What the Liberian Constitution really says about citizens calling on a President to ‘step down’
Disclaimer: I have no particular interest in either side, but to discuss the matter at hand in a constitutional context.
Does a call by any group of citizens for the President of Liberia to step down really “bespeak treason”, as the Minister of Justice (MoJ) has so emphatically stated in his December 2, 2019 letter, rejecting the request for permit and protection of the Council of Patriots’ planned December 30 protest?
The cleverly unemotional letter by Justice Minister Frank Musah Dean, arguing that the planned protest by the CoP “bespeaks treason”, is a dangerous insinuation based on an inference dressed up as the wholeness of constitutional fact.
In his letter to the CoP, the Minister cited Article 62 of the 1986 Constitution of the Republic of Liberia as the means by which the President may be removed, apart from elections. He then cited Article 76 to state verbatim the Constitution’s definition of “Treason against the Republic.”
In not so many words, it appears the Minister aimed to steer the CoP back to Article 83, which prescribes how the President may arise and descend as head of state, under normal circumstances. In other words, wait until the next presidential elections and vote the man out if you can.
As Minister Dean communicated to the CoP, Article 62 of the Constitution says the President may be removed (before the end of his or her constitutional term) by impeachment process. This requires the decisive action by the legislature, beginning with a Bill of Impeachment in the House of Representatives followed by trial by the Senate which is presided over by the Chief Justice.
However, for the Justice Minister to directly conclude that, because there has not been a move for impeachment against the President, therefore the call by a group of citizens for the President to step down is treasonable, is dangerously presumptive.
Surely, if read with care, the Constitution, in its supreme wisdom, prescribes a methodical process by which citizens may meaningfully participate in the structure of governance to ensure that Article 1 lives up to its promise.
Article 1, which reposes all power in the people, says: “All free governments are instituted by [the people’s] authority and for their benefit and [the people] have the right to alter and reform the [instituted government] when their safety and happiness so require.”
Article 1 goes on to prescribe means by which such “right to alter and reform” an instituted government may take place, essentially pointing to Article 83 (under Chapter VIII), which outlines elections.
However, on the very strength of Article 1, Article 17 of the same Constitution grants citizens “the right to assemble and consult upon the common good, to instruct their representatives, to petition the Government or other functionaries for the redress of grievances…”
In the absence of the willingness of the Legislature to impeach the President, is it not within the people’s power to invoke Article 17?
Is the call for the President to step down really treasonable, or is it reasonable?
Naturally, the call for a step-down may be perceived as a threat to any leader, including our current President. And then, there is the stigma of actually being asked (or demanded) to step down. Whether the President decides to step down or not is another matter. It is still the people’s constitutional right to freely assemble and express themselves!
These are the vicissitudes of democracy. There are consequences for the freedoms that we exercise as entitlement. Those consequences are not necessarily detrimental or negative, though they can be. Sometimes they can be helpful, instructive.
That said, I urge the CoP to continue to conduct its affairs responsibly and be issues-based. The passion with which they pursue their cause must never cross the boundaries of civility. Yor mor try hard o!
Liberia is once again at a crossroads, where the burning desires of the people — not in an election year — are on the table. The President and his Justice Minister must also not risk repeating the mistakes of their counterparts from the year 1979.
Yet, we have a political environment in which the President alarmed in his first year that there was an assassination attempt on his life by opposition figures. And because he has yet to provide evidence of his claim, the President, by that utterance, has effectively served notice to the opposition bloc that criticizing or even critiquing the President could land one in trouble.
True to form, we have seen mass media outlets perceived as critics of the Weah administration shut down and or their applications for operating license stalled. We have seen a sitting lawmaker, who is a critic of the Weah Administration, barricaded in his own home by armed police for the alleged assault of another individual. That lawmaker’s home was later searched based on allegations that he had a stash of arms there. Both allegations against the lawmaker have yet to be proven by a police investigation or in a court of law.
Two Liberian women from the opposition, who aspired for legislative office, were nearly mobbed to death during their respective campaigns by actors loyal to the ruling party, while the police, in their riot regalia, stood by and watched. It took other civilians who risked their lives to get these women to safety. Since these two incidents, the police and the Justice Ministry have maintained a deafening silence on the investigations.
We have also seen the emoluments of a tenured Liberian diplomat withheld by the Government of Liberia, to the detriment of the country’s image and status in a major economic sector — Maritime, where Liberia is a global leader. Earlier, another tenured official was removed from his office by a new presidential appointee and two armed policemen.
All of this has happened under the watch of the current Administration and, in some cases, with the acquiescence of this President and this Justice Minister.
It is not optional for the Ministry of Justice to ensure the safety of citizens and the general public. It is a mandate. Therefore, the Minister should realize that he would also be acting illegally by refusing to provide protection for citizens exercising their constitutional rights.
There is a need for a logistical meeting with the CoP to ensure that the public safety remains paramount. Such earlier overtures between the MoJ, the protest organizers, with assistance from ECOWAS, the AU and the UN resident representatives in Liberia, were the reasons why the June 7 protest turned out so remarkably peacefully that even the Liberia National Police were highly commended for their patriotism and professionalism on that day.
It was Alexander Pope who wrote: “A little learning is a dangerous thing; Drink deep, or taste not of the Pierian spring…”
Far be it from me to insinuate that the Minister, who is also a very seasoned Counselor-at-law, would be so shallowly versed in law of the land! It is not the depth of his knowledge of the law that I question, but the adequacy of his argument to inform the powers (i.e. government) that depend on it during these critical moments in the country’s political history. And that, Mr. Minister, is equally dangerous.
If the Justice Minister is not careful, he risks nurturing and entrenching a dictatorship that will require more than an election to remove.
Bai Sama G. Best is the managing director of the Liberian Observer Corporation, publishers of the Daily Observer newspaper.