Ruckus On The House Floor & Issues In Liberia’s Evolving Democracy
By: Emmanuel Wru-Pour Cooper
It is expected that legislatures or parliaments all over the world should persuasively debate issues of national concerns with passion and in accordance with parliamentary procedures. The recent ruckus on the House's floor of the Liberian Legislature goes beyond the bounds of how legislative bodies function. This commentary revisits the incident on the House's floor of the Liberian Legislature. It discusses and evaluates the governance mechanism in Liberia, and makes recommendations as to how the Liberian Leadership can continue to improve conditions in Liberia.
Under the Liberian Unitary and Democratic System of Government, no one is above the law. Article II (c) of the Constitution of Liberia states: “All persons are equal before the law and entitled to equal protection of the law." For this reason, the members of the Liberian Legislative Branch involved in a ruckus on the floor of the chambers must account for their actions to the full extent of the law. The aggrieved legislators have a right and responsibility to inquire into alleged acts of improprieties. (House Rule 44.1) However, they used the wrong approach to getting their message across to Speaker Tyler. For example, these lawmakers did not conduct themselves in keeping with House Rule (42.1). This rule states: "Every member shall, at any place, keep the prestige and dignity of the House and refrain from undesirable acts." These honorable gentlemen should have restrained themselves, act within the perimeters of the law when the Speaker of the House refused to put forward their letter of grievances to the Plenary Session of the House, rather than to disrupt the Plenary for three consecutive days. Furthermore, Representative Roland O. Cooper’s assault on a colleague also violates House Rule (42.2). It states: "No member shall insult, abuse or harass other persons within the confines of the House, or cause the disturbance to the activities of the House."
The reprimand, if implemented, for these legislators that disrupted the plenary should be a reasonable sanction consistent with due process of law. As for Representative Cooper, his thirty days suspension and forfeiture of salary and allowance seem to be appropriate for his violation. However, a warning letter must be placed in his personnel file indicating that a repeat of such lawless behavior would result in expulsion from the House in keeping with the due process of law. These accountability measures should send a clear message to the honorable House members that they are not above the law, and hence an unacceptable behavior and decorum must not be tolerated in conducting the people's business.
In reference to Speaker Alex Tyler, he should not use the ruckus from the aggrieved legislators and his position as a pretext for failing to account for his alleged ethics breach. The Speaker is not above the law. For this reason, he should turn over the grievance letter against him to the Rules, Order, and Administration Committee of the house to enable them to look promptly into his alleged ethics breach. While the investigation or hearings are going on; the Speaker should do the right thing and refrain from presiding over the House of Representatives until exonerated of any wrong doing. However, in the event that Speaker Tyler is found guilty, he should resign his speaker's position and be sanctioned accordingly.
Moreover, Liberia should follow the lead of the United States, and begin to aggressively prosecute and jail elected and non-elected public officials that engage in corruption and squandered the nation's money for their personal use. For example, New York State Assembly's Speaker Honorable Sheldon Silver is going to jail for corruption that involves years of accepting kickbacks. Across the United States, legislators and other public officials are vigorously prosecuted and jailed for instances of corruption. Liberia should not be an exception to this rule; the people of Liberia must ensure that corrupt public officials are punished when found guilty of corruption rather than allow them to go with impunity. For this reason, it is the responsibility of everyone in Liberia to oppose and expose corruption in the public and private sectors of the nation. All of us should be mandatory reporters and whistle-blowers. We must report corrupt officials and ordinary people that engage in this deadly culture that is also a major contributing factor to Liberia’s under development.
On the other hand, it is appalling and mind boggling that Liberia a destitute nation is paying huge salaries in excess of $15,000 a month to its lawmakers. The Chief Justice and Associate Justices make $9,000 to $12,000 a month. Ministers and public corporation heads are paid excessive salaries as well while the masses or the people, at times, go to bed hungry without a meal. What is the rationale for such huge salaries to elected and nonelected officials of the Liberian Government? Do such high salaries help the officials receiving them from engaging in corruption? It seems that the huge salaries, especially paid to the legislators are encouraging some of them to continue to engage in more acts of corruption with impunity. For example, the Clemenceau Urey’s complaint that involved some lawmakers receiving bribes from the National Oil Company to pass the National Oil Legislation is a good case in point. The recent alleged ethics breach involving Speaker Tyler receiving $25,000 from NOCAL is yet another case in point worth mentioning. The media regularly report that legislators received brown bags with cash enclosed and distributed as incentives to do their work while at the same time also receiving huge salaries. This double dipping in the nation's coffers is very troubling and detrimental to Liberia’s evolving democracy and a setback to development.
As a nation of laws, the three branches of the Liberian Government have delineated roles established by the Constitution. For example, the Legislature's principal role is to make laws; the President’s main role is to enforce laws, and the Judicial or Supreme Court interprets the Constitution, and the laws made under it. This principle is called separation of powers. It also serves to ensure that one branch of government does not have too much power, to the extent of dominating the others. The Framers of the Liberian Constitution allow for the principles of checks and balances and Judicial Reviews. Judicial Reviews is the power of the Supreme Court to declare a law passed by the Legislature or an act of the President as either constitutional or unconstitutional.
There are several ways that one branch of the government checks the actions of another branch to maintain a balance of powers. For example, the President can check the Legislature by vetoing bills it has passed. However, the President's veto can be overturned by a subsequent two-thirds vote of both houses of the Legislature. The President appoints executive branch officials and judges, including Justices of the Supreme Court. However, the Senate, one part of the legislative branch, must approve the President's appointments by a majority vote; if not, the President's appointments are rejected. The President is the commander in chief of the armed forces. However, only the legislative branch can enact legislation to provide funds to the armed forces and their commanders for their military operations. The Constitution grants power to the President to make treaties with foreign governments, but the Senate has the power to confirm or reject them. Additional examples of the separation and sharing of powers among the executive and legislative branches, involving checks and balances, are found in Articles 3, 35 and 43 of the Constitution.
Aside from the Constitutional principles described, the branches of the Liberian Government are expected to cooperate, collaborate, disagree and compromise in governing the nation. However, it is totally unconstitutional and unacceptable for any branch to connive against the common interest of the nation, and /or blackmail the other in their interactions.
For example, the Legislature used the threat of, not passing the national budget to demand an astronomical increase in their salaries in 2012. The President acquiesced, relented and did not use the veto or apply the line-item veto to this budget. Thus, lawmakers were able to accrue and allow for themselves huge salaries at the expense of civil servants and the nation.
The Supreme Court also overextended its authority recently, by suspending the Minister of Justice with disregard to the constitutional principle of separation of power. The President acquiesced to the High Court’s demand for such action despite a precedent established by President Doe in such a matter. Indeed, the Minister of Justice's ceremonial position of Doyen of the Supreme Court does not mean that the Supreme Court has the power to suspend any sitting Minister of Justice. This abrogation or usurpation of power by the Judicial Branch in Liberia is unconstitutional. For cooperation and collaboration does not mean that one branch of government must usurp the power of the other branch. The nation will benefit more if the High Court shows more judicial restraint and tolerance in exercising its authority and actively in regulating the conduct of subordinate courts and unscrupulous lawyers for such will lead to a better court system in Liberia.
By and large, Liberia is making progress under the current Liberian Leadership. For example, the leadership has repaired roads, relocated the University of Liberia, constructed community colleges across the counties, and initiated policy proposals for institutional reforms. However, the challenges of the post-war nation are overwhelming, and mishaps of the leadership are retarding progress across the nation. As such, progress is rather at a slower pace and elusive for Liberia and its people, after a decade of incessant peace. For instance, the leadership awarding huge salary increases to the few, as opposed to prioritizing development initiatives such as providing safe drinking water for the people is not only selfish, but a misplaced priority and a blemish on the record of the leadership.
In conclusion, the leadership seems to implement governing schemes for the nation in a haphazard manner. For this reason, it is on track to leave a legacy of huge salaries for elected and nonelected public offices, while, the masses live in abject poverty, squalor and the nation's development priorities left on the backburners. Although, the leadership has institutions to fight corruption; enforce accountability and transparency measures such rhetoric is merely lip service. Despite the huge foreign aid, and the new loans and resources being at the nation's disposal; development is largely uneven and unequal across the country. Moreover, there exists pervasive rampant corruption, massive inequality, and huge external and internal debts helping to plague the post war-torn nation and people.
What should the Liberian Leadership do in the next three years to place the nation on a trajectory for development promised over the last ten years? Firstly, the leadership must complete the Mount Coffee hydro plant in Monrovia. Secondly, it must upgrade the major hospitals in the counties with basic health care needs to treat common diseases such as malaria, childhood diseases, and relentlessly pursue efforts to control and eradicate the Ebola Virus from Liberia. Thirdly, the leadership must direct the Constitutional Review Commission to make its report in June and to begin to gather signatures of 10,000 or more qualified Liberian voters to amend the flaws in the Liberian Constitution. Specific reference is made to Article 45, 49, and 50 that deal with longer terms of office in the Constitution of Liberia, which has long terms for lawmakers and the Executive branch of government. Moreover, fourthly; the leadership should strive to complete the Ganta to Maryland Highways linking the leeward counties, vigorously prosecute corrupt officials, and work towards a full-time employment granting economy. Finally, it is widely believed by many Liberians at home and abroad that once the current Liberian Leadership accomplishes about half of these goals some of which were promises made to the Liberian people as far back as 2005; it would receive acclamations from the people of Liberia for establishing a legacy that will benefit future generation of Liberians.