The Constitution vs. Civil Liberties in Liberia

By Nat Galarea Gbessagee

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

August 6, 2002

In theory, the Liberian constitution is unique and probably one of the best in Africa in terms of well thought out principles and procedures relating to the promotion of good governance, freedom of the press, freedom of religion and worship, and guarantees of civil liberties befitting of a genuine democracy. But in practice, Liberia is a totalitarian state subjected to the whims of an imperial president who can at will violate the constitution and exercise extra-judicial powers and tactics to suppress the Liberian people and strangle the Liberian national economy, a panel of Liberian lawyers, academics and civil and human rights advocates concluded at a recent symposium in Washington, DC.

The panelists, U.S.-based Liberian lawyers Mohamedu F. Jones, John Josiah, Christiana Tah, and academics, Professor Edmund Kloh, and Monrovia-based Liberian Human Rights Lawyer Benedict Sannoh, and Political Activist K. Hasting Panyonnoh, were debating Liberian constitutional guarantees of the rights, privileges and obligations of Liberians against the growing lawlessness in Liberia at a symposium organized by the Washington, DC-based Liberian Democratic Initiative (LDI), at the University of the District of Columbia in Washington, DC August 3, 2002, on the theme, “Understanding the Liberian Constitution”.

The panelists also concluded that most Liberians did not know their rights and obligations as provided for under the Liberian constitution, and stressed the need for a vigorous public education campaign to educate Liberians at home and abroad on their basic civil liberties and physical and property rights protections under the constitution.

Citing Articles 4-10 of the Liberian Constitution on “General Principles of National Policy” Cllr. Mohamedu Jones noted that the recent illegal search of the home of opposition Politician Togba Nah Tipoteh and the manhandling of former Chief Justice Frances Johnson-Morris by the police with little or no government reprimands of the perpetrators were tantamount to gross violations of the constitution.

But Jones was quick to note that while the cases of Tipoteh and Johnson-Morris made local and international news headlines, the cases of ordinary Liberians who suffered similar abuses are never heard, and it was now time for Liberians to vigorously protest any violations of their constitutional and civil rights and liberties, irrespective of the statuses of the persons subjected to such abuses and violations if the Liberian constitution must remind relevant.

Jones indirectly called for collective activism by Liberians in protecting their constitutional rights and civil liberties, noting that because there are no “self-executing orders” in the constitution to curtail governmental abuse, it was therefore incumbent upon the citizens to challenge the government on any forms of abuse and violation of the constitution.

For his part, Cllr. John Josiah said any past and present state of lawlessness, insecurity, governmental abuse and curtailment of the basic civil rights and liberties of Liberians cannot be attributed to the lack of constitutional guarantees and safeguards, but rather to the lack of “political will, moral character and integrity” on the part of the country’s political leaders to ensure proper implementation and application of the provisions of the constitution.

Josiah said the constitution is "concise and understandable" and simplified enough for every Liberian to understand and appreciate but observed, "The constitution has not been applied legally and logically" due to the strong arm of the president of Liberia. He also noted that the constitution has not been "tested" because the courts that should be in the vanguard of guarding against the governmental abuse of the constitution and civil liberties of the Liberian people have been known to hand down decisions influenced by political and economic considerations.

Josiah said Liberia cannot have a sustainable democracy without an effective application of the Liberian constitution, and said there was an urgent need for a constitutional amendment to reduce the power of the president generally, and in matters of appointing county and district superintendents and administrators, and the chief justice and other justices of the Liberian Supreme Court. He said county executives should be directly elected by the people, and a board of judicial review should be constituted to handle matters of judicial appointments in collaboration with the Liberian bar association, and should not be the exclusive domain of the president of Liberia.

Professor Edmund Kloh concurred with Cllr Josiah that the Liberian constitution is well-written but noted that the major problem with upholding civil liberties in Liberia is inherent in the refusal by successive Liberian governments to justly apply provisions of the constitution, as well as treat all Liberians as equals before the law.

Professor Kloh frowned on the enormous power wielded by Liberian presidents to the extent that the executive branch has over the years diluted the powers of the judicial and legislative branches of government, thereby reducing the separation of power clause of the constitution to naught, and nullifying the check and balance necessary for good governance.

In support of the points raised by previous panelists, Cllr. Christiana Tah said majority of Liberians did not understand their rights under the Liberian constitution, and said it was imperative for implementation of national public education program that will help Liberians not only to read and write, but to also understand the constitution and the rights it guaranteed to them.

Tah mentioned that it was obvious the continuing rise in the rate of abuse and violation of the constitutional rights and civil liberties of Liberians by the government meant that “either the government is aware of these rights and deliberately violates them, or simply ignoring (the constitution),” and added that it was now time for the Liberian legislature to enact what she called “implementation statutes” that will safeguard the rights of all Liberians under the constitution, especially inheritance rights for women married under the customary system.

Human Rights Lawyer Benedict Sannoh observed that while Article 1 of the Liberian Constitution gives power to the people, the constitution is only “a set of laws and not a set of values”, and it will therefore take a “robust, vibrant civil society and credible opposition” to ensure that the constitutional rights and civil liberties of the people are protected by striking “a reasonable balance between the government and the governed.”

According to Cllr. Sannoh, at present there is “no entrenched opposition” in Liberia, thereby giving the “imperial presidency” in Liberia the ability to violate the constitution and the civil liberties of the people by promoting a “culture of [fear and] silence”. He cited the local and international outcries that greeted the initial arrest of Journalist Hassan Bility and others, and similar cases in recent months but have since remained silent while the government prepares to try Bility et al before a military rather than a civilian court.

Sannoh added that no civilians ought to be tried by a military tribunal even if the civilian committed a capital offense such as treason. But he said he was not surprised by the silence of the Liberian public because when the government persuaded the courts to increase the penalty for the treason conviction of a group of prominent Grand Gedeans from 10 to 20 years on appeal after earlier rejecting a defense motion to withdraw the appeal, no opposition politician, ordinary citizen or civil group protested to the such double jeopardy.

Cllr. Sannoh also noted that it has become apparent that economic conditions, bribery, and inadequate qualified judges have contributed to some of the lopsided decisions of the court, and stressed the need for clear separation of powers among the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government to ensure transparency and good governance.

K. Hasting Panyonnoh, I, Political Activist and Executive Director of the Movement for Democracy and Elections in Liberia said the constitution is meaningless if the ordinary Liberians do not understand their rights and civil liberties as guaranteed under the constitution, and called for concerted efforts on the part of all educated Liberians to assist in explaining the constitution to their less fortunate brethren.

Panyonnoh stated further that talks about elections in 2003 is premature, and may yield undesired results unless the people who count the most in any elections, the Liberian electorates, are factored in the elections in terms of educating them about the constitution and their obligations under a democracy.

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