By McCarthy Weh
Legislative Information Service
Speaker Bhofal Chambers was elected to the Liberian Legislature in 2005. Along with others, he was inducted on January 16, 2006. From 2006 to current, Speaker Chambers is serving 18 straight years. In the last 6 of the 18 years, he is completing a six-year term of speakership. As is known the world over, parliamentary bodies work through committees, and so Rep. Chambers was assigned his first key committee role. He was appointed to the Joint Legislative Modernization Committee (JLMC) – charged with the task of making the Liberian Legislature 21st century compliant (blue print for effective representation, lawmaking and oversight).
Although Rep. Chambers was member of other committees in 2006, the JLMC was one of the most strategic committees then, because it was fully supported by international partners with the aim of engendering reform and modernization platform for effectiveness. The partners accorded full support as they were aware that for a post-war legislature to serve well, it needed firstly to be reformed and modernized.
Sadly, Speaker Chambers (then Rep. Chambers) attended no more than two meetings of the Modernization Committee. I headed the secretariat of the JLMC, then. When members of the joint committee members were seated for meeting, roll call was done and Speaker Chambers was persistently absent with no excuse for his absent. He boycotted the work of the Committee until he was replaced during the 53rd Legislature.
The Modernization Plan consisted of five pillars. Chairpersons Blamoh Nelson and Cletus Wotorson worked tirelessly to implement the Plan, but their efforts went futile. If implemented considerably, the Legislature would have been more reformed and modernized today, perhaps. Sadly, the Legislature trashed the Plan into the dustbin of “don’t care.” Had Speaker Chambers, one of the original members of the Plan, serving as Speaker for six years, could embark upon prioritizing implementing its activities, much would have been achieved internally-institutionally. Take for instance, Pillar 4 states:
“The aim of activities under this pillar is to strengthen the professional capacities of legislative staff, both personal and central. The number of personnel working for the Legislature will be rationalized and streamlined through a number of exercises and measures: re-documentation; restructuring of the Personnel and Staff Welfare Departments of both Houses, internship grants, study tours, on-the-job training where potential is obvious, and knowledge up-date workshops and seminars. In addition, the salary and job benefit scale of the Legislature will be adjusted to commensurate with professional credentials, experience and productivity” P-14 (See attached).
This is just one out of five pillars. Rep. Chambers who served as one of the first committee members on reforming, modernizing and rebranding the Legislature, became Speaker of the House of Representatives, hence, head of the Legislature. Unfortunately, none of the activities mentioned under Pillar 5 was executed under the speakership of Rep. Bhofal Chambers. In fact, things retrogressed under his leadership. For example, the Legislative Information Service (LIS), which is a brainchild of the modernization project, was actively utilized by Rep. Chambers. The LIS was inaugurated in 2011 by USAID and the Legislature. From 2011 to 2017, the Maryland District #2 Representative, Chambers, was the lawmaker who used the LIS facilities much more than any other legislator.
In early 2017, Rep. Chambers undertook a project in his district aimed at sending some young students abroad (USA) for a competition. It was at the LIS all such work was done. Upon assuming the Office of Speaker, the Maryland lawmaker turned his back to the information center. However, the LIS acquainted him with the need to impress upon the Senate to make available budgetary funding for the information center, nothing was realized from his intervention. When follow-up was made to the Speaker concerning the matter, he said he spoke with Pro temp Chie, and Chie promised to act accordingly.
Speaker Chamber, prior to his election as Speaker was seen as a “legislator-advocate” for transparency and accountability. Upon his ascendency, his once “advocacy prowess” got drowned in the abyss of silence, quietude and comfortability amidst dire need for much more advocacy and action. He became so contented with institutional wrong or inactions to the extent that in six years running, the once vocal Representative could not even establish an Internal Audits Department at the House of Representatives.
Should I decide to write more in justifying Maryland District 2 citizens’ action in rejecting Speaker Chambers’s re-election bid, it may be extremely lengthy. These series are intended to be brief. But before concluding, let me place spotlight on modernization activities as approved and adopted by the House and Senate in 2009. What much did Speaker Chamber achieve in modernizing the Legislature and effecting reforms?
Technically, exactly where Speaker Chambers met the country’s legislative body under the 52nd Legislature, is exactly where he may leave it, if he does nothing in the remaining last two months:
Under Pillar 1 (Constituency Representation), the Legislature, among other things, was to ensure the establishment of constituency contact through a regular radio program, print outlets and electronic voting system. Chambers met those concerns and is departing without them being actualized under his leadership.
Under Pillar 2 (Lawmaking), the Legislature was to ensure enhancement in lawmaking, such as having members’ constituents’ get ready access to laws passed by them, through equipment such as the electronic voting system. Speaker Chambers in 2006 met the dire need for citizens in rural parts to know how their lawmakers voted; and is expected to depart with it not actualized.
Under Pillar 3 (Legislative Oversight), the Legislature was to improve protocol for floor management and provide appropriate logistics and funding for hearings. Sadly, legislative oversight became one of the weakest in functions of the Legislature under the speakership of Rep. Chambers. Ministries and agencies of government could hardly submit reports. The archives, which the LIS embodies, is almost empty of ministries and agencies’ annual reports. Speaker Chambers may not achieve this pending his departure in January, 2024.
Under Pillar 4 (Staffing), the Legislature was to improve the professional capacity of the staff. They were to effect this by establishing periodic and targeted training, exposure and orientation programs. They were also to provide technical assistance in research and bill drafting formalities. The Legislature was to also scale up job and salary benefits of staff for enhancement of professionalism. This is where the Legislature failed so dismally to the core. Instead of rationalizing the staff according to the plan, the Legislature granted approval to the Executive to harmonize legislative staffs’ allowances, which was already incomparable to their Executive’s counterparts. Rep. Chambers met these professional challenges and did little or nothing to alleviate them. In fact, they grew worse under his speakership. Speaker Chamber will leave in January with this legacy of “the worst professional legislative staff” to his credit.
Under Pillar 5 (Work Environment), the Legislature was to introduce modern facilities, information systems, and create adequate workspace and a conducive environment. Speaking of adequate workspace, the LIS is thankful to United States Government through USAID and the Chinese Government for expansion undertakings. Nonetheless, following the international partners’ expansion projects, the legislature could not install vital equipment such as WiFi on the grounds of the Capitol to serve staff and their constituents who regularly visit the Capitol. The Members were encouraged to establish Legislative Security Service (LSS). Each House decided to operate its own security service. Good! But under Chambers’ speakership and leadership, common thing like uniform for security personnel serving under the House cannot be made available for men and women who sleep in the cold to provide security. So sad!
Speaker Chambers will leave the Legislature in January with no WiFi (internet), no busses for staff, no internal audit department, no audit (not even review) of the Legislature’s financial books, etc.
Legislators in our part of the world see “bill passage” as the core of their functions in the absence of critical reform. In the United States, the West, and other places in Africa such as Ghana, they work on reforms and modernization of their parliaments. That is to say, legislative functions do not consist first and foremost in passing of laws. NO! Why? Because even one hundred and three (103) 18-year old Liberians serving as representatives and senators can make laws and perform oversight role; and may even do better once they have the same various technical and administrative structures to aid them, like these are being aided. What is critical to proper legislative functioning primarily is institutionalizing reform measures that will trigger down to effective functioning which would aid in transforming citizens’ livelihood through lawmaking, oversight and representation. That is why the US Congress, following World-War II embarked upon the process of congressional reforms which led to an effective Congress.
Every meaningful legislative institution must prioritize internal-institutional reforms for national transformational agenda. This is where the Liberian Legislature since 2006 to current has dismally failed; hence, Speaker Chambers who is spending 18 years at the Legislature has woefully failed.
Finally, the Modernization Plan (2009) also states, “The poor professional capacity of the staff – both personal and central of the 52nd Legislature manifests itself in six primary ways: (1) there is surplus personnel; (2)they are poorly trained; (3) they are poorly paid; (4) they are inadequately equipped; (5) they lack job descriptions; and (6) their recruitment is highly politicized at the expense of merit. An urgent need exists to rationalize and professionalize the strength of the legislative staff…” p-13.
Interestingly, Speaker Chambers has been part of lawmakers between 2006-2023 who have received in appropriations, more than 612,850,355.00(+/-) (612m) far more than half a billion United States Dollars, with none of the above satisfied. Rather, the Speaker’s budget skyrocketed from 1m to 2m in 2022 and 2023. If this is not a pity in an impoverished country like Liberia, then one would want to know what pity is.
The Good Old Book (THE HOLY BIBLE) says in Luke 12:48b, “For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required: and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more.”
Predicated upon this verse, should Speaker Chambers be unable to significantly achieve anything in his remaining months and weeks, prior to his departure, some pundits may definitely down him as the worst Speaker ever since the creation of Liberia’s Legislature.
In view hereof, Maryland County District 2 citizens’ decision to deny Speaker Chambers’ re-election bid is quite justified.