This June marks the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta which England’s autocratic and wicked King John was forced to sign in 1215, giving up many of his powers as an absolute monarch.
The document’s actual name in English is “the Great Charter.” Webster defines it as “a charter of liberties which the English barons (lords or noblemen and women) forced King John to sign guaranteeing them fundamental rights and privileges. That began the decline of absolute monarchy, which allowed the king or queen to exercise personal rule—arresting, jailing, even killing people and seizing their properties, at will.
The Charter was initiated during a civil war that tore England apart. The document, according to Linda Morgan writing for Sydney, Australia’s ABC News, “had a shaky start, but the 1297 version became the foundation document for legal systems everywhere.” There is no modern constitution that does not include some elements of the Magna Carta.
It led to the House of Commons becoming Britain’s principal decision making body, led by an elected prime minister.
The next great constitution influenced by the Magna Carta was that of the United States and all its 52 states. All the constitutions of Europe and other parts of the world, including Liberia (1847, 1986), based their democratic principles and the rule of law on the Magna Carta.
But a constitution by itself is nothing more than a piece of paper, if its makers do not take it seriously. On Monday we wrote editorially that though Eritrea has a constitution, its autocratic and dictatorial leader, President Isaias Afwerki, in power since 1993, has never called an election, and has consistently denied the people’s basic rights, jailing and killing them at will. This has led to the mass exodus of Eritreans back into exile.
Liberia’s 1847 Constitution, too, was based on the Magna Carta, but its leaders, for over a century, ran an oligarchy (government by the few) from that date until a military coup d’etat overthrew the ruling True Whig Party that had consistently ruled the country since 1883.
The Liberian Constitution of 1986 was also based on the Great Charter. It was drafted under the leadership of Dr. Amos Sawyer, but seriously interfered with by the then military dictator, Samuel K. Doe, who coerced the Gbarnga-held Constitutional Advisory Assembly to do his bidding. So many of the Constitution’s key democratic elements were seriously compromised. Moreover, Doe never accepted the basic personal freedoms the Constitution guaranteed, and after being inaugurated as the “elected” civilian President in January, 1986, continued to rule the country as a military-police state, denying freedom of speech and press and engaging in widespread extra-judicial killings. Towards the end of his regime, death squads were the order of the day.
Just as we are seeing in Eritrea today, Doe’s excesses exacerbated (worsened) the brain drain, leading to the mass exodus of talented and well educated Liberians and their children to foreign parts, particularly the USA and Europe, most of them never to return.
The same thing happened in Zimbabwe under the autocratic rule of President Robert Mugabe, who has ruled ruthlessly since independence in 1980, driving millions of Zimbabweans into exile in South Africa and elsewhere.
Liberians are enjoying their fundamental freedoms under the current administration of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Africa’s first elected woman President; but rampant corruption and the bankrupting of some of the nation’s most lucrative state enterprises, such as the petroleum company NOCAL, threatens this enviable legacy.
On the other hand, Western European countries have striven to run their countries in accordance with guarantees of civil liberties and the rule of law. This has led to continued peace, stability and prosperity for most of these nations. That is precisely why they are in the position to give aid to most African countries. Conversely, millions of citizens of so many African countries are being driven into exile in Europe, the very European nations from which these same citizens and their forebears gallantly fought and joyously won their “independence.”
What happened to all the passion for independence and self-determination?
Alas, the same Africans who wanted a chance to help in the building of their own countries find themselves in many instances fleeing for their very lives—not from those who once colonized them, but from their own leaders.
With so many of us fleeing tyranny and despotism, who will build our countries? Who will build Africa?
The South African Government allowed the tyrannical Sudanese President Bashir, wanted by the International Criminal Court for genocide in Darfur, to escape arrest on Monday in Johannesburg. It seems many African governments are determined to live and operate by their own whims, not by the rules of law and justice.
There is absolutely no need to reinvent the wheel. We need to teach the Magna Carta and our Constitution beginning in our elementary schools, to instill in the minds of our young the ideals of freedom, liberty, justice, peace and stability in Africa that will set the stage for most of us to stay at home and rebuild our countries. That is what the Europeans and Americans have done and are doing, and that is what makes them so attractive to peoples the world over.