Liberia: Going Forward - the Legislature Must Redeem Its Image

analysis

It is therefore not accidental that most lawmakers and other officials are acting as though they are above the law. Many of them are seen violating the traffic rules with impunity.

They enjoy unfair competition in the political, economic and social spheres. It is even disturbing that laws are crafted to prolong them in power. This is much to the disadvantage of other competent citizens. For many years, government officials and employees operated arbitrarily without a code of conduct. The Legislature managed to adopt the first one in March 2014 in keeping with Article 90 of the Liberian Constitution. Three years later in 2017, the code of conduct was vilified and trashed. It followed a dispute over its enforcement in the 2017 elections, which ended at the Supreme Court. The Legislature itself that should be the trailblazers for democratic governance, transparency and justice, sadly looks more like torture chambers - leading the suffocation of the people they sworn to represent.

Standoff

In September 2012, a standoff ensued between the President Sirleaf and the House of Representatives over the budget of the lawmakers. While addressing a forum on the margins of UN General Assembly in the United States, President Sirleaf must have been pushed to the wall when she was confronted with a question regarding the very high salaries and/or benefits of legislators. The president is reported to have said: "The legislature places self-interest above the country... and I did not give it to them, they took it".

Members of the House of Representatives were exasperated by the assertion of the President, accusing her of exposing them to 'public ridicule.' Speaker, Alex Tyler called a press conference and demanded a retraction, stating that the House took "serious exception to the statement by President Johnson -Sirleaf at an international forum in the United States." They never got one.

That situation appeared to have been the breaking point in the relationship between Madam President and the Speaker both of whom came from the same political party (Unity Party) and hail from the same county - Bomi.

Before then, the president, the House and Senate [in 52nd and 53rd Legislature] went to bed on so many deals that were deemed inconsistent with minimum benchmarks. Lawmakers were accused of taking bribes to pass every bill that appeared before them, including and especially the ones from the Executive.

The ease with which a range of legislations were passed led to the derisive tag "4G bills". This brings to mind the case of super lobbyist, James Davis; every time he was spotted at the Capitol, it was an indication that something creepy was in the offing.

I had my own experience with lawmakers when the media and civil society actors were lobbying for the passage of the Freedom of Information Act of 2010. Maybe because we did not have the means, the bill took two years in the Legislature from the date of its submission in 2008.

It is highly probable to assume that President Sirleaf spoiled lawmakers with money and aroused their appetite for shady kickbacks. Remember the controversial hundred pick-ups donated to the Legislature by ArcelorMittal in 2008. Factor in the 68 concession agreements ratified by the Legislature. Imagine only 6 of those agreements were certified to have been in line with the laws of the country. [See the Moore Stephens audit report of 2013].

The "Iron Lady" was excellent at compromising her critics; she was master of her own PR and would do anything to defeat whatever appeared to challenge her image internationally. So she must have been right; the lawmakers took the money but she fell short of saying 'I approved it.'

I should observe that the desire of the people's representatives to equal the extravagant or huge pay checks of those in the Executive has gotten the country to the abysmal level marked by widening socio-economic inequality; hence, a fight to get rich quick at the mercy of the poverty stricken masses.

Fancy the figure some functionaries of the Executive, [state owned enterprises] including Maritime, The Telecommunication Authority (LTA), the Petroleum Corporation (LPRC) who were at some point taking home 10, 15, 20 and 25 thousand US Dollars monthly. One would surmise that the President wanted to 'pay them well so that they would resist the urge to pilfer from the national coffers.

But I think those payments in themselves were dubious, even as the process was manipulated to legitimize the graft. Seemingly, the Legislature must have felt cheated and reasoned that, 'since we make appropriations in the budget by law, why not increase our own wages?' And so they did incrementally until it hit the roof. Instead of confronting the Executive, they rather joined them in the salary bonanza. How embarrassing!

And President Sirleaf was helpless; she could not stop them. Fast forward, the country has been confined in the harsh economic conditions to pay 103 legislators uncalled-for salaries. Ironically, even the people who are supposed to be fighting waste and abuse (The Corruption Commission) are paid bloated salaries hopefully to insulate them against corruption but to what extent have that paid off, is altogether different story.

Perhaps lawmakers knew their decision to "take" those high amounts would be unpopular with the people they represent. That would have been the motivation for concealment of their actual amounts. Such a situation created room for widespread speculations about the huge sums lawmakers were paid and the attendant mass cry for reduction. But the amount remained classified information until the recent disclosure by Senator Darius Dillion-shedding light on the figures Senators take home every month. Consider it - $15,325.00USD excluding the Liberian dollars component?

Should the public take it that members of the House netted the same double digits as in the Senate? One lame justification for the bloated salary is the talk about hungry citizens pestering at their doorsteps - begging them for alms. Imagine the government bearing the burden for individual lawmaker's charity. This amounts to organized cheating. Former President Sirleaf referred to it in a tweet as "long standing wrong" while commending Senator Dillon for the courage. What a travesty!

Arguably, the life and death of any democracy lies in the hands of the legislature. It is the preeminent forum of citizens' participation and representation in the governance process. If they get it wrong, the dreams and aspirations of their constituents are killed and democracy is doomed. The Legislature is the chief examiner and advocacy branch of government and must be there for public good, not self-interest.

Whether it was a smokescreen or genuine intention, when President George Weah spoke in January 2018 at the Legislature about reducing his benefits by 25 per cent and called on the lawmakers to follow his lead, many thought the Legislature would redeem its image by immediately seizing the opportunity to institute reforms that guarantees fairer wages.

But without regret the people's representatives have rather been resisting adjustments in their earnings until now. Isn't it rather mean for the lawmakers to be taking as much as US15, 325.00 in such a terrible economy? Some have even justified the need for more. No wonder the country had been experiencing "budget shortfalls". Meanwhile, lawmakers have unfortunately also fought every call to audit their accounts.

Pressed on all sides

Amid the public disapproval, lawmakers have been pressed on all sides to bring their salaries down. The CDC government has been struggling to pay workers, occasioned by the huge wage bill of an ailing economy. There was a rude awakening recently when health workers went on strike in demand of their pay among other conditions. Workers are angry and agitated. They were justified especially when their lawmakers are busy getting rich doing less, while workers do the dirty work and take home undignified wages.

Just when the Weah administration embarked on a salary harmonization exercise as part of efforts to enroll into the IMF program to revive the crumbling economy, you could hear lawmakers resisting in loud voices, crying that they had taken loans from banks and therefore would not submit to salary cuts. How indifferent and selfish can you be!

Luckily, the pending IMF program has already made one impact - the 'self-seeking' Legislature has been made to swallow some of their greed to succumb to cutting their salaries, though much is still desired. Even with this bit of good news from the Legislature, there are cries from some members of the House of Representatives that the CDC Speaker, Dr. Bhoafa Chambers and his UP Deputy, Prince Moye did not submit to cutting their salaries when everybody else including the President has been subjected to cuts. The Speaker is said to net US$29,000 in salary and US$15,000 in gasoline allowance, according to Unity Party Rep. Hanson Kiazolu and aggrieved members of the House who spoke to the press. Are you serious? They threatened to remove the Speaker and his Deputy upon their return to the capitol.

In the long run, the country would likely benefit from the newly enacted National Remuneration and Standardization Act of 2019, if the Act is not only intended for government employees and officials in the lower bracket. It doesn't look right for lawmakers to determine their own salaries and benefits. Maybe that's why President Sirleaf said "they took it."

For too long, Liberians have spoken about fighting corruption in government, but it remains ineffectual from one regime to the other because fingers are pointed elsewhere. If the system is this corrupt, it easily breeds corrupt leaders and workers.

I should agree with Dr. Amos Sawyer when he spoke about the 'politics of conquest' in the history of the country. Overtime, Liberians have always been engaged in some struggle to 'conquer or liberate the people.' The country always appears to be in some sort of conflict- begging for transition. And the urge for reform makes sense to some people only when one political bloc feels cheated.

One international person observed during the disputed 2017 presidential elections "that all the parties were looking for opportunity to cheat, but the cheating favored one group, so the rest are fighting back." Perhaps that was a fair assessment! For if the system is flawed and you do not challenge it; it means you want to benefit from the defects. That's double standard!

Waiting to be fixed

Another structural defect waiting to be fixed is the call to reduce the presidential and legislative terms. Again, this is a contrivance of corrupt and selfish minds. Imagine Liberia currently sits on top with the highest presidential and legislative tenures in West Africa with 6 and 9 years respectively. Senegal used to have 7 years for the president, but they have now amended to join Benin, Guinea, Mali, Togo, Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast, The Gambia, Cape Verde, Burkina Faso, Niger and Guinea Bissau all with 5 years each; while Nigeria and Ghana are the lest with 4 years each. Wonder why Ghana is ahead in their democratic development? This suggest something about Liberia - a democratic dictatorship?

New Grounds

Essentially, Liberians broke new grounds in their quest for democracy on 22 January 2018, when Mr. George Weah of the Coalition for Democratic Change (CDC) took over from President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of the Unity Party. But the country had to wait 73 long years to witness such peaceful transferred of power from one party to another, having endured intermittent violent disruptions during the period. But that transition happened after Mrs. Sirleaf had served two terms of 12 years. What a wait!

The transition was smooth and colorful, but the road to the inauguration was rocky and nearly impassable. The campaigns for the 2017 elections were acrimonious and the results marred by series of litigations. Of course the uneasiness and tensions were understandable - the polls were hugely contested, as candidates were desperate to get their chance to lead. There were 20 candidates on the presidential ballot, 4 more than the 2011 elections; while a total of 984 representative candidates were cleared to contest - an increase of 192 more than the previous elections in 2011. Some of these people had been waiting for 6 to 12 years to contest one of the 73 seats in the House of Representatives.

The 30 seats in the Senate were not up for elections at this time because, by law senators must spend 9 years before other capable Liberians can have the opportunity to seek the mandate of the population to occupy one of those seats. At best, this is prearranged corruption and an anti-thesis to the democratic aspiration of participation. The country needs some reordering. This is especially an imperative because it has been posited that power, wealth and marginalization were some of the underlining factors that instigated and prolonged the civil conflict.

The Blame

Some drafters of the 1986 Constitution appeared to put the blame at the feet of the People's Redemption Council (PRC) for the long presidential and legislative tenures. It is said that the military junta insisted on a 6-year term for the President and the representatives, and 9 years for senators. Some believe the writers of the Constitution were selfish because a number of them would end up being the first beneficiaries of the law with seats in the legislature. But for the exigency of the time, others believe it may have been foolhardy to disagree with the coup makers then.

The country has had three general elections (2005, 2011 and 2017) in peace time since the disappearance of the military and the war-like regimes. But the country still maintains the law. The time is right to amend the Constitution ahead of the 2023 elections. The country is too edgy and appears to be in another transition with vigilantism, militancy, as well as the recurring cry for economic justice taking root into our body politics.

The endless political bickering aside, a multi-partisan approach on this subject will be reassuring. The country cannot continue to benefit from what was thought to be the evil of a despotic regime. Ideally, democracy means the rule of law that protects the rights of all citizens, and limits the power of government. The people should have the power to choose their leaders frequently.

Why Reinvent the Wheels?

From a distance, there appeared to have been some genuine efforts to right some of the wrongs of the past, when in 2012, the administration of President Sirleaf commissioned a Constitutional review process. For more than three years or there about, Liberians at home and abroad spoke about the defects and anomalies in the country's Constitutionin a consultative process under the auspices of the Constitution Review Committee (CRC), spearheaded by former Chief Justice, Gloria Scott. If there was any issue in the review that enjoyed the popular approbation of the people, it was the need to shorten the legislative and presidential terms. The people spoke in chorus for the presidential term of office to be sliced from 6 to 4 years, senatorial term from 9 to 6 years and representative term from 6 to 4 years. So why not harken onto the voices of the people instead of reinvent the wheels. Did I hear the Senate approved five years for the President and Representative and seven years for Senate? Isn't this another self-interest at play?

The views from the nationwide consultative process were reinforced at the validation conference in Gbarnga, Bong County, in March 2015. Delegates at the Gbarnga conference endorsed 25 proposals which were submitted to the House of Representatives for approval through the office of the president. In the wisdom of the representatives, only 7 of the 25 proposals were good enough to be ratified and forwarded to the Senate for concurrence before putting it to a referendum. In fact, the first three items on the list of the seven propositions selected by the House were the terms of the President, the Senate and the House of Representatives. The popular opinion has been four years for the president and the house of Representative and six years for the Senate, not the five and seven being proposed by the President and the 54th Legislature.

Again, one needs not be surprised because there's always a competition between the self-interest of politicians and the public interest. Liberians must insist on structural reforms of the political system and a drastic reduction in the unrealistic salaries and allowances officials take home. The people must push for reforms because there is no guarantee that the next bunch of leaders will be any different. A shorter term limit will definitely have a multiplier effect on the overall governance paradigm and strengthen our fragile democracy.

About the Author: The author [Peter Quaqua] is the current head of the West African Journalists Association, former president of the Press Union of Liberia, a campaigner for free expression, media rights and democratic governance.

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