Former Justice Minister and Attorney General, Cllr. Benedict Sannoh, says Liberia’s perennial problems are not due to the lack of good laws but it is the people for whom the laws were made.
In his recent presentation at a program marking dialogue on reasons necessary to re-engage the review and the possible subsequent amendment of the Constitution, Sannoh said, “There is a perennial tension between the tenets of the Constitution, on the one hand, and the practical realities of our cultural, social and political order on the other, which makes the ‘rule of law in Liberia’ to remain a mere aspiration that the population continues progressively to try and attain.”
He said it is difficult to state in practical terms that the rule of law has truly engendered its essence for which it has been put in place.
“I find it extremely difficult to say that the prescriptions of the Constitution by themselves have engendered the rule of law in Liberia over the years. The problem then is not the law, but the people,” he said.
He added that the Constitution is a good instrument which sets forth some rules that create structure and define the limits of the powers and authority of the government and is designed primarily to protect rights, prevent arbitrariness, and advance the general welfare of the Liberian people and the economic development of the country.
He spoke on the topic, “Impact of Constitution Review on the Rule of Law,” and said the constitution of every nation provides the anchor that holds the peace, stability, and security of that nation for which it has been developed and sanctioned in a stable position.
Considering Law Reform Commission’s (LRC) theme of the workshop, “Towards Constitutional Review for Peacebuilding, National Healing and Reconciliation, and Development,” the former Justice Minister said the balance of power as enshrined in the Constitution is yet to be realized in practical terms in Liberia.
He noted that a great responsibility has been placed on the law to define the systems and manners of governance at each level of government; that it is still all too clear that the executive branch of government in the country has too much influence over the other two branches.
He said the Constitution of Liberia embodies certain values, including the establishment of itself as the “Supreme and fundamental law of the country, and that any laws, treaties, and regulations that are found to be inconsistent with it shall be void and of no legal effect.
Sannoh added that, “In an effort to prevent arbitrariness, the Constitution provides for the government to be a ‘limited government’ instead of one with absolute powers.”
“The Constitution embraces the view that in order to achieve a truly limited government, the powers of the government must be enumerated, separated and divided. So, Chapter V of the Constitution defines and enumerates the powers of the legislature; Chapter VI, the powers of the Executive; and Chapter VII, the powers of the Judiciary. No one is to overstep the bound by intruding into the operations of the other unless under the doctrine of checks and balances,” he said.
He said Liberia is a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Bill of International Human Rights, and all major international human rights organizations which have been incorporated into the laws of Liberia and need to be enforced by the courts at all times.
He added that the Constitution demands adherence to the principles of supremacy of law, equality before the law, accountability to the law, fairness in the application of the law, separation of powers, participation in decision-making, legal certainty, avoidance of arbitrariness and procedural and legal transparency.
The legal practitioner pointed out that there are a number of challenges Liberia is confronted and dealing with, that remain an uphill experience for all governments. He wishes there would be a turning point on the perennial obstacles with this government.
“It has been over 171 years since Liberia declared independence; yet there is very little we can show in terms of social and economic development. All around us, our neighbors, especially Ghana and Ivory Coast, have dramatically transformed their countries economically and socially. You can see this clearly from the very moment you disembark from the plane,” he said.
Sannoh asked a rhetorical question: “How many of you here have linked our adherence to the rule of law and our poor state of development?”
Quoting John Marshall, (USA) in the case Cohen v. Virginia, he said: “The people make the constitution and the people can unmake it. It is the creature of their will and lives only by their will. But this supreme and irresistible power to make or unmake, resides only in the whole body of the people, and not in any sub-division of them.”
According to him, “The reviewers of the Constitution must be mindful that the laws and institutions must not only go hand in hand with the progress of the country and the experiences of its people; [but that] the fundamental values in the constitution are not cast aside by misinformed or uninformed temporary majorities influenced by political considerations.”
Sannoh commended LRC’s efforts that were geared towards the reformation of the Constitution where necessary, and called on Liberians in general and visitors to the country to be obedient to the law so as to give a concrete meaning to the very Constitution.
LRC’s chairman, Cllr. Boakai Kanneh, meanwhile said the dialogue has discovered that 28 of the 97 Articles of the constitution need amendment to suit the 21st Century, as it is in the case of other countries who are fast developing.
The two-day consultative dialogue was organized by the Law Reform Commission (LRC).