Liberia: 2014 Supreme Court Ruling Could Impact Quest to Change Midterm Elections Date

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In 2014, in the wake of the Ebola epidemic, former President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf declared a state of emergency which was endorsed by the Legislature and on October 4, 2014, while the state of emergency was still in force and effect, President Sirleaf issued a proclamation suspending the holding of the special senatorial elections slated for October 14, 2014. This led to the filing of a petition to the Supreme Court by Cllr. Cyrennius Cephus, current Solicitor General of Liberia. Cephus’s attempt came up short.

Monrovia –In 2014, when the deadly Ebola virus outbreak was wreaking havoc and threatening to disrupt the Midterm Senatorial elections, Cllr. Cyrennius Cephus was at the center of what could eventually become the legal basis for any potential change of election date, seven years later, as a result of the ongoing deadly Coronavirus pandemic.

Cephus, now Solicitor General in the George Weah-led government could play a central role for the government in the event of a postponement and challenge from the opposition.

Regarding whether the election could be held during the Ebola crisis, the Court  held that it was a political question, bordering on policy issues, which fell within the purview of the Legislative and Executive Branches of the Government and certainly not the Judiciary.

On Monday, Mr. Alexander Cummings, the new chairman of the opposition political conglomeration, the Collaborating Political Parties (CPP), declared that  the CPP will not accept any Midterm election beyond December 2020.

“The CPP will not accept the election any date later than December 25, 2020. To be fair and reasonable, we can argue that coronavirus could put some delay the same way it happened in 2014 during Ebola Virus, but we will insist, we will demand that the election does not go beyond December 2020,” said Mr. Cummings when he made his debut appearance on the Costa Show. “It will unacceptable, it will be unconstitutional – this will be a constitutional crisis. So, we will do anything within our means, within the law to ensure that elections take place no later than December 2020.”

2014: State of Emergency Triggered Legal Wrangle

In 2014, in the wake of the Ebola epidemic, former President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf declared a state of emergency which was endorsed by the Legislature and on October 4, 2014, while the state of emergency was still in force and effect, President Sirleaf issued a proclamation suspending the holding of the special senatorial elections slated for October 14, 2014. 

The Legislation, by Joint Resolution, endorsed the action of the President suspending the election. The Resolution stated, however, that the elections should be conducted not later than December 20, 2014. It was conducted on December 16, 2014.

Following the passage of the Resolution by the Legislature, Counsellors Cephus and Edwin K.  Martin, representing the Public Interest Consortium Africa (JUPICA), Concerned Group of Eminent Citizens, Movement for Progressive Change (MPC), Leaders of Political Parties and Civil Society Organization (CGEC), filed a petition for the Writ of  Prohibition at the Supreme Court, contending that the President having suspended the  Special Senatoral  election, only the people of Liberia, pursuant to the Constitutional provision  “we the people” (Article 1) could set a new date at the convening of a conference.

The Petitioners were represented by Counsellors Cephus and Martin; the National Elections Commission was represented by Counsellors T. C. Gould and Frank Musah Dean, Jr.,  while the government was represented by Cllrs. Benedict Sannoh, Betty Lamin-Blamo and Augustine Fayiah.

Cephus Petition Denied

The Court held that firstly, the Constitution gives the Legislature the power to make election laws. Secondly, because the Joint Resolution was passed by the Legislature and signed into law by the President when the state of emergency was still in effect,  constituted a modification of the measures taken by the President pursuant to the state of emergency as required by Article 88 of the Constitution. The Court held that a resolution passed by the Legislature and signed into law by the President is law. The Court ruled that both the President and the Narional Legislature, having performed acts within the pale of the law, did not violate the Constitution. 

The Court rejected the “we the people” argument advanced by the Petitioners and held it was an improper interpretation of the Constitution. It held that the people act through their elected and/or appointed officials. 

Regarding whether the election could be held during the Ebola crisis, the Court  held that it was a political question, bordering on policy issues, which fell within the purview of the Legislative and Executive Branches of the Government and certainly not the Judiciary.

In the end, the Petition was denied.

With the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic creating a buzz of uncertainty, echoes of 2014 is in the air although Finance and Economic Planning Minister Samuel Tweah, told the Senate Committee on Judiciary and Elections Monday that the government is prepared to fund the pending referendum and Mid-Term senatorial election and avoid a constitutional crisis.

This could spell good news for a busy year for elections in the West African sub-region.

To put it all in context, none of the five countries that have Presidential elections this year in the region have postponed their elections. Togo held her elections in February while others are still monitoring the Covid response and waiting until June to determine the way forward through consensus by all stakeholders as advised by the ECOWAS Commission.

ECOWAS Monitoring 

With the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic creating a buzz of uncertainty, echoes of 2014 is in the air although Finance and Economic Planning Minister Samuel Tweah, told the Senate Committee on Judiciary and Elections Monday that the government is prepared to fund the pending referendum and Mid-Term senatorial election and avoid a constitutional crisis.

Apart from Covid challenges, there are security, humanitarian problems in countries like Nigeria and Burkina Faso where they are still holding consultations while Côte’ d’ivoire is also doing the same, monitoring the Covid response as the Constitutional Court contemplates whether there will be a change in the electoral date.

Guinea, despite losing its Head of Elections Commission last month, has not said anything about changing the date of the Presidential elections as President Alpha Conde has put himself in the race with his recent shambolic referendum.

Apart from consensus building among all stakeholders to arrive at a suitable electoral date, ECOWAS has been pressing member states to consider and respect relevant sections of their constitutions and electoral laws in resolving issues relating to electoral calendar amendment as a result of Covid- 19 response.

Looking back to 2014, Mr. Tolbert Nyenswah, former Director General of the National Public Health Institute(NPHIL) and currently a Senior Research Associate with the International Health Department of Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University says, there are a lot of important lessons about political processes and social services that could be learned from the 2014-2016 Ebola crisis. 

Looking back to 2014, Mr. Tolbert Nyenswah, former Director General of the National Public Health Institute(NPHIL) and currently a Senior Research Associate with the International Health Department of Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University says, there are a lot of important lessons about political processes and social services that could be learned from the 2014-2016 Ebola crisis. 

Says Tolbert: “Liberia’s Senatorial elections were scheduled to be held on December 20, 2014, with the voter turnout expected to be high. For obvious reason(s)  now, His Eexcellency, President Weah was in the race running for the Senate. What could have been considered a political stand-off and would’ve created an unstable situation was prevented through astute leadership! Politicians contesting re-elections believed that the country was not safe, in view of the then-ongoing Ebola epidemic of 2014.”

2014 Health Protocol Was Key

In concert with the National Election Commission, NPHIL established a series of health protocols that offered a pathway to safe elections during the pandemic. 

According to Tolbert, organizing and monitoring the process was daunting and challenging,  “It was a terrific process at the end game! My team members, including, Dr. Mardia Stone, and I were on the field, we monitored Liberians vote peacefully in their numbers.”

As part of the planning, the team met with with political party leaders, NEC officials and the President’s Advisory Committee on Ebola (PACE), members of the legislature then, convinced them that it was safe.”

With the Coronavirus pandemic still causing problems for many countries around the world, the Weah administration appears to be moving toward easing some fears over the uncertainty surrounding the holding elections later this year. But no matter how long COVID-19 lasts, Tolbert is hopeful the same can be done this time around. “We conducted the elections safely. Liberia remains peaceful amidst the Ebola Outbreak of, 2014. COVID-19 it’s possible please, just modify the health protocols. In 2014, they wanted the elections canceled. However, first-time contestants seeking elections to unseat the incumbent Senators, pushed for elections to occur. As the incident manager we organized a team, we urgently developed new strategies and logistics and supported the electoral process.”

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