14 May 2014

Liberia: Code of Conduct - Sirleaf Puts Pen to Paper On Key Legislation

Monrovia — On Monday, May 12, two important signings took place in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the temporary home of the Liberian President.

In the mournfully decorated foyer, the Liberian leader led an array of government officials, foreign dignitaries and other sympathizers to open and sign the Official Book of Condolence to the memory of the fallen Transitional Chairman, Charles Gyude Bryant.

A few hours later, in the conference room used for the meeting of the Liberian Cabinet, another signing ceremony took place. It occurred before a smaller gathering, including Senators Gbehzongar Findley, President Pro-Tempore, Jewel Howard-Taylor of Bong County, and Isaac Nyenebo of Grand Gedeh.

Others in attendance included Dr. Amos Sawyer, Chairman of the Governance Commission, Cllr. Wheatonia Dixon-Barnes, Acting Minister of Justice, Lewis Brown, Minister of Information, Cllr. Augustine Toe, Acting Chairman of the Liberia Anti-Corruption Commission, and Cllr. Seward Cooper, Legal Advisor to the President. A team of religious leaders, said to be visiting the President after having recently prayed for the nation, trooped into the room to witness the signing ceremony.

President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, after very brief remarks, signed the long-awaited Code of Conduct into law.

Since the 1986 Constitution of the Republic became the Law of the Land, succeeding administrations and legislative bodies have attempted without success to uphold Article 90 (c) which provides that "The Legislature shall ... prescribe a Code of Conduct for all public officials and employee, stipulating the acts which constitute conflict of interest or are against public policy, and the penalties for violation thereof."

By the stroke of her black and gold pen, it is fair to say, the Sirleaf Administration was making history - succeeding where many before her had tried and failed - in circumscribing the actions, activities and behaviors of all public officials and government employees, as well as prescribing penalties for breaches.

FrontPageAfrica has been sifting through the fine prints of the Code of Conduct and reports that it applies to all public officials and employees of the three Branches of the Government. Administration officials harboring political intentions to canvass or contest for elective public offices will turn to Sections 5.1 and 5.2for guidance.

Section 5.1 provides that "All Officials appointed by the President of the Republic of Liberia shall not engage in political activities, canvass or contest for elected offices; use government facilities, equipment or resources in support of partisan or political activities; and serve on a campaign team of any political party, or the campaign team of any independent candidate."

According to Section 5.2 (a), "Any Minister, Deputy Minister, Director-General, Managing Director and Superintendent appointed by the President pursuant to article 56 (a) of the Constitution and a Managing Director appointed by a Board of Directors, who desires to contest for public elective office shall resign said post at least two (2) years prior to the date of such public elections."

In (b) of the same section, "Any other official appointed by the President who holds a tenured position and desires to contest for public elective office shall resign said post three (3) years prior to the date of such public elections."

Tenured positions include positions of Executive Governor of the Central Bank of Liberia and other Board Members, as well as the Chairman of the Liberia Telecommunication Authority, Liberia Maritime Authority, and any appointive post which require service over a specified period.

Section 5.2 (c) provides, however, that "in the case of impeachment, death, resignation or disability of an elected official, any official listed above, desirous of canvassing or contesting to fill such position must resign said position within thirty days following the declaration by the National Elections Commission of the vacancy."

Sections 5.1 and 5.2 will be seen as addressing the long-standing issues of leveling the playing field for political opponents and fighting political corruption in the country.

Prior to the passage of this Code of Conduct, lawmakers have toyed with the elements of the Hatch Act of the United States, which they colored as the "Level Playing Field Bill", as well as the proposed amendment to the Act of the Legislature which created the Central Bank of Liberia.

Critics of the proposed amendment of the Central Bank Act argued that it only targeted the Executive Governor of the Central, Dr. J. Mills Jones, who many, including ranking members of the Legislature, have accused of doling out loans without the proper safeguards, for votes.

Political analysts and commentators have repeatedly drawn attention to the need to pass a general Code of Conduct to cover all public officials and employees of the government. This, they argued, will meaningfully demonstrate the seriousness of the administration to fight corruption.

As Section 5 attempts to specifically address, the Code of Conduct will significantly impact, if not altogether address, the long-standing issue of political corruption in the country. Public officials and employees of the government have repeatedly used the privileges and resources afforded them for the exercise of their public duties to also pursue private political ambitions and narrow interests of political parties with which they are affiliated.

Section 9.1 of the Code of Conduct forbids giving and taking of bribes and gifts. Accordingly, "Public Officials and employees of Government shall not receive, nor encourage the giving of any form of bribe or casual gift in connection with the performance of his/her duties, whether for himself or herself or members of his or her family. This provision does not apply to gifts given during traditional ceremonies and celebrations, and fees paid for lobbying."

Section 9.1 concludes that "The Legislature shall enact laws for the regulation of lobbying activities."

Other important highlights of the Code of Conduct include Sections 11.3, 13.1 and 13.2. Section 11.3 frowns on and proscribes sexual harassment, including the use of rude, abusive and obscene language, indecent dressing, and sexual gestures as unethical and unbecoming behaviors.

Section 13.1 protects public officials and employees of the government from reprisals and discipline who report allegations of wrongdoing and contraventions of the Code of Conduct, in good faith while Section 13.2 encourages members of the public to report misconduct of public officials and employees of the government guaranteeing protection under the Code of Conduct as well as the Whistle Blower Protection Law.

Importantly also, the Code of Conduct enjoins all public officials and employees of the government to declare and register personal interests and assets, as well as post performance and financial bonds where required.

Previously, only employees of the Executive Branch of the Government, acting under the authority of an Executive Order, declared their assets to the Liberia Anti-Corruption Commission every two years.

The compulsory periodic declaration and registration of personal interests and assets will now afford a proper investigation into and tracking of the acquired wealth of all public officials and employees of the government especially during the period of their public service.

The Code of Conduct which calls for the appointment of an Ombudsman to assist in administering the Code, and to hear complaints arising from its enforcement, also takes a significant step in forbidding nepotism, favoritism and cronyism in the appointment of officials and the employment of individuals in the public sector. These vices, it continues to be argued, have contributed to the public's growing perception of corruption in the public bureaucracy.

Before she signed the Code of Conduct, President Sirleaf said, "Laws are as good as our willingness to enforce them." FPA agrees. And so with the passing of the Code of Conduct, the debate is no longer about the will of the government to pass a Code of Conduct but the willingness of the government, and the people, to ensure that the Code of Conduct is enforced. This, now, is the duty of each Liberian citizen.

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