By: Tibelrosa Summoh Tarponweh
The making of a truly self-governing constitution often impels several critical questions. What should be the minimum mechanisms and guiding principles for the making of a constitution? Who selects the staff and leadership of a Constitutional Review Commission? And what are the assurances that those in power will uphold and respect the results of the process?
The answer to these critical questions would determine the degree of change that could surface from a consultative and participatory approach to modify a constitution that crushing majority of stake holders has concurred should be reformed.
Changes to the Liberian Constitution, while long past due, should be about state transformation, social justice and the articulation of the rules of power and politics for the robust involvement of all citizens. Often, when serious thinkers ask questions about dishonest constitutions even if legal, it is cited and paraded as untouchable. In Liberia, it was common knowledge amongst ordinary, religious, student, intellectual and other communities not long following the 1980 bloody overthrow of the Tolbert government that the military would not give up power regardless of its announced intention to do so; and thus proceeded with obvious actions to actualize its objectives, including the imposition of draconian policies and the constitution. It is indeed easy to fabricate a constitution -the most important document of a country - without the input of the governed, which subsequently is used by claimants of power and political crooks to pursue policies and decisions that are inequitable and unconnected to the aspirations and needs of the people.
The current Liberian constitution is an outcome of improper behavior by the military which clearly had no intention of ceding power to elected civilian authorities yet supervised a process in which it was also players. The resulting uneven playing field led to the adoption of all sorts of underhand maneuvers to maintain power as evidenced by the 1985 general elections debacle when the actual ballot results were tossed out in favor of tally fabricated by a group of friends and supporters of the military, who were housed at a local hotel in Virginia, near Monrovia, at the behest of the then Elections Chairman, Emmett Harmon.
My beef and curiosity have long moved past the military mischief, it is now with the current national leadership since most of the preservers of the sham constitution were either members of the opposition camp, or members of shadow governments who could not wait to reverse the special interest/conflict of interest policies, including accepted changes to the constitution. While it may be correct that important documents such as the constitution cannot be changed overnight, it certainly should not take eight long years to change it when it was and generally still deemed to be discriminatory with key provisions designed to protect and perpetuate office holders.
The belated Constitution Review Commission which recently began its work is a positive start. It must be supported and carefully scrutinized, and the effect of its labor seen and realized long before the 2017 general elections so that amendments would be binding on any subsequent elections. I believe if Liberians are allowed to participate in a truly transparent and not officially managed referendum, as was done in the case of the incredible 2011 pretense referendum, an overwhelming majority would vote to reduce terms of office holders and other wrong provisions which will be discussed in subsequent commentaries.
The current Liberian constitutional making process, during its review stage, was destined to an awful legacy of constitution without constitutionalism. The gracious people of Gbarnga, Bong County, hosted fifty-seven men and two women Constitutional Advisory Assembly (CAA) who were selected to represent the various political sub-divisions of Liberia in 1983 to review the draft constitution written by a twenty-five member Commission headed by Professor Amos Sawyer. What transpired in Gbarnga thereafter can only be described as dereliction of duty and a betrayal of the national interest for the following reasons:
First, I suppose the simple way to remove elected officials in a democracy when they are ineffective and corrupt is the voters' prerogative to vote them out as reasonably as possible. But there is absolutely nothing democratic if one is elected a Senator and is deemed ineffective, nevertheless will have to continue in that role until almost a decade to be voted out of office. Members of CAA reasoned otherwise and approved a nine year single senatorial term with the possibility of reelection, an exceptional act in democratic governance. Self-proclaimed messiahs, who use their public positions to hunt for financial and other undeserved benefits for themselves, together with acquiring expensive homes and vehicles at taxpayers’ expense, must not be allowed to continue in offices for that duration without consequential accountability.
Second, what is democratic about the Liberian Constitution when the CAA increased a presidential term from four to six years contrary to the recommendation of the Constitution Drafting Commission, as well as terms for Representatives from four to six years (Articles 45, 48 and 50)? In whose interests were those changes initiated? Was it self-interest or in the national interest? How democratic is the Liberian Constitution when Article 55 empowers the president to remove judges of limited jurisdiction for cause, as well as Article 56 (B) which empowers the President to remove for misconduct Paramount, Clan and Town Chiefs who are elected by voters in their respective localities?
And lastly, how democratic is the Liberian constitution when Article 38 empowers each House of the legislature to expel members for cause? If power is to be taken away from voters to remove their elected representatives through elections, barring the commission of crimes, and then placed in the hands of their coworkers for occasional utility, the constitution must limit such action to specified offenses and extraordinary circumstances. It must preclude the imprecise use of the word "Cause". It is indeed laughable to observe elected representatives are silenced with warnings of suspension or expulsion for mere expressions that may be unfavorable to their associates.
Regarding the complicated gathering by members of the CAA, the junta accomplished its objectives through the assembly by dramatically altering the draft document to appease Sergeant Doe and engaged in the most common form political opportunism by acquiescing to the demands of the military. In the process, the Liberian people were ill served. There were, also uncontrolled emotions with interested parties; including heavy security presence, so much so that the superintendent of the county, the late Ayun Cassell accused leaders of the Assembly of holding secret meetings, an accusation the Assembly leaders denied. That nonetheless prompted a visit by Head of State Samuel Doe, who upon preliminary findings fired Mr. Cassell for interfering with the work of
The undemocratic precept which exemplified the work of the Gbarnga Group led to the appointment of its leaders and some members to the Interim Legislative Assembly (ILA), a successor to the Peoples
Redemption Council (PRC) by Sergeant Samuel Doe. Also, principal members of the CAA were later rewarded seats in the Legislature that ushered in the current constitution in 1986. Does that shed any light
about the inclusion of extended legislative and presidential terms in the existing constitution? The annotated evidence could not have been more emphatic.
Thus, it was not a surprise that the fictional 1985 general elections results included names like Samuel D. Hill, a member of the Gbarnga Group and former local government minister during the administration of President William Tolbert. Oddly enough, his name (Hill) was not on the ballot as a candidate, however won a legislative seat from Bomi County. He eventually became Speaker of the House of Representatives. Clearly, the constitutional review process in Gbarnga produced illegitimate laws premeditated to advance the interests of public officials, and their chief patron who was himself transitioning from military uniforms to civilian designer suits. That ultimately created a document masked as laws with little democratic qualifications, and has imposed on Liberians a recipe for unfair, hopeless and overbearing public policies.
I join the chorus in urging for a meticulous constitutional amendment process that would empower Liberians and not just office holders and political elites for a truly democratic Liberia. Moreover, the articles mentioned herein, are a few along with many flaw provisions that need to be revisited.
The fact is even the criminal apartheid South African State had a constitution. Blood thirsty despots and world renowned looters of their respective national treasuries all had constitutions in one form or another. But as we know, these so-called constitutions were worthless documents. They were not the basis of governance; ours is certainly not the basis of true governance and rational policy
making. More importantly, and with national resolve, ours can be both legal and ethical, predicated on accountability, responsibility and honesty.