By Siahyonkron Nyanseor
I beg your indulgence to lend me your ears. Through this medium, I will set the record straight. This matter really catches my heart.
Part I of this series ended with ULAA returning to the vision created by the founding fathers and mothers when they met in Philadelphia in 1974 to organize what would become one of Liberia’s oldest civic and democratic organizations in our country’s history.
Part II will attempt to answer the questions: “Have such vision and mission changed or remained unchanged? If unchanged, to what extent have the vision and mission remained unchanged? If the vision and mission have changed, (a) When did the change occur? (b) Why did the change occur?”
FREQUENT CHANGES, REVISIONS & AMENDMENTS TO ULAA’S CONSTITUTION
There is a Zulu proverb that says, Kushayw’edonsayo; meaning, when farmers plough the fields, they will use four or six oxen, with one as the lead cow. The lead cow makes sure that the rest follow in order to maintain focus so that the job is done correctly. The farmers will watch the lead cow the most, and if anything goes wrong, it is the lead cow, and not the others that get the whipping.
Among many traditional African societies the ideals of mutuality and reciprocity are important aspects that shaped the daily social relations among them. However, since with all human societies it is rare not to have social tensions, there were occasions when mistrust among members of a group or society emerged. The Zulu Proverb – Kushayw’edonsayo is intended to underscore the relations among people under circumstances of mistrust that later creates social tensions.
This proverb is used to capture the early symptoms of a potential conflict when all norms regulating social behaviors are thrown out of the window, and the ideals of mutuality and the RESPECT FOR YOUR PREDECESSORS is ignored. This is how the problem originated in ULAA – the continuous re-writing of ULAA’s Constitution, and the adding of new structures to an organization that does not have a physical space called an office, or a full-time staff that is charged with the day-to-day operations of the organization.
Instead, it operates with what I prefer to call the “Tele-Conference Operations” that is heavily bureaucratized. Everyone in the organization has acquired the title of “HONORABLE.” This is the point of departure from the simple structure and action-orientated ULAA, established by the founders.
Thus, the Zulu proverb serves to show how adversaries create disharmony and tensions among individuals seeking to achieve the same ultimate results for their people.
It is not uncommon in modern African political culture to blame all sorts of social, economic, political, and societal ills on the way a country’s constitution is written. It is the general expectation for the constitution to be precise to cover 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. The drafting of a new constitution for Liberia in 1983 rather than amending the country’s 1847 constitution is an excellent example of this practice.
Personally, I feel that the Liberian Constitution of 1847 should have been amended insofar as to the preamble and other controversial articles that were seen to be inimical to the new realities of the country. Regrettably, the useless exercise of rewriting an entire constitution from scratch rather than amending its obsolete provisions has somehow become the acceptable norm in many Liberian civil, social, and political organizations, including ULAA.
Moreover, due to ULAA’s strategic position as a vanguard organization of all Liberian associations in North America, and the enormous role it has played in uniting and promoting the welfare of Liberians in the Diaspora, the precedent set by African governments is the example followed by almost all Liberian and African organizations in the Diaspora. ULAA is no exception. The organization has made it the practice to allow almost every administration to re-write its constitution, which is not in the best interest of the organization.
However, let’s for a moment go back in time when there was no written constitution, yet, there were people in those societies who were charged with the responsibilities of interpreting the RULES that governed these societies. Although, these RULES were not written, but by practice and observation, they became RULES by which these societies were governed. What is important to remember is that those RULES later became the laws from which modern constitution is derived.
The question we must ask is, were these rules precise or comprehensive? The answer is NO. A constitution is subject to interpretation, however, because no constitution is precise or comprehensive, it must be interpreted. Therefore, there are those in society who are charged with the responsibilities of interpreting constitutions by looking at the original intent of their framers and the period in which they were written. In the United States, these individuals are called constitutional scholars. In ULAA, such individuals are the founders, many of whom are still alive.
In short, constitutions are written to address pressing issues of the period for which they were written. Yet, provisions are made to address future problems through amendments. The framers of the U.S. Constitution knew that the government they were creating would have to meet the changing needs of the 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.
To further clarify this point, let’s take a look at the U.S. Constitution for a moment. The U.S. Constitution is a document that has withstood the test of time. It is a document that serves as “…a pattern for all future constitutions and will receive the admiration of all future ages,” says one admirer. Has it been changed or re-written? The answer is No. One may ask, what makes the U.S. Constitution so unique and durable?
First, the U.S. Constitution serves as a departure from the English system of government, which has an unwritten constitution. At that time, the unwritten English Constitution gave the king or queen supreme power over the English people.
- Second, the U.S. Constitution introduced the idea of a government by consent of the governed and not by birthright.
- Third, the U.S. Constitution 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, and a republic that is based on the consent of the people.
The framers of the U.S. Constitution 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. Moreover, the framers believed that the people must give their consent before the government is considered legitimate.
They did so to prevent abuse like the one they broke away from in the English system. As a result, the framers created three separate, but equal branches of government: Legislative (Congress) – makes 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.
In addition, the U.S. 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.
Since a constitution is an 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. These changes take effect through the amendment provision provided in the constitution. Prior to amending any constitution, the people must first address what is referred to as the original intent of the framers or founders.
THE ORIGINAL INTENT
First and foremost, those who do not know anything about how a constitution is written should allow those who know to do the work. And those who do not know how a constitution works, should however, be allowed to participate as a means of learning, 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 well it is written.
Since the framers of the ULAA Constitution were mostly students, and a few were professors at the time in the United States, they borrowed heavily from the U.S. Constitution and wrote about “promoting and encouraging national reconciliation, integration and unification; while preserving and protecting Liberian culture, history and traditions; and upholding and defending fundamental rights, including the human rights and civil liberties of Liberians everywhere; cultivating and harnessing the energies and resources of Liberia to improve the quality of life of all Liberians abroad; and advocating and advancing the cause of constitutional democracy and sustainable national development in the Republic of Liberia.”
This brings us to the discussion of original intent. The concept of original intent is not something new. It came to play during the confirmation hearing of Judge Robert Bork for the U.S. Supreme Court. Both Judge Robert Bork and Justice Antonin Scalia have not only subscribed to the theory of original intent, but they have also written about it. Also, a Pulitzer Prize winner of history, Leonard Williams Levy has written about the original intent in the book entitled: Original Intent and the Framers’ Constitution.
As you shall see, the constitution of the United States comprises the nation’s fundamental laws. 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 will:
…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 laws is 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.
In keeping with the statement above, the right thing for the new leaders of ULAA to do is to probe the minds of those who founded the organization prior to amending the constitution – AND NOT CHANGE IT. This exercise is to find out what were the founders thinking when they decided to form ULAA? What then was their original Intent?
Permit me to restate few of the reasons the founders took into consideration to establish the Union:
We felt that 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. Due to this reality, we the founders/framers of the organization and its constitution founded ULAA on the principle of “Representative Democracy” in which everyone takes part. In this regard, we came up with three principal institutions, separate but equal, which are:
1) The Annual General Conference
2) Council of the Union (National Board of Directors), and
3) The Administration or Executive
Of the three branches, the General Annual Conference was made the Supreme Authority. The question most often asked is: Why was the Annual General Conference made the Supreme Authority?
The answer is the Annual General Conference 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 setup 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 the interpretation of the original intent of the founders/framers of ULAA and its constitution, I was accused by August E. Majors, chairman of the Board of Directors (1997-2002) of not knowing what I was saying.
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.(Chairman Majors’ Letter to me, dated June 20, 1999, p. 2)
When I explained to him that in the absence of written rules—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 by Chairman Majors when I addressed similar issue. This is what he said:
…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, the readers should be the judge regarding what I wrote about the framers that caused the Honorable Chairman to resort to such a malicious criticism of me. This reaction is typical of those who thread into territories they know very little about. If you, the readers had to believe anyone regarding the original intent of the framers of the 1972 constitution, who will you believe? The person who was not only present at the deliberations but participated as well as wrote the history of ULAA, or the individual who came after a decade or so after the birth of the organization?
The attitude displayed by Chairman Majors is the same modus operandi most leaders in developing countries exhibit, especially African leaders regarding constitutional matters. “Let monkey see, monkey do” has become the practice by African civic organizations as well. Somehow, this behavior regarding constitution has become a common practice in ULAA.
Therefore, whenever a new leadership assumes the responsibility of the organization, it turns into a contest as to how to upstage the previous leadership. The incoming leadership usually abandons the programs their predecessor started or did not complete. The new leadership comes up with a complete new set of programs with no regards to the programs started by the outgoing administration.
I guess this is intended for the new leadership to get credit. What the new leadership failed to realize is, a two-year 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.
A classic example of this practice was in 1994, when a Constitution Committee was set up to review and amend ULAA Constitution. The committee was chaired by J. Nicholas Reffell, former president of the Liberian Community Association of Georgia (1991-1992).
The Committee had intended to change the Logo of ULAA because the leadership had no idea what the symbols in the logo stood for. Instead of finding out, they decided to do away with the logo. Someone brought it to our attention. I intervened at the very last moment and provided the interpretation for the symbols. Yet, in the end, the logo was not only minimized, but it was also desecrated in the revision process. Today, most members of ULAA do not know the meanings of the symbols on the organization’s logo. The meaning of the logo is in Part I of this series.
These are some of the contributing factors that led ULAA to find itself in this condition today; because as someone said, “These Johnnie come lately” think they know it all. Therefore, they do NOT want to respect and adhere to the organizing principles upon which ULAA was founded in 1974. ULAA as we know it today — is entirely a new organization that is not concerned with advocacy for LIBERIA and the 99 percent of the Liberian people.
Some of the changes in ULAA will be addressed in Part III.
Stay tuned for Part III!
Mr. Siahyonkron Nyanseor is publisher of both ThePerspective.org and ThePanAfricanAgenda.org, Internet web magazines. His research and writing interests fall largely within Africa, with particular emphasis on the history, economics, politics, sociology, ethics, and theology of people of African-origin living in Africa and its Diaspora. He is a poet, journalist, and cultural and political activist. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.