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Is the Liberian judiciary compromised, weak, and corrupt?

The Liberian Judiciary

NEW YORK –-When a judicial system is compromised, weak and corrupt, it becomes a serious threat to democracy, the rule of law and the culture of human and civil rights.

What has happened to FrontPage Africa newspaper on Monday, April 9, 2018, when all its staff members were rounded up and their offices shut down because of a civil lawsuit from the Liberian judiciary signals a bad and shameful era in the struggling phase of Liberia’s modern history, but more so, it sends a considerable, ugly message to the world about Liberia and the Liberian government, that perhaps, would suggest that the Liberian judiciary is compromised, weak, corrupt and remains a threat to the country’s march toward a credible and sustained democratic process and respect for the culture of human and civil rights.

This is no laughing matter. Liberia is what it is today largely, in part, because the country’s judiciary appears to position itself as a not credible, fair and independent institution and there are no reasons why Liberian courts––from the Supreme Court to the lower courts––where principal judicial workers earn lucrative salaries and benefits, to appear so compromised, unfair and culturally corrupt.

From our understanding based on preliminary facts surrounding the unwarranted closure of the paper’s facilities and the arrests of the staff members––from the cleaner, secretary to news reporters––were rounded up like guilty ‘criminals’ when none of them committed no crime– was because a lower court at the Temple of Justice in the Liberian capital Monrovia ordered such reckless action based on an alleged frivolous “lawsuit” filed by a Liberian known as Henry  A. K. Morgan.  Morgan filed a lawsuit allegedly accusing the paper of publishing a public service announcement/advertisement that, in fact, was also published in several other local Liberian dailies.

The action of the lower court or the specific judge in the chamber is damaging to the Weah administration and to Liberia’s image as a nation.  Forget about the underlying logic and underpinnings behind such action and whether it was influenced by the Liberian government or not, the fact remains that the court’s decision, action and faulty implementation in issuing a summon made the Weah government to look very bad and tyrannical especially so when the individual who filed the ‘bogus’ and meritless lawsuit is a failed representative candidate in Bomi County on the ticket of the governing Coalition for Democratic Change (CDC) political apparatus.  The question is: did the judge issue this order in the reckless manner he did to make President Weah and his administration to look bad to Liberians and the international community?

While it is a good thing that the Weah administration has distanced itself from the judicial mal-practice of the Liberian judiciary as evidenced by the press release issued by the Ministry of Information, Cultural Affairs and Tourism (MICAT) under the signature of the minister, Honorable Eugene Lenn Nagbe, it would be politically and morally imperative that the government also constrain some of its supporters and fans of the CDC including some uncontrollable officials in government from making utterances that would suggest that they are acting on behalf of the administration. The function of speaking and responding on behalf of the Liberian government is clearly within the realm of the Minister of Information and/or the Presidential Press Secretary, and not a mayor or any affiliate of the CDC–led government or its fans or collaborators.  It is also important that the judiciary does not become a political, commercial and/or partisan machine loaded with individuals that are thirsty for wealth and undue power.   After all, the real power of a court comes from the people, not the judges.  If the citizens have no faith and confidence in the court system or judicial process, the authority of the judges would be drastically undermined.

What happened in the so-called lawsuit and unwarranted arrest of the media reporters and the closure of a known media institution can be interpreted either as an effect of a compromised, weak, and corrupt judiciary, or the recklessness of a lower court administered by an incompetent, indiscipline, and unqualified judge.

In Liberia, judges tend to abuse the power and authority granted to them. For example, like in most countries, Liberian judges are given immunity from prosecution for any acts they carry out in the performance of their judicial function. They also benefit from immunity from being sued for defamation for the things they say about parties or witnesses in the course of hearing cases. But this does not mean or suggest that these judges are somehow ‘above the law’.  Corrupt Liberian judges need to be prosecuted by any means necessary if Liberia’s democracy is to be protected and perfected.

In a democracy, it is important that individual judges and the judiciary are impartial and autonomous of all external pressures and of each other so that those who appear before them and the public can have confidence that their cases or issues will be decided fairly and in accordance with the law.

Liberians and the global public witnessed how politicized, weak and partial the Liberian judiciary was in the Chris Toe versus Rodney Sieh/FrontPage Africa case—a case in which an allegation of an embezzlement of millions of dollars remain at stake, even up to today. There are so many other cases wherein politics, undue influence, and greed for money have tainted justice in Liberia.  For example, we understand that a fraudulent Nigerian businessman in Monrovia named Praise Tony Lawal who robbed the Liberian people of millions of dollars in spurious construction contracts, allegedly had a particular lower court judge on a monthly per diem/allowance basis such that he (Lawal) could drag any Liberian or foreign national resident in Liberia to court at will and have he or her tormented on frivolous charges.  Lawal did this to the Liberian media all the time whenever he was exposed to the news media.  This is wrong and judicially unethical.

When undertaking judicial function, judges must be free of any improper influence because such influence could come from any number of sources, and in most cases, it could arise from improper pressure by the executive or the legislature, by individual litigants, particular pressure groups, the media, self-interest or other judges, and in particular more senior judges.

The reckless arrest of FrontPage Africa newspaper staffers and the illegal closure of the paper is an unrepairable damage to Liberia’s image abroad and to the less than 90-days lifespan of the Weah administration. President Weah and his administration must not accept nor welcome such judicial disaster if the President wants to build a good image for his government abroad.

These kinds of ruthless judicial decision may turn off international investors, Liberia’s partners and even visitors that may want to travel to the country.  This is why the Chief Justice and the Justices of the Supreme Court of Liberia need a retooling to examine what is it that is going wrong for which such judicial malfunction is in the judiciary, especially at the lower court level.

The essence of courts is not to have or empower a bunch of people to be arbitrary, brash, corrupt and dictatorial.  When judges begin to act like junta leaders or generals in any nation then democracy is headed to its grave.  Obviously, the judge who issued the order against FrontPage Africa news outlet in said manner acted like a junta leader attempting to instill jungle justice.

The rationale for the existence of courts is to serve as an impartial and independent arbiter, sometimes even becoming a reconciler.  Independent research, history, and utterances from the Liberian judiciary itself have revealed that prisons in the country are over-crowded because some Liberian judges, magistrates, justices of the peace and their likes arbitrarily throw people in jail once any Tom, Dick, and Harry files a complaint or lawsuit against them.  This is not only wrong; it undermines the rule of law and security, enables the rule of law spoilers, and it transitions the country from a virtuous cycle to a vicious cycle.

It is therefore important that the Honorable Chief Justice and the distinguished Justices of the Supreme Court of Liberia put in place a judicial moral guide and also set a fine example, one that would make the judiciary effective. An effective judiciary guarantees fairness in legal processes. It is also a powerful weapon against corruption and illegal judicial compromise.  In this same spirit, President Weah, his administration, and the Liberian legislature must call for a judicial reform to ensure that the Liberian people have an independent, credible and fair judicial system.  This will prevent incidences similar to what occurred in the case of FrontPage Africa on Monday, April 9, 2018.  This will also make the Weah administration to be viewed and believed as a government that champions respect for human rights, civil liberties, and social justice as well as upholds the tenets of democracy.

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Paul Stevens

Paul Stevens is a researcher, media issues analyst and senior contributor with Globe Afrique.
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