Capitol Hill, Monrovia – An attempt to foster the smooth passage of President George Weah’s backed constitution proposals to amend certain provisions of the Liberian Constitution on Monday, September 16 suffered a setback as some members of the House of Representatives questioned the legality of the submission process.
President George Weah in August convened a conference with members of the 54th Legislature and asked for the approval of eight revised propositions for referendum to amend some provisions of the 1986 Constitution.
Among the propositions, President Weah is suggesting reduction in the tenures of president and representatives from six years to five years, and the Senators from nine to seven years.
The Legislators, he proposed, can seek re-election continuously, but a president will not seek more than two terms.
He also recommended that individuals, one of whose parents was a citizen of Liberia at the time of birth, shall be a citizen of Liberia and may hold the citizenship of another country, but shall not qualify to be appointed or to hold certain positions in government, specifically elected position. Currently, the Constitution forbids dual citizenship.
The President also proposed that any vacancy created by death, resignation, expulsions or otherwise, of a senator or representative should be filled by appointment by the “duly elected County Councils” within 90 days from the time the notice of vacancy is announced to the County Council by the presiding officer of the Senate or the House of Representatives.
Weah also said that the duly elected County Council shall formulate the guidelines by which the vacancy can be filled. The proposals did not mention how the County Council shall be constituted and what would be their other functions. Currently, the law calls for a by-election.
The President did not give reason for wanting these portions of the constitution to be changed.
Lawmakers Question Proceedings’ Legality
Rep. Acarous Gray’s effort to draw the attention of the House of Representatives to the President’s proposals for consideration met staunch criticisms that led to sustained debated on the floor.
The Montserrado County District #8 lawmaker in a communication submitted to plenary on Monday, September 16, reminded his colleagues of the President’s proposals and craved their indulgence to consider their passage.
Just as Chief Clerk Mildred Sayon completed the reading of Gray’s communication, Rep. Clarence Gahr (Margibi County district #5) argued that the submission process was in breach of Article 91 and 92 of the Constitution of Liberia.
Article 91 states that the “Constitution may be amended whenever a proposal by either (1) two-thirds of the membership of both Houses of the Legislature or (2) a petition submitted to the Legislature, by not fewer than 10,000 citizens which receives the concurrence of two thirds of the membership of both Houses of the Legislature, is ratified by two-thirds of the registered voters, voting in a referendum conducted by the Elections Commission not sooner than one year after the action of the Legislature.”
Article 92 also provides: “Proposed constitutional amendments shall be accompanied by statements setting forth the reasons therefor 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 amendment is to be voted upon in a referendum, they shall be submitted in such manner that the people may vote for or against them separately.”
Rep. Gahr was backed by serveral members of the House of Representatives including Reps. Rustonlyn Suacoco Dennis (Montserrado Co. District #4), Thomas Goshua (Grand Bassa Co. Disttrct #5), Clarence Massaquoi (Lofa Co. District #3), George Samah (Montserrado Co. District #12) and Larry Younquoi (Nimba Co. District #8). They argued the proposal did not meet the signature of two-thirds majority and there have been no reasons set forth for the proposed changes as provided by the law.
Rep. Massaquoi stated the President should either get the signatures of 10,000 Liberians, with statements outlining reasons for the changes or Rep. Gray takes the responsibility, but must get the signatures of the two-third members of both Houses of the Legislature before bringing it to plenary for action.
Rep. Gray, backed by Reps. Matthew Zarzar (Sinoe Co. District #3), Edward Karfia (Bong Co. District #5) and Samuel Kogar (Nimba District #5), among others contended that it was premature for Articles 91 and 92 to come into play as Plenary has not acted on the communication submitted by Gray. The two-thirds, thy argued can be garnered by plenary’s action.
This led to a heated debate on the floor. Several lawmakers were seen fetching copies of the Constitution and browsing through the phones to back their respective claims.
Reps. Goshua and Younquoi, with the Speaker’s permission read Articles 91 and 92 in open plenary, but a consensus could not be reached.
At one point, House Speaker Bhofal Chambers seemed to lose grip on the floor as he was heard calling for order continuously.
In the heat of the arguments, Rep. Jeremiah Koon suggested that the communication be sent to the Judicial Committee of the House of Representatives for advice but was ignored.
Some lawmakers called on plenary to invite constitutional lawyers to interpret the law. Their suggestions were also disregarded.
Finally, after calm was restored, Plenary voted in favor of Rep. Samuel Kogar’s motion authorizing the House’s Judicial Committee to review Gray’s communication and report with set of recommendation (s) within one week.
For the immediate future, the approval for constitutional amendments looks uncertain as the 54th Legislature is on the verge of coming to the end of its extraordinary sitting.
The onus is on the Executive and key stalwarts of the ruling Coalition for Democratic Change to get more constitutional backing and to lobby with the Legislature if the President’s request must sail through.