Friday, December 19, 2014

Maintaining constitutional and political stability in the context of crisis: Liberia’s challenge

Thanks to concerted domestic efforts backed by international goodwill, the rate of Ebola infections in Liberia has dropped considerably in recent weeks. A Ministry of Health situation report suggests that less than 200 persons are currently in treatment centers either as suspected, probable or confirmed cases. This represents a significant improvement compared with the situation in September when nearly 500 persons were admitted with over a hundred others flooding to hospitals. Yet, authorities insist—and perhaps rightly so—that this positive development must not breed complacency—at least not before the disease is completely eradicated from the country. Read More

Friday, December 5, 2014

Election or No Election: Another Hard Test for the Liberian Constitution

Since the return to civilian democratic rule there have been numerous crises of constitutional
ambiguities on key political and governance issues. These crises continue to cast doubt on the usefulness of the Constitution to Liberia’s postwar challenges, and in some instances, have gravely impacted public policy. From the appointing powers of the president to residential requirement of candidates for electoral offices, the Constitution has gone through numerous crises of interpretation. The latest crises have been the use of emergency powers, which I wrote on elsewhere and the proposed curtailment of range of fundamental rights by the President in response to the Ebola crisis. On November 28, 2014, what appears as the beginning of another major political and constitutional crisis began when the Supreme Court issued a Stay Order on the holding of Senatorial Elections set for December 16, 2014. This piece is particularly about this election and how it has exposed Liberia’s perennial crisis with its current constitution.
The Senate Election was initially scheduled for October 14, 2014 as per the Constitution, and by July 2014, political parties and independent aspirants had gone well into canvassing for support in the various counties. Sadly, the Ebola Virus that hit the country in March reached a crisis proportion in July devouring everything along the way from ordinary citizens and politicians to health personnel and health infrastructures. Stringent measures to contain the spread required both constitutional and extra-constitutional measures. This led to the declaration of a State of Emergency and restrictions on free speech and freedom of movement during certain times of the night.

The State of Emergency equally affected the holding of elections and the elections were therefore postponed indefinitely. As the government and international partners mobilized sufficiently against the virus, rate of infection reduced drastically by end of October and the panic began to wear away. Consequently the election was set for December 16 by the Legislature.
Does the Legislature or any branch of government have the authority to set a date for a process whose Constitutionally-scheduled time had passed? What become of the Senate in the wake of a potential power vacuum were elections not held by January 15? These are the questions at the center of the current constitutional crisis in Liberia instigated by the outbreak of the Ebola Virus disease.

As any major political issue, opinion is highly divided on this one. While some are proffering legal arguments against the election, others attach strong emotional sentiments on accounts that people are still dying and that saving lives is better than avoiding a constitutional crisis.
A group of citizens under the banner of ‘eminent citizens’ along with two political parties have condemned the process and prayed to the Supreme Court for a prohibition. They argue that the virus is still prevalent and that holding elections under such conditions would be unconstitutional, un-free and unfair, and that the legislature and no other branch of government have power to set a date for election.

The injunction on the election by the Supreme Court just 18 days to the polls has therefore exposed another weakness of the Constitution of Liberia that over the years continues to go under numerous tests for clarity including a referendum in less than ten years. While the petitioners’ claim that no institution has the authority to set an election date might hold legal waters, there call for a ‘sovereign national conference’ to decide such a date appears even more controversial and unconstitutional. Holding a national conference would as much require huge crowds and political activities just as holding elections would. Both events therefore seem counterproductive to the fight against Ebola.
Perhaps this ‘sovereign national conference’ was needed in 2003 immediately after the war to chart a new course for the country beyond what a handful of warlords and politicians dictated in the Accra Comprehensive Peace Agreement.

On the other side of the debate are 14 political parties (including the major parties) and some public intellectuals who support the conduct of the elections and do not see any constitutional violation with the setting of date. The parties argue that the date of December 16 was set after broader consultations with all political and civic actors. Whether elections are held or not, leaders of these parties continue to benefit from the weaknesses of Liberia’s political and economic governance systems that find roots in the current constitution, and elections have only been used to legitimize their control of the body-polity. None has over the years made strong cases for constitutional reform or alternative public policies that promote the redistribution of power, wealth and authority in Liberia.

This debate continues to deepen and the Supreme Court’s Stay Order is still in place as legal teams are preparing for a show down soon. At the moment no one can easily predict the outcome of the hearings, but one thing remains clear from the ongoing standoff: The fate of the election to replace fifteen Senators whose tenure expires on January 15 remains gloomy. Political and civic actors and Liberia’s international partners will have to step up and strategize for a peaceful handling of a potential crisis that has no precedence in contemporary Liberian political history.
What are the provisions of the Constitution for business of the Senate in the absence of half of its members, and would there be a power vacuum were elections not held by January 15? Again these are hard questions challenging the usefulness of the constitution of Liberia to the country’s contemporary problems.

Under Article 33 of the Constitution a simple majority of each House (Senate or Representatives) is required to transact any business. Anything below a simple majority cannot constitute a quorum, thus the Constitution instructs each House to compel members to attend. The current situation means only 15 Senators would be in the House of Senate were elections not held nationwide by January 15, and clearly this figure is one person short of a quorum for transaction of business in the Senate. Thus the potential for a power vacuum in Liberia come January 2015 is imminent.

In previous cases – particularly during the civil war - Liberian stakeholders, mostly warlords and politicians resorted to the formation of transitional administration and transitional assemblies to address intermittent power vacuums. The current case is different and unprecedented as there is no civil war and a constitutional government is well in place. Stakeholders in this case are not limited to warlords and leaders of political parties, but all Liberians of voting age. In addition, many Liberians are weary of such ad hoc transitional arrangements as they represent abnormalities and usually marred by widespread fraud and mismanagement of public resources.

What then can be done in the ongoing crises? Proposals abound daily on the way forward, but the lesson taught in this case like in previous cases of ambiguity over the constitution, is that the current Constitution of Liberia has outlived its usefulness, and like any postwar country, constitutional reform in Liberia remains urgent.

Finally, the argument here is not that a new constitution is a cure for constitutional crises, which are parts of processes of competitive democracy, and Liberia is not the only country that experiences such crises. All free societies do. But what is a common and best practice is that after protracted civil wars or political instabilities, laws and constitutions are reformed to address the anomalies that incite conflicts. Liberia started its Constitution reform exercise nine years after the war (in 2012) and continues to drag in bureaucratic channels. As this review process continues, these issues, particularly those exposed by the outbreak of the Ebola virus – state failure on constitutional responsibilities, use of emergency powers, electoral issues, and limits of powers of the legislature – are hard lessons for Liberians around which perhaps a ‘sovereign national conference’ is needed when the dusts on Senate elections are settled.

In the Cause of Democracy and Social Justice the Pen Shall Never Run Dry

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Renegotiating rural land rights through constitutional reform in Liberia

Chapter Three of Liberia’s current Constitution (which came into force in 1986) contains a wide range of fundamental rights for citizens. Amongst them is the right to own property. Under Article 22(a), ‘…every person shall have the right to own property alone as well as in association with others.’ Read more...

Friday, October 24, 2014

When constitutions and the state fail us: lessons from Ebola

In March 2014 the deadly Ebola epidemic that broke out in a remote forest region in Guinea spilled over into neighboring Liberia. By July, it had swept through Monrovia and many other counties infecting nearly 2000 and the death toll—which continues to rise as I write— has exceeded 1000. The country has come to a standstill. Senate elections which were due for October have been postponed until December. On the economic front, increasing border closures with Liberia is negatively affecting trade flows, especially food imports. The Government’s shut-down of vast areas of the country to curb the spread of the disease is driving down domestic food production. These measures are driving up prices for basic food commodities, in some cases by almost 150 percent according to an FAO alert. Read more

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Liberia’s constitutional review process: why it matters to women

Ibrahim Al-bakri Nyei

Compared to most of its contemporaries across Africa, Liberia, historically, has stood at the forefront of women’s political emancipation. In 1946 Liberian women gained suffrage to vote and participate in public elections, making it one of only six African countries, including Cameroon, South Africa, Senegal, Togo, and Djibouti to have granted women the franchise as far back as the mid-twentieth century. It placed women at the highest echelon of the peace negotiation process for their role in mediating the warring factions during the violent conflict; it was the first African country to elect a woman as President. Women have also held key positions in government ranging from heading key ministries like the Justice Ministry to heading the Constitutional Review Commission (CRC). Read More

Friday, May 9, 2014

Constitutional Reform in Postwar Liberia – Key issues and actors

Ibrahim Al-bakri Nyei

Liberia’s return to constitutional democracy in 2006 presented opportunities for a new beginning after years of political and violent crises during which over 250,000 persons were killed. The new government, inaugurated in 2006, initiated programs of reforms in almost all sectors including right-sizing and strengthening the civil service, rationalizing and capacitating public institutions, reorganizing the security institutions, and transforming the economy among others. Ten years after the return to peace, constitutional reform has emerged as the key reform program. What is driving the review process? How is this likely to strengthen Liberia’s constitutional democracy? Read More

Toward Security Sector Decentralization: Liberia's County Security Councils and Regional Hubs

Ibrahim Al-bakri Nyei

This Article was originally published SSR Resource Center blog at

Liberia’s political centralization has only resulted in limited access to basic services in most parts of the country, including justice and security. However, recent efforts at security sector reform in Liberia have entailed a process of decentralizing the national security architecture, involving the establishment of local security councils and regional hubs. This piece provides an overview on security governance in Liberia, and how local councils and hubs are contributing to decentralization in the security sector.

The concept of security sector governance broadly refers to the governance arrangements in which the country’s security sector is organized, administered, and under which personnel operate. In Liberia, the security sector is the collection of the Ministry of National Defense, the Ministry of National Security, and the Ministry of Justice, and their associated agencies.

Part of the problem in Liberia’s security sector governance lie in the fact that national laws provide for a centralized security governance regime, in which the overconcentration of power at the presidency results in imperial and personalized control over the security agencies. In such a centralized control system, security agencies are used to promote the personal agenda of the president or sitting regime. This pattern of authority relations in the state and army can be described as ‘patrimonial,’ in which networks of patrons and clients dominate the security agencies. Since the end of Liberia’s civil war, not much has been done to reduce such presidential control over military and paramilitary security agencies in the country.

As it stands, overall policy coordination of the security sector in Liberia lies with the National Security Council, headed by the President of Liberia. This council is comprised of key ministries with security and internal political functions like the Ministries of Justice, Defense, and Internal Affairs. The Constitution of Liberia (1986) and subsequent legislation keep the President of Liberia at the center of those agencies, with the power to appoint and dismiss civilian official such as Ministers, Directors, and senior military and paramilitary officials and officers. While key internal security agencies like the Liberia National Police, Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization, and the National Bureau of Investigation function under the Ministry of Justice, it is still the President that appoints heads of those agencies and retains control over them.

A thorough process of decentralization has not yet taken place in Liberia’s governance reform since the return to civilian democratic rule in 2006. A National Policy on Decentralization and Local Governance has been adopted with the aim of devolving some political, fiscal, and administrative powers to local government units. However, decision-making authority and command structures of the security agencies will continue to be centralized in Monrovia.

This will have an impact on local coordination, since the heads of security and law enforcement agencies have no reporting relationships with local county officials. For instance, at a local level, the Joint Security comprises all of the security agencies in a county, including the Liberia National Police, Bureau of Immigration, National Security Agency, National Bureau of Investigation, and the Drug Enforcement Agency. These agencies report to the County Attorney, who serves as Chair of the Joint Security but is appointed by the Ministry of Justice.

But some modest steps towards decentralization are taking place – the most important being the establishment of local branches of central agencies that are limited to administrative or implementing powers, rather than powers to make decisions or even to run autonomous operational budgets. Two of those ‘shadow’ decentralization efforts include the establishment of County Security Councils and the construction of security and justice hubs in the regions.

The County Security Council (CSC) is the local county version of the National Security Council, which has responsibility for overall policy coordination of national security. Chaired by the Superintendent in each county, the CSC is composed of the county heads of the Police, Immigration, the National Security Agency, and the Liberia National Fire Services, as well as other civilian authorities including the paramount, clan, and town chiefs. Unlike the Joint Security, this council reports to the Minister of Internal Affairs who also sits on the National Security Council.

The creation of a CSC in each county is a guiding principle of Liberia’s postwar national security objectives. The local councils are part of the national peace-building efforts to ensure security and peace coordination at the levels of the counties and the districts. The CSC is coordinated through a multifaceted platform with government, civil society, and other local stakeholders acting together, and they are not only responsible for physical security but also act as a mechanism for disaster and crisis management. Through the CSC, civilian players can participate in decision making processes in the security sector. This facilitate a process in which national security policies are informed by both physical security issues and more human-related ones, from socio-economic to disaster management.[1]

Since the launch of the County Security Mechanism in December 2009, only five CSCs have been launched to date in Montserrado, Nimba, Lofa, Grand Gedeh, and River Gee Counties. All of them are gravely constrained by challenges in financial resources, technical capacity and human resources, which have made it difficult to expand into the remaining ten counties.[2]

In 2013, the Government of Liberia also launched a Regional Justice and Security Hub in north central Liberia (Gbarnga), which brings together multiple law enforcement or criminal justice actors in a single location. There are plans to launch additional four hubs in other regions. These centres represent a decentralization of the operational functions of Liberia national security and justice institutions. As justice and security institutions are scarce in rural Liberia, the hubs represent an opportunity for local county residents to access justice and security services. The main objectives of the hubs are infrastructural and logistical support to justice and security institutions, strengthening capacity of personnel, and ensuring a responsive justice and security sector. When fully operational, local county units of security agencies will therefore have additional supports closer to them for reinforcement, logistics, and advice.

The Gbarnga Hub, the only one operational so far, is intended to serve Bong (the host), Nimba, and Lofa Counties. It brings the court, immigration, police and correction and prosecution services in one location, thereby speeding up criminal justice proceedings. While a good model for criminal justice cooperation, it in no way interferes with the separation of power and the system of check and balances between the three branches of government. Each agency functions under its own statutory mandate.

The CSC and regional hubs represent a good model for decentralization of the security sector in the post-United Nations Mission (UNMIL) era in Liberia. Yet more needs to be done in the areas of law and institutional reforms to ensure that governance of the security sector is democratic and under civilian control. The opportunity for this lies in the ongoing constitutional review process, which needs to consider the issue of reducing the powers of the president in appointing key security officials. Civilian oversight boards can do better in overseeing these institutions and ensuring their heads are democratically accountable.

Finally, the challenges of security sector governance in Liberia have been linked to issues of capacity particularly in trained personnel and limited financial resources. For programs like the CSCs and the hubs to be sustained will require full ownership and financial support from the Government of Liberia as the withdrawal of donor funding in the medium or long term might gravely impact their functioning.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Corruption is Dangerous than Ebola!

Ibrahim Al-bakri Nyei

Over the last few weeks, our dear nation, Liberia, has been attacked by the deadly Ebola virus. From all indications, we lack the capacity to counter the virus in a rapid and effective way. This is evidenced by the fact that we have not been able to mobilize $1.2 million USD as an emergency fund to fight the outbreak; we have sought international assistance to setup a laboratory; we have emigrated blood samples of our fellow countrymen/women who have been suspected of carrying the virus. The lack of a rapid response and our inability to contain the virus speak of the inefficiency of our national institutions. They are all obvious consequences of massive corruption and bad governance over the years. Millions of dollars are squandered annually through cloudy procurement processes, multinational transactions, bribery at the highest pillar of national lawmaking and the financing of public relations to create impressions abroad.

We could have been well-off and capable to respond to Ebola and other diseases had we mobilized strongly against corruption over the years as we have mobilized against Ebola over the last two weeks. Our lawmakers declared Ebola an emergency, but have failed to act on audit reports, and have failed to empower the Anti-Corruption Commission with full prosecutorial powers. Had we mobilize over the years we would have been able to save enough for emergencies like, or even more than, the Ebola virus. Had we institute democratic governance and reduce imperial central authority, we would have been able by now, to set up effective health systems across the country with capacities for rapid response and prevention.

My argument here is that our main problem is not an outbreak of a virus; it is the perennial existence of a virus that threw us into a vortex of civil war; a virus that continues to stagnate our people in poverty, social injustices, and undermine our sovereignty. That virus is corruption and it is dangerous than Ebola! I do not argue here that the absence of corruption means the absence of viruses like Ebola, but I am convinced that the absence of corruption will enable us to build strong national institutions capable of serving our people, maintaining our pride as a sovereign and independent state, and defeating Ebola and its accomplices.

The existence of this virus (corruption) at the core of public leadership in Liberia have clouded the minds of the citizenry and made them to doubt threatening situations. Ebola is deadly and it has invaded our country, but some of our people assume it is a conspiracy theory designed by some officials to raise and siphon money. While their argument is false, it is however informed by their harsh experiences. They frequently make reference to the case of the army worms that attacked Liberia in 2009 during which money was raised and reportedly stolen by authorities leading the fight against the worms. An audit report indicted some officials, but was never followed-up to a legal conclusion. An activist-journalist used the report as a source of news and analyses. He was dragged to court for libel. Consequently, he was imprisoned and his newspaper temporarily closed. That case taught progressive activists that instead of the authorities in Liberia defeating corruption, they used the institutions of the state to defeat a journalist and cow all other activists into silence and submission. We have a fight, and it gets tougher by the day. We need to defeat corruption if we are to defeat other viruses, because it is the mean virus eating us up. While Ebola kills a patient, corruption kills a nation, deprives generations and weakens the state. We therefore need to institute and enforce a system of good governance capable of delivering services in transparent and accountable ways to our people across the country. In this way we will be prepared enough to contain outbreak of diseases, sea erosions, and other natural disasters.

In the Cause of Democracy and Social Justice the Pen Shall Never Run Dry

Guinea Bissau
April 11, 2014

Monday, January 20, 2014

Memo to the Legislature: Redistribute Power, Not Money

Ibrahim Al-bakri Nyei

This piece is an initial contribution to the ongoing national discourse on the proposed 73 million dubbed as the Direct District Impact fund. According to the proposal now discussed in the Legislature, this amount will be set aside annually in the national budget for the 73 electoral districts. While the intention to have districts experience impacts of development is laudable, the mechanism of such transfer, the governance arrangement under which such development impact will be made possible, need to precede the disbursement of the fund. This is why progressive forces must critically assess this proposal and tease out workable policy options through debates before it is carried forward.

In revealing the plan the Speaker of the House of representative is quoted by FrontPageAfrica as saying “when one imagines that Gboe-pole Administrative District in lower Grand Gedeh County has never experienced a motor road, makes this proposal belated, but this is one of the ways or means we believe that the much needed development can reach and impact our people in rural Liberia.”

What the speaker and his colleagues need to know is that a place like the Gboe-pole Administrative District and many other places that symbolize chronic poverty and underdevelopment in Liberia are not so because of shortage of money. Liberia has never had a shortage of money or the resources needed to generate more money. What Liberia has lacked is progressive leadership. If one argues that we have had some form of leadership, then the current state of underdevelopment and deprivation in places like Gboe-pole and Bomi County, the home of Speaker Tyler and me, are consequences of tragic failure of said leadership. Speaker Tyler and colleagues must devise a strategy to serve the people good leadership from which his sample Gboe-pole and others will have sustainable development.

The solution again is not money. Mwalimu Nyerere and others wrote in the Arusha Declaration of 1967 that it is not money that develops a nation, it is the people. People must be led, educated, healthy and mobilized for local self-governance through which all other forms of development can be possible. Learning from people’s power as the source of development as evidenced from history renders the ‘money-brings-development’ theory faulty.

The next fault with the proposal is that the proposed amount is to fund projects in electoral districts (1 million per district), not statutory and administrative districts. This clearly validates popular assumptions that lawmakers are finding ways of increasing electoral chances in the future, because by allotting money to electoral districts that have no leadership structures, but representatives, makes the said representative the public face of the so-called development impact. This obviously increases the electoral chances of the incumbent lawmaker. This, is in my view is an electoral strategy carved by the current incumbents, which progressive forces must mobilize against by advocating alternative options for local development in Liberia.

The experiences with the problems of limited social impact, improper accounting and corrupt procurement practices in the implementation of the extant County Development Fund speak to the fact that dishing out money to sub-national units of government without adequate and rationalized governance arrangements cannot yield the intended outcome of social development. Therefore, the solution to Liberia’s development challenges begins with empowering the people for local self-governance. This means redistributing power between the overly centralized government and local governments in counties, districts and cities. With the creation of local government structures and the empowerment of local people and their local authorities with political fiscal and administrative powers, one can imagine how local development programs will be accelerated since government will be closer to the people. The fact that the underdevelopment and poverty of most of Liberia became a reality to the Speaker only after a single trip highlights the need for government to be closer to the people before it can appreciate the concerns and needs of the people.

Let me turn to other factors that bring development. Again, it is not money that brings development! It is the ‘space and structure’ given to people in a given society that bring development. Speaking about ‘space’ here, I mean the opportunity for the people to participate in political and economic decision-making processes through local representatives or directly. By structure, I mean rules and institutions created to foster the aspirations of the people in fair, equitable and transparent manners. One cannot understate the fact that the Liberian people have been deprived functional rules in the discourse of daily life activities. Theft of public resources, unethical and indiscipline attitudes in public places undermine the people’s aspirations for better lives. In short, there is a deficit of public integrity, not money, and because institutions are weak, the rules are not been enforced; therefore, money as abundant as it may be, has been stolen, abused or wasted with impunity. The proposed 73 million will as well be stolen, abused or wasted in the absence of functional rules and institutions at both national and local levels.

Finally, I make a case here for the legislature to consider three things that are indispensable to the advancement of any society: disciplined and active people, enforceable rules, and functional institutions. Development is a function of the three, and money is only a facilitator. It is therefore imperative for members of the Legislature to consider a governance arrangement that empowers the people with power for local self-governance, and support law enforcement through the strengthening of national and local institutions. With strong national institutions and enforceable laws, a 1 dollar can make meaningful impacts than a 73 million in an environment with dysfunctional institutions and weak laws. In short, the Legislature must support local development by making laws that redistribute power through decentralization and not laws that only share money! Sharing money among 73 electoral districts will facilitate decentralization of corruption and waste of public resources to the advantage of election-freak politicians.

In the Cause of Democracy and Social Justice the Pen Shall Never Run Dry