Liberia: President George Manneh Weah Reportedly Preparing Bill to Shorten Stay in Power, Eyes Similar Cut for Lawmakers
Monrovia – When former President Ellen Sirleaf Johnson completed her second successive term of office last January, paving the way for her successor, George Manneh Weah to assume the mantle of authority as Liberia’s new head of state, it marked the first peaceful transfer of power in more than 70 years for Africa’s oldest republic. Now FrontPageAfrica is gathering that President Weah is planning to go a step further with a proposal on the table to reduce the presidential term limits from six years to five.
The President, according to Executive Mansion sources is also planning to push for the reduction in term of office for members of the national legislature, eyeing a reduction from nine to seven years for Senators and six to five years for members of the lower House.
How far the President goes with this is still unclear but it would not be the first time a President has contemplated such a move.
In 2016, former President Sirleaf flirted with the idea but failed to see it through, declaring that she supported calls from a cross section of Liberians that the term limits for presidency and members of the legislature is just too long.
A Constitution Review Commission set up by Sirleaf in 2015 recommended to reduce the number of years the President can serve. The Commission also recommended the term of office for senators be reduced from the current nine years to six, and representatives from six to four years.
The idea for Sirleaf was part of her efforts at the time to build a democratic governance model that is transparent and that every Liberian can feel a part of.
The former President went as far as writing the legislature asking them to consider amending the presidential term to two four-year terms rather than what it is today which is two six-year terms. In effect, limiting the president to a maximum of eight years in office.
However, some aides to President Weah are said to be concerned about the economics of the plan actually working.
Their concern stems from the current predicament the government now finds itself in trying to raise money for senatorial and representative by-elections.
The National Elections Commission struggled to get the government to fund the just-ended Senatorial and Representatives by-elections in Montserrado County and there are already whispers within the government that it may not be able to fund the upcoming Senatorial elections in Grand Cape Mount County to fill the void left following the death of Senator Edward Dagoseh.
The argument, according to sources, is that some presidential aides fear that four years would be too short to plan, at least financially for presidential and legislative elections every four years, prompting aides to suggest tweaking the model proposed by former President Sirleaf from six to five years for the presidency and the representatives and from nine to seven years for members of the Senate.
Under the current 1986 Constitution, the President and Vice President serve six-year terms, senators serve for nine years and members of the House of Representatives six years.
“I’m a signer of the 1986 Constitution, I believe the tenure of President under Article 50 of the 1986 Constitution should be changed for the following reasons: 1. I believe those tenure of years were manipulatively put there and majority rule…”– Cllr. Pearl Brown Bull, Signatory to the 1986 Constitution
Members of the Senate and House of Representatives can run for re-election for as many times as they wish as long they are elected by their constituents.
The recent attempt by Sirleaf and now Weah is seen as a bold initiative to set an example for other African leaders who are trying to change their countries’ Constitutions to extend their stay in power.
In a recent barometer survey Africans overwhelmingly expressed support for term limits. Approximately three-quarters of the citizens in 34 of Africa’s 54 countries support term limits, according to surveys carried out by Afrobarometer, which conducts surveys in African countries where security conditions permit and citizens are largely able to speak freely.
In recent years however, many African leaders have transformed the way they approach term limits. During the 25 years from 1990 to 2015, in the 47 countries in Africa that had non-ceremonial heads of state, 40 had term limits.
This was the case in Zimbabwe, until President Robert Mugabe was forced out of office. Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang, Jose Eduardo dos Santos of Angola, and Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, who are in a tight re-election fight in polling scheduled for next month have continued the trend.
In Burundi, President Pierre Nkurunziza won a controversial third term in an election that his critics said violated the constitution. In Rwanda, the parliament removed the two seven-year presidential term limit and paved the way for President Paul Kagame to continue in office.
In Burkina Faso mass protests, legitimized by constitutional term limits, thwarted the president’s attempt to retain power and he was ultimately driven from the country.
A Constitutional Review Conference sanctioned by Sirleaf, approved several recommendations, including a provision making Liberia a ‘Christian’ nation, the election of superintendents of the country’s 15 political subdivisions by the citizens rather than by presidential appointment, equal representation for women, and rejection of dual citizenship.
The effort by President Weah could come as a shock to some of his supporters who have been advocating for him to rule for 24 years in power, a move most long-serving African leaders have succeeded at by using what has been dubbed by some as a “softer, gentler coup d’état” to stay in power by reforming their countries’ constitutions, made famous by late President Samuel Doe.
In the United States, whose model most countries have developed the idea of a transitional democracy, the first President, John Hanson, gave the US the gift for the time by stepping aside after serving two terms, setting a precedent that was not broken until the 1940s with the first years of America’s entry into World War II. In 1951, a two-year term limit for U.S. Presidents was enshrined in the Constitution and ratified, limiting the number of terms served by the President. The move ended a controversy over Franklin Roosevelt’s four elected terms to the White House.
“No person shall be elected to the office of the President more than twice, and no person who has held the office of President, or acted as President, for more than two years of a term to which some other person was elected President shall be elected to the office of the President more than once,” the amendment read.
For generations, Americans and politicians veered away from the concept of a third-term President. George Washington had set an unofficial precedent in 1796 when he decided several months before the election not to seek a third term.
In 1799, Washington resisted temptation to seek a third term and made his thoughts quite clear, especially when it came to new phenomena of political parties. “The line between Parties,” Washington said, had become “so clearly drawn” that politicians “regard neither truth nor decency; attacking every character, without respect to persons – Public or Private, – who happen to differ from themselves in Politics.”
Washington’s voluntary decision to decline a third term was also seen as a safeguard against the type of tyrannical power yielded by the British crown during the Colonial era.
Between 1796 and 1940, four two-term Presidents sought a third term to varying degrees. Ulysses S. Grant wanted a third term in 1880, but he lost the Republican Party nomination to James Garfield on the 36th ballot. Grover Cleveland lacked party support for a third term but was a rumored candidate. Woodrow Wilson hoped a deadlocked 1920 convention would turn to him for a third term.
In Africa, a new push for good governance has taken flight despite numerous challenges but more and more Africans appear to be favoring the trend.
In Liberia, some historians are still struggling to understand why crafters of the 1986 Constitution settled for such a long-term limit for Presidency and the legislature.
Six-Year, Nine-Year Term — A Manipulation
“There is an interesting coincidence if you went back and take a look at the elections that followed the promulgation of the 1986 Constitution, you’ll see that the 59 people that constituted the Constitution Advisory Assembly in Gbarngar, the majority of them became members of the Legislature or Judges – it’s a coincidence.”– Dr. Amos Sawyer, Chairman, 1986 National Constitution Commission
Cllr. Pearl Brown Bull, a signatory to the 1986 Constitution is a staunch supporter of the reduction of tenure for the presidency and lawmakers. She suggests two four-year tenure for the presidency and members of the House of Representatives. Representatives can, however, server as many tenures once they are re-elected by their constituents. For the Senate, Cllr. Bull, in an interview with FrontPageAfrica proposed a six-year term.
Cllr. Bull who served as the only female on the National Constitution Commission believes that the 59-member Constitution Advisory Committee that reviewed the draft constitution prepared by Dr. Amos Sawyer and his team changed the four-year tenure for terms for President and Representatives and six-year term for Senators for personal political reasons.
“I’m a signer of the 1986 Constitution, I believe the tenure of President under Article 50 of the 1986 Constitution should be changed for the following reasons: 1. I believe those tenure of years were manipulatively put there and majority rule…” she explained.
According to Cllr. Bull majority of the signatories of the Constitution manipulated the process because some held positions and wanted to keep their post or stay in government.
She said, “It was manipulative; the people who were there were in the interim government and they wanted to stay there. If you look at the composition of the first set of people who took position in government, most of us who signed that Constitution that [President] Doe appointed on the Interim National, I was the last, I think we were 59. We assembled at the House of Representatives and Doe came. He said, ‘Honorable ladies and gentlemen, you all are the popular people from your political subdivision, my country people want to make me President and if y’all support me, I’ll see it that y’all get the jobs y’all want.”
Cllr. Bull further explained that based on such happenings it can be easily said that the changes to the draft Constitution presented to the Constitution Advisory Assembly were based on manipulation for personal gains.
For her, a reduction in the current tenure would go a long way salvaging Liberia’s democracy.
Dr. Amos Sawyer shares a similar view with Cllr. Bull. In fact, he describes it as “unprecedented in Africa” for a lawmaker to stay at the Legislature on a nine-year term.” According to him, Liberia has the longest tenure for elected positions in West Africa.
He explained to FrontPageAfrica that when the Constitution Advisory Committee met in Gbarnga, they decided that the four-year tenure set for the President was too short and that the President could not fulfill his/her agenda in four years. They also decided that the Senators should go for nine years.
“I should say that nine for any lawmaking body at least that I know of, particularly in Africa is unprecedented… I think we have all seen that these terms of office are too long,” he said.
When asked what motivated the decision to extend the tenure from four to six years for the presidency and House of Representatives and from six to nine years for the Senate, he said:
“There is an interesting coincidence if you went back and take a look at the elections that followed the promulgation of the 1986 Constitution, you’ll see that the 59 people that constituted the Constitution Advisory Assembly in Gbarngar, the majority of them became members of the Legislature or Judges – it’s a coincidence.”
THE LAW AS IT STANDS NOW
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.
The Senate shall composed of Senators elected for a term of nine years by the registered voters in each of the counties, but a Senator elected in a by-election to fill a vacancy created by death, resignation, expulsion or otherwise, shall be so elected to serve only the remainder of the unexpired term of office. Each county shall elect two Senators and each Senator shall have one vote in the Senate. Senators shall be eligible for re-election.
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.