Liberia’s Leadership Succession at Risk

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This newspaper, the Daily Observer, has often complained of the seeming lack of coordination within the Liberian government.

The erudite counselor and human rights activist, Tiawan Gongloe, acknowledged as much when, in an article that appeared on the back page of yesterday’s Daily Observer, he said that the absence of both President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and her Vice President, Joseph N. Boakai, from the country at the same time “demonstrates a lack of coordination and makes the country vulnerable and insecure.”

Those were strong words. But Cllr. Gongloe would have leveled a far stronger criticism at the government had he realized that there were two more alarming absences. Both the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Alex Tyler, constitutionally the second in the line of succession after the Vice President, and the President Pro-Tempore of the Senate, Armah Jallah, are also out of the country!

And who was left in charge? Well, Defense Minister Brownie Samukai, whom the President left in charge this time—an assignment to which she has appointed him on numerous occasions.

But! If anything happened in Liberia, Defense Minister Samukai would not be constitutionally eligible to accede to the Presidency because after the Speaker, the next in line to the succession is the Dean of the Cabinet, who is the Foreign Minister. But
Liberia has no Foreign Minister at this time, since the resignation a few weeks ago of Foreign Minister Augustine Ngafuan in order to seek political office in the 2017 presidential and general elections.

Yes, there is an Acting Foreign Minister in the person of Mr. B. Elias Shoniyin, whose Nigerian-born father, according to unconfirmed reports, is a naturalized Liberian.

It may be recalled that in December 1930, when in the midst of the Fernando Po Crisis, President Charles D.B. King and his Vice President, Allen Yancy, resigned, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Johnnie N. Lewis, was away in Sinoe County.

With no airplane available to transport him immediately to Monrovia, the Joint Session of Legislature decided to install Secretary of State Edwin J. Barclay as President of Liberia.

In the absence of the President, Vice President, Speaker and Senate Pro-Tempore, would the Legislature feel comfortable naming the Acting Secretary of State as President of Liberia?

We give this analysis to underscore the critical importance of coordination in any government. In the Executive Branch of the Liberian government, there is one particular office that is responsible for coordination, and that is the Ministry of State for Presidential Affairs (MOS). This office should definitely know of the travel schedules of both the President and the Vice President, and all the key players in the Executive Branch—the Cabinet and heads and deputy heads of all state enterprises. Did the MOS know that the Vice President was traveling to the United States and how long he would be away?

The MOS surely must maintain the yearly travel schedule of the President of Liberia. This schedule should be regularly updated and coordinated with that of the Vice President so as to ensure that at no time will these two top officials of government be away from the country at the same time. The reason is the matter of constitutional succession. That is what vice presidents are for—to stand by in case something happens to the President.

When President E.J. Roye was assassinated in 1871, his Vice President, James Shivring Smith, succeeded him. On July 23, 1971, when President W.V.S. Tubman died in the London Clinic following prostate surgery, Vice President William R. Tolbert was sworn in as President of Liberia. V.P Tolbert had been advised not to leave the capital until it was conclusively confirmed that President Tubman’s surgery was successful. But as soon as the Vice President learned that the surgery was successfully done, he left Monrovia for his Bellefanai farm in Bong County, about 140 miles into the interior. But when later that morning things turned for the worse and President Tubman bled to death, the Vice President was immediately sent for. He arrived in Monrovia later that evening and was escorted to the Cabinet Room of the State Department (now Foreign Ministry). There, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Richard A. Henries, swore Tolbert in as President of Liberia.

We think it is a dangerous thing for the President and the Vice President to be away from the country at the same time. Serious constitutional issues are involved here. This should not have happened and should never happen again.

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