Liberia: Dec. 8 Referendum Aiming to Turn Clock on History Amid Lingering Political Undertones
Monrovia – There was a time in Liberia’s history when constitutional scholars and the powers that be felt that the term limits for the Presidency was just too short. Then came the domination of the True Whig Party. Formed in1869, more than a hundred years after Liberia became Africa’s first independent nation, the TWP, although only a shadow of itself these days, remains the oldest political party in Liberia.
Analysis by Rodney D. Sieh, [email protected]
In a nation whose history has been plagued by lingering divisions between the congau and the indigenous, the TWP’s dominance, rarely threatened, except for its main rival, the Republican Party, dominated Liberian politics from 1878 until 1980 when Master Sargeant Samuel Kanyon Doe and his band of low-ranked army officers staged a coup d’etat that ended decades of Americo-Liberian rule and a one-party reign.
TWP Dominance vs. Barren Opposition Spell
The demise of the TWP came with a fatal blow. Most, if not all of its leading figures were killed or fled in the wake of the coup of 1980 and the party ceased to be officially recognized following the coup. Although the TWP was never disbanded, it went on to participate in the Coalition for the Transformation of Liberia(COTOL) ahead of the 2005 General Elections before reconstituting itself as an individual entity for the 2011 and 2017 elections.
For all the years, the TWP ruled, the opposition was never outlawed, but were simply at a disadvantage, as has been the case since the rise of competitive politics in Liberia. In fact, until the Coalition for Democratic Change broke the chain in the 2017 elections, no opposition had won the presidency or state power, since the TWP dislodged the Republican Party, in the election that brought Edward James Roye to power as the fifth President of Liberia in 1870.
Roye led from only a year. He was overthrown and killed in 1871. Roye had previously served as Chief Justice from 1865 until 1868. He was the first member of the TWP to serve as president of Liberia.
In the backdrop of Liberia’s rugged history of competitive politics, the George Weah administration, looking to cement his legacy, has begun a massive awareness in the run-up to the December 8, 2020 elections; starting off with a referendum, aimed at pushing what could potentially go a long way in defining portions of his presidency, with a push to amend Article 50 of the Constitution to provide for the reduction in the tenure of the President from six to five years; Senators from Nine to Seven and members of the lower house from six to five years.
The Referendum is also seeking to amend Article 28 of the constitution so that any person, with at least one parent holding Liberian citizenship, at the time of the person birth, shall be a citizen of Liberia without having to decide at age 18; and also to provide for dual citizenship.
1847, 1907 Referendums Set Tone
Liberia has rarely held Constitutional Referendums since its independence.
The first held on September 27, 1847, three months after it gained independence, created a President with executive powers and a bicameral legislature.
The Referendum also restricted voting rights to those of African descent and landowners. It was approved by 79% of voters, although only 272 people voted. In Monrovia, Millsburg, Bassa Cove and Bexley, 100% of voters supported the constitution, whilst 100% voted against it in Sinoe, In Edina, opponents of the constitution prevented the polling station opening, and a fist-fight broke out between Amos Hernig and Ephraim Titler, two of the signatories of the Declaration of Independence. Opponents of the constitution in Bassa Cove and Bexley chose not to vote.
It was not until sixty years later, on May 7, 1907 that a second referendum was held. This time? on extending the term length for the President, Senators and members of the House of Representatives.
That Referendum lengthened the terms of all such officials: the President (two years to four), House of Representatives (two years to four), and the Senate (four years to six).
It would take another 77 years for a change.
When the Doe-appointed drafters of the approved, revised constitution of 1986, got together, they took the controversial decision, using the route of “continuity” to further increase the term limits, inserting in the Chapter under the Executive, Article 50 which extended the President’s term from four to six years.
Article 50 States: “The Executive Power of the Republic shall be vested in the President who shall be Head of State, Head of Government and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Liberia. The president shall be elected by universal adult suffrage of registered voters in the Republic and shall hold office for a term of six years commencing at noon on the third working Monday in January of the year immediately following the elections. No person shall serve as President for more than two terms.”
Regarding the Senate, Article 46, extended the term to nine years. Article 46 states: “Immediately after the Senate shall have assembled following the elections prior to the coming into force of this Constitution, the Senators shall be divided into two categories as a result of the votes cast in each county. The Senator with the higher votes cast shall be the Senator from a county shall be placed in the same category. The seats of Senators of the first category shall be vacated at the expiration of the ninth year. In the interest of legislative continuity, the Senators of the second category shall serve a first term of six years only, after the first elections. Thereafter, all Senators shall be elected to serve a term of nine years.
Article 48 extended the Lower House from four to six years. “The House of Representatives shall be composed of members elected for a term of six years by the registered voters in each of the legislative constituencies of the counties, but a member of the House of Representatives elected in a by-election to fill a vacancy created by death, resignation or otherwise, shall be elected to serve only the remainder of the unexpired term of the office. Members of the House of Representatives shall be eligible for re-election.
2020 Referendum Looking to Turn Back Clock
Now, 34 years later, another referendum is on the horizon in hopes of reducing term limits for the presidency and members of the upper and lower house.
The latest quest at change was started seven years ago when former President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf established a Constitutional Review Committee to comprehensively review the 1986 Constitution and make proposals for reform/amendment.
All three items on the Referendum of 2020 – reducing the length of presidential and legislative terms and on the right to dual nationality, are a lightning rod for a political firestorm.
The Referendum of 2020 is seeking to scale back the current six-year presidential tenure to five years, and limited to two terms in office, under the planned changes. The same will apply to the vice presidency.
For many decades, the term of office was as many four (4) years as the people elected the person to be President. President Tolbert had the 1847 Constitution amended to provide for one eight-year term. The 1986 Constitution provides for two six-year terms but in most parts of the world, especially Africa, it is two five- year terms. This amendment proposes to comply with this generally accepted term limit of five (5) years for a President for a maximum of two (2) terms.
Under the current constitution, Article 50 reads, “The Executive Power of the Republic shall be vested in the President who shall be Head of State, Head of Government and Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces of Liberia. The President shall be elected by universal adult suffrage of registered voters in the Republic and shall hold office for a term of six years commencing at noon on the third working Monday in January of the year immediately following the elections. No person shall serve as President for more than two terms.
When amended, it will read: “The Executive Power of the Republic shall be vested in the President who shall be Head of State, Head of Government and Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces of Liberia. The President shall be elected by universal adult suffrage of registered voters in the Republic and shall hold office for a term of five (5) years commencing at noon on the third working Monday in January of the year immediately following the elections. No person shall serve as President for more than two terms”.
A YES Vote on this Measure means: “You are in agreement of amending Articles 45, 47, 48, 49 and 50 of the Constitution to reduce the tenures of the Senators from nine (9) years to seven (7) years; the President Pro Tempore from six (6) years to five (5) years; Members of the House of Representatives from six (6) years to five (5) years; the Speaker, Deputy Speaker and other officers of the House of Representatives from six (6) years to five (5) years; and the President from six (6) years to five (5) years.”
A NO Vote on this Measure means: The Constitutional provision shall not change but remain in its current form
Proposition 1: The Dual Citizenship Saga
Voters will also be asked to determine a proposed change to nationality laws — one of the most divisive issues that has haunted Liberia for years.
Under the current law, children born from at least one Liberian parent must take an oath of allegiance before the age of 23 in order to gain Liberian citizenship. After that, the person has to go through naturalization to gain citizenship — a process that, under current law, can only be approved if they are descendants of indigenous Africans. The long-term restriction has had an impact on members of the ethnic Lebanese community, which has played a major economic role in Liberia for decades. The restriction has also prevented many of them from obtaining Liberian nationality and thus restricts their right to own land.
Under the proposed change, any child of a Liberian will automatically qualify for nationality — a move that is seen here as providing a boost for investment from abroad. Under current laws, dual nationality is barred.
A sticking point of this is the fact that most of Liberia’s elites secretly hold citizenship of the US and other countries and most times, those who find their way into government are often accused of transferring wealth earned in Liberia to build homes in their respective foreign residences.
The law, if approved, would permit dual citizenship, but be excluded from a range of prominent positions, including the chief justice, cabinet ministers and ambassadors.
In order to afford the Liberian voters the opportunity to decide whether any person can be a natural-born citizen of Liberia when either one of his or her parents is a Liberian citizen; and whether a Liberian can hold different citizenship.
As a consequence of the civil war, hundreds of Liberian fled Liberia as refugees assumed residency in other countries and obtained citizenship of other countries. Many obtained citizenship because that was the only way for them to get certain jobs or to enjoy certain opportunities, such as education. Most of these Liberians also had children and continue to have children, who are automatically citizens of the countries of their birth.
Whatever the circumstance of these Liberians may be, one thing that is certain is that their loyalty to their motherland remains unquestionable; they continue to provide support to relatives and friends and to remain connected to their motherland through financial remittances. They continue to cling to the belief that they will be able to enjoy all the rights and privileges of Liberian citizenship, such as inheriting real property from their parents and being able to return to their motherland and be accepted and regarded as natural-born citizens, not as foreigners. This amendment of the Constitution will enthuse all natural-born Liberians to invest in Liberia and will give them hope of a permanent home in their motherland. To ensure that the loyalty of these Liberians will not be questioned, they are prohibited from holding certain positions in the Government of Liberia.
Article 28 currently reads, “Any person, at least one of whose parents was a citizen of Liberia at the time of the person’s birth, shall be a citizen of Liberia; provided that any such person shall upon reaching maturity renounce any other citizenship acquired by virtue of one parent being a citizen of another country. No citizen of the Republic shall be deprived of citizenship or nationality except as provided by law; and no person shall be denied the right to change citizenship or nationality”.
Voting YES would mean Liberians would be opting for General Elections to be conducted on the Second Tuesday in November instead of Second Tuesday in October. You have also agreed to reduce the time allotted for the hearing of complaints coming from General Elections from thirty (30) days to fifteen (15) days.
A NO Vote on this Measure means: The Constitutional provision shall not change but will remain in its current form
2020 Referendum a Turning Point
Upon the announcement of the result of the Proposed Referendum Amendments, the result thereof shall be immediately implemented by the National Elections Commission.
The conduct of the Proposed Amendment shall be applicable to all elections conducted under the 1986 Elections Law, the Electoral Reform Law of 2004 and all other electoral laws, regulations and guidelines.
The goal of this proposition is to address the issue of holding elections during the raining season which is very, challenging for the National Elections Commission, voters and candidates because of their road-connectivity problems and the weather. By placing election day in November, a substantial amount of these activities can take place during the dry season.
As the clock ticks toward the December 8 Referendum and elections, the Weah administration is pulling no strings in hopes that Liberians will buy into its plan to change the constitution. But behind the billboards and posters resurrecting across the country, many political observers have questions. Why did drafters of the constitution extend the term limits for the presidency to six, Senators to nine and lower house members to six in the first place.
While voters will get a chance to correct the errors of the past, the political undertones of Liberia’s recent history suggest, a growing impatience toward elected officials hanging onto and abusing their powers. The upcoming referendum is seen by many as a turning point in Liberia’s rugged history although many may been keen to see the term limits further sliced even more; to four years for all elected officials.