The Making of the 1986 Constitution: The Perils of Dictatorship

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There were many eminent and highly respected individuals on the 25-member National Constitutional Commission (NCC) appointed to draft a new Constitution of Liberian following the1980 bloody coup d’état that overthrew the government of President William R. Tolbert.

Among them were former Secretary of State J. Rudolph Grimes, who worked along with Senegalese Foreign Minister Doudou Thiam in finalizing the Liberian Draft that the Heads of State and Government approved on the early morning of May 25, 1963 to become the Charter of the Organization of African Unity.

Other members of the NCC were University of Liberia law professor David Kpomakpor; journalist-turned- lawyer S. Tuan Wreh; the legendary constitutional analyst and pamphleteer Albert Porte; the chairman, Dr. Amos Sawyer; the Oxford-trained Abraham L. James; Episcopal Bishop George D. Browne; the respected Liberian teacher Rebecca Ware-Wilson; the great son of Nimba County, D.K. Wonsehleay; and the courageous and erudite young lawyer J. Emmanuel Berry.

Members of the Commission were assisted by a highly competent staff headed by Yale Law School-trained Counselor Phillip A.Z. Banks. The Commission did an excellent job drafting the Constitution. But they were operating under highly restricted conditions, being overseen by a military dictatorship that was determined to ensure that every single one of the bloody and gruesome PRC atrocities, which the regime committed against the Liberian people, was exempt from any ‘executive, legislative, judicial or administrative’ review whatsoever.

This was to ensure that every surviving member of the People’s Redemption Council (PRC) was covered from any and all forms of accountability that in the future might be brought against them. Admittedly, this was part of the price Liberians were to pay for the more than a century-old oligarchy that they, under the repressive and often dictatorial True Whig Party, maintained, only to be ended by a bloody military coup d’état in 1980.

So Associate Justice Phillip A.Z. Banks was indeed on point when he admitted, in an Address commemorating Law Day, that the National Constitutional Commission and the Constitutional Advisory Assembly had “inserted certain provisions into the [1986 Constitution] in favor of the People’s Redemption Council.” A critical part of the PRC-dictated draft was contained in Article 97, parts a) and b), that stipulated the exemption of all PRC members and the PRC itself from any prosecution whatsoever.

And, according to Mr. Justice Banks, the insertion of this “impunity” clause, exempting the PRC and its members from any and all atrocities they committed, was done by the Constitutional Advisory Assembly, handpicked by Strongman Doe. This Constitutional Advisory Assembly was headed by Edward Binyan Kesselly, who apparently went out of his way to please Head of State Doe.

Justice Banks lamented that the Constitutional Review Committee, appointed by President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and headed by Cllr. Gloria Scott, did not list among its recommendations the scrapping of the impunity clause. Why? Only Heaven knows.

Perhaps this is something that a future referendum might deal with.

Authors

2 COMMENTS

  1. Even without that clause exempting the PRC members from prosecution for whatever the crimes they may have committed, nothing would Liberians have done to those individuals under the circumstances, just as we are experiencing today with the TRC recommendations. The usual, “for the sake of peace,” would have prevailed again. So why don’t we move on, using those experiences as guide to how we handle other infringement of the laws, norms and customs of our society? That should serve our collective purpose well rather than digging past transgressions to settle scores.

  2. The so-called “impunity clause” is a moot point; it was never an innovative idea dreamed up by the PRC. Most military, or semi-military regimes from Oliver Cromwell’s Rump Parliament of the seventeenth century to that of Flight Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings ensured their own furure protection through various quasi- legal or constitutional provisions.

    And talking of “impunity”, Justice Banks should’ve done some research on Liberian History at Yale University. He would’ve read of Southeastern tribal chiefs who were lured to Monrovia for “peace talks”, and promptly hanged. In fact, the act was so reminiscent of what some Blacks experienced in America’s Deep South that a colleague said, “They learned well”.

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