The Dawning of a New Era For Liberia

By Abraham James


The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
February 7, 2006


After years of instability and the devastation of a brutal civil war, Liberia appears like a phoenix rising from the ashes. A modicum of peace and calm seems to be settling on the country.

The United Nations has deployed 13,000 peacekeepers to the nation. Over 100,000 rebels belonging to three major militia groups have been disarmed and demobilized. Most of the nation’s institutions of learning have reopened, and students are attending classes regularly. The judicial system is functioning. Although the unemployment rate remains high, there seems to be a feeling that the job market will change for the better. People appear to be in high spirits. Electricity and pipe-borne water are expected to be restored within a reasonable period. Hope seems to be springing eternal.

On October 11, Liberians showed that theirs can and should be a free and democratic society. Presidential and legislative elections were held throughout the country. In keeping with the country’s electoral guidelines, a runoff election became necessary. The results led to the election, by a substantial margin, of Mrs. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and Mr. Joseph Boakai as president and vice president, respectively. The elections were carefully planned and monitored and were described by scores of observers around the world as free, fair and transparent. They also produced many surprises. Political heavyweights who campaigned for positions in the Senate and House of Representatives were defeated. Both winners and losers learned lessons regarding the democratic processes that are emerging. Following a protest by some of the losers, in both the presidential and legislative elections, all parties accepted the results reported by the National Elections Commission. Arrangements were made for the inauguration of Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf as the first female president of an African nation and of Mr. Boakai as vice president.

A committee is in place to oversee the official transfer of power to the administration of Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf. After a series of criticisms by the media and citizens concerned about the composition of the committee and fearing that it would serve as the resource pool for officials of the new administration, authorities responded with several changes.

Students of government, in discussing administrations that come to power after elections like Liberia’s often point out that wining an election is different from governing a country. However, President Johnson-Sirleaf’s vision for the Liberian nation and many of the decisions she has made seem to indicate that she intends to bring about genuine progress in Liberia. There are already signs that the president is off to a very good start.

The Inaugural Ceremony

Nine heads of states and representatives from countries in Africa and around the world were in attendance at the January 16 inauguration in Monrovia. Among them: Nigerian President and Chairman of the African Union Olusegun Obasanjo, President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa, who has emerged as a major peacemaker in the continent, and President John Kuffour of Ghana, who played a major role in the negotiation and signing of the Comprehensive Peace Accord that culminated into the establishment of the National Transitional Government of Liberia. Also present were First Lady Laura Bush, wife of the President of the United States, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice of the United States. Their presence with a large delegation served as a reminder of the historical ties between the United States and Liberia.

An invocation by Bishop Darlington Johnson of the Bethel World Outreach Church emphasized the centrality of God in the affairs of the Liberian nation, among other things. The invocation was followed by a breathtaking and invigorating rendition of the Liberian national anthem by Ms. Pardmore.

The Constitutional Role of the Legislature in Inaugural Exercises

The Liberian Constitution calls for an assemblage of the legislature in regular session on the second working Monday in January (Article 32). This is followed by a second meeting on the third working Monday during which the oath or affirmation is administered to the president and vice president in a joint convention of both houses of the Legislature by the chief justice or, in his absence, the most senior associate justice (Article 53). The specifics of this event are not constitutionally mandated, but the occasion is usually marked by pageantry.

After the inaugural ceremonies on the third working Monday, a fourth assemblage is required on the fourth working Monday in January of each year during which the president is obliged to present her administration’s legislative agenda for the ensuing session and specific legislative proposals. The president is required once a year to report to the legislature on the state of the Republic (Article 58).

Although there is no constitutional requirement for the president to appear in person, President Johnson-Sirleaf did so in keeping with long-standing precedent and custom attributable to several of her predecessors and institutionalized during the administration of President William V. S. Tubman.

It is noted that President Joseph Jenkins Roberts, like his American counterpart, President George Washington, wrote and sent messages to the Legislature without appearing in person. The custom of a personal address developed many years later in both countries.

Today, it is unlikely that the president of our nation would choose to send her message to the honourable Legislature without appearing in person. A well-established precedent of personal appearance is now part of Liberian law.

The Inaugural Address

In a carefully written and delivered inaugural address, President Johnson-Sirleaf outlined her vision for the Liberian nation and people. Addressing many challenges and issues, the president called for political renewal and national unity, asking Liberians everywhere to come together to heal and build the nation. She extended a hand of friendship to the leaders and members of the various political parties, imploring Liberians to commit to the “dawning of a new era of democracy.” She pledged to create jobs and restore human dignity in light massive unemployment. In recognition of the historical relationship between Liberia and the United States, the president paused to give special recognition to American First Lady Mrs. Laura Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

President Johnson-Sirleaf acknowledged with appreciation the contributions of international partners to Liberia’s security and economic development and to the restoration of democracy. She specifically recognized the Economic Community of West African States, the United Nations, the European Union, the United States and the World Bank.

The president singled out corruption as a major public enemy and vowed to curb it without delay. The audience responded with a long-standing ovation.

And in keeping with the value she places on good governance and economic policy, the president indicated strong support for the Governance and Economic Management Program, agreed upon by donors and the transitional government to address the economic situation.

Issues Between Branches of Government

There has recently been national debate as to whether the constitution requires the president of Liberia to inform or obtain permission from another branch of government – the Legislature – in the event she decides to travel. There seems to be no constitutional obligation on this point. However, in view of the collegiality that exists between these two coequal branches of government of our country, it is likely that the president, as a matter of courtesy, will decide to inform the Legislature about visits to other countries. The situation would be different if the Legislature were in session and a measure that required presidential attention were pending. If the president consistently provides this information to the Legislature, she may set a valuable precedent.

The Imperial Presidency

As president, Johnson-Sirleaf has repeatedly reminded Liberians and the world of her opposition to the “imperial presidency,” possibly indicating her distaste for want a state of affairs in which individuals look to the president to solve problems that should be handled by other officials provided with the authority to address them. The president’s position on the matter is an indication that she would like to get away from the patronage system employed by some of her predecessors. Additionally, it reinforces the idea that the president should never be seen as being above the law. This is a courageous assertion by a Liberian head of state. Over the years it has been customary for the nation’s leaders to expect personal adulation from the citizens. Johnson-Sirleaf may also be suggesting that governmental institutions and officials under her watch will be vested with appropriate administrative authority to take action on matters brought before them, which would be a major break with past practice.

It is our ardent hope and prayer that President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, who along with her vice president won a clear democratic mandate from the people of Liberia, will achieve her goals and take the Liberian nation and its people to new heights of prosperity as a new era seems to be dawning for the nation.

About the author: In recent years, Abraham James has served as Visiting Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania Department of Government and as Adjunct Professor of Government at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. He is currently working with various umbrella governmental organizations in the United States, including the University of Liberia Alumni Association, the Grand Cape Mount Association in America and the Federation of Liberian Counties in the Americas.