The Need For Pre-Elections Governance Reforms: Continuing the Dialogue


By Dr. Amos Sawyer

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

September 7, 2004


I am delighted that there is an emerging discourse about pre-elections governance reforms. I would like to further contribute to this discourse by addressing some of the issues that were recently raised in published accounts. I would like to use those substantive issues raised by Mr. E. Sumo Jones in his published statement, “Comments on Sawyer and Weh-Dorliae’s Postponement of Elections” as a point of departure. I will also touch upon the very useful comments offered subsequently by others and conclude with some suggestions as to how many of the suggestions and concerns can become critical elements of an approach to governance reform in our country.

Jones’ Arguments:
Mr. E. Sumo Jones, Sr. makes two main points relevant to the debate about pre-elections governance reforms. The first is that the constitution is “a very sacred document” and that the transitional government “does not have the appropriate constitutional legislative bodies to make major changes in the constitution by way of amendments.” Therefore, the transitional government should make recommendations for constitutional reforms and those recommendations should be acted upon by a “constitutionally elected government come 2005.” Mr. Jones reminds us that the constitution amendment process involves holding a referendum. He maintains that a duly elected president would need to call such referendum. His second point is that, although he believes constitutional changes are necessary to support a program of decentralization, the Comprehensive Peace Agreement signed in Accra in August 2003 has given the Governance Reform Commission the authority to “ensure subsidiarity in governance through decentralization and participation” and this should suffice. Therefore, the Governance Reform Commission should go ahead and implement a reform program consistent with the principle of subsidiarity.

Let me address each point in turn. A constitution is the most important governance document of a country. It typically contains immutable principles that should comprise the core values of a political community; however, the institutions provided by the constitution or that flow from it should, indeed, be examined from time to time. What could be a more appropriate time to revisit the constitution of Liberia than when the system of governance has collapsed and is being reconstituted? It seems to me to make more sense to revisit the constitution now than to reinstate flawed institutions and then expect those who function in them, wield enormous power through them and stand to have their powers diminished by constitutional reform to champion such reforms. Moreover, we must not forget that Liberia’s current constitution was framed during the tenure of a transitional government. We did not await the installation of an elected government when a new constitution was drafted, revised and put to a referendum in 1985. Things went gravely wrong for constitutional reform at that time not because there was a transitional government in power; things went wrong because the leader of the transitional government had a personal interest in how the provisions of the constitution were shaped. That is why, contrary to its intended role, the constitution advisory assembly was instructed by the Head of State to revise the draft in any way it wished without seeking explanation from the drafting commission. The commission’s draft was severely altered on critical provisions and the drafting commission was barred from any interaction with the advisory assembly. The government threatened to arrest any of the drafting commission’s members who would venture to travel beyond Kakata while the assembly sat in Gbarnga. The commission was ultimately abruptly dissolved. We can learn from this experience and fashion a better approach to constitutional revision. Furthermore, we do have a different situation where the core leadership of this transitional government is barred by the Accra Peace Agreement from participating in the immediate post-conflict elections.

Some have argued that there is a need to rush to elections before the transitional government grinds to a halt or slips off the rail, referring to it as a “coalition of the unwilling.” Well, if this is the fear, then let us find ways to buttress the transitional process. Rushing to elections through an inadequate transitional process is no way to lay foundations for durable democratic governance. We only have to be reminded by the experience of the 1996-1997 failed transition. The UN and others in the international community declared a Liberian success story, President Carter declared the elections free and fair and they all went home. We have all seen what began to happen within two years thereafter. In my view, we need a serious diagnosis of our situation and an investigation of the range of options available to remedy the various governance challenges we face. We need to investigate to what degree “bad leaders” are responsible for our woes and to what degree institutional flaws are the sources of our governance problems. We need to decide what should be done to constrain our leaders and make them accountable, improve our institutions and ourselves so that as citizens we can function as owners of our governing order and not as subjects of our president or, more largely, our government. These are crucial issues that a properly organized national conference should be able to investigate and the outcomes of such investigations should inform a revision of our current transitional agenda. There are no short cuts to democratic governance. While an interminable search for the good leader may sound like a good solution, the fashioning of a good system of governance is a more durable solution. We now have a very good opportunity to undertake this task.

Mr. Jones’ second point is that the Governance Reform Commission has been given sufficient authority to ensure subsidiarity in governance and should, therefore, proceed in the exercise of that authority. There are problems with this suggestion. The principle of subsidiarity, as I know it to be used in contemporary governance discourse, has to do with determining the appropriate level of governance at which certain specific authority of governance is to be vested. For example, at what level of governance do we vest authority to select superintendents or levy a particular type of tax and so on. Liberia is constitutionally a unitary state; this means that there is a single center of authority which is the central government. This is why the presidency is clothed with very broad executive powers, some of which can only be restrained by the legislature and the judiciary when the system works well. Citizens are not empowered to choose their superintendents or have a say in selecting or sanctioning most of those who perform functions in local governance except indirectly through their seasonal votes for the president and members of the legislature when the system works well. The president exercises enormous discretionary use of public funds even in the face of legislative involvement in the budget-making processes. Thus, local (county and lower level) government that directly affects the daily lives of people remains the preserve of the presidency as long as superintendents are appointed by that office and revenues are largely generated and expended from a centralized source. I argue that the Governance Reform Commission cannot apply principles of subsidiarity to address these issues without seeking a constitutional review process that would lead to constitutional reform. The reason why I declined to sit on the commission is because I felt that these issues needed to be raised. Were members of the commission to raise such issues, they would be falsely accused on wanting to usurp power and extend their mandate. Dr. Moniba has asked, why were these issues not raised in Accra? Well, I don’t know. Participation in the Accra conference was by invitation.

Weh-Dorliae’s Book
Weh-Dorliae’s book has elevated the debate by advancing concrete proposals. He has used the tools of public service management and his years of experience as an officer in the Civil Service Agency of Liberia to investigate the governance challenges and has advanced 12 proposals for governance reform. One may not agree with him; I certainly do not agree with everything he has suggested but he must be credited with doing some serious research and engaging in thoughtful reflection. If there is compelling logic to what Weh-Dorliae proposes and if the link between the proposals and the transition process is deemed fundamental, then let our consideration of the proposals and those made by others drive our transitional agenda. Again, this is why we need a national conference.

Other Suggestions:
The reports of the Rural Development Task Force to which Bishop Bennie Warner referred are an important resource that needs to be mined in formulating reform proposals. Decentralization is a broad concept that embraces a range of governance arrangements. We will have to define more precisely what we mean and what kinds of institutions to establish for very specific governance tasks. There is no “one-size-fit-all” solution. The Development Task Force had proposed a decentralization scheme that some would call “deconcentration.” The critical question of devolving some political and financial decision-making authority to county levels remained outstanding. Questions having to do with fiscal equivalency and related issues will have to be worked out. This is why research already done in Liberia and in similar situations elsewhere will be very useful. Suggestions advanced by Dr. Abraham James, Ms. Arabella Greaves, Ms. Victoria Bernard and Mr. Judson Addy provide further resources to build upon. James, Greaves and Bernard in various ways propose the establishment of some initial mechanism to study and press forward with the idea of decentralization. Greaves proposes the establishment of a standing commission or the expansion of the Sirleaf Commission for this purpose. She correctly underscores the massive task of civic education that this undertaking will entail and further proposes an eventual phased implementation process. James suggests that exhaustive discussions be held with and commitments exacted from presidential candidates to ensure whoever wins would implement an agreed decentralization scheme after presidential elections. I hope that I am not misstating the views of these distinguished individuals. Addy’s concern about the capacity of the existing interim government to support an expanded transitional program that entails a staggered process of decentralization is valid and much appreciated. If my interpretation of their views is wrong, I do apologize.

Building on these Suggestions
We can use these suggestions and concerns to construct a way forward. One possible approach is to start off by empowering the Governance Reform Commission (the Sirleaf Commission) to commence the process of organizing a national conference for the purpose of addressing the issue of governance reform with a view to defining an approach to democratic decentralization, constructing appropriate reform measures and designing a process for phased implementation. The process of organizing the national conference should be as consultative and constitutive as possible, involving consultative discussions from the level towns and cities to county and national levels and the selection of representatives to the conference accordingly. Representatives from the array of civil society organizations, political parties and other constituencies will also participate in the conference. This is how the conference will derive its legitimacy. The Sirleaf Commission would simultaneously engage in a massive civic education campaign informed by research and experience from Liberia and elsewhere so that a knowledgeable public can meaningfully participate in the national conference and the larger governance reform process. The ultimate outputs of the national conference will be, among other things, a national reform agenda at the core of which will be (a) a phased program for democratic decentralization, (b) an implementation schedule and (c) a set of constitutional reform propositions to be put to the Liberian people in a referendum. This package must be adopted by the national conference as a national covenant binding on all citizens and political actors. Staggered elections can then begin in accordance with appropriate phases of implementation of the reform program. In this way, the transitional government will be phased out as the new governance arrangements are phased in.

The national conference can also make decisions to buttress the current transitional government. Depending on identified weaknesses, such measures could well include selective oversight, if not hands-on management of selective activities by the international contact group.

Weh-Dorliae proposes that a national conference be held in October and November 2004. This may well prove impossible at this time. My sense is that if the current transitional program were to be modified so that a national conference can be held by May 2005, at the latest, a reform agenda and can be adopted by September 2005. Constitution reform propositions can be put to a referendum in November or December 2005. With preparatory work undertaken concurrently by various specialized bodies, phased implementation including staggered elections can begin in mid-2006.

Students of African governance will immediately see the association between the idea of a national conference and a national covenant being proposed here and the concept of a sovereign national conference and its binding outputs. Several African countries including Benin and Togo have had such a conference. The results have been mixed. In both Benin and Togo (especially Togo) the machinations of an enduring president did not allow the agreed transition process to successfully take its course. Liberia does not have an elected president at this time. This is why we should seize the opportunity.

I am aware that these ideas are full of holes. People who want to find fault with them need not exert much energy. However, those who are interested in refining them, building upon them or using them as a point of departure for problem-solving will find in them a resource to work with. At the end of the day, it is only through constructive discourse that we, Liberians, will be able to fashion an agreed approach to durable peace through democratic governance.

To those who believe that we must make haste with the transition before the international community abandons Liberia, I share their concerns. It is clear that we cannot undertake this historic task all by ourselves. We need to maintain a partnership with the international community, especially, the UN, AU, ECOWAS, the US, the European Union and currently, the international contact group. We will not be able to find ways to buttress the current transitional government without their support, let alone implement long-term governance reform. Moreover, with current rumblings in Guinea growing louder and Cote d’Ivoire yet to attain democratic peace, the need for continuing international involvement in Liberia and the subregion cannot be overstated. However, it is my view that the international community has typically abandoned us when we have failed to provide our own roadmap but instead relied wholly upon the international community for answers to our problems. The international community has grown weary of us when scores of groups lobby international powers sending confusing signals, bad-mouthing each other. That is when the international community takes the lead in crafting simple solutions for us and leaving us in the lurch when complexities develop. We must learn from our past experience. The book written by Herman Cohen, former US assistant secretary of state for African Affairs should serve as a useful reminder.

It is true that we are all weary of war and tired of prolonged exile. There are Liberians who have been in self-imposed exile since the 1955 “plot that failed.” Others felt disaffected with the Tolbert regime and left during his incumbency. Still others left after the 1980 coup and subsequent violent changes. There are layers of bitter historical memories. While leaders may well be blamed for not always doing the right thing, there are institutional failures that contribute substantially to the cycle of violent breakdowns - power-sharing transitions - acrimonious elections - zero-sum politics - violent breakdowns that has brought so much tragedy to our country. As Liberians, we have no choice but to reason together and find a way forward. This is our historic opportunity.