Liberia: 'State of Emergency Exposes Lack of Coordination in Government'

The Supreme Court in Liberia has halted the second runoff elections that were to be held on the 7th of November following a petition to look into the first round of elections.

-Cllr. Jonathan Massaquoi believes

A Supreme Court lawyer, Counselor Jonathan Massaquoi, says the level of inconsistencies among the three branches of the government as a result of President George Weah's declaration of the state of emergency is very worrisome and exposes several weakness within the governance structure.

Cllr. Massaquoi said the 1986 Constitution gives the President legitimate rights to declare a state of emergency where there is a threat to the survivability of the nation, which, according to Massaquoi is being posed to the country by the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, Cllr. Massaquoi argues that Article 3 of the Constitution also calls for coordination among the branches of the government; a provision that President Weah did not consider during his declaration of the state of emergency.

Massaquoi made the statement on Sunday, April 12 in a telephone interview with the Daily Observer Newspaper.

Article 3 states that, "Liberia is a unitary sovereign state divided into counties for administrative purposes. The form of government is Republican with three separate coordinate branches: the Legislative, the Executive and the Judiciary. Consistent with the principles of separation of powers and checks and balances, no person holding office in one of these branches shall hold office in or exercise any of the powers assigned to either of the other two branches except as otherwise provided in this Constitution; and no person holding office in one of the said branches shall serve on any autonomous public agency.

President Weah on April 9 of this year declared a state of emergency and he among other things quarantined the entire country and placed a 7-day 'stay home' order on four of the 15 counties that include, Montserrado, Margibi,, Nimba and Grand Kru.

The President also asked some non-essential staffs of several public and private institutions to stay home without making any specific reference to the position of the judicial actors that include judges, lawyers and the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) which the Constitution requires to remain operational during a state of emergency.

As part of the emergency measures, President Weah said, those non-essential staffs are to work from morning hours up to and including 3PM daily.

Article 87 states that (a) Emergency powers do not include the power to suspend or abrogate the Constitution, dissolve the Legislature, or suspend or dismiss the Judiciary; and no constitutional amendment shall be promulgated during a state of emergency. Where the Legislature is not in session, it must be convened immediately in special session and remain in session during the entire period of the state of emergency."

Section (b) also provides that: "The writ of habeas corpus shall remain available and exercisable at all times and shall not be suspended on account of any state of emergency. It shall be enjoyed in the most free, easy, inexpensive, expeditious and ample manner. Any person who suffers from a violation of this right may challenge such violation in a court of competent jurisdiction."

With these constitutional provisions supporting the operation of judicial actors, Cllr. Massaquoi said, they as lawyers are confused as to how they should go about providing legal services to people whose rights would be violated by state security during the emergency period.

"If someone was to be arrested by 3PM, how do you expect me as a lawyer to leave my home to go and perform my constitutional duty by defending such a person, when I am barred by a timeline to be out of the street," Cllr. Massaquoi wondered.

He recounted Chief Justice Francis Korkpor's statement, which ordered that all courts throughout the country be closed by 3PM.

"Then where is the coordination when the Chief Justice is saying one thing and the President is saying another," Massaquoi wondered.

Recollecting on the Ebola virus, Cllr. Massaquoi claimed that during that period, former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf consulted with the judiciary, which resulted to the opening of all courts throughout the country, as provided by the Constitution.

"Though, there were stringent measures like the decongestion of courtrooms put into place by Chief Justice Korkpor after the consultation that resulted to the continued opening of courts throughout the country and, we lawyers were allowed to freely defend their clients particularly those that came in conflict with state security," Massaquoi reflected.

"This time around, things have gone the other way with us lawyers finding it difficult to go to court, though they say courts are opened," Massaquoi noted.

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