Liberia: Senate ‘Interfering with’ NEC’s Function

Deputy Speaker, Cllr. J. Fonati Koffa

— Says Rep. Fonati Koffa, promises to campaign against the passage of a Senate amendment to the New Election law that declares all election magistrates seats vacant after 90-days. 

“It is not the business of the legislature to interfere with administrative matters [of the National Elections Commission].”

These are the words of Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives, Cllr. J. Fonati Koffa as he rejects a legislative measure by the Senate to restate the portion of the country’s election law —   calling for the dismissal of election magistrates. 

As the second most powerful man in the House, Koffa’s disapproval would be a fatal blow to the Senate’s legislative action, which critics have slammed as a dangerous move ahead of the 2023 presidential and legislative elections.

The Senate amendment aims to remove all election magistrates from their posts and have them reapply if they wish, 90 days upon the amendment’s enactment into law.

“Section 2.24(a) of the amended law states: “90 days after the passage of this Act, all Elections Magistrates in the 15-Counties must be removed and positions considered vacant. This section also gives the right to those removed Magistrates to re-apply.”

But Rep. Koffa, while rebuking the Senate, said the issues about elections magistrates are administrative and fall under the direct control of the National Elections Commission (NEC), rather than the Legislature. Therefore, there should be no attempt to venture into creating a new law targeting the magistrates.

“I don’t think it is the business of the legislature to interfere with administrative matters,” the Grand Kru District #2 Representative said. “I think that is purely within the purview of the NEC. I respect the views of the Senate but I, for one, will be opposing any amendment of such kind if it comes to the House. I think it should be squarely left with the NEC.”

The Deputy Speaker’s response comes as election magistrates across the country threatened to sue the government if the Senate measure becomes law.  The magistrates argued that the amendment tampered with their civil service status and warned the House not to follow suit, as doing so could lead to legal action. 

 The magistrates have also expressed fear that the House might concur with the Senate to enact the measure, which would negatively impact them “with no warranted justifiable reasons.”

“It is not that we are afraid to call our names,” the anonymous magistrates told the Daily Observer on August 22, “but we are waiting to see if the House of Representatives will concur with the Senate on this. The President signing it into law will lead us into action — going to court to seek redress.”

“Any attempt on the part of the Legislature, which has no constitutional right to appoint magistrates, will not go unchallenged,” the magistrates said. 

Magistrates are not subjected to confirmation before the Senate — something Koffa said should have been carefully looked at by the Senate before making such a proposal. He reiterated that the NEC  is an autonomous constitutional body and it should conduct its affairs without the interference of the Legislature.

He added that as Liberia’s election year of 2023 draws closer, care should be taken not to create any dark cloud ahead of the polls and the Senate measure intends to create that dark cloud. 

“[I] assured the magistrates and the electoral body that he will do all he can in his capacity to ensure there are enough votes to nullify the Senate’s attempt.

Meanwhile, the Deputy Speaker’s rejection of the Senate vote comes as a former chairperson of NEC, James Fromayan, claimed that the Senate amendment may have an ulterior motive and, if care is not taken, NEC might not have the independence it ought to have in the conduct of elections in 2023 and beyond.

“The onus will be on the justice system to do the right thing or fail the Liberian people. We are waiting to see what happens,” Fromayan said. “Magistrates are not employed by the Legislature and they do not even go for confirmation, but work under the direct supervision of the NEC Board of Commissioners, which falls under the Executive branch of government.

“Magistrates are hired based on good conduct, proven credibility, and a first degree, as well as competence. They are only fired based on proven records of bad conduct or corruption. These are what I know. But hearing that a group of Lawmakers want their interest served and, as such, they have embarked on tampering with the Law is sickening and should be condemned,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Senate has constituted a five-member conference committee to work with the House to harmonize its amendments to the New Elections Law of 2014.

Those appointed include Senator (Cllr.) H. Varney G. Sherman as Chairman, while Senators Abraham Darius Dillon of Montserrado County, Numene T.H. Bartekwa of Grand Kru County, Cllr. Augustine Chea of Sinoe County and Dr. Henrique Tokpa of Bong County.

Recently the House of Representatives forwarded to the Senate, for concurrence, a few amendments to the elections law, which the Senate did with the passage of its versions.  Senate Pro Tempore, Albert T. Chie, said the appointment of the Conference Committee to work along with the House in harmonizing the amendments was due to some changes made to the House’s version. He asserted that following the work of the Conference Committee, the document will be brought back to the Plenary for final passage.