Legislative Independence And Governance In Liberia
By Cecil Franweah Frank
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf
Since Liberia declared independence in July 1847, making it the first independent democracy in Africa, Liberia has gone through three stages of its national statehood. The first stage – 1847 to 1944, was characterized by nation-building. During this period, Liberia’s national leaders sought to create a national identity. They did this through the creation of the national flags, anthem, national myths like that of Matilda Newport shooting dead the natives that were attacking the colony, and a national language – English.
The second stage – 1944 to 1989, was characterized by the state-making of Liberia and exposed the country as a classical predatory state. During this period, Liberian leaders used the machineries of the state to eliminate or neutralize their internal rivals. Such internal rivalries were manifested in many forms, part of particularly the violent overthrow of Africa’s first Constitution of 1847, multiple military coup attempts, and the ensuing 17-year brutal civil war. The state-making stage was also marked by abject economic failure, poor infrastructure, poor health and education planning.
During the civil war, Liberia attained the status of a ‘failed state,’ the third level of four degrees of state failure characterized by Professor Robert Irwin Rotberg. Moreover, as a predatory state, Liberia preyed upon its citizens by ‘grabbing’ from them rather than providing means and programs to ‘help’ them. The third stage of Liberia’s statehood development – 1990 to 2006 – was characterized by peace building initiatives. During this period, domestic and international actors engaged in activities that were aimed at creating and supporting institutions to solidify peace in order to prevent continuation of Liberia’s vicious civil war and ameliorate the prospect of a relapse into conflict.
Liberia’s constitutions, both the one of 1847 and that of 1986, declared the principle of checks-and-balances between the three main branches of government – Executive, Legislative, and Judiciary. However, in practice, such principle was not vigorously enforced, thereby resulting in poor levels of governance. This article examines the importance of legislative independence in attaining effective governance as Liberia undergoes post-conflict reconstruction.
LIBERIA’S STATE-BUILDING CHALLENGES
A major challenge facing post-civil war Liberia is state-building. This concept is used to refer to the building of state capacities to enforce power in society. Such capacities are infrastructure and strong institutions. Within this context, state-building was the key task for the elected government headed by President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf that took office on 01 January, 2006. Judging by current events in Liberia, it is safe to conclude that this task has not yet been taken up by the Johnson-Sirleaf administration.
8 years into the Johnson-Sirleaf administration, it is difficult to say that the government has performed with respect to building the basic capacities of the state to enforce standards and regulations, mobilize resources both for social development and to respond to natural disasters, and to invest into productive sectors of Liberia. The Ebola crisis clearly illustrates this point. Liberia continues to experience difficulties in state-building as seen by its inadequate developmental strategies, lack of coordination between the branches of government on the one hand, and agencies of government on the other hand, as well as manpower weaknesses. Finally, key governance elements necessary for effective building of infrastructure and institutions – accountability and transparency – are still largely not functioning well.
THE LEGISLATURE AND THE EBOLA CRISIS
Liberian legislators (senators and representatives) are elected directly by their constituents with popular vote. The Liberian president is also elected directly by the popular vote. Whereas legislators are accountable to their individual constituents, the president is answerable to the general population. This contrasts with the United States where the president is elected through the electoral college system, while American legislators derive their power directly from the people through the popular vote. In theory Liberian legislators are supposed to be a vital bridge between the institutions that govern and the people. However, this is not the case in practice. They are frequently engaged in petty in-partisan struggle and are unable to perform this role.
Historically, the legislature has been engaged in Liberia, at least up until 1944. The legislature played important roles in the loan and Fernando Po disputes that led to the removals of Presidents Edward J. Roye and Charles King respectively. During the state-making years, the legislature retained its lawmaking function while losing the oversight function. This situation continued up until the outbreak of civil war in 1989. As such, Liberia ceased to become a functional democracy and descended into dictatorship.
Since 2006, however, the legislature has had a checkered history of legislative independence. For example, its members sought to aggressively control and scrutinize presidential appointments. But in doing so, they quickly became accused of lack of objectivity and fairness, and of pursuing their own agenda based on hatred and malice towards Liberians residing in the Diaspora. At the same time, during confirmation hearings it became apparent that legislators failed to transparently and effectively scrutinize the backgrounds of political appointees regardless of whether theses appointees were members of the Diaspora or living locally.
The legislature has been mainly on the sidelines when it came to public-policy issues like the fight against corruption and abuse of power by individual government officials. An example of this is the failure by the legislature to hold to account government officials that arbitrary ordered the arrest of journalists (remember Johnny Lewis and the Rodney Sieh sagas). Besides, the legislature took no concrete actions to investigate scandals and allegations of improprieties by government officials (remember the Knuckles saga). Another recent case in point of legislative ineffectiveness is the Ebola crisis.
Since the outbreak of Ebola, the legislature has failed to demand investigation into the mishandling of the crisis by the executive branch, nor has it held to account any government official for their role in the spread of the virus. Health ministry officials have not been investigated, nor the National Security Council under the leadership of President Sirleaf. Also, the police chief and the defense minister have not been questioned by the legislature over the manner in which quarantines were enforced, which in some cases resulted in deaths of civilians. The legislature largely ratified the president’s state of emergency that was declared in late July without any serious debate over its rationale.
The lack of an independent functional legislature will make it virtually impossible for the Liberian state to effectively enforce power. The current Ebola crisis is an illustration of this. The recent decision by the legislature to refuse to grant President Sirleaf’s request to extend the state of emergency is a silver lining in its checkered post-civil war history. Does it mean a return by the legislature to reasserting its autonomy from the executive branch? It may be too early to say, but while the decision to deny the extension of the state of emergency is laudable, it may not be sufficient in and of itself to ensure that the legislature contributes to effective governance in Liberia. In order to be effective, the legislature must fully and consistently exercise its core functions of representation, effective lawmaking, and efficient oversight. Until then, without a functional and independent legislature, the Liberian state will not be able to accrue the benefits of state building such as strong governance institutions, professional and specialized workforce. The struggle continues for Liberia in post-conflict state-building.