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Reform the 1986 Constitution after 2017 Elections: A National and Passionate call to Safeguard Liberia’s Embryonic Democracy

By Josiah F. Joekai, Jr.                  Josiah Joekai Jr

 

 

Fellow Liberians, it is no doubt that the move by the Government of Liberia to embark on the process of reforming the 1986 Constitution through the amendment of certain provisions is a commendable endeavor that must be embraced by everyone. Certainly, ensuring appropriateness of the law to meet the hopes and aspirations of the people is a fundamental requirement for the sustenance of democratic governance. This is simply because the safety, rights, responsibilities and happiness of the people must be guaranteed by the Constitution. Thus, the need to reform the 1986 Constitution in order to address the ambiguities and many of the provisions which are no longer applicable in our current dispensation cannot be overemphasized.

This is exactly why I am grateful to the President, Madam Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and her government for initiating this national endeavor and the Constitutional Review Committee (CRC) for the splendid work it has done so far. Indeed, the stage has been set and the legacy will forever live on. This great undertaking of the CRC in keeping with its mandate to complete the conduct of 73 inclusive public consultations in which over 10,000 Liberians from the 73 Electoral Districts and the diaspora (Ghana and the United States of America) participated is a national duty for which its Chairperson, Cllr. Gloria Musu Scott and members are duly credited. The final report reveals that over 16,000 views were collated, 52,308 suggestions produced from which according to the CRC, 25 propositions were derived and taken to the National Constitution Conference and voted upon by a population of 500 persons representing the citizenry. Indeed, this is a remarkable achievement.

The exemplary leadership exhibited by the President and her government to initiate the Constitutional reform process is a clear manifestation that truly reaffirms the government’s commitment to engendering equity in our governance process. Once executed appropriately, I have no doubt that same will contribute to the improvement of governance and the quality of life. Certainly, this milestone achievement will never go unnoticed as it will forever remain written on the positive pages of history.

However, as important as the Constitutional Reform process is, we must not lose sight of the fact that it has come at a defining moment in our enduring national recovery and development process. We all know that the highly anticipated 2017 Legislative and Presidential Elections are just two years away from now. As such, it is anyone’s guess that this crucial electoral process is a turning point in the country’s fledgling democracy. Thus, it is only befitting that we engage with the process cautiously in the supreme interest of protecting and keeping the democratic process well on course.

It is within this context that I sincerely believe that the anticipated Referendum to reform the 1986 Constitution and the 2017 Elections are two critical national decision-making processes that should not be undertaken concomitantly during the course of the two years (2016 and 2017). Several cogent reasons account for this passionate appeal. The measure of the enormity of the resources (technical and financial) required for both events, the need for a fresh and comprehensive voter registration process to address the integrity of the current voter roll, the risk of making the referendum a side issue in the midst of the high expectations and enthusiasm of citizens in preparation for the elections, the complexity of the issues or propositions to consider in the referendum amidst the entrenched voter apathy occasioned by disillusionment and high rates of illiteracy and the looming security anxieties and apprehensions. Indeed, we cannot underestimate these existing realities because they may have the propensity to encumber the process if caution is not well taken.

I know we are tempted to compare the events of 2011 to 2017; but let me quickly emphasize that these are two different scenarios. Obviously, the 2011 referendum and elections were challenging but not as the ones anticipated. Although complex as well but the scope of the referendum in 2011 was limited in terms of the number of propositions. Besides, the Board at the time comprised of a leadership with about six years of election management experience from 2005 elections and the many intermittent by-elections conducted in the lead up to 2011. Almost all of the Commissioners who had gained a considerable degree of knowledge and understanding in election management over the years were retained on the Board from 2005. This expertise was indeed critical to the entire process especially appropriate and timely policy decision-making. More so, the coherence of the leadership at the time was an important incentive which facilitated the successful conduct of the two events.

As volatile as the political environment was and contentious as the elections were particularly producing a total of 925 candidates in all categories, the process was largely successful with election related dispute/conflict management expeditiously handled. This was mainly due to the long term planning and meticulous approach, which characterized the entire process thereby signifying that coherence and experience of election managers are fundamentally required in the business of electioneering which must not be taken lightly.

However, this does not in any way suggest that the current Board lacks the expertise and coherence to manage elections. Although they have acquired some level of experience within the short space of time since their appointment in 2013, but the fact is that the Board is basically new. This stems from the fact that four of its members including the Chairman are completely new to the business of election management and will need some time to get properly adjusted particularly in handling crucial tasks of the measure we have at hand. Even though they are men and women with impeccable credentials in other professional spheres, but the business of election management requires time and practice to be able to manage processes and events of large magnitude concomitantly. As such, it is my sincere opinion that undertaking the management of these two historic national decision-making processes together by the current Board will mean giving them too much too soon; something that could lead to a nervy situation. In so doing, we must take on these events one at the time. Thus, concentration solely on the organization and conduct of the 2017 elections for now with all hands on deck is the best option for Liberia.

It is common knowledge that holding a referendum of this scale requires sufficient time and resources. This is obvious because the Commission has to ensure that the approved propositions are simplified with the appropriate symbols, translated into local languages with appropriate messages developed and robustly disseminated nationwide in a sustained and uninterrupted manner. This will required a lengthy period of time. In essence, besides logistics acquisition and movement and the recruitment and deployment of temporary staff, referendum is practically a “Civic and Voter Education Centered” event. This is simply because the ultimate objective is for the people, particularly voters, to fully understand the issues/propositions and the reward or significance of such reform to them to be able to make informed choices. Thus, as an issue-based election, considerable time is required to educate voters due to the already entrenched voter apathy occasioned by disillusionment and high rates of illiteracy.

One can imagine in the worst case if the Legislature approves all 25 propositions; or even just 20, 15 or 10, which will obviously be cumbersome. Remember, Article 92 of the 1986 Constitution provides that if the propositions or issues are more than one, then each will have to stand alone. Meaning any amount of propositions approved by the Legislature will all have to stand alone on the ballot paper. It is only befitting that making such critical national decision, we engage with same in a prudent and orderly manner. This, fellow Liberians cannot be done in a half hazard manner or least to mention be equated to a “tic tac to” affair. Thoughtfulness is so required because our safety and happiness as a nation are bordered on the successful conduct of these critical national decision-making processes.

Maintaining a credible register or voters’ roll is a universally accepted principle in the electioneering process. I have no doubt that the Commission is considering a fresh voter registration because as it stands now, the current voter roll poses integrity questions. Since 2011 voter registration exercise to present, there exist names of registered voters on the present roll who are deceased. In fact, the measure of the Ebola Health Emergency which recorded more than four thousand deaths has contributed to this integrity problem. This situation gives a wrong impression regarding the reality about the actual number of registered voters in the country. In spite of the fact that the Ministry of Health is legally mandated in keeping with Chapter 3 Section 3.21 of the New Elections Law of 1986 as Amended in 2003 and 2004 to furnish the National Elections Commission (NEC) with the names of dead persons so that the Commission can remove said names from the roll in keeping with established procedures, this mandate is yet to be fulfilled since 2011 to date. I am fully aware however that since 2011, the Commission has appropriately written the MOH requesting such information but to no avail suggesting that the roll contains the names of deceased persons.

Besides, all of the registration processes including 2005, 2011 and 2014 have produced different sets of Voter Identification Cards which are in the possession of voters in the country. In order to significantly address the issue or potential conflict associated with these cards, a fresh voter registration is required. Additionally, the Commission in keeping with Article 77 (b) of the 1986 Constitution has to ensure that Liberians who have turned 18 years or above are registered to participate in these two events. With my limited understanding of electioneering, however, I can say safely that voter registration is so very critical to the extent that it does not only attracts the interest of stakeholders but contains the names of the decision-makers in the electoral process. Simply put, without the role of a voter, there will be no elections. Hence, if this cardinal activity must take place before the two events, I do not only see pressure on the Commission, but serious mishaps that may jeopardize the credibility of the process. It is no joke that planning and executing the three events concomitantly is burdensome.

Election financing is still an issue in our ongoing democratization process. In 2005, the process was almost entirely covered by the international community with limited inputs from the National Transitional Government of Liberia (NTGL) in terms of financial and logistical resources. On the human resource or expertise front, there was similar situation but the role of the newly constituted Board was considerable. That was quite understandable given the fact that the country was in a post-conflict state and virtually had nothing to offer by then. In 2011, a cost-sharing electoral cycle project was jointly developed with a budget of US$38million by the UNDP and the Government of Liberia. Of this amount, the government covered US$12million in recurrent expenditure while friendly governments in particular, covered US$26million in election operation through an election basket fund managed by UNDP in keeping with the agreement. Additionally, the United States Government through its international development arm, USAID provided US$17million to the electoral process but directly through the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES). In essence, this analysis reveals that our election of 2011 was largely funded by the international community as well.

However, although the dynamics changed a little bit with the government underwriting the entire cost ($15 million) of the 2014 Special Senatorial Election, the financing mechanism caused serious delays in key activities such as the procurement of major logistics and election materials which constrained the Commission to postpone the start of the highly publicized Voter Roll Update (VRU) Exercise. This exercise was quite important to give Liberians who had just turned 18 or above the opportunity to be registered as voters in keeping with Article 77(b) of the 1986 Constitution. Liberians who were eligible but did not get registered during the last two registration processes in 2005 and 2011 also had the opportunity to do so including those who wanted to be well situated on the roll based on their new locations/addresses. The decision of the Commission to postpone the event dramatically reduced the expectation and enthusiasm of applicants; many of whom eventually lost interest in the exercise. Furthermore, the delays in making timely availability of funds created setbacks for the Commission in meeting key timelines which had direct effect on the overall conduct of the election. What is important to note is that US$15million can be equated to just a fragment of the total cost of the three events which may account for the least such as the anticipated Referendum which is estimated at 18millime. This means that mobilizing resources for all of the events at the same time will certainly be burdensome.

Undoubtedly, considering the size of the envelope for the anticipated referendum and Elections, any well-meaning Liberian will have reasons to harbor fears that timely resource mobilization is an issue. As estimated by the Commission, the Referendum will cost about $18 million, while the Voter Registration (VR) exercise and Elections will cost $77 million. The rough estimated cost for these three events is about $95 million. Absolutely, generating such required amount and making it available to the Commission in a timely manner for the scrupulous conduct of the three crucial national activities remains a challenge that must not be ignored. Prudently, the best option for now is to take on the Elections component (Voter Registration and the Elections) which is required by law (Article 83(a) of the 1986 Constitution) and then subsequently do the referendum at a time where resources will be appropriately mobilized. As a single task, I have no doubt that we will get the desired results.

Another key dimension to consider has to do with security. In spite of the efforts that are being made by the government to ensure security sector reform, citizens generally do not have trust and confidence in the current security arrangement of the country to cover events of this measure. The different security apparatuses have not reached their full capacities to be able to spread so thinly and still remain efficient. More so, the projection by the government that about $90 million is required to bridge the security gap that will be created as a result of UNMIL’s draw down underscores the need for timely and sober reflections. This situation is creating anxieties and apprehensions among citizens and indeed, it is a genuine concern that should be highly considered in the lead up to these events. Although the Liberian national Police (LNP), and the Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization (BIN) have always worked with the Commission to provide security for the electoral process, the presence of UNMIL has always served as a major deterrent for any form or forms of electoral violence. Besides, UNMIL role in the elections was beyond providing security to assisting the Commission in transporting election materials to hard-to-reach areas across the country.

In view of the foregoing my fellow compatriots, I wish to humbly appeal that we all go beyond our personal or selfish thoughts, ethnic or political alignments and reason together from a nationalistic perspective to adhere to this passionate call to preserve our dear country for ourselves, our children and the generations to come. In essence, it is purely from such national standpoint that I have chosen to call on the government and citizens to prudently and meticulously focus on the effective organization and conduct of the 2017 elections consistent with existing laws and the application of international best practices as we have always endeavored to do.

I have no doubt my fellow compatriots that with a smooth transition in our governance process as a result of the successful conduct of the elections in a peaceful and credible manner, we can collectively broaden the conversation on the Constitutional Reform process in the lead up to the conduct of a well-planned referendum in a manner and form that meet our aspirations as a people. Indisputably, a revised Constitution emanating from an uninterrupted planning and organization process will ultimately engender national ownership.

This is possible and quite appropriate because the Legislature has not acted on the report containing the propositions to mandate the National Elections Commission (NEC) to proceed with the organization and conduct of a referendum, in keeping with Article 91 of the 1986 Constitution. Accordingly, the Legislature can act to suspend deliberation on the report or defer the conduct of a referendum to reform the Constitution to a suitable time after the 2017 elections based on the rationale herein stated and those of other patriots. Let me further accentuate here that the conduct of the 2017 elections is not contingent upon the holding of a referendum to amend certain provisions of the Constitution. This simply means that conducting the elections before a referendum does not in any way violate or contravene any aspect or aspects of the law which infers that we are in the right position to choose the right option to safeguard our emerging democracy.

I am fully aware that we have acquired some degree of experience in terms of expertise in the management of elections. The trend can be traced from 2005 to present. After decades of struggle for the attainment of a democratic society, Liberia has already recorded a decade of an enduring democratic journey set into motion since October of 2005. In the aftermath of a long melee of political decadence characterized by deprivation, social and economic inequalities, anarchy and subjugation, an elected government was instituted for the first time reflecting the hopes and aspirations of majority of the citizens consistent with established and acceptable democratic principles.

Although the elections of 2005 were conducted largely under the supervision of the international community, the resolve and courage of the people to choose the path of democracy gave birth to the inauguration of democratic governance in Liberia following an atrocious era highly considered one of Africa’s bloodiest civil crises (The Liberian Civil War December 24, 1989-August 18, 2003). This great transition from war to peace has gone down in history reflecting the true point of departure from the horrible and unforgettable epoch. This great and timely involvement of the international community in the organization and conduct of the elections was quite understandable. Absolutely, Liberians remain grateful for such intervention. The country had just emerged from a decade and half of self-destroying civil war and its fragility was deeply mirrored in the high degree of its dysfunctionality. Very limited or no infrastructure, social services were practically none-existent, security system fragmented and factionalized along ethnic lines, and eventually the country became a setting of poor and war-wearied people isolated from the rest of the world, thus accounting for a failed state.

In essence, the conditions necessary for the conduct of democratic elections in terms of the needed human resource or expertise, infrastructure and legal framework (laws, codes of conduct, regulations and guidelines) were very limited in scope or did not exist in any measure. This signifies that post-conflict elections such as ours in 2005 and 2011 respectively do required wide range interventions or support of various sorts ranging from technical to financial support. This situation necessitated the need for technical and financial resource support to Liberia’s first two post-conflict elections which recorded landmark accomplishments.

Not only were the elections nationally and internationally acclaimed as free, fair, transparent and credible but electing the first female president of Africa, Madam Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, was a crucial paradigm shift particularly in Africa’s democratization efforts. This history-making was certainly a vivid example demonstrated by Liberia and eventually, the credit heralded the small West African nation for engendering equity in its fledgling democracy.

At the same time however, this much credited gain placed squarely to the feet of the President and her newly elected government the challenge of consolidating the peace and sustaining the country’s nascent democracy. Inheriting a shattered country, the government was fully aware of the enormity of the challenges. Thus, it fittingly braced itself to endeavor in rebuilding and strengthening a justice system backed by the rule of law, revitalizing the already weak and unstable economy in order to raise the standard of living with a long term goal of creating a middle class. It also considered the development or building of infrastructures to provide basic social services such as health, education, electricity and water supplies. Other important aspects of the recovery and development process the government has attempted to address include increased productivity in food production, road construction, upholding the right to information and freedom of the press, skills development and job creation among others.

It is no doubt that since the inception of the government, the country has continued to steadily rebuild in spite of the enormity of the challenges that continue to confront it. As a result of these undertakings of the government, a lot has been achieved. This accounts for the significant improvement in the country’s image internationally compared to the recent past which is indicative of its role in global affairs. Access to information and freedom of the press have been considerably improved and enhanced to give citizens the space to share into national conversations. Although fundamental steps in terms of establishing anti-graft institutions were appropriately taken, but corruption remains pervasive thus undermining key national development efforts. As such, a step has to be taken further with a stronger commitment to rally all facets of the society in confronting this common scourge.

In like vein, persistent efforts have been made toward addressing the prevailing harsh economic situation, especially making the basic needs of the people to include health, education, electricity, water, roads and transport a reality. Absolutely, meeting these needs is critical to the pursuit of happiness and the overall stability of the state. Conversely, much is yet to be done in fulfilling these necessities of life.

In spite of these many challenges that continue to beset our beloved nation, I can unambiguously aver today that we have made reasonable progress but what remains germane in this national excursion is the collective responsibility that we all have to protect this very nascent democracy of ours in order to safeguard our nation.

It is therefore my ardent hope that this national and passionate call will be considered by the government as a priority in foresight as we strive to build the Liberia we all envisioned for ourselves, our children and generations to come; a place where equality, fair play and justice will be the hallmark of our national existence.

 MAY GOD ALMIGHTY BLESS US AND SAFE THE STATE.

 

The author has more than 10 years of professional experience in the public sector in the areas of education, democracy and governance. He has authored three books and several published articles

 

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