OP-ED: Safety & Security after UNMIL Undermined by President’s Constitution Referendum

At the 11th hour and in her 11th annual message to the Honorable Liberian Legislature, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf answered the million dollar question on the minds of most Liberians, Liberia’s partners as well as current and future investors.

Will Liberia remain safe and secure after the departure of United Nations Mission in Liberia, or UNMIL? “Yes! Liberia is safe and secured,” Sirleaf said during her speech.

While most Liberians agree with Sirleaf’s assessment that Liberia is safe and secure in 2016 with UNMIL’s presence, there is concern that in the absence of UNMIL, Sirleaf’s new constitution may be a destabilizing force in Liberia’s safety and security.

Sirleaf’s constitution, which is similar to former President Samuel Doe’s constitution, does not represent “the will of the Liberian people” as the president claims.

In fact, her constitution amendments were conceived of by Liberia’s political elites, designed by the political elites and has the goal of enriching Liberia’s political elites to the detriments of ordinary citizens of Liberia. It must be rejected by the Liberian people.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights gives a clear blueprint of how to build a safe and secure nation. “Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.”

One may ask, what’s wrong with Sirleaf’s constitution? While she has the constitutional authority to propose any bill to the Liberian legislature, some may take exception in how she has advanced her ideas for constitution reform by calling it “the will of the Liberian people.”

Constitution reforms originated by politicians in the name of the people is nothing new in Africa. However, such moves always legalize corruption and extend illegitimate political hegemony of the ruling elites. Inevitably, constitution reform in the name of the people only unleashes insecurity and instability.

Examples of constitution abuse by politicians: Denis Sassou Nguesso of the Republic of Congo spearheaded a referendum in October 2015 to eliminate a constitutional two-term limit. His constitution reforms passed with 92% of the vote.  Paul Kagame of Rwanda is using the constitution to extend his rule with Rwanda’s parliament and Senate both unanimously authorizing the constitutional reform that would remove the presidential limit of two seven-year terms in office.

Blaise Compaoré of Burkina Faso attempted using constitutional change to gain a fifth term in office. Protesters stormed parliament and stopped Compaore. Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang, and Angola’s Jose Eduardo dos Santos are African leaders who extended their rule by constitution reform in the name of the people.

In the case of Liberia, Sirleaf started down the same path as Doe by originating the idea of constitution reform in the name of the Liberian people. Just as Doe’s constitution was conceived by Doe and designed by Edward Binyah Kesselly and Amos Sawyer, Sirleaf’s constitution was also conceived by President Sirleaf and designed by Sawyer and Gloria Scott. In her speech, Sirleaf called on the legislature to “consider the will of the Liberian people” and reduce the term of office for Liberian politicians.

In her speech, Sirleaf called on the legislature to “consider the will of the Liberian people” and reduce the term of office for Liberian politicians.

How in the world did Sirleaf determine her constitution reform project is the “will of the Liberian people”?  Is it plausible that “the Liberian people” desire only a “reduction in the term of office” but not a reduction of the huge salaries and benefits of the political elites including the Honorable Legislature?

If Sirleaf’s constitution truly reflected “the will of Liberian people” in seeking to reduce the term of office for politicians, it would also be “the will of the Liberian people” to end the corrupt system created by the Liberian political elites to endlessly enrich themselves using the country’s natural resources and revenue for themselves and their families.

In the impoverished, post-conflict and Ebola-ravaged country of Liberia, lawmakers’ salaries and benefits far exceed the salaries and benefits of wealthy countries in Europe and America, thanks to Doe’s constitution.

According to Sirleaf’s new version of the constitution, it is the “will of the Liberian people” for the Speaker of The House to appropriate $1.2 million dollars for his office, in a country with a $522 million dollars budget, when in Massachusetts, a state with $38 billion dollars annual budget, a higher cost of living and without any iron ore mines, crude oil, diamond and gold mines, legislators earn $62,000.00 annually without a new car, body guards, drivers.

The Liberian people do not desire to have their legislators to determine their salaries and benefits?  A sizeable number of Liberians may not be college-educated, but they are not stupid. When Liberians build their shops, the owner determines the salaries of the workers. Many of the farms producing food across Liberia are managed by uneducated Liberians. Many of the trucks plying the roads in Liberia are owned and managed by ordinary Liberians considered to be uneducated. The tuition, books, and fees for the majority of Liberian students attending colleges, universities and schools across the country are paid by ordinary citizens.

If these ordinary Liberian citizens, considered stupid by Liberia’s political elites, are responsible for feeding the country, providing transportation, paying taxes, and paying the tuition and fees for the majority of Liberian students; why are these same citizens not qualified to determine the laws that govern their country?

The consequences of the type of leadership that usurps the power of the people are deadly. As the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states, “Whereas it is essential if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law.”

After the bloodshed and displacement of millions of Liberians, no one should tolerate another faux Constitution conceived of the political elites, designed by the political elites and created to enrich Liberia’s political elites. With the flawed and corrupt system in place, Liberia does not need another election to recycle another batch of Liberian politicians.

We need a new system of governance where the people are the masters and the politicians the public servants. In the new system, the people must determine the salaries and benefits of politicians.

Featured photo by Multimedia Photography & Design – Newhouse School

Torli Krua

A pastor and human rights activist, Torli was instrumental in lobbying with US congressmen and policymakers to increase the quota of refugees from Africa being allowed into the US. He has also worked tirelessly in the New England region and beyond to champion the rights of refugees and immigrants. His organization, Universal Human Rights International, worked with thousands of immigrants from 38 different countries over the span of 20 years. He has been honored by the National Peace Corps Association and the Massachusetts Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild.

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