Conversation with Our Benefactors Regarding the Original Intent of the Founders of ULAA

(Keynote Address by Siahyonkron Jglay Kpa-kay Nyanseor)

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

August 13, 2002

The Union of Liberian Association in the Americas (ULAA), Inc. held its 28th Annual General Conference in Columbus, Ohio, at which the Chairman of the Liberian Democratic Future and a founding member and eleventh President of ULAA, Siahyonkron Jglay Kpa-kay Nyanseor, served as the Keynote Speaker. Below is the full text of his address:

I bring you greetings and solidarity on behalf of the founders and past presidents and chairmen of the Board of Directors of the Union of Liberian Associations in the Americas (ULAA). And while it is a sad time in the history of our beloved country, we can take pride that the founders were farsighted enough to give birth to this great organization.

Furthermore, it is with a sense of deep humility and sincere appreciation - I stand before you to contribute to the discussion regarding the vision of the founders of this great organization. In this regard, I shall attempt to do two things; first, I shall briefly touch on the vision, and second, by way of recommendations, address the theme of the Conference, which is: "Pathways to Success: Achievement, Accountability and Authority ".

Before I proceed, please allow me to give honor where honor is due. Madam National President, Mrs. Mydea Reeves-Karpeh, I thank you and your administration for bestowing this honor upon me. As our first female president, Madam President, you proved to those who doubt the leadership of a female that our women are as qualified, if not better, to lead any organization with success. Based on the experience I got from my mother’s leadership, I have come to believe that if women were playing major roles in world affairs, we may not be having all of the problems we are experiencing today, and the world would be a safer place to live. Madam President, thank you for the excellent leadership you provided us, and may the Almighty God continued to bless you and your family.

With this, Ladies and Gentlemen, permit me to borrow from the Keynote Address of the 14th Annual General Conference, which was held in Newark, Jersey, July 3 - 5, 1987. The Keynote Speaker was Rev. James C. Hickey. Rev. Hickey reminded us at that time that - Liberia was “A Land Both Old and Young”. And he added:

"The Liberian people are heirs to a vibrant African culture of immense antiquity, of extraordinary intrinsic value and of remarkable inherent attractiveness and binding force. Its profundity strongly resists the shallow allurements of other cultures, with their emphasis on things rather than persons. There is a clear recognition that what one is as human being is the all important criterion and not the possessions one might accumulate. Things are of value in so far as they promote the well-being and the purposes of the person and not the other way around. Family lineage and relationships are of extreme significance because they provide the precise location of the individual within the human group. And society, the human environment takes absolute precedent over the values of the physical environment. Thus there arises a most intricate web of interpersonal rights and obligations. The culture is mark with very precise rules of politeness, etiquette and protocol. Person-orientating obligations take priority over abstract and economically oriented duties. The individual dependence on and service to the community are clearly perceived, acknowledged and lived. For the Liberian as indeed for most African cultures the appropriate saying is not ‘poor, no money’ or ‘poor no job’, or ‘poor no car, or T.V.’, nor any other such thing. Rather, the African consciousness finds its spontaneous and most adequate expression in the phrase, ‘poor no friend.’ Likewise, a very strong condemnatory and rejecting attitude is expressed when one would say of another that ‘he is rude’ or ‘he does not know how to talk to people.’ There is here, an extraordinary appreciation of respect for the human person and human society”.

What caused us to deviate from this civilized behavior? Is it because we traded it for something God did not intend for us to become? These are questions that have been bothering me.

On the other hand, I am reminded that “If a Nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.... If we are to guard against ignorance and remain free, it is the responsibility of every American to be informed,” says Thomas Jefferson. And this is precisely the point of my address to you, which is entitled: Conversation with Our Benefactors Regarding the Original Intent of the Founders of ULAA.

For "He who cannot remember the past will be condemned to repeat it."

I am here to tell you that despite what former members in Liberia have done to our beloved country, the founders of ULAA should be honored not ridiculed. Because you as our benefactors cannot claim to know more than us or what our intentions were when we established this august institution. It is upon our shoulders you stand today. Therefore, it is only right to celebrate our farsightedness and successes and learn from our mistakes in order to continue the original intent. This is not to suggest that the mistakes we made in the past must not be evaluated, so as to improve upon them. But the practice of “Fast forwarding into the past to apportion blame” is what I think should be avoided if we are to advance our common goals and objectives.

The discussion of “original intent” is not something new, it came to play during the confirmation hearing of Judge Robert Bork for the US Supreme Court. Both Judge Robert Bork and Justice Antonin Scalia have not only subscribed to the theory of “original intent", they have written about it. Also, a Pulitizer Prize winning historian, called Leonard Williams Levy has written about the “original intent" in the book entitled: “Original Intent and the Framers’ Constitution”. Unlike Bork and Scalia, Levy presents an opposite perspective.

Therefore, the place to begin is the US Constitution. It shall serve as our point of reference.

THE US CONSTITUTION: The Constitution of the United States comprises the nation's fundamental law. It provides the framework for governance and principles under which the nation must operate. Judicial reinterpretation has given the Constitution the flexibility to accommodate changes in the specific laws subject to its authority. Early in the 19th century, Chief Justice John Marshall pointed out that the Constitution was "intended to endure for ages to come, and, consequently, to be adapted to the various crises of human affairs. To have prescribed the means by which government should, in all future times, execute its powers, would have been to change entirely, the character of the instrument, and give it the properties of a legal code."

The distinction Marshall made between the Constitution and other law was in keeping with the framers' provision for the supremacy of the Constitution in Article VI, which states: "This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land”.

This brings us to probe the minds of those who founded this great organization. What were they thinking when they decided to form ULAA? What then was their “Original Intent?”

In providing reasonable answers to these questions, we must look at Liberia at our own country.

From the inception of the Republic of Liberia, 152 years (1822 - 1974, when ULAA was founded) of its existence, political, social and economic powers were held by a few who believed in the politics and philosophy of: “So Say One, So Say All”. This approach and system of government, limited the participation of the majority of the Liberian people in the affairs of their government. As a result, the country failed miserably in making any significant progress and development.

This experience served as a point of departure for the founders of ULAA in charting a new direction for their country and people. As a result, the founders and framers of the Constitution of ULAA founded this organization on the principle of “Representative Democracy” in which everyone takes part.

The principal institutions of the organization were divided into three separate bodies - The Annual General Conference, Board of Directors, and the Administration or Executive. Supreme Authority was vested in the Annual General Conference. The Annual General Conference encompassed all Liberians and their local chapters. The Conference reviewed the basic policies and direction of the organization, and served as the highest constituted body. The Annual General Conference then empowered the Board of Directors to exercise legislative and policy-making powers. The Board consisted of presidents of local chapters and two elected representatives. The Executive was composed of the administrative officers of the ULAA. The Executive fell under the leadership of a National President. The National President served as the spokesperson for the organization. He/she was charged with the day-to-day operation of the organization, which includes the implementations of its policies.

A question most often asked was: Why was the Annual General Conference made the Supreme Authority?

It was made the Supreme Authority because ULAA as a “Representative Democracy” had to assure the full participation of the membership in the “general affairs” of the organization. Secondly, it was set-up in this way to discourage the abuse of power and authority by a select few, which is a hallmark of past and present Liberian government officials.

Based on my interpretation of the “Original Intent” of the founders and framers of ULAA and its Constitution, I was accused by a former chairman of not knowing what I was saying. Regarding it, the chairman wrote:

"Your assertions that ‘As a matter of fact, the framers of the Constitution of ULAA intended for such matters to be handled by the General Assembly’. Again, I am disappointed by such a statement coming from you who always claim to be politically correct and matured. Anyone can make such a determination about any portion of the Constitution. However, do you expect any reasonable person to accept what is not written over what is written? Or should we accept it because you said it? I don’t think so” (Former Chairman of the Board Letter to me - Nyanseor, June 20, 1999, p. 2 ).

This reaction is a typical example of those who thread into territories they know very little about. You be the judge! If you had to believe anyone regarding the “Original Intent” of the framers of the 1972 Constitution, who do you believe? The person who was not only present at the deliberations but participated and as well as wrote the history of ULAA or the individual who came after a decade or so after the birth of the organization?

PROBLEMS: What do I see as our problems – first as a nation and as an organization? One of our major problems derive from the way we go about doing things. What do I mean about this? For example, as soon as we take over an organization or a nation, we begin to condemn our predecessors; which is like disrespecting your parents because you have gotten a job to fan for yourself. Immediately, we forget that in order to get where we are, it was our parents who made it possible.

Secondly, it is not uncommon in modern African political culture to blame all sorts of social, economic, political, and societal ills on the way the constitution was written. There is always this general expectation for the national constitution to be precise to the point of covering every social, economic or political loophole imaginable, or the constitution is deemed to be ambiguous and must therefore be changed or re-written. This is true in most African and developing countries, and the drafting of a new constitution in Liberia in 1983, rather than amending the country’s 1847 constitution speaks volumes to this fact.

I have personally felt that the Liberian constitution of 1847 should have been amended in so far as to the preamble and other controversial articles that were seen to be inimical to the new realities of the country. But, regrettably, the useless exercise of rewriting an entire constitution from scratch rather than amending its obsolete provisions has somehow found following in many Liberian civil, social, and political organizations, including ULAA.

And because of its strategic position as a vanguard organization of all Liberian associations in North America, and the enormous role it could play in uniting and promoting the welfare of Liberians in the Diaspora, I shall focus on why the frequent writing of the ULAA Constitution from one administration to the next may not be in the best interest of the organization. But let for a moment go back in time when there was no written constitution, there were people in those societies who were looked up to - to interpret the RULES that governed these societies; although, they were not written, but by practice and observation, they became rules (today, it is called LAW from which modern constitution is derived).

Was it precise and comprehensive? The answer is NO. Constitution is subject to interpretation. There are those in society who are charged with the responsibilities of interpreting the constitution by looking at the “Original Intent” of the framers of constitution and the period it was written. In the United States, they are called “Constitutional Scholars.”

Constitutions are written to address pressing issues of the period for which they are written. Yet, provisions are made to address future problems - through amendments. The framers of the US Constitution knew that the government that they were creating would have to meet the changing needs of a growing nation. They could not possibly foresee all the changes the United States would undergo; therefore, provisions such as Amendment, Interpretation, and Custom became the means by which these issues were to be resolved.

Let’s look at the US Constitution for a moment. The US Constitution is a document that has withstood the test of time. It is a document that serve as “…a pattern for all future constitutions and will receive the admiration of all future ages”, says one admirer. Has the document been changed or re-written? The answer is No. One may ask, what makes the US Constitution unique and durable?

First, it serves as a departure from the English system of government, which has unwritten constitution, as a result, gave the king or queen supreme power over the people. Second, it introduced the idea of a government by consent of the governed and not by birthright. Third, it established goals (Preamble), i.e., 1. To form a more perfect union; 2. To establish justice; 3. To insure domestic tranquility; 4. To provide for the common defense; 5. To promote the general welfare, and 6. to secure the blessings of liberty.

These goals were then transformed into a representative form of democracy, or republic that is based on the consent of the people. The writers of the Constitution, too, believed that a government must receive all its powers from the people it governs, and that the government must not use any powers that the people did not grant it. Above all, they believed that the people must give their consent before the government is considered legitimate.

Furthermore, in order to prevent abuse like the one they broke away from – the English system, they created three separate, but equal branches of government: Legislative (Congress) – makes the laws; Executive (President) – carries out and enforces the laws, and the Judicial (Courts) - interprets the laws and punishes lawbreakers. This is called “Checks and Balances” in the system.

The constitution has allowed for the co-equal nature of these institutions with clearly defined roles and responsibilities. These three branches, have also become the cornerstone and the foundation of Western democracy. Because a constitution is a organic document – a living organism, an embodiment of the wishes and aspirations of a nation and its people, it is subject to change based on evolving new realities. This change can take effect through amendment to the constitution. Most Western constitutions, therefore, have made provision for an amendment process to be built into it.

To the contrary however, most developing countries, especially African nations and their civic organizations have serious problems with – AMEMDMENT. For the purpose of our discussion, I will now concentrate on the Constitution of the Union of Liberian Associations in the Americas (ULAA).

ULAA: It has become a common practice that whenever a new leadership assumes the responsibility of the organization, it turns into a contest as to how to upstage the previous leadership. They abandon the programs their predecessor did not complete, and they come up with a complete new set of programs. I guess, it is intended for them to get credit. But what the new leadership failed to realize is – one or two years tenure is not enough time to complete one’s program or achieve one’s goals. Herein lies some of the problems that have plagued the Union for years. How do we resolve them?

Ways to Resolve Constitutional Matters: In the absence of written rules – the people resort to custom, tradition or precedence to resolve constitutional issues. Constitutional Scholars will then take into consideration the “Original Intent” of the framers regarding the particular issue that is in question. Again, I was criticized when I addressed similar issue, by the same former Chairman of the Board in the following manner:

"...Forgive me, but I think that you either misread the applicable articles or the wrong constitution. I would like to assume to assume (sic) that you are deliberately attempting to manipulate the facts in compliance with your modus operandi of continuous attempt to disrupt, undermine and discredit the present leadership of the Union. This process is something that you have unsuccessfully carried out since 1996. I hope that I am wrong, because you could still be an honorable person and will not attempt such cowardly acts of factual distortion."

You be the judge regarding what I wrote regarding the framers that caused the Honorable Chairman to resort to such a malicious criticism of me.

Let’s look at Amendment

AMENDMENT: What is Amendment? Amendment is a change written in a constitution. The process for amending a constitution is established in the constitution. Some constitutions required two-thirds or three-fourths of the states (in the case of Liberia, counties) or its membership’s (organization) approval before an amendment will be written as part of the constitution. In case of the Union’s Constitution, it has to be approved or ratified by two-thirds (July 1982 Constitution) of the Chapters. It doesn’t stop there, it goes on to say in Article X, Section 2 – This amended Constitution(al) (provision) sic, shall come into full force and effect immediately upon adoption by a simple majority of members present at the General conference.

Unlike the United States Constitution that has been amended only 26 times since it went into effect in 1789, the 1972 Constitution of the Union has been amended, July 4-5, 1975; September 6, 1976; September 4-5, 1978; July, 1982, and October, 1994. the October, 1994 Constitution is said to have been amended. In fact, it should read – CHANGED (Seven Articles and 21 Sections are affected). Again, the Constitution was revised on September 29, 1996.

Finally, the present Constitution was “ratified” July 16, 1997. The same could be applied to the numbers of revisions made to the Elections Guidelines (Revised 1998, 1999, 2002, etc.). Elections Guidelines require updating, instead of revision. One may argue that revision and updating are the same. That’s not true; there is a great difference between revision and updating.

Another time an attempt was made to change the LOGO of ULAA because the leadership at the time did not know what it stood for. I had to intervene to provide the interpretation.

This brings us to the points of Interpretation and Custom.

INTERPRETATION: The US Congress may interpret a certain clause in the Constitution as giving it the right to pass a particular law. One such example is the minimum wage that workers must be paid. However, minimum wage is not mentioned anywhere in the Constitution. But the Constitution gives Congress the right to control trade among the states. The goods made by workers usually travel from one state to another. On the basis of the above, Congress interpreted the Constitution to mean, it can pass laws affecting working conditions, which also includes wages.

The US Supreme Court (in the case of the Union – the General Conference in the original Constitution of ULAA) has the power to decide if Congress has interpreted the Constitution correctly. The Court’s ruling is final. The General Conference plays similar role.

CUSTOM (Tradition or Precedence): A number of changes or practices in the US government have come about as the result of custom, tradition or Precedence. For example, the US Constitution did not provide for regular meetings of the leaders in the Executive Branch of the government. However, President George Washington brought these leaders together regularly to serve as his advisors, which is known today as his Cabinet. Since that time, regular meetings between the President and his Cabinet have become an acceptable part of the tradition of the US government. Up to the present, there is no written law to that effect.

There are other important traditions that have since developed. These traditions are followed regularly. Yet they have seldom been written down or made into laws. For this reason, they are sometimes called unwritten constitutional laws.

The same can be said about July 26 celebration each year. It is a tradition and not a constitutional requirement.

As for those of us from Africa, if it is not written or the way our leaders want it to be read, than it is not right. This behavior has been handed down to us through grade school. What than is the solution? First, those who do not know anything about how a constitution is written should allow those who know it to do the work. Those who do not know how a constitution works, should however, be allowed to participate - as a means of education, and not as experts. Second, it is impossible for any constitution to address all problems. Some people will always find fault with a constitution no matter how it is written. What do we do then? It will require the wisdom that Dr. Benjamin Franklin applied during the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, when he responded to Alexander Hamilton’s statement of concern, which reads: “Everybody knows how different this Constitution is from the one I favored.”

In response, Dr. Benjamin Franklin said:

“Now, tell the truth, there are several points I do not greatly like about this Constitution. That is, I do not like them now. But if I can judge from the past, it is quite likely that I will like them next year. And I am sure of this: that the combined wisdom of so many thoughtful men is certain to be sounder as a whole than anything any one of us could have written alone. So I hope each of us will join me in forgetting the little you dislike here and there in it, and show your approval of the whole effort – and really it is far better than we had any right to hope for - by signing it now, and later supporting it before the people” (Dorothy Canfield Fisher, Our Independence and the Constitution, pp. 130-131)

Instead of doing as Dr. Franklin suggested, many of us behave like the woman in the another story he told:

"I once knew a lady who told me that her sister said to her, 'It's the strangest thing. Whenever I get into a dispute with somebody, I've always been the one who was right (IBID, p. 130).'"

CONCLUSION: The woman in Dr. Franklin's story is like many of us, we do not work for the greater GOOD of the ORGANIZATION, and instead many of us want to be the ones that get the credit. This selfish goal will always be in conflict with the goals of the organization. As a result, there is power struggle, and no significant progress is made.

What then are my recommendations?


Ladies and Gentlemen, these are my honest observations and recommendations, which I have made in good faith. For I believe that “those who will sacrifice liberty for the sake of security deserve neither.” Therefore, as committed individuals, we must remain determine and relentless in pursuit of the truth, and most important to rescue our beloved country – LIBERIA, which I translate to mean: LOVE INDISCRIMATELY BECAUSE EQUAL RIGHTS and INDIVISABILITY are the only ANSWERS.

I now leave you will the following food of thought:

What makes us different from other Liberian organizations. First, longevity; second, diversity. By diversity I mean, ULAA represents all Liberians, regardless of religion, beliefs or ethnicity. But most of all, ULAA is unique because it has a track record of being on the side of the Liberian people. While most Liberian organizations’ goals and objectives are somewhat limited in scope, i.e., education and regional, ULAA goes beyond “Special Interest.” Since its inception, it has served as an advocacy group for our people at home. We are proud of this tradition. Therefore, we ask that new leadership - guide and protect this cherished tradition.

I thank you.

© The Perspective
P.O. Box 450493
Atlanta, GA 31145