By Jappah Maxwell Hooks
Bishop Bennie D. Warner
Many years ago, Bishop Bennie D. Warner asserted that, “we (Liberians) are our own problems”. At first I found it perplexing to agree with the learned Bishop and concluded that the Bishop was eluding the realities of a failed system in which he participated and had embarked on a “blame game” syndrome, blaming every Liberia instead of those with whom we entrusted to lead our country, manage our resources to benefit every Liberian and to provide Liberians the opportunities to pursue happiness beyond other African nations.
Many will disagree that pre-1980 era, though blinded by our illiteracy rate and self-conceited way of life, was abundantly pleasing than post 1980 era, especially since the end of the 14 years of civil unrest that have heightened the ideals of self-consciousness and intellectualism in many Liberian communities, villages, towns and amongst Liberian academia protégés. In April 1979, following a major political riot, we saw the rise of a period of militancy and self-acclaimed social justice, economic and political rights advocacy. These self-style progressives were the fore-bearers and “eyes-openers” of our time against the constitution, rule of law and the style of governance that were deemed to be suppressive. They said Liberia’s Constitution (at the time) denied Liberians their basic fundamental rights as embodied under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Human Rights Laws and many UN Charters that subscribe to the Human Right and to the Geneva Convention.
And so in 1986, they crafted a new Constitution and in a national referendum, Liberians gleefully endorsed the “New Constitution” as “their own” organic instrument for governance. With not a single thought as to whether the document was interpreted and well understood by the over 85% of the illiterate population, Liberians did not care as long as it emanated from “pens” of Dr. Amos Claudius Sawyer, Dr. Edward Beyan Kessely and many Liberian natives.
But what is becoming troubling and likely to slip Liberia into a period of chaos is, if we subscribe to the fact that our constitution is the “organic and supreme law” of the land, why is government proffering laws/legislation or why are our legal experts and constitutional lawyers interpreting laws that subject the constitution to “a mere cosmetic document” with no value? Let us look at the facts.
Fundamental Rights under our constitution are rights granted every individual in every civilized society and democracy. They are a high degree from government encroachments against the rights of individuals or group of individuals. As embodied in both US Constitution (Bill of Rights) and Liberia’s Constitutions as summarized, fundamental rights are the rights to “Freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and petition. Therefore, fundamental rights compelled governments to prevent abuses (misapplications, mishandlings, maltreatment, etc.,) that threaten the entire civilization and to prevent great unjustified suffering but instead to create happiness for all people.
1. In its Final Report, The Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) recommended that Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf be banned from government for 30 years for her previous support of former President Charles Taylor including other harsh punishments for warlords and war participants. When the TRC Report was released, legal scholars and Constitutional lawyers, in deciphering the recommendation argued that such punishment was not only unconstitutional and intended to deny Madam Sirleaf and cohorts their fundamental rights, it would have created an “unjustified suffering” for President Sirleaf and others. It was therefore the general believe that the TRC Recommendations, if allowed to be implemented would have reign over the constitution. Granted!
2. While the Constitution empowers the Legislature to enact laws in the interest of the state, the troubling disparity, according to Article 2 (b) of the constitution states: “Any laws, treaties, statutes, decrees, customs and regulations found to be inconsistent with the constitution, to the extent of the inconsistency, be void and of no legal effect. The Supreme Court, pursuant to its power of judicial review, is empowered to declare any inconsistent laws unconstitutional.
Code of Conduct vs. The Constitution (a).
Section 5.1 (a) of the Code of Conduct states: All officials appointed by the President shall not engage in political activities, canvass or contest for elected offices. By the degree of “not engaging in political activities or canvassing” juxtaposes one’s fundamental rights as captured under the constitution. This fundamental flaw is an obvious indication that the government tactically used this to abuse the degree of individuals’ rights based on anticipatory perception. i.e. the crafters of the Code of Conduct anticipated that an appointed official of government is perceived to have “desire” or future intentions to run for elective office based on his/her activities.
What has drawn our discontentment is the political maneuvering and inconsistent interpretation of our laws to satisfy the whims and caprices of the Supreme Court and other legal scholars as demonstrated in 1 & 2. In the TRC’s recommendation banning President Sirleaf for 30 years, the Supreme Court and many legal pundits reviewed the recommendation as unconstitutional, even though President Sirleaf admitted to financing a war that killed hundreds of thousands of our people and destroyed the fabric of our institutions, yet the same Supreme Court on the other hand reviewed and declared as constitutional the Code of Conduct which bars appointed government officials from taking part in political activities simply because Francis Korkpor, his three stooges, President Sirleaf and the Legislature perceive that one’s activities, while serving in his/her official capacity are likely to abuse government resources so if that person does not resign in 2 or 3 years, he/she cannot participate in political activities, canvass or run for elective office.
Code of Conduct vs. the Constitution (b)
Article 52 of the Constitution states: No person shall be eligible to hold the office of President or Vice-President, unless that person is: (a). a natural born Liberian citizen of not less than 35 years of age:
Citizens of Liberia who meet the following qualifications are eligible to become members of the Legislature (a) for the Senate, have attained the age of 30 years and for the House of Representatives, have attained the age of 25 years;
On his Facebook page dated 04/04/17, Meo Debbah Beyan wrote: Older Age, "The New Qualification in Liberia". This Chronic Age Syndrome (CAS) is fast becoming a menace in Liberia; what progressive society based her qualification criteria mostly on age? Too often, I've heard the older population in Liberia say the young people are not qualified or are ill-prepared to take over this country… Little did I know that what they, in fact, are referring to is the "AGE FACTOR" The case of Miss Massa Jallabah is a classic example… and I should add many more as a matter of course. Although qualified and perhaps professionally experienced more than at least one of the members nominated on the Ombudsman, Miss Jallabah's nomination has now been rescinded for only one reason, "AGE". Well, if you say young people are not qualified, why don't we compete on the basis of professional experience and qualification rather than this unreasonable AGE thing”?
Other than the two (2) Articles mentioned above, nowhere in our constitution did the framers use “age” as a qualifying criteria for employment or appointment to public office. However, the Code of Conduct’s qualification or requirements for the Ombudsman states: “The members of the Office of the Ombudsman shall be Liberian citizens of high moral character; of not less than forty years and must have a graduate or professional degree.” Again in its judicial review, the Supreme Court, cognizant of Articles 30 & 52 (mentioned above) did not see the disparities and inconsistencies of the Code of Conduct to the constitution. By upholding the Code of Conduct as constitutional demonstrates that Francis Korpkor has subjected qualified Liberian citizens from serving as Ombudsman. And by definition of “high moral character”, will the Senate confirm Chris Massaquoi under this qualification doctrine?
In Meo Beyan’s argument including mine, one can see that the Code of Conduct evidently contradicts the Constitution in terms of the “age” qualification criteria. Howbeit, the Supreme Court declared Code of Conduct constitutional. That is why in my response to Mr. Meo Debbah Beyan I said his post/argument was “commentary after the match”. As one can see, the recently appointed Miss Jallabah is constitutionally and undoubtedly qualified to serve on the Ombudsman, yet by virtue of the Code of Conduct, she cannot because she did not meet the “age” requirement. Which therefore is the supreme legal instrument of the land; the Constitution or the Code of Conduct?
The US Hatch Act vs. The Code of Conduct
While many of our compatriots argued and compared The US Hatch Act (passed into law in 1939) to our Code of Conduct, the US government, conscious of not infringing on the fundamental rights of employees in the Executive Branch was careful in passing laws that would not arouse civil disobedience. That is why the Act does not arbitrarily denied appointed federal employees their fundamental rights as enshrined under the US Constitution. Because our Laws and Constitution are replicated and/or modeled after the United States, they must conform to, adhere to, be enforced and interpreted to acceptable international legal standards; otherwise Liberia will slip into a period likely to trigger conflict.
By contrast, our Code of Conduct does not permit an appointed official to engage in political activities if he/she does not resign 2 or 3 years. Under the Hatch Act, federal (executive branch) and D.C. employees are prohibited from engaging in “some political activities, on the one hand and on the other are permitted to participate in “some political activities”. As indicated below, federal employees are permitted to engage in some political activities such as:
-Be candidates for public office in nonpartisan elections
-Register and vote as they choose
-Assist in voter registration drives
-Express opinions about candidates and issues
-Contribute money to political organizations
-Attend political fundraising functions
-Attend and be active at political rallies and meetings
-Join and be an active member of a political party or club
-Sign nominating petitions
-Campaign for or against referendum questions, constitutional amendments, and municipal ordinances
-Campaign for or against candidates in partisan elections
-Make campaign speeches for candidates in partisan elections
-Distribute campaign literature in partisan elections
-Hold office in political clubs or parties
In concluding, we like to remind the government, especially the judiciary branch that skewing the enforcement or interpretation of our laws and constitution to suit a particular group of people, despite their status in government is unhealthy for our struggling democracy. Liberians cannot revert to the same period when government used absolute power and authority to trample on the rights of others. As equal as we are under the law so should it enforcement be of equal benefit. For any law to conform to the constitution requires amendment and its endorsement through a national referendum. Anything contrary will engender conflict and put our country and people in peril.
About The Author: Jappah Maxwell Hooks, Des Moines, Iowa, Email: Chiefjappah66@yahoo.com