The Author: On July 13, 1996, the late Mr. Tarty Teh gave a speech during the Liberian Conference on Peace and Democracy, held at the Georgetown University, Washington, D.C. The topic he presented at the conference was entitled: ‘One Nation, One Constitution.’
Powers and Duties of the National Elections Commission (NEC) are contained in Section 2.9 of the New Elections Law of Liberia approved in 1986 and amended in 2003, 2004 and 2014. Incidentally, issues Mr. Tarty Teh discussed in his 1996 speech, 21 years ago, continue to reflect some of these issues in Liberia, 2017.
We present to you from the ‘Voice from the Other Side’:
By Tarty Teh
Being heard is something that people from my neck of the wood value a great deal: because it happens to us so rarely. I have screamed and shouted for a chance to be heard. Even so, I am grateful for the opportunity to be here.
Many hundreds of thousands of Liberians have lost their lives for lesser offenses than what I am permitted to commit here today – speaking my mind freely. Many of the dead were lesser known: still, few risked their lives to be heard and were heard. Dr. Patrick Sayon spoke his mind. He was attacked physically, but he survived. I don’t remember anything I agreed with Dr. Sayon about, which is, even more, the reason I remember him. I remember his passion to be a part of the debate.
The need for a constitution is so organic to the definition of nationhood it ought not to be propped up by further justification, let alone a defense. That was my initial claim, but it has become obvious that enough mischief exists which would doom the constitution if it is not defended. So, the next question is; who is qualified to defend the Constitution? The answer to this question is based still on my initial claim; the need for a constitution is unassailable. That being the case, what one needs is not a bedrock of specialized knowledge in constitutional law, but goodwill, to defend the constitution. My sole and relevant credential is the latter.
Let me say first that most of those who are questioning the relevance of the constitution are not doing so from lack of knowledge. No. They are doing so because they count on the perceived stupidity of the majority.
When I first decided that I would accept the assignment for defending the constitution, I thought about all the glory attendant to standing before Liberian scholars and making a speech about something as important as the constitution. Then of course to make sense I thought about drawing inspiration from constitutional scholars by quoting from their work. That would make my own work more scholarly, and who knows, I might get some honorable mention in some quarters about having done something good or maybe great for my country.
Then I realized that that way lies trouble. Common sense had stood me in good stead all along. I was about to abandon it in vainglorious pursuit of scholarship. I, therefore, returned to my first premise: The constitution can be defended by anyone with good will.
I also thought about something else. I once defended myself in an auto accident case before a judge in a small claims court. I was up against an insurance company lawyer through whose argument the judge had dismissed more than half of what I thought were good pieces of evidence. Midway in the trial I grew visibly angry and talked about extraneous things like the absence of honesty in the insurance business which has added to the cost of insurance, and that I could have claimed that I was, or my wife had been hurt in the crash but hadn’t: only asking for the repair of the door of my car and blah blah blah.
All the while the lawyer was shouting “Objection! Objection!” but the judge let me rant and rave. When I was finished the lawyer showed the judge a letter in which I had mislabeled the two intersecting streets at the scene of the accident as proof that her client could not be at fault if I did not even know from which direction he had come.
The only trouble was that the judge had earlier disqualified that piece of evidence at the lawyer’s request. So now I asked the judge “Is that the same piece of paper that she would not allow to be introduced as evidence?” To that the judge instructed me. “Mr. Teh just shouted “Objection!” and you will see what I’ll do.” And so, I objected, and the judge sternly warned the attorney that if she did not behave properly she would be fined.
I won, but how? It was through innocence. I did not sound like a lawyer, but I made an honest case. That is the same issue we have here. As I said earlier, I have resisted the temptation to try to turn this into a scholarly dissertation; but I will endeavor to define the constitution from my layman understanding of it. I believe a constitution is a prescription for making laws to safeguard the rights of the citizens. I used the word “prescription”, but the constitution also proscribes, that it lists what should not be done.
That is why a constitution is typically no bigger than a schoolchild’s notebook. I believe also that those who wrote the constitution counted on our common sense and principled dedication to understanding it. We are only talking about the constitution, not the laws spawned in its name. For that, you need lawyers for sure. That is way beyond common sense territory. Ask any lawyer.
I am standing here because enough confusion has been injected into the issue of the constitution. This has led to questions like these: Which constitution are we talking about: The 1847 constitution or the 1986 constitution? These questions pretend to speak about the constitution, but they clearly underscore an attitude – a bad attitude. If you want attitude, you will get one.
Now, let’s examine each constitution briefly. In the preamble of the 1847 constitution is the phrase “We the people of the Republic of Liberia were formerly citizens of the United States of North America…” As if to underscore the constitution’s exclusion of local tribes from its protection, the “democratic” government of Liberia under that constitution sold tribesmen to Fernando Po to earn extra cash for the government. This is not an allegation. Liberia was convicted by the League of Nations for selling its citizens.
Well, some people have argued – and rightly so, I might add – that we should not blame the constitution for what some citizens did, and that those who testified in the League of Nations trial, which forced the resignation of President King and VP Yancy and threatened Liberia with trusteeship, were indeed Liberian citizens very much opposed to their own government’s action.
So, let us accept that argument for now and visit the 1986 constitution to see the reasons advanced for disqualifying it. Among others, those who were entrusted with upholding its provisions either acted against those provisions or did nothing to prevent their violation. That’s one of the principal arguments. The only difference I see here is that these latter breaches are deemed egregious enough to consume the 1986 constitution whereas selling thousands of fellow Africans abroad at a discount on a single invoice is considered not bad enough to warrant the issuance of a new, all-inclusive constitution; namely, the 1986 constitution.
I have noted already that there was something in the preamble of the 1847 constitution which was manifestly unjust to tribal Liberians and that latter actions against tribal people confirmed the contempt for them which the 1847 constitution only implied. I have not sought to achieve some unannounced objectives by sleight of hands; I have said clearly what I believe led to the 1980 coup to end the Americo-Liberian dynasty. I believe there are parallel gripes among the Americo-Liberian population about the preamble of the 1986 constitution.
The only difference is that some Americo-Liberians want to achieve by subterfuge what they cannot bring about legally. What I see as a concern by some is this phrase in the preamble of 1986 constitution:
We the people of the Republic of Liberia: Realizing from many experiences during our national existence which culminated in the Revolution of April 12, 1980, when our Constitution of July 26, 1847, was suspended….
That phrase gives credit and legitimacy to the actions taken by Samuel Doe and others which resulted in the destruction of the lives of Liberian citizens. Six years after that flashpoint in our national history, we were writing a new constitution and you would think someone would invest a bit more time and creative energy in groping for some expression that would leave a note of regret for future generations that at this point in our history, a brother killed a brother.
It hurts, but we must face it together.
President William Tolbert, who worked hardest to allow the dynamics of democracy in Liberia today, lies in a watery grave, while external flame burns on the grave of President William Tubman during whose reign Liberia saw the explosion of mineral exploitation, but did nothing to extend infrastructural development to the heartland of Liberia. The longest paved road out the capital during his administration terminated conveniently on his farm.
Back to the Constitution! I had many concerns about the 1986 constitution. I even wrote a letter to the editor of the Daily Observer newspaper talking about the constitution’s “uninspiring and graceless prose”: but my friend here Mr. Kenneth Best consigned that letter to the trash can. Many editors do that you know. And I know editors, believe me. I am one.
So, you see, I’m not so innocent when it comes to the Liberian constitution. I wrote my first newspaper article before I graduated from high school. It was titled “Bypassing the Constitution.” When the final draft of the 1986 constitution was released in 1983, I was in prison in Belleh Yallah, on suspicion of writing an article in the L.A. Times, critical of the Doe administration, for not believing in witchcraft, for not volunteering to write newspaper articles glorifying the Samuel Doe administration, etc. We the educated prisoners had a contraband copy of that draft. The copy we got had a defect. It had pages 19 through 22 missing, which were compensated for by an oversupply of pages 17-18 and 23-24. It was a binding mistake.
Because Belleh Yallah is almost completely encircled by mountains, night halls a good half hour early there. As prisoners, we worked all day and were locked in just as the sun was fading away. But on a cloudless day, a sun ray through a hole in the roof of our cell admitted enough light for me to read at least one article of the constitution before the light beam reached the dark portion of the wall and ceased to give out light even before vanishing at least for a day. Alfred Kulah, Anthony Tarpeh, Henry Fumba, Charles Russell, John Marwolo, Frank Chenoweth, David Howard, and I discussed the constitution in the dark cell. Now I do so in the open.
Any protest about the constitution must be stated openly. Even So, no group of citizens, however well educated, have the right to change the constitution or hinder the application of its provisions. A war is no excuse. In fact, the more uncertain we are about the course our social and political endeavor as a nation, the more we should adhere to the constitution. We have but one constitution. We can amend it, have another constitutional convention to replace it; but we cannot return to an old version of the constitution because some people don’t like some of its provisions or the administration during which the constitution was written.
With all this talk about whether or not this constitution is good enough for some Liberian people, you would think it was forced upon the Liberian people or that we have done nothing with it since accepting it as the instrument of political transition. The constitution was not decreed by a conquering army. We had a constitutional convention that included all the geographic and political aspects of Liberia. The convention impaneled a National Constitution Commission that was headed, not by tribal figureheads but, by some of the best educated Liberians anywhere. We had our first ever multiparty elections that involved every region of Liberia under the 1986 constitution.
Well, I know that there are still hooked on “free and fair” elections as the only yardstick for measuring democracy’s painful evolution. You must have an election before you can determine whether one is or isn’t free and fair. That is the exercise that successive Liberian administrations avoided from 1847 until we agitated for the constitution, which was delivered barely six years after the coup of 1980.
Now, if we want to make it (as they say in the U. S. Constitution) “more perfect” we must work at it together. You can’t throw out a constitution because you don’t like the person who headed the administration during which it was written. Those who seek to decertify any national symbol to discredit certain tribes or individuals in Liberia will be exposed and discredited themselves. I have paraded around Monrovia in the hot sun on Matilda Newport Day ceremony as a public-school student And Matilda Newport didn’t even exist.
The 1986 constitution came about through the efforts of dedicated Liberian. Their work was sanctified by a nationwide referendum which was translated into every speech form in Liberia and voted on in every region of Liberia. I did not hear or read this effort. I was there. I was not in Monrovia. I was in Pallipo, my birthplace. Even my mother voted on the referendum.
Of course, the effect of the delay in bringing democracy to the people of the so-call hinterland was evident. My mother, on her hunt for palm wine for me, ran into the band referendum administrators. She gleefully told me on her return to our farm that she had been asked: “Which would you rather: The rule of warriors which perpetuates conflict, or the rule of the priest of peace for co-existence and understand?” I was puzzled. Then I remembered hearing on the radio that the referendum was working its way through the interior.
So, I told my mother that what they told her was not quite right. I explained the meaning of a referendum as best as I could. When I finished, my mother sighed sadly and thanked me for getting it all messed up in her head. “It sounded so nice the way it was explained to me,” she said.
You know, if we took this issue of the constitution to our hungry and embattled people for their opinion, they would vote for anything that we said would bring immediate peace to alleviate their hunger. Not because they are stupid, but because they are vulnerable, and we will have victimized them once more by forcing them to take sides in an issue that would not have been raised by people of goodwill.
Previous 1847 (at independence); latest drafted 19 October 1983, revised version adopted by referendum 3 July 1984, effective 6 January 1986; amended 2011; note – a series of amendment proposals approved by the Constitution Review Conference in early 2015 are pending government review (2016)