of the public is whether the president went far enough to prevent any standoff with the House as was the case when the latter demanded Mary Broh's suspension last year over the issue of insolence?"

Observers say what seems an ordered sequence and dovetailing of the actions of both the Executive Mansion and the House Representatives, is unlikely to pacify the latter and nib its sizzling actions in the bud.

From the look of things, observers say, the House is unlikely to stop short of calling the shots at the Executive Mansion by pressing for the summary dismissal of Broh and Kpaan, something constitutional scholar called Legislative intervention in Executive prerogatives.

Considering the building tension on Capitol that relates to the house members' obsession with guarding their turf by demanding the deference of executive employees, according to observers, a constitution-leaning standoff is most likely.

Most House members remained obsessed, Friday, with setting a deterring example on Broh and Kpaan to rescue their image, to protect the rule of law, and to establish what some believe to be justice rather than to show raw power.

For some, such open insolence to the lower house of parliament would have negative ripple effects in their various constituencies and erode the rule of law in Liberia.

"Let me begin by stating categorically, that we look at the prevailing situation that occurred yesterday not only as a defiant move against the House of Representatives, but against the 17 electoral districts throughout the length and breadth of the republic of Liberia that elected us. Not only was the action a breach of the rule of law, but if this august body cannot take a decision it could undermine our integrity and our moral standing amongst our people," said Representative Acarous Gray (CDC- Montserrado) who argued that no one was above the law.

He cited the arrest by state security of House Deputy Speaker Tokpa Mulbah last year and argued that same action must apply.

"I could remember vividly that the 52nd Legislature could have resisted, but our distinguished speaker, you were then the speaker, your intervention was for the sitting deputy speaker to turn himself over, in order to protect the rule of law," said Rep. Gray.

He argued further, "Justice cannot in any manner or form be partial, justice must be impartial…..I would suggest that now is the time. Not only must the Sergeant-at-Arms go after Mary Broh, the Sergeant-at-Arms must be instructed, empowered… to go after all of those who obstructed justice."

Also commenting on the Friday resolution, Rep. Tingba said the decision to incarcerate the Montserrado County Superintendent was in keeping with law and condemned the action by Broh, which was abetted by many other influential women.

"We have law and order in this country; we acted with respect to Article 44 of the Liberian constitution. These laws are on the book and if we are to respect the rule of law in this country, then people that are appointed to act in public offices, must live within the confines of the law," he said.

Representative Eugene Fallah Kparkar(Liberty Party) who was somehow lenient with the Superintendent on Thursday seemed outraged by the action of the Monrovia Mayor adding that she went too far in her disrespect.

"We stand united in respect of the sanctity and credibility of this chamber. This chamber is an embodiment of the Liberian people and the constitution is crystal clear that power is inherent in the people," he said. "Even if someone has a dissenting opinion and the house comes up with a decision, that decision should be respected to the letter. I dissented and I expressed my opinion but the house took a decision and that decision was in was in keeping with article 44 off the Liberian constitution which empowers the legislature to apply reasonable sanctions."

Constitutional, legal ramification

The House might have exercised its constitutional prerogative to hold suspended Superintendent Kpaan in contempt and to order her detention alright, but the question remains whether it also has the right to demand hers and the dismissal of Broh.

The other question that observers say haunts the developing drama is what more President Sirleaf could have done to address the House's quest to restore its integrity.

"Nothing in particular in keeping with law. If the House undertakes to probe a case that has such criminal overbearing as embezzlement or misapplication of county funds, the president can only look and perhaps work behind the scene to prevent a public spectacle bordering  constitutional crisis," said one legal practitioner who spoke with this paper late yesterday.

He said the potential powder keg was the House's statement that deemed the two officials already dismissed.

In its follow-up action Friday, the House voted overwhelmingly to inform President Sirleaf that the "two individuals are no more governmental materials".

By this order, legal scholars say, the House "has gone too far over the top in the exercise of its rights". They noted further that House has only to observe the limits set by Article 44, lest it wants the involvement of the Supreme Court, the opinion of which is certain to side with the Executive in case the president decides to take no further action against the suspended officials.

While they say the president cannot prevent the detention of the suspended officials, the officials themselves could divert the House's wrath by taking remedial legal actions opened to them.

"The debatable issue is whether Superintendent Kpan's action obstructed any legislative function of the House of Representatives or whether it obstructed or impeded members or officers of the House in the discharge of their legislative duties," said former Solicitor General Tiawan Gongloe in a chat with this paper yesterday.

The rights advocate described Broh's reported obstruction of the duty of the House sergeant-at-arm as "not only wrong, but criminal", and noted that the only remedy opened to Superintendent Kpaan is to file a petition for a writ of prohibition questioning the legality of the action of the House holding her in legislative contempt. This, he said, was in case she wanted to argue that plenary did not apply due process of the law during the hearings leading to the decision to imprison her.

"Superintendent Kpan should have filed a writ of prohibition against the House, if she felt that their action against her was wrong. Her failure to do so meant that she was prepared to accept the punishment imposed on her by the House of Representatives," he said, suggesting to observers that the president cannot rescue her.

The former labor minister fears Liberia might become"gangsterdom similar to the situation that the Republic of Somalia, unless those, especially public officials, who felt wronged sought redress through the courts and avoid appealing to acts of gangsterism or hooliganism.

Whether the bail Cllr. Pearl Brown Bull reportedly proffered to secure the release of Superintendent Kpaan even before she was committed has legal force, Cllr. Gongloe could not say.

But he said that the House sergeant-at-arm has the authority to commit a person to prison under the directive of the House was not legally disputable.

"The Sergeant-at-arm and not the police, sheriff or any other peace officer, is the only person authorized by law to enforce sanctions imposed by the Legislature. The rank of the Sergeant-at-arm is brigadier general of the Armed Forces of Liberia," the former solicitor general said.

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