By William Q. Harmon
The Legislative and Executive branches of government, the architects of the controversial Code of Conduct (CoC), seemed to be rethinking their previous position on the contentious law and are now harboring liberal views on a matter that has ignited a huge debate on the country’s electoral process.
President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Emmanuel Nuquay, were among several high profile officials who spoke at the opening of the two-day National Political Forum that kicked off on Wednesday in Monrovia. It brought together all of the country’s political parties, CSOs and others to chart a course for peaceful elections in October.
While the CoC requires public officials to adhere to legal and ethical standards in the performance of their respective duties and a commitment to the system of internal controls, the turbulent sections 5.1 and 5.2 seek to exclude officials of government appointed by the President from vying for elective office.
The feedback from the public has been largely negative, especially since the CoC was upheld as a legal document by the Supreme Court of Liberia, much ahead of the appointment of the office of the Ombudsman, which was supposed to adjudicate disputes concerning the CoC.
However, at the forum, President Sirleaf called for fair, transparent and inclusive elections in October. She said the maintenance of peace must provide a conducive environment for development, because if there is anything Liberians agree on “it is the need to preserve peace that has enabled us to be better reconcilers.”
She said more than half a century ago, precisely seventy-three years ago, Liberians experienced the transition from outgoing President Edwin J. Barclay to incoming President William V.S. Tubman after a free and fair election.
“So on January 16, 2018, Liberians will have the opportunity of a similar experience, which will be the defining test of our nascent democracy that will be the trigger for the continuation and strengthening of our international partnership,” President Sirleaf said.
She added that she had several telephone exchanges with leaders of political parties on Tuesday, encouraging them to be a part of the process to commit to peace and stability.
“Our guests will witness the signing by all political actors the Farmington River Declaration, committing to peaceful elections. This is an opportunity we all should embrace to add instant legitimacy to our elections,” she said.
In separate remarks, Chief Zanzan Karwah, Chairman of the National Traditional Council of Liberia; ECOWAS Envoy Tunde Ajisomo; Ibrahim Kamara of the AU; and Farid Zarif, Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary General, called on all political parties and their standard bearers to put Liberia first.
On behalf of the legislature, which many have accused of inserting the controversial section 5 in the CoC to ban other government officials from contesting the elections, Speaker Emmanuel Nuquay said every Liberian needs to be given the opportunity to participate in the electoral process and given the chance to be heard. “We want to commit ourselves as lawmakers to this process by ensuring that these elections are free, fair, peaceful and inclusive.”
He indicated that Liberians have championed peaceful elections amid the number of elections conducted over the last 11 years and there is no need to backtrack on that.
The Speaker noted that he has always maintained that peaceful elections are not a new phenomenon in Liberia as there have been several since 2006. He noted that although peace is important, peaceful governance remains key in any democracy.
However, during the working session, there was a scene of heated debate when the issue of the CoC was brought up for deliberations. Not all the parties agreed with the relaxing of Section 5 of the Code of Conduct. Many of the parties, including the Coalition for Democratic Change, the All Liberian Party, Victory for Change and others, are objecting to compromising on the Code, which they consider as the law of the land—especially after the Supreme Court upheld its constitutionality.
The political leaders of the 22 parties are expected to commit themselves to a peaceful electoral process at the 51st Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Heads of State and Government Summit to be held on Sunday, June 4, 2017. But as it appears, it may not be a reality if the issue about the Code of Conduct is included in the document to be signed at the Summit in the presence of regional and global leaders.
Liberia has been struggling for a Code of Conduct for public officials since 1986 and in the words of the Chairman of the Governance Commission (GC), Dr. Amos C. Sawyer, who is the chief architect of the document, the Code was never meant to discriminate by barring others from contesting elections. This revelation by Dr. Sawyer clearly indicates that the document was manipulated with the inclusion of the controversial portion (Section 5) that is setting the stage to weaken the country’s democratic gains, if care and common sense are not applied.