After 172 Years of Independence, the Nation Has Yet to Become Independent

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Liberians celebrate 172 years of independence on Friday, July 26, 2019 against a huge welter of concerns about the direction in which the nation appears to be headed with inflation spiraling out of control and with a Presidency that appears to be accreting powers unto itself that lie outside the Constitution of the Republic. Some analysts are quick to point to what they claim as emergent signs of a creeping dictatorship.

American historian Arthur Schlesinger, out of concern that the US Presidency had gone out of control and was assuming powers beyond those provided in the US Constitution wrote a book entitled, “The Imperial Presidency”. He defines an Imperial Presidency as one which relies on powers beyond those allowed in the Constitution. The US Constitution, just like the Liberian Constitution, established a system of government made up of three separate but co-equal branches of government in order to avoid the arbitrary exercise of power. This form of government according to him was intended to replace or address the deficiencies inherent to the imperial rule of the king of England.

The debate about excessive presidential powers exercised by the US government bears strong relevance to Liberia where an imperial presidency has been a part of Liberia’s political culture since the founding of the Republic. During the colonial period, the Governor, in addition to powers exercised as head of government, who was more or less a surrogate of the American Colonization Society, The Governor also served as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Additionally, the iron fisted policies of Colonial Governors, presiding over what was then the colony of Liberia, left an enduring legacy of autocratic tendencies adopted by successive national leaderships even up till today.

Claims by some legislators that the Legislature is not independent but controlled the President is strongly reminiscent of President Tubman’s 27-year rule, during which the legislative and judicial branches of government were inextricably tied to him and to the pursuits of his personal interests. President Tolbert made some efforts but with very limited success to move away from the imperial presidency as it was. In a way it can be said that most Western nations did not find an imperial presidency a revulsive idea. This was largely because the imperial presidency resonated strongly with Western backed corporations which had entered into lopsided concession agreements that wrought huge returns on their investments but with no tangible benefits for the Liberian people.

These claims of Presidential predominance over the other branches of government are not without foundation. Critics point to the rather “4-G” passage of loan agreements under this government that turned out to be worth nothing more than the paper on which they were written as examples of legislative subservience to the Executive. Critics also cite the passage into law of 66 deeply flawed concession agreements under the watch of former President Sirleaf.

Admittedly, such dominance of the other branches by the Executive can be traced to provisions in the Constitution. Article 34 section (ii) for example provides as follows: “no monies shall be drawn from the treasure except in consequence of appropriations made by legislative enactment and upon warrant of the President; and no coin shall be minted or national currency issued except by the expressed authority of the Legislature. An annual statement and account of the expenditure of all public monies shall be submitted by the office of the President to the Legislature and published once a year; (iii) no loans shall be raised by the Government on behalf of the Republic or guarantees given for any public institutions or authority otherwise than by or under the authority of a legislative enactment”.

From the above provision, no matter how much the Legislature allocates in the national budget for whatever purpose, not a penny can be withdrawn or spent without warrant of the President. And historically, the President has used this provision to wheel the legislature into line with his/her personal inclinations. And this has often tended to produce a constitutional crisis. Liberian scholar Ibrahim Al Bakri Nyei observes that to date, there has been little or no effort to address key governance issues through constitutional reform.

In theory, the 2011 referendum should have addressed all such issues but again, as Al Bakri Nyei notes, the referendum was organized to protect certain special interests. He argues, for example, that the 2011 referendum was structured to ensure change in the residency requirements in order to enhance the ability of President Sirleaf and others to run for office in 2011 despite TRC lustrations barring them from contesting or holding political office for a period of 30 years.

With the nation now poised to celebrate 172 years of existence, the Daily Observer, unlike last year’s independence celebrations, will not ask what is there to celebrate. Instead, the Daily Observer is calling on all Liberians to deeply reflect on the nation’s past and ponder its future amidst huge uncertainties and anxious national cravings for a better tomorrow.

Simplistic postulations about what our problem is simply reveals the depth of our ignorance and inability to grasp the reality of our situation. The nation is indeed in deep crisis, thus leaving a distinct impression that, after 172 years of independence, the nation has yet to become independent.

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