Challenging Taylor's Misinterpretation: The Ten Year Residency Clause

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

January 17, 2002

Charles Taylor
As the first term of the Taylor regime draws to a close, and a long awaited window of opportunity opens for Liberians to rid themselves of one of the most hideous rulers of Africa, there has been a cacophony of voices raised - mainly coming from Mr. Taylor and his supporters - about disqualifying some potential presidential candidates from taking part in the up coming general elections in Liberia in October this year.

At issue is an obscure clause in Article 52 of the Liberian Constitution, specifically Section C of that article which states that "No person shall be eligible to hold the office of President or Vice President, unless that person is resident in the Republic ten years prior to his election, provided that the President and the Vice President shall not come from the same County."

Without the benefit of any historical document similar to the Federalist Papers for us to read and analyze the different arguments - if there were any - during the drafting of the new constitution, it's impossible for one to determine any intent of the framers. So it would be pure conjecture for us to use intent to interpret the Liberian Constitution. We will, however, use common sense as our guide in dealing with this question.

For us, Clause C is a pretty clear statement. We do not see the need for any legal contention for something this simple. The way we understand the clause is any natural born Liberian citizen who is at least 35 years of age, and has been a resident in the Republic ten years before any scheduled election, is eligible to run for president or vice president. For example, a 45-year-old Liberian who lived the first 30 years of his life in the country, but has been living abroad for the last 15 years as a student, is eligible to stand for the presidency, as well as a 60-year-old citizen who spent first five years of his life in Liberia, but had since lived in the U. S. for some 50 years before returning home in 1998, is equally eligible to stand for the presidency in the upcoming elections. Both individuals would have lived in the country ten years prior to the 2003 general elections, and would have met the ten years residency requirement.

In our view, clause C does not mandate a Liberian to be resident in the republic continuously ten years prior to his election. So any attempt to bar any candidate by using this provision as a constitutional prohibition is ludicrous.

If Taylor's contention was the correct interpretation of Clause C, then Mr. Taylor should not have been elected president in 1997, since he was not a resident in the Republic ten years prior to his election. Mr. Taylor returned to Liberia Dec. 1989, and from that time to July 1997 when he was elected president was less than ten years. In fact, it was exactly seven years and seven months.

From our perspective, and contrary to the malarkey Mr. Taylor displayed, Clause C is one of the most liberal provisions in the Liberian Constitution.

But given that his argument has merits, and his interpretation of clause C is correct -which is not the case -then an alternative argument can be made that will put a bigger hole in the proponent's contention and invalidate it. As we all know many things had happened in Liberia since the constitution was adopted that affected both the Liberian people and dramatically altered the basic structure of their government.

For nearly eight years Liberia was embroiled in a tragic civil war that devastated the country, ruined the economy, destroyed the infrastructure, killed thousands of innocent civilians and left thousands more scattered around West Africa as refugees. And during that time, the constitution was suspended in order to put in place an interim governing mechanism that would re-establish law and order and bring some sanity to a madness run amok.

The suspension of the Constitution was an extreme and unusual action. But the period of late Dec. 1989 to July 1997 was a difficult and unusual time in Liberian history that required extreme measures. Most Liberians believe that action, along with the bold and dramatic decisions made by West African leaders to intervene in Liberia at the height of the Liberian civil war, helped pave the way for Liberia's resurgence as a nation.

The indisputable fact is that the current regime and the general Liberian public are a beneficiary of both the suspension of the constitution and the interim governing mechanism, which negotiated the conflict to a conclusion in 1997, under the auspices of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).

Under this arrangement, former warlord Charles Taylor of the National Patriotic Party was elected president in 1997. All members of the national legislature were appointed according to apportionment formulas agreed upon to reflect the election results among the various participating political parties. Those elections were termed "special", because the results were meant to reset Liberia back on a path to constitutional normalcy, restore peace and stability, amidst the horrendous and chaotic national tragedy the country had experienced as a result of the Taylor-led civil war.

The hope was that normal life in Liberia would be difficult and slow after a long bitter civil war, but that a degree of normalcy within a democratic framework would emerge. And the national expectation was that Mr. Taylor would make some serious efforts to revitalize the economy; seek genuine reconciliation to heal the national wounds and mend the broken psyche of the Liberian people. Also the expected national desire was that Mr. Taylor would be able to work with the international community to bring economic relief to a devastated nation.

Undoubtedly, Liberia was confronted with a huge web of national morass: a destitute population; ruined infrastructure; a large number of internally displaced people; hostile leftover rival militias and a bankrupt national treasury. The array of problems required a skilled competent national leader whose prime concern would have been persuading the world community to work with Liberia as the country was struggling to regain her footing. This was a test and an opportunity for Mr. Taylor to demonstrate to the Liberian people his genuine commitment to their welfare and security. It was an opening for him to show whether he was interested in national reconstruction or personal enrichment.

The international community, mainly leading donor nations such as the United States and the European Union, and international lending institutions, particularly, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), were ready and willing to help Liberia. Representatives of these parties advised Liberian authorities that they would be a partner in Liberia's reconstruction efforts, provided Mr. Taylor's recovery plan met certain specific criteria: adherence to democratic practices, transparency and good governance, respect for human rights, freedom of speech, press freedom and independent judiciary.

A series of meetings were held in Europe to put together a workable economic package for Liberia within the framework the donor nations and lending institutions had proposed. But Mr. Taylor refused to accept the conditions, and the rest is history. The conditions laid down by the international community contained the basic ingredients for all free democratic societies to which most Liberians aspire.

Taylor's refusal was a warning of what was in store for Liberians. Without international assistance the regime cannot deliver basic services, thus intensifying an already dire situation for the average citizen. And as the economic condition worsens, the regime has become more and more indifferent to public welfare and hostile to any criticism of its policies. Consumed by greed and selfishness, Mr. Taylor began expropriating the natural resources without regard to posterity and the environment.

His regime took on the attributes and character of its precursory ragtag militia. Healthy political discourse that oft-time produces solution to national problems has been drastically restricted by Mr. Taylor. As a result the free exchange of view between the regime and civil society about the squandered opportunity to put the country on the right path, and dismal performance of the Taylor rule cannot take place. In essence, Mr. Taylor is an enemy to pro-active development and economic programs and political empowerment, and a threat to national survival.

Opposition politicians, human rights activists and journalists are routinely rounded up, jailed and often beaten and tortured. Last April, human rights lawyer Tiawan Gongloe sustained serious injuries after being repeatedly beaten by security forces while in jail. Other examples of political repression, human rights violations, economic mismanagement and corruption by the regime, including its highest officer abound in Liberia.

The latest victim is journalist Throble Suah, who sustained serious injuries after being badly assaulted by the Anti-Terrorism Unit -(ATU), Dec. 14, 2002, for his incisive analysis of regional crises that the regime deemed anti-Taylor.

And for more than five years now, this Frankenstein monster and his cult of goons, opportunists and common murderers have turned Liberia into a police state where he is judge, prosecutor and executioner.

During his of term office, Mr. Taylor has rejected every meaningful proposal that would have helped lift Liberia from the pit of miseries. Instead, this corrupt and wicked dictator has used the country's resources to enrich himself, his family and a few cronies while the rest of the citizenry sinks further into squalor. There is no transparency of operation and Liberia has become Charles Taylor's, Inc. where nepotism is booming and the right to life, liberty and security is receding at an alarming pace.

The recent outburst by Mr. Taylor about the residency clause is another indication that he is prepared to use any means necessary to entrench himself in power. Over the past five years, he failed to initiate any meaningful development programs or liberal political process that would have enhanced democratic practices in Liberia. His reliance on violence, harassment and political and economic repression as a means to control the people is at a pivotal point. But beneath the hot rhetoric belies the cold reality that Mr. Taylor is scared that his days as Liberian ruler are numbered. Whether he allows a fraud free election or not, Liberians are tired of this ruffian.

We urge Liberians to challenge this weasel on his residency clause argument and other repressive policies, including the killing frenzy that he and his son Chuckie have declared on the population, by demanding full and consistent adherence to the constitution. One cannot be selective in choosing what provisions of the document to respect, as Mr. Taylor had done on numerous occasions. Here is a man who only sees virtues in the Constitution when it protects his rights and interests; but dismisses it with contempt when the public rights and safeguards are at stake. This violates Article 2 which states "This Constitution is the supreme and fundamental law of Liberia and its provisions shall have binding force and effect on all authorities and person throughout the Republic."

Anticipating that Mr. Taylor would raise the residency requirement in an attempt to disqualify certain politicians he regards as formidable candidates, some of whom he forced into exile, we decided to ask two Liberian lawyers last winter for their views on the question. They told us the issue would not be a matter of complicated legal debate, since the constitution was reinstated less than 10 years ago. Besides, one lawyer argued, Taylor could not raise this issue since it also would exclude him from running as candidate.

"What do you mean by 'it also would exclude' Mr. Taylor from running as a candidate?" - we asked our lawyer friend. He said, "By an act of the Liberian Legislature the constitution was restored in Aug. 1997. That means Liberia started everything anew including the constitution on that day, and between that time and October 2003, would be less than 10 years. No candidate, including Charles Taylor, would have been a resident in the Republic for 10 years. So why would Taylor raise an issue that could disqualify him?" He asked.

"But it would be an interesting issue for the Liberian courts to address", he concluded.

We have since been terrified by his concluding statement, and the absence of any discussion of this issue up to now by the Liberian legal community, both here and at home. The sentiment within the legal community is "lack of legal standing". In other words, no one has used the residency clause to deprive another person from being a candidate for President or Vice President.

Now Mr. Taylor had hinted he would use the clause against his potential opponents, we believe that such dramatic rediscovery of the constitution by Mr. Taylor should be grounds enough for some public interest law group in the country to have "legal standing" to bring the issue before the Liberian Supreme Court.

We are troubled by the prospect that this very important question could be resolved by the Taylor-controlled, toothless kangaroo court system. For the Liberian judiciary, which lacks meaningful autonomy to render impartial opinions, to be the final arbiter of this critical issue is more worrisome than Taylor's recent public shenanigan about the constitution.

Frankly speaking no one has faith in the Liberian judiciary's capacity to exercise impartial judicial review of such an important constitutional question. It's a matter of public record that the court system is actually controlled Charles Taylor. In more than one instance, Mr. Taylor is the one who decides whether a case will be tried before a civil court or go to military tribunal.

For example, when journalist Hassan Bility and others were arrested and detained without being charged, presiding Judge Winston Henries, ruling in a Habeas Corpus motion, ordered the prosecutors to produce the living bodies of the detainees in court. Many people hailed that ruling bold and courageous. But the regime refused to comply with the judge's order.

And in the midst of this legal maneuvering by the prosecutors, Mr. Taylor intervened and declared Mr. Bility and others as "unlawful combatants." And although the accused were not members of the Armed Forces of Liberia or any militia in active service to be subject to military law as prescribed by Article 19 of the Constitution, presiding Judge Winston Henries said, "having been established by the respondents and subsequently confirmed by the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Liberia, President Charles Ghankay Taylor, and if they have already been charged, we can only urge that they be speedily tried by said court".

Only disbelief and outrage were the appropriate emotional expressions as one witnessed this open usurpation of power to which a scary presiding judge became a victim as well as the separation of power.

Regularly Mr. Taylor openly violates the law and gets away with impunity. We believe, and most Liberians agree with us, that Bility and the other individuals committed no crime. That being the case, the regime did not have any evidence to present in civil court; hence, the transfer to military tribunal where the trials were conducted in secret.

There are other instances that we could give to underscore the Liberian judicial system's lack of independence, but only serves at the behest of the maniacal ruler. The absence of judicial autonomy and the broken down due process have given us a society in which Mr. Taylor's security forces and his son Chuckie are licensed to kill at will without any recourse. Indeed Liberia has become a dangerous place.

No doubt, there are other contributing factors that compound and exacerbate the problems in Liberia. Prominent among them is the impotent political opposition in the country, which by its failure to exert any serious deterrent pressure on Taylor has aided his misrule. More than five years since the elections, that group has not been able to articulate any concrete policy or advance any pro-active economic and social programs to ameliorate the desperate condition in Liberia.

While we salute their courage to stay the country, we are disappointed in the way and manner in which they have rendered themselves useless when it comes to speaking out on behalf of the innocent upon whom the regime preys. This disparate group of nominal political parties has been unable to coalesce a united front that could have effectively dealt with the despot in Monrovia.

Despite the obvious reality that most of the so-called opposition parties do not have the necessary wherewithal or the organizational infrastructure to be a credible contender, they are each seeking their own interests. Some leaders in this group frown on a coalition. Many of these party officials are blinded by sheer ambition and personal ego, as opposed to national interests. Their failure to pursue a merger and consolidate their political capital works to the benefit of Mr. Taylor.

Regrettably, none of opposition politicians, especially those based in the country, has told us why he or she would like to be president of Liberia. Not one opposition leader has outlined his paradigms for progress or program of action or how he would govern differently from the current ruler. What is his political philosophy? Does he believe in democracy? If yes, why has he not taken a strong public position against the erosion of fundamental freedoms and civil liberties in Liberia?

Further, we would like to know the views of prospective candidates on the constitution. Having witnessed the despicable, most egregious abuse of the Liberian Constitution, and having seen that the document disproportionately vested more power in the Executive, what plans do they have about revisiting the constitution and the issue of the devolution of political power? What about war crimes tribunal? These are just a few of the questions that most Liberians want the politicians to address.

The usual excuse that they could not adequately address these issues because the Taylor regime did not allow them won't suffice. With united resolve, and a well-reasoned strategy to articulate alternative views on national policy issues, and challenge the government when it's wrong, would have emboldened the opposition. And we believe despite his erratic behavior and unpreditable disposition, Taylor would not have executed the entire opposition.

But because of the personal egos and selfishness, and because they see politics as a means for self-enrichment and not as a service to the larger community for greater good, the Liberian opposition has once more paved the way for Mr. Taylor to run roughshod over Liberia and steal the elections. Indeed, disunity has a price.