Monday, 25 April 2011


How Would the Outcome Influence Presidential, Legislative Elections, Future Of Supreme Court?
Monrovia - 

hen the clock strikes midnight on Sunday, May 1, 2011, a week from now, campaigning over issues relating to constitutional provisions slated for possible amendment in this year’s referendum will commence in post-war Liberia.
Campaigning will officially end at midnight August 21, 2011 just two days before the referendum takes place on August 23rd 2011.
On August 17, 2010, a Joint Resolution 001 was adopted by the National Legislature comprising both the Senate and House of Representatives of the 52nd Legislature proposing a Constitutional Referendum to amend four provisions in the 1986 Liberian Constitution. The proposed amendment includes articles 52(c),72(b) and 83(a) and(b).  The last time in living memory that Liberia held a referendum was to adopt the 1985 revised constitution during the Samuel Doe administration.
As a result of the resolution, the National Elections Commission (NEC) is gearing up to conduct an impending referendum in keeping with Article 91 of the 1986 Constitution of Liberia, which among other things, states that “the Elections Commission shall conduct a referendum to amend certain provisions of the said 1986 Constitution for as specified by law”. The date for the National Referendum is August 23, 2011 and Only Liberians with valid 2011 Voters' registration cards will be eligible to vote in the forthcoming National Referendum.
Ahead of the campaign period next week, the issues are already being debated and have been subjected to scrutiny with supporters and opposition failing to find common ground on a key component that will pave the way for elections in November. The National Elections Commission has been criticized and accused of beefing up the referendum ballot to suit the incumbent Unity Party government and opposition political parties have gone a step further by threatening a lawsuit and are already rallying support to defeat the cause.
Dew Mayson, the political leader of the New Deal Movement told reporters recently that the referendum does not only go against the letter and spirit of the Liberian constitution but is tailored to qualify the incumbent President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf to run for a second term and assist her party in winning seats in the national legislature. The New Deal Movement party boss who is poised to being the political leader of the proposed National Democratic Coalition (NDC), brands the pending national referendum as immoral and unconstitutional.
A resolution signed by parties opposing the incumbent said: “In the supreme interest of strengthening our democracy against the unveiled attempts by the President and her party to sabotage this democracy and possibly plunge our country into another round of chaos, we the leaders of the opposition political parties do hereby pledge to work together to ensure the defeat of these referendum when it is presented to the electorates in august. The political parties currently negotiating the effort include the National Patriotic Party(NPP), the National Democratic Party of Liberia(NDPL), the Liberia People’s Party(LPP), the Congress for Democratic Change(CDC), the United People’s Party(UPP),the Movement for Progressive Change(MPP), Liberia Equal Rights Party(LERP) among others.
On the ballot are four key issues which could make or break the presidential race and decide the fate of the current Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Johnnie Lewis. While Lewis’s definite age is unknown, the court recently lost one member, Gladys’ Johnson who reached the 70-year-old age requirement to step down from the bench.
While many political observers will be watching with keen interest, how the referendum play affects the Supreme Court, it is the issue of the residency requirement for the presidential race which will most likely have the most immediate impact.
Several presidential candidates stand possible elimination from the race if the referendum does not get the required votes for the residency clause to be reduced from ten to five years. Come August when the referendum is due, the effect could weigh heavily on many of those currently in the running.
Under the current constitutional requirement, residents are required to have resided in Liberia at least ten years prior to elections. On the ballot come August, Article 52 (c)….. will be amended to read: “resident in the Republic five consecutive years immediately prior to the election in which he/she seeks to contest provided that the president and the vice president shall come from the same county”.
The debate over the clause has been intense with political analysts predicting that whatever the outcome virtually every contender could be affected, including the incumbent.
For example, Charles Brumskine arrived in Liberia in 2003 and promptly turned over his American green card to the Embassy in Monrovia.  Ellen Sirleaf arrived later that year after she failed to win a bid for the interim presidency in Accra. Winston Tubman himself moved to Liberia a year later after resigning his position as UN Special Representative in Somalia. All three have been living in Liberia since they first
arrived without change in residence. However, if the residency clause is construed narrowly, as some would suggest, they all would be ineligible to contest the ensuing 2011 elections. Others like Weah and
Mayson have maintained residences elsewhere. Weah resides in the State of Florida in the United States, where he is supposedly a full time student and Mayson currently resides in Nigeria. Both of them make frequent political visits to Liberia. For them, the residency clock has not yet started running.
With the presidency requirement gaining traction, the focus on the Supreme Court bench is expected to be just as important. The current age limit for the Chief Justice and Associates is 70-years. Come August, Article 72 (b)…. Will be amended to read: “The Chief Justice and Associate Justices of the Supreme Court and Judges of the subordinate courts of record shall be retired at the age of seventy-five; provided however that a justice or judge who has attained that age may continue in office for as long as may be necessary to enable him render judgment or perform any other judicial duty in regard to proceedings by him before he attained that age”.
Focus on the bench comes in the aftermath of the recent retirement of Associate Justice Gladys’ Johnson. Johnson was appointed after the 2005 elections and is already making plans to contest a seat in the national legislature from her hometown in Grand Cape Mount.
Critics of the amendment move contend that the requirement should be untouched while those in favor say justices should remain on the bench for life barring any serious illnesses. The mystery here is Lewis, whose actual age is not known although some historians put the Chief Justice’s age between 66 and 67.
Also on the ballot is the actual date for voters to cast their ballots. In 2005 national elections were held in October and the run-off in November. The ensuing referendum is hoping to change that.
Article 83 (a)… will be amended to read: “Voting for the President, Vice President, members of the Senate, and members of the House of Representatives shall be conducted throughout the Republic on the second Tuesday in November of each election year; and elections of City Mayors and their respective councils, as well as for chiefs, shall be conducted three years following each general and presidential elections.” Under the proposed referendum, if no candidate obtains an absolute majority in the first ballot, a second ballot shall be conducted on the second Tuesday following. The two candidates who received the greatest numbers of the votes on the first ballot shall be designated to participate in the run-off election”. But if amended through the referendum, the absolute majority clause will only apply to the Presidency while all other elected posts will be based on “First Pass the Post” or simple majority.
Perhaps the most important of the issues on the ballot is the simple majority requirements for the declaration of victory. Article 83 (b)… will be amended to read: “Except for President and Vice President, all elections for public officers shall be determined by a simple majority of the valid votes cast in any election. Election of President and Vice President shall be by absolute majority in the first ballot, a second ballot shall be conducted on the second Tuesday following the expiry of the time provided in Article 83 (c). The two presidential tickets that received the greatest number of valid votes on the first ballot shall be the valid votes cast shall be declared winner.”
Amid the debate over the referendum, there is much confusion as to what transpired leading to the drafting of the Act of Legislature for the pending national referendum. One view is that some prior consultations were held between the NEC and political parties, and that there was an agreement to hold the referendum, When it took so long(more than a year} for the bill to be pass, and while many of the current presidential candidates had not yet declared their intentions, there was much public outcry that the Legislature was delaying the electoral process.
Another view is that some parties, who may have been asleep in the driver’s seat woke up just after the political train past their intended destination. They suddenly realized that if passed, the five year restriction would not affect the incumbent, who would have resided in Liberia for more than five years, and presided as President, thus qualifying her to run trouble-free.
For now though, the court of public opinion remains divided.
Political activist Sekijipo A. Sekijipo, for example remains convinced that the government and the NEC is out line. “The NEC is violating the constitution of Liberia by not abiding by the one year rule. First and foremost, the referendum is to justify Ellen’s second term bid. The NEC is talking about ten years before one can run for the presidency, why are they reducing it to five years, only to keep Ellen in power?”
In contrast, Richard Asamuwontee Kieh, a Student of Liberal Arts College, AME University says he sees nothing wrong because constitutionally the referendum should be conducted a year prior to the elections. “So, if under the Unity Part (UP) led government, a few months to the elections, they will be conducting a referendum, I believe that is highly unconstitutional.”
For businessman James B. Nyamen, the referendum is a good thing and it is now left with the National Elections Commission (NEC) along with the Liberian Government to decide.
As voters and political pundits begin gearing up for campaigning the issues on the ballot this year, keen followers of political history will no doubt be weighing in the pros and cons of the issues in play. More importantly, many fear voter turnout could play a pivotal role and could make or break the elections this year. But only those registered to vote in the elections will be allowed to vote in the referendum and as it stands now, the provisional registration roll was clocked by the NEC at 1.7 million plus voters who are registered to vote, getting a fraction of those to the polls for a referendum could no doubt weigh heavily on the outcome of the elections but most importantly, decide whether justices on the high court will extend their stay by five years.
For now though, critics are however unsure whether the NEC has put in place the right mechanism to sensitize voters about the importance of the referendum with enormous importance to Liberia’s immediate future. In a polarized political society where many are customarily used to casting votes for presidents and legislators, voting in referendum is rare. For many political observers, the sticky issues for the NEC remain how well it ensures that the message gets out in a timely fashion. The debates over the next few weeks will no doubt excite the process but experts say the challenge for the NEC remains daunting in the next few weeks and voters education and sensitization could very well be the key to ensuring that the message of the process does not get lost in translation or keep voters away from this crucial referendum play.
Reporter Clara K. Mallah contributed to this report