By Robtel Neajai Pailey
In a confusing about-face last month, Liberia’s Supreme Court undermined its own ruling that a controversial referendum, scheduled for December 8 alongside the nation-wide legislative elections, is unconstitutional.
Instead of explicitly cancelling the referendum, as most Liberian opposition parties and civil society actors have urged for weeks, the Supreme Court recommended instead that the eight propositions under consideration should be printed clearly in an Official Gazette and on ballots enabling the electorate to vote for or against each separately and independently.
This has buoyed footballer-turned-president George Oppong Weah, whose administration is using the referendum as a pretext to implement sweeping constitutional changes that may open up a small window for him to seek an illegitimate third term in office.
If Weah proceeds as speculated, he would be taking a page from the playbook of Alassane Ouattara of Ivory Coast and Alpha Condé of Guinea, whose successful third-term presidential bids earlier this year happened amid an opposition boycott, nation-wide protests and violent clashes with police. Ouattara insisted that a constitutional change in 2016 meant his very first term did not count towards a two-term limit; Condé reasoned that a constitutional referendum held a few months before elections enabled him to seek a third term.
While the Ivorian and Guinean presidents may have succeeded in their political coups, Weah may be in for a rude awakening. Regardless of whether an actual referendum takes place, Liberia’s polls next week will be a symbolic referendum on the once-popular, now embattled, president.
A possible constitutional crisis
Late last year, Liberia’s legislature adopted a joint resolution for a national referendum proposing seemingly benign amendments to eight articles of the 1986 constitution: authorising dual citizenship (article 28); reducing the tenure of senators from nine to seven years (article 45); reducing the tenure of the president pro-tempore of the Senate from six to five years (article 47); reducing the tenure of members of the House of Representatives from six to five years (article 48); reducing the tenure of speaker, deputy speaker, and other officers of the House of Representatives from six to five years (article 49); reducing the tenure of president from six to five years (article 50); changing the date of general elections from October to November (article 83a); reducing the timeframe from 30 to 15 days for the National Elections Commission to act on complaints following a general election (article 83c).
Contrary to the legislature’s resolution, however, the executive branch of government in October 2019 printed an Official Gazette which suspiciously collapsed the eight propositions into three broad ballot measures prioritising enacting dual citizenship, revising the tenure of the president, representatives and senators, and changing the date of the general elections. For the past year, Weah’s ruling Coalition for Democratic Change (CDC) has focused intently on the simplified propositions in its campaigning, with images of the president plastered on billboards across the capital, Monrovia, and its environs urging the electorate to vote “Yes” on all measures.
Yet, institutions like the Liberia National Bar Association have questioned the constitutionality of the executive’s public messaging since proposed amendments should never be peddled as partisan causes. They have justifiably demanded a postponement of the referendum to allow for nation-wide deliberations since most voters remain ill-informed about the implications of the eight propositions and why they should endorse or reject them.
Given Liberia’s sharp socio-economic decline under Weah’s watch, the timing of the propositions and emphasis in particular on marginally changing presidential tenures from six to five years is concerning. The president may argue in the future, as Ouattara did in Ivory Coast, that he is eligible to run for an additional two terms even though a constitutional provision (article 93) strictly forbids an incumbent’s third-term aspirations. Any attempts by Weah to undermine article 93 would hurl Liberia into political upheaval.
Dual citizenship is equally contentious, as my forthcoming book demonstrates. During a 2015 constitutional review conference and in Afrobarometer surveys conducted in 2012 and 2018, Liberia-based Liberians registered their disdain for non-resident forms of citizenship.
The referendum proposition to that end does not sufficiently address concerns that dual citizenship would reproduce inequalities, thus potentially infringing upon domestic citizens’ already limited access to socio-economic opportunities. Weah’s insistence that dual citizenship would boost investments by Liberians abroad is not supported by empirical evidence. Instead, it reveals his administration’s tone deafness.
Mismanagement and corruption under Weah
Grievances against Weah are especially ironic now since he came to power three years ago on a populist tidal wave. Immediately after assuming office, the president criticised Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Liberia’s and Africa’s first elected woman head of state, for leaving him with empty coffers.
Yet, rather than tackling the inequalities that bedevilled his predecessor, Weah sunk Liberia into an even deeper hole of economic mismanagement. There is currently a shortage of local currency, inflation is at an all-time high and auditors have died mysteriously amid a culture of impunity that enables criminality and corruption.
In the past two years alone, three major anti-government protests have galvanised thousands of disaffected citizens. And while other leaders were scrambling at the height of the coronavirus outbreak to shield citizens from socio-economic shocks, Weah instead produced and starred in a public service announcement music video. When healthcare workers went on strike, he vowed to fire them, claiming they could easily be replaced. By whom, no one knows.
Because of Weah’s political inexperience, it was expected that he would assemble a team of talented technocrats and progressive policymakers with integrity. Instead, his administration is filled with CDC loyalists who have shown only contempt for Liberia and its people. This includes a finance minister who regularly makes callous public statements, like insisting that Weah was not elected to pay civil servants on time and that the president should become a benevolent dictator.
To compound these transgressions, Weah’s administration is also accused of illegitimately ousting a sitting Supreme Court justice and knowingly appointing as chairman of the National Elections Commission a Nigerian national who allegedly forged his Liberian naturalisation papers. After the senate vetoed the man’s appointment, Weah refused to heed calls to dismiss him from his other job as head of Liberia’s anti-corruption commission, signalling more of the same shenanigans to come if he and CDC remain in power.
Paying the price at the polls
Liberia’s forthcoming elections and referendum are as much about the rule of law as they are about common decency, both of which have been in short supply during Weah’s presidency. Mired already by violence, intimidation, allegations of voter registration fraud, voter disenfranchisement and a compromised voter registration roll, these elections may mirror previous ones in which voters rebuffed four referendum propositions in 2011 and expelled all incumbent senators save two in 2014.
I have argued previously that in high stakes polls like the ones next week, Liberians do not blindly vote for people or parties; they vote instead for politicians they presume will deliver public goods at local, national and sub-national levels. If past legislative elections are anything to go by, many incumbents from established parties are likely to lose to new and/or independent candidates, which will deal a fitting blow to those who have governed carelessly.
As far as I see it, the most appropriate response on December 8 would be for the electorate to reject all candidates from Weah’s CDC and vote a resounding “No” on all eight referendum propositions. This will send a strong message that Liberians should never, ever, be taken for granted.
Robtel Neajai Pailey is Assistant Professor in International Social and Public Policy at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). Her book Development, (Dual) Citizenship and Its Discontents in Africa: The Political Economy of Belonging to Liberia will be published by Cambridge University Press in January 2021. Visit https://bit.ly/30RsW3u for more information.
An earlier version of this commentary was published in Al Jazeera English.