Liberia: Lofa County Senatorial By-Election Not Possible On May 10

The Board of Commissioners of the National Elections Commission (NEC) or the Supreme Court has been left with the opportunity to decide whether or not a candidate on the ticket of the former ruling Unity Party (UP) should be allowed to contest in the Special Senatorial By-Election in Lofa  County on May 10. 

The decision came after NEC Hearing Office claimed that he lacks jurisdiction to render any judgment in the matter due to the constitutional questions and concerns raised.

The NEC staff ruled that due to the constitutional issues, in this case, the NEC is hereby prohibited from proceeding with any action regarding the endorsement of the Unity Party's candidate for the Lofa County Senatorial by-election until the Supreme Court considers the constitutional questions involved.

"WHEREFORE AND IN VIEW OF THE FOREGOING, and so as to allow the opportunity for the Honorable Supreme Court to possibly consider the constitutional questions raised in this matter, the National Elections Commission (NEC) is hereby prohibited from taking any further action or endorsement anh form or other documents put forth by defendant(s) herein regarding the fielding of a candidate until otherwise determined," ruled Atty. Fomba M. Swaray, NEC hearing officer.  "It is worth noting that the Constitution governing documents of political parties are not written at the bar of the administrative forum. Hence, questions as to whether a political governing document is wise or unwise, are best directed at the political parties."

He said "Moreover, questions as to whether such agreement is constitutional or unconstitutional are best reserved for the honorable Supreme Court. Accordingly, this investigation does not make any determination on the Constitutional issues raised by complainants and defendants respectively.”

The NEC hearing officer ruling was regarding a complaint from the Alternative National Congress and Musa Bility faction of the Liberty Party to the electoral body to invoke Section 8.5 (2) CPP framework document as a means of rejecting and denying “any application from the ALP and UP to field candidates in their names in any election until the expiry of the 2023 elections, including up to six (6) months thereafter, same being the agreed contractual life of the CPP.”

However, the Unity Party and the ALP have taken exception to the ruling and filed an appeal for a review of the Hearing Officer’s decision to the NEC Board of Commissioners. 

The UP and ALP are arguing that If NEC does not have the right to determine constitutional matters and rights, they should not have the authority to prohibit rights provided by the very constitution — as such  they cannot be prohibited, by themselves, from processing the UP candidate for the pending senatorial by-election in Lofa County.

And if the defendants' appeals do not change or overturn the Hearing Officer’s decision, they will continue the journey to the Supreme Court and that means time — making it difficult for the by-election in Lofa County to be held on its due date of May 10. 

At the start of this case, the NEC’s board of commissioners denied UP and ALP lawyers' request for judicial review on grounds that the matter before them was above their jurisdiction — and that the complaint filed by the ‘remaining fragment’ of the Collaborating Political Parties — the faction of the  Liberty Party loyal to its chairman Musa Bility and the ANC can only be validated by the court, hence the case should be dismissed.

But the NEC Board of Commissioners opined after reviewing the petition that there was no merit in the issues presented in the petition to warrant judicial review.

The rejection then prompted the Minister of Justice, Cllr. Musah F. Dean, to issue a  legal opinion involving the complaint filed by the ANC and Bility faction of the LP which requested the electoral body to bar two other opposition parties from fielding candidates in any election.

Minister Dean, while relying on Chapter 22 of the Executive Law, title 13, Liberian Code of Laws Revised — noted that his office had declared that there can be no restriction on the enjoyment of constitutional rights, except during an emergency declared in accordance with the Constitution.

Minister Dean warned that while the country is under an obligation to guarantee the inviolability of contracts, agreements that seek to contract away constitutional rights are unconstitutional and violate public policy, “hence unenforceable”. 

Minister Dean added: “The right to freely associate with or refuse to associate in political parties, trade unions, and other organizations, is a fundamental right guaranteed under Article 17 of our Constitution. No contract can inhibit the exercise of this fundamental right.” 

“Article 1 of our Constitution guarantees the people the right to freely elect leaders of their choice through free, fair, and democratic elections," the Minister added. "In the process, political parties are guaranteed the right to field candidates; while individuals may register as independent candidates.” 

However, the ANC and the Bility LP letter argued that “Section 8.5 (2) of the CPP framework document states that: "Constituent Party desiring to withdraw from the CPP shall first exhaust the dispute resolution mechanism stipulated in the framework document.

 “If the Constituent Party which has satisfied the dispute resolution mechanism is not satisfied with the outcome, it shall file a resolution to withdraw from the CPP signed and duly executed by two-thirds (2/3) of the membership of the National Executive Committee, it is being understood, however, that a party withdrawing from the alliance prior to the next presidential, legislative and local elections shall not field candidates in its name.”

In their complaint to NEC, the two political parties contend that they have not received any official communication from the two parties indicating their exit from the CPP.

The Liberty Party, in which Grand Bassa County Senator Nyonblee Karnga - Lawrence serves as a political leader, is split between factions loyal to her and its Chairman, Musa Bility, whose leadership is still being legally recognized by the electoral body along with the Senator.

The complaint by ANC and Bility’s LP faction came after the UP and the ALP both withdrew from the CPP on allegations that the CPP Framework Document was tampered with by the political leader of the ANC, Alexander Cummings -- an allegation he had denied. 

Lofa County has for the last two years been without one of its two senators after former Defense Minister Brownie Samukai faced a hurdle in taking his seat.

His difficulty came when the Supreme Court halted his certification.

Samukai received the most votes in the December 8, 2020 special senatorial election. Of the 11 candidates who vied for the Lofa County senatorial seat, Samukai received 20, 431 votes, followed by independent candidate Cllr. Joseph Jallah with 13,968 votes. 

He and two co-defendants were convicted for theft of property, criminal conspiracy, misuse of public money, and money laundering over US$1 million and sentenced to two years in prison, and ordered to restore the money. 

The Samukai case, which has been incredibly contentious, came to a crossroads after the Supreme Court revoked the suspension of the two-year jail sentence handed against him and his two deputies for failing collectively failed to comply with the high court’s mandate and judgment to pay 50% of the judgment sum, equal to US$573,828.15, within six months of last year. 

That ruling then means that Samukai would have served two years imprisonment along with his co-defendants, Joseph Johnson and James Nyuman Ndokor, while paying the full judgment amount of US$1,147,656.35, minus the amount the former paid.

Their two-year sentence was previously suspended by the Supreme Court on condition that they (defendants) would restitute 50 percent of the amount payable within six months, a condition which the defendants appear to have breached. 

But on January 27, the High Court ruled that Samukai and his two deputies should be in prison until the balance amount is fully liquidated at the rate of US$25.00 per month, for what the court termed as a gross violation on the part of the defendants. 

Before the Supreme Court judgment, Samukai made the payment of US$191,276.05 in three separate checks before Criminal Court “C” Judge Blamo Dixon, but Justice Yuoh said payment by Samukai does not constitute 50% nor adherence to the conditions in which the jail sentence was suspended by the supreme court. 

Yet the Court said that law provides that where criminal defendants are jointly adjudged guilty of a crime, they are together, considered collectively responsible for any fines or penalty until the judgment is fully satisfied.