In Liberia, Separation of Power Takes Political Will and Nod To America


President John Kennedy’s appointment of his brother, Robert Kennedy, as attorney general in 1961 set in motion the creation of America’s anti-nepotism law, which became a permanent policy beginning with the next administration.

The law forbids family members from holding such offices, in order to prevent interference and avoid an amalgam of power.

The United States has since consistently strived to ensure the separation of prosecuting attorneys from the White House, and although no system is perfect, America’s remains one of the greatest examples. Even in the instance of RFK’s appointment as attorney general, the broader system recognized a gap in the checks and balances, and quickly plugged it for future administrations.

The one enduring trait that has marked the U.S. system, and protected it, has been its commitment to separation of powers. Separation of powers, above all else, is what enables a justice department or ministry to perform as intended and fulfill its duty. The U.S. has always understood and accepted that. Other countries have been less willing to do so.

Here in Liberia, we’ve been waiting too long for the basic tenets of separation of power between the presidency and the Ministry of Justice. One could argue that everything is relative and that justice systems everywhere can take time to fully form, particularly in less mature democracies.

And in fairness, our legal system has come a long way. During the civil war, which took place from 1989 to 2003, with little time of stable governance, the justice sector virtually collapsed.

In the years since, donors have contributed enormously to rebuilding it. Separation of powers, however, really requires little more than the desire to allow the legal process to be conducted fairly and free of interference or favor.

This is not one of our many, monumental nation-building tasks that requires a budget and a multi-year plan. This one simply takes political will and leadership.

Should I be elected President of Liberia in October, I intend to put in place a structure wherein the Ministry of Justice runs, for the first time, entirely and truly independent of the presidency. This is a very practical necessity. This is about understanding one of the most basic of human instincts. Imagine, for a moment, that a child or sibling of a President has broken a law.

The natural tendency is to try to shield a loved one. But if the prosecuting attorney is fully independent of the presidency or, to take it a step further, which I plan to, if it is a crime to contact the presidency about a possible indictment or an ongoing case, then the President and the people around the President would become aware of such matter only through the media or public communications, like any other Liberian. 

Such a separation structure, therefore, will act as a restraint on the President, embolden prosecuting attorneys, especially in Liberia’s struggle against corruption, and ensure good governance in Liberia’s fledgling democracy.

For Liberia or any democracy to truly advance, succeed, and win the trust and respect of the public, there must be clear controls in place so that the system ensures not only lawful, but also ethical behavior.

Many Liberians are broadly disillusioned and cynical regarding the honesty and integrity of their politicians. The political class has failed to provide the people with reason to have confidence in them.

The onus is on those of us who care enough and have what it takes to overcome that justifiable skepticism to win back their faith in what a political leader can do and be.

But in the meantime, the people deserve a system of governance characterized by the rule of law, which they can trust, even if the politicians, for the time being, have squandered that trust. After all, how could one claim to support, uphold and defend the constitution and laws of our country if one does not comply with the law, as a starter?

Charles Walker Brumskine is a longtime attorney and a candidate in Liberia’s 2017 Presidential election in October. He was a key figure in the peace process after Liberia’s civil war that ended in 2003.

Charles Walker Brumskine, Contributing Writer