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THE CIRCUS: A look at Liberia’s messy legislature

BY NOROTOI GBONOI

Around Operation Octopus (1992-1994), Eugene Fahngon, Samuel Tweh, and I used to play chess down 12th Street, Sinkor. The gathering also presented a common platform for debates and social discourse, where both men and I shared the same views and opinions on the obligations of government towards the state and individual: to provide for the rule of law; to protect, and secure individual rights; provide opportunities for employment, education, health; to support and allow each individual to experience and pursue happiness as he or she desires without infringing upon others’. We raided against the ineptitude of public officials, warlords, and those at the helm of government. During those agonizing days of war, we believed that the lack of opportunities and social displacement we faced in our country was unacceptable. And perhaps fueled by our hunger and despair, we too vowed that those maladies won’t be repeated upon our watch. Complete constitutional reforms, we agreed, would lay the foundation for addressing our problems.  

Today, however, we display a difference of views and opinions. They believe that they are competent and just need more time to deliver results. But I believe that they are incompetent and part of a charade the needs reform. For instance, Finance Minister Samuel Tweh could liquidate clients’ bank accounts and get away with it because the system is a sham. Lawmakers, Darius Dallion and Yekeh Kolubah can neglect legislative duties, and masquerade as protestors and face no rebuke because of the same reasons. It is these kinds of neglect and cluelessness that contribute to the lawlessness and suffering in our society.

THE CIRCUS

A look at Liberia’s messy legislature, its convoluted presidency,

and their inevitable demise when reasoning failed.

Law and order are key indicators for success and failure in any nation. An ideal so true and powerful in biblical times that Israel was always called upon to collectively obey “God‘s laws,” and to which Israel’s destiny was tied. Law and order have had similar outcomes in advanced and poor nations. In third world countries like Namibia, Ghana, Singapore, and Rwanda law and order has distinctively set them apart from other developing nations on how they are enforced. One can even argue that advances in scientific, socio-economic, and political ventures are made possible where law and order exist. But where law and order are lacking, poverty, ignorance and diseases prevail, as displayed in Liberia, Afghanistan, Haiti, and Venezuela.

(L-R) Henry Costa, Darius Dillon and Yekeh Koloubah. Courtesy of Liberian Observer.

In Liberia, law and order are the direct responsibilities of the legislature and the president, and both are not performing their duties. Darius Dallion neglected his responsibilities to enact (good) laws, but now complains of an unfair legislative process that attempts to expel him from the senate. He should initiate reform to ensure that no legislator faces such unjust practice. He was given the tools, the power and authority to ensure good laws are written and enforced – to exact change! If he, as a legislator, fails to change the system for the better, who does he expect to do so? He and Yekeh Kolubah were elected to legislate, not to advocate or protest. Each man earns about $500 a day (the ordinary individual survives on a dollar a day) to legislate. To persuade fellow lawmakers to make and pass good laws. Their pay must therefore consummate with their work. Legislators cannot be continuously overly compensated and deliver nothing in return. Regardless of the origin of the idea to lawmakers such a large amount of money, in today’s Liberia, we have to ensure that these practices are completely unacceptable and contrary to realities, especially those governing the conduct of these branches of government, and the few individuals managing the affairs and resources of impoverished people. This, we must oppose and reject! Lawmakers need to stop the circus and pass meaningful legislation. Lives are at risk.

No lawmaker has proposed a bill, a major piece of legislation that creates opportunities for the people or trims the overreaching powers and controls of the executive, which they desperately complained of. We haven’t seen any bill that funds industries, spur employment, raise the standard of living, or make advances in higher education and research. Does the opposition expect the president to appoint the election commissioner, and allow them to win reelection?

Enact new laws to force legislators to hire law students, expert legal aides, and professionals to assist legislators to craft better bills and prohibit the staffing of relatives, acquaintances, and friends. Outlaw the appointments of oversight and regulatory commissions (election commission, anti-corruption, etc.) by presidents; Abolish the appointments of superintendent and provisions requiring nominees to bribe the president in exchange for a job.

Sadly, George Weah hasn’t fared any better, either. He has been more preoccupied with upgrading his chattels and accessories like a lottery winner than affecting change as a leader of a desperate people. After riding a high wave of populism, and a potent youth optimism to the presidency, his main bill was to propose the Naturalization non-negros and their land ownership in Liberia. Haven’t we learned from Zimbabwe?

The president recently signed the Amended Version Title 20 into law. Title 20 is a flawed law. The Constitution breaks down the country into counties. “Liberia is a unitary sovereign state divided into counties for administrative purposes.” but in this provision also known as Local Government law, it creates City-Districts. Which one is it? The law also allows the president to appoint all seven city-district financial commissioners in all of Liberia’s districts. That’s approximately an additional 11,500 appointments including existing ones that keeps piling up on the president’s desk. As if the legislature couldn’t get any messier, and the presidency becomes more convoluted, a Ugandan Citizen (a senior civil servant) can now be a resident district commissioner over a city-district (in Liberia) by the president, according to Article 70 of Title 20.

Get down to the business of legislating and upholding the rule of law fairly-the reasons for which you were elected. They owe us this much! Because this level of incompetence and cluelessness between legislators and presidents in the performance of their duties on display cannot be ignored much longer. No one in the legislature loves Liberia more than you and me. Neither does the president or any member of his cabinet. Not one of them can claim that they know what’s best for Liberia and we don’t. We all love Liberia equally. The only difference between us is that they are placed in authority to serve for a while but not to reign over us as lords.

Although too much ignorance and doubts abound, we must still thrive and aspire to see Liberia transform into a country we desire. The country can no longer regress again to the tutelage of any ploy, dictatorial rule, or George Weah. Silence and complacency cannot be sown while the legislature and president pillage our future. I believe that it was unacceptable for George Weah to campaign for the presidency for more than 12 years, only to assault us with Pro-Poor Policy. Fahngon and Tweh, on the other hand, believe that the president must be commended for his scheme. What is being ignored here, and equally devastating, are the crippling heaps of poverty, corruption, and illiteracy that decimate lives; the burden of incoherent laws, outdated constitutional provisions, and legislative acts that perpetuate such jester and convoluted presidency.

I understand the incredulity of my fellow countrymen like Apostle Thomas – that accommodations for reforms are also impossible. But let us be reminded that CHANGE has always been inevitable. That presidents have been overthrown to bring about change in this country. The Civil War destroyed lives and properties to reject “business as usual.” and that the archangels of these unjust and entrenched political, socio- economic, and legal structures either surrender to persuasion or pressure and, or, be replaced!

Start with constitutional Reform! Countries coming out of civil wars, military and political upheavals as observed in South Africa, Rwanda, Ghana, Cuba, and Singapore, make great efforts to amend their constitution in ways that have changed the system. Rwanda outlawed ethnicity. Ghana introduced a “council of state” in its 1992 Constitutional Amendment to put some checks and balances in place over the president’s authority. It advises the president on bills passed by Parliament before enacting them into laws to ensure that both branches of government act according to the aspirations and views of the people. Angola, 2010 instituted similar constitutional measures as a pair of eyes, some structures to ensure that the president and legislature act in the people’s interest. And although it varies in forms, North Carolina’s “council of state” must vote with its governor to carry out the sale of government properties and borrow money. Other variations can be found in Cuba, Switzerland, and Ireland.

Guinea reformed their constitution in 2010; Sierra Leone, 1991; Ivory Coast, 2000. But the last time Liberia attempted a constitutional reform was in 1986, which primarily entrenched the dictatorial rules of Samuel Doe. The process, peppered with military decrees, rewarded the executive branch of government more powers and increased term limits. Despite the seismic change that has occurred over the last 33 years, no attempt has been made to undertake a full constitution reform. (The referendum) The piecemeal attempted by Ellen Johnson Sirleaf only entrenched executive power.

The last time Title 19, the Legislative law was amended was in 1959. It remains an active law that recognizes nine counties, territories, and hinterlands. Similarly, the Executive Law, Title 12 that was last amended in 1972. Presidential power has increased and expanded beyond the scope of the constitution, yet this law has not been amended! Furthermore, Title 20, Local Government Law, Chapter 4, articles 60 and 61, exclusively created Careysburg as a district and city with the appointment of a mayor, commissioner, and superintendent by the president and confirmation by the senate. Unlawful. Careysburg is not a county. Todee is a district like Careysburg but doesn’t have a superintendent. So, why should they? We have statutory districts with superintendents as well. Why? The law went a step further to designate New Kru Town as a” borough.” Even though New Kru Town is more populated than Careysburg. Aren’t these provisions inconsistent and unconstitutional?

These exclusivities, unconstitutional inconsistencies, award economic provisions and preferential treatments to Careysburg, unlike any towns with similar populations and sizes and deprive others. Such law has afforded Careysburg the Water Treatment Plant, and Mt. Coffee Hydropower Plant. In addition to a superintendent, it has five mayors, and 18 commissioners, according to the Montserrado County Development Agenda.

If the argument is that lawmakers and the president would have initiated these constitutional reforms on their own, then title 12, the legislature’s own law, would have been amended and updated to reflect current day realities!

In conclusion, significant reforms will be required to improve lives and change the trajectory of the country. If not, they risk a new constitution, the abolishment of the senate, and a Council of the State form of Executive Branch of Government, instead of a presidency. A City-District State structure will come into force with powerful local controls.

About the Author

Norotoi Gbonoi

Norotoi Gbonoi is a Strategist at The Movement to Make Liberia Better. His research and writings cover business, development economics, reform, Liberian law, and constitution. Mr. Gbonoi consults entrepreneurs, small businesses, and Liberia organizations to become competitive. He works at New York-Presbyterian Hospital in New York.

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