A Referendum Is Not a “Hurry-Hurry Bust Trousers” Affair, Neither Is It a Life or Death Matter

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Liberia, it appears, is in deep trouble indeed, judging from complaints from the public about the rising spate of violence in the country and the apparent increase in general lawlessness.

The most recent incident of such violence occurred on November 23, 2020 involving bus drivers and motorcyclists that resulted in the burning of several motorcycles and a bus, leaving several persons injured.

And the George Weah-led Government appears to be headed for potentially deeper trouble given the rising and palpable tension associated with the upcoming elections and proposed referendum amid dire predictions of violence.

The Supreme Court recently slapped a prohibition on the conduct of the referendum based on points advanced in the Petition for a Writ of Prohibition on the conduct of the proposed December 8 referendum. In its ruling the Court said:

“It being the finding of this Court that the Official Gazette is inconsistent with the dictate of the Constitution, prohibition will lie to prevent the 1st Respondent from relying thereupon in the execution of its functions.  The Constitution provides that ballots for a referendum shall present the proposed amendments to the people in such a manner so as to avail them the opportunity to vote for or against them separately.  With this Ruling, the Referendum, cannot take place until a new Gazette consistent with the Resolution of the Legislature is published, logos identified for the eight (8) proposed amendments, and public education and awareness conducted on the proposed amendments.”

Further, according to Article 92 of the Constitution, “proposed constitutional amendments shall be accompanied by statements setting forth the reasons therefor and shall be published in the Official Gazette and made known to the people through the information services of the Republic. If more than one proposed amendment is to be voted upon in a referendum, they shall be submitted in such manner that the “people may vote for or against them separately”.

However, Government officials at the highest level, including the Minister of State for Presidential Affairs and the Chairperson of the NEC, have declared that the Court’s ruling has and is being misinterpreted by the public.

Minister of State Nathaniel McGill has declared that the Gazette will simply be set aside, and the ballots will be printed to reflect the separate issues to be voted on. 

But from all indications, the Minister’s statement appears to clearly undermine Article 66 of the Constitution according to a leading lawyer (name withheld). Article 66, quoted below, states:

“The Supreme Court shall be final arbiter of constitutional issues and shall exercise final appellate jurisdiction in all cases, whether emanating from courts of record, courts not of record, administrative agencies, autonomous agencies or any other authority, both as to law and fact except cases involving ambassadors, ministers, or cases in which a country is a party. In all such cases, the Supreme Court shall exercise original jurisdiction. The Legislature shall make no law nor create any exceptions as would deprive the Supreme Court of any of the powers granted herein”.

But Presidential Affairs Minister McGill’s insistence that the referendum will go ahead despite the Supreme Court’s prohibition and despite objection by the political parties, the public is left wondering just who is in charge of electoral/elections matters.

By law, the NEC is supposed to be an independent body but actions and pronouncements by its chairperson appear to suggest that she has either surrendered its functions and authority to Minister McGill or that he has usurped the powers of the NEC.

Whatever be the case, the public image and integrity of the NEC is being called into question and there is no doubt, based on previous experience, that the challenges to whatever results produced by the exercise will arise.

The question is where will such challenges go for resolution aside from NEC’s dispute resolution mechanism/complaint board? And should the parties not agree, will they resort to the Supreme Court whose decisions/rulings can be ignored or simply set aside with impunity?

And as the date to elections fast approaches, there is mounting concern that clean-up of the Voters Roll(VR) has not yet been completed and may not likely be completed within time to allow publication and public vetting of the VR before December 8, 2020.

From all indications, and with just twelve (12) days left until election day, and with the VR not published for public display and vetting, this nation could be headed for trouble, deep trouble. As things stand, the elections must be held on or before December 31, 2020 in order to avoid a Constitutional crisis.

The referendum could always be postponed to another date. It is not a life or death matter to warrant such risk and, the sooner this it is realized that this is no “hurry-hurry bust trousers” matter, the better it will be for everyone.

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