10 February 2016

Liberia: The Test of Powers

The Supreme Court of Liberia has issued a prohibition, halting attempt by the Liberian Senate to incarcerate Finance and Development Planning Minister, Amara Konneh for contempt. Minister Konneh Tuesday, February 9, 2016 filed a petition before the Supreme Court of Liberia, praying for prohibition to further proceedings by the Senate.

His petition follows efforts by members of the Liberian Senate to send him to prison over a budget cut row which was thwarted by a motion for reconsideration filed by Grand Gedeh County Senator G. Alphonso Gaye on Tuesday.

The Senate had earlier voted overwhelmingly to imprison minister Konneh for 48 hours over a letter informing that body of a plane budget cut in their allotment due to a fall in the 2015/2016 national budget.

They had argued that the tune of the letter from the Finance and Development Planning Ministry informing them of such move is a gross violation of the Constitution and a disrespect to members of that body.

Thus the minister was ordered to appeared on February 2, 2016 to show cause why he and his deputy Dr. James Kollie, whose signature was on the letter should not be held in contemp. The senators say the reason for their action against both officials of the Executive branch of government is that they are in violation of Article 34 (d) of the Liberian constitution.

Article 34 (d) states: "to levy taxes, duties, imposts, excise and other revenues, to borrow money, issue currency, mint coins, and to make appropriations for the fiscal governance of the Republic, are subject to the following qualifications: (i) all revenue bills, whether subsidies, charges, imposts, duties or taxes, and other financial bills, shall originate in the House of Representatives, but the Senate may propose or concur with amendments as on other bills. No other financial charge shall be established, fixed, laid or levied on any individual, community or locality under any pretext whatsoever, except by the expressed consent of the individual, community or locality. In all such cases, a true and correct amount of funds collected shall be made to the community or locality".

In the minds of the senators to be told by the Finance and Development Planning Ministry through a proposal informing them of a cut in their budget was an act of arrogation the appropriation power of the Senate to itself (the ministry).

So when Konneh and his deputy appeared on February 2, 2016, they however, apologized for the aspect of the letter directly relating to what the Senators described as ultimatum, but not the aspect dealing with the reduction of their budgetary allotment or the Article 34 (d).

Konneh and his deputy had remained defiant to apologize on the aspect that had to do with the alleged violation of the Article 34 (d) quoted above. Simply put Konneh said he had not violated any constitution.

However, on Thursday February 4, 2016, Konneh and his deputy decided to apologize but the Senators asked that they return to meet the full plenary on Tuesday February 9, 2016. So upon Konneh's appearance on Tuesday February 9, before the Senate's plenary, he started with an open apology and begs the legislators to drop the contempt charges, something he had earlier refused to do.

But despite his apology and soft tune to the senators, Maryland County Senator H. Dan Morias without delay invokes Article 44 of the Liberian Constitutions which gives statutory powers to the legislature to charge anyone who its consider to have impeded the function of that body.

Thus setting the stage for a vote on the motion for incarceration. The motion, despite being rejected by River Gee Senator Conmany Wesseh, Grand Cape Mount Senator Varney Sherman and Bomi County Senator Morris Saytumah, 22 of the senators voted for, two against and the abstained, making the total votes of 27 of the 30 members of senate.

Following the taking of the votes, the action to send Konneh to prison was delay by a vote of reconsideration filed by Sen. Gaye. The motion of reconsideration of the decision of the senate is expected to be tested within three official working days of the senate.

If the motion for reconsideration is defeated in plenary, decision of the senate will be overturn but failure to secure such a vote, Konneh will have to serve his 48 hours imprisonment. The acceptance of the motion for reconsideration by the presiding officer, Pro Tempore Armah Jallah, a chaotic scene erupted in the chambers of the senate with senators blaming the Grand Gedeh County lawmaker of thwarting their action, Speaking to this paper following the session, River Gee County Senator Conmany Wesseh termed the action of Minister Konneh as sad and wrong approach to constitutional issues.

He wonders the reliance of the young minister to have openly refused to accept his wrongdoings and violations of the constitution in the face of lawmakers.

"He and his officials have shown enough disrespect to the senate, despite that we tried to guide him by offering an apology but he refused. I understood the vice president and president even talk to him yet and still, his approach was the same. He thinks James Kollie could have helped him? He had been a humble young man for some times now, but I don't know what came over him"? He asked.

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