The pending August 23, 2011 Referendum in Liberia which has four propositions seems to be one of the most controversial referendums in contemporary Liberia. Peeping into the Liberia's history, Liberia held its first and independence referendum on 27 October 1846, followed by its constitutional referendum which was held on 27 September 1847. The new constitution would create a President with executive powers and a bicameral Legislature. The latest of these referendums was the 3 July 1984 Constitutional Referendum which was held in Liberia to draw up a new constitution. It was approved by 98.6% of voters, with a turnout of about 566,891 voters. The new constitution came into force on 6 January 1986, following the 1985 general elections.
The pending referendum has four propositions, which are summarized as follows: 1) Residency Clause, to amend article 52c so that the residency requirement for presidency be reduced from ten (10) years to five (5) years prior to an election 2) Retirement for Judges, to amend Article 72b so that the Supreme Court and Judges of the subordinate courts of records shall serve for life , except that they shall be retired at age seventy five (75) 3) Elections Date, to amend Article 83a so as to change the current constitutional election date from the second Tuesday in October to the second Tuesday in November. 4) Absolute majority requirement for elective positions, to amend Article 83b so that election for all public officers, except for the president and vice president shall be by simple majority of valid votes cast in any election in Liberia.
Most political and legal pundits have argued that the August 23, 2011 referendum is illegal and are also protesting against the referendum terming it as a ploy to protect few individuals who they alleged do not meet the minimum requirement of 10 years residency in Liberia before the October 2011 elections.
Whatever the different debates, arguments, and propositions are on the pending referendum, we think that the pending referendum is premature, unconstitutional, irrelevant and an intentional waste of tax payers' money and donor resources. When held, it would lead the nation in to chaos. None of the propositions put forth for the planned referendum justifies the need for a hasty referendum in the midst of development priorities.
Article 91 of the 1986 Constitution of Liberia states “the constitution may be amended whenever a proposal by either 1) two-thirds of the membership of both houses of Legislature or 2) a petition submitted to the Legislature by not fewer than 10,000 citizens which receives the concurrence of two-thirds of membership of both houses of the legislature, is ratified by two thirds of registered voters, voting in a referendum conducted by the elections commission not sooner than one year after the action of the Legislature” .
Article 92 further states “that proposed constitutional amendments shall be accompanied by statements setting forth the reasons therefore and shall be published in the official gazette and made known to the people through the information services of the republic. If more than one proposed amendments are to be voted upon in a referendum, they shall be submitted in such manner that the people may vote for or against them separately”.
We are aware of the Joint Resolution 001/2010 passed by the National Legislature on August 17, 2010 approving four provisions of the 1986 Constitution of Liberia to be amended with approval from President Sirleaf on September 10, 2010; printed into handbills on October 14, 2010 and the official gazette published on November 19, 2010 but could not be seen at public areas and in rural communities until late February 2011.
Against these backdrops, we think that the pending referendum is premature because it does not reach the one year requirement as stated by the constitution. The resolution which was passed in August 2010 and approved by the President in September of the same year does not sum to the one year requirement put forth in the constitution.
Resolutions that are overwhelmingly endorsed by both houses are not given an iota of credence until it is approved by a sitting President. On the other hand, unless the president vetoes it and the veto is overridden by two thirds members of both houses. By the President's approval of the proposed amendments to the constitution on September 10, 2010, and the date set for the referendum for August 23, 2011 renders such process unconstitutional and premature.
The official gazette was not publicized by the relevant information services of the republic on time, thereby making most Liberians not inform about the pending referendum, especially in rural parts of the country. The gazette is to serve as a source of debate FOR or AGAINST the propositions put forth and to also serve as a basis for people to ponder on voting either YES or NO on the propositions.
The pending referendum is an intentional waste of resources. In fact, in September 2010, National Elections Commission (NEC) Chairman James M. Fromayan announced that the referendum would not be held before the scheduled presidential and legislative elections on 11 October 2011, stating that the estimated cost of holding both in close proximity would be prohibitive.
We are also aware, that the NEC has a serious capacity problem which it has always acknowledged and even amplified such capacity problem during the conduct of the crucial and critical Montserrado County By-Election in November 2010. NEC conducted the by-election by the opening of polling stations late and electoral materials did not reach to polling stations in rural Montserrado County on time.
The question is have they enhanced their capacity as a result of the lesson learnt from the last by-election. We think they have not. To conduct a referendum, general and presidential elections in the space of less than 30 days is not only laughable but send out a clear message to the rest of the world that we do not have strong civil society organizations that will amalgamate and protest the premature referendum in a critical election year that is send out a message about Liberia's nascent and growing democracy.
We have defended the credibility of NEC and have said in previous articles that NEC possesses the requisite credibility to conduct free and fair elections in Liberia, drawing empirical and authoritative evidences from previous general and by-elections held. But for NEC to overturn their previous decision and come up lately and say they will conduct referendum, general and presidential elections in the space of less than 30 days cannot even be defended by a commission that has serious capacity problem.
One major issue observed during the voters registration exercises on the part of the NEC was they did not inform the eligible citizenry to register in order to vote for or against the referendum in August 2011, but only emphasised on the pending October 2011 elections. There was no level of education and awareness about the pending referendum during the voters' registration exercises conducted from January 10, 2011 to February 12, 2011, but the slogan of the day was “Register to Vote in October 2011 Elections”.
What is the essence of a referendum after 14 years of self devastation, coupled with a staggering poverty rate of 64% and high illiteracy rate of more than 65%? Liberians are very poor and illiterate and are pre-occupied with finding bread to put on their tables, instead of wasting precious time on referendum. Briefed examples are voters' apathy in the November 2010 Montserrado County By-Election and other by-elections held around the country and most of all, the low turnout during the voters registration conducted early this year, when the NEC anticipated 2.7 Million registered voters and barely register about 1.8 Million voters.
People are rebuilding their shattered lives; it requires the process of grassroots' civic education and tutorials in democratization in order for poor people to develop interest in the political process. These trainings and tutorials will enhance their understanding on civic and political issues.
The avoid chaos and bleak future for us young Liberians, in the midst of the Legislative and Executive Branches of government willingly nullifying and circumventing the organic law, we will have no regret in the coming days to form a network and pray to the honourable Supreme Court of Liberia to place an immediate moratorium on all issues pertaining to the pending purported, illegal and irrelevant referendum. We will also pray to the court to render the pending referendum illegal. Our petition to the Honourable Supreme Court will prove the people's power in the framework of the rule of law.
Our actions will be justified by constitutional provisions and will also send out a message that new breed of enlighten young Liberians are taking up positive action in the governance processes of a once failed state and striving for the holistic development of Liberia.