Liberia, as if it were its custom, often distinguishes itself from the outside world in deeds and best practices commonplace in other jurisdictions, not in any enviable way but in ways that are unhelpful to desired transformations needed to improve the country. Besides the country’s law on monetary policy that subjects its Central Bank to the politically contentious National Legislature in printing banknotes, as well as provisions on citizenship and land ownership, there are other Constitutionally-sanctioned laws that limit the capacities of many so-called autonomous institutions and narrow and socioeconomic and political space. Same is the case with the country’s elections laws which to a large extent clip the wings of the electoral management body and drags the political space into turmoil. The situation witnessed its direst expression and manifestation during the last senatorial bi-elections. Now, this is claiming the attention of policy makers and other stakeholders, prompting the current men and women of the National Legislature to contemplate the exigency of reforming the country’s electoral laws. The Analyst’s Rancy S. Teewia reports.
Against the backdrop of lingering political feuds that characterized the midterm senatorial election of December 8, 2020, there are strong indications that the National Legislature and other major stakeholders of Liberia are considering plausible remedies to resolving elections-related issues plaguing free, fair and peaceful electoral exercises in the country.
Speaking on a live radio talk show Monday, Bomi County Senator Edwin Melvin Snowe, Jr. sees such remedies in amending certain sections of the existing National Electoral Laws that are posing serious impediments to conflict-free elections.
Senator Snowe, who is also Chairman of the Security Committee at the ECOWAS Parliament, spoke of the dire need for amendments and reforms of the electoral laws during a radio talk show in Monrovia. He said the leadership of the both Houses of the National Legislature represented by President Pro Tempore Senator Albert Chie and Speaker Bhofal Chambers would soon begin discussions with other stakeholders, including the Law Reform Commission, the National Election Commission, amongst others, to make necessary adjustments in the existing National Election Laws in the country.
Senator Snowe, whose ascendency to the Upper House from the Lower House was a subject of litigation arising from complaints filed against him by his main rival, former Speaker Alex Tyler of the ruling Coalition for Democratic Change(CDC), drew extensive instances from the ECOWAS sub-region on how, according to him, electoral disputes are settled.
“With the exception of Liberia, when an election commission declares a candidate winner in other countries, the election commission certificates winner who begins his legislative work immediately,” Hon. Snowe divulged.
“Any opponent who has grievances goes to court while the winner declared is seated and working; and if the assumed winner who is declared and certificated by the election commission is found guilty and illegitimate by the court to occupy the post, the declared winner is made to vacate the job,” Senator Snowe said.
Sen. Snowe cited instances of best practices of such in Ghana and Nigeria, stating that nothing extra is done to settle various electoral disputes that arise out of the various contests held in those countries.
Giving further examples of resolution of electoral cases, he said on December 7, 2020, Presidential and parliamentary elections were held in Ghana and some aggrieved contestants and parties challenged the declared winners in courts but the electoral commission stood by its results, declared and certificated the winners who start work while their challengers were going court with them to have their elections further validated or invalidated by the courts.
He further explained that even in the presidential race, former President John Mahatma took current President Nana Akufo to court, but he was certificated and started to work as the elected President.
The Court ruled in the elected President’s favor on March 4, 2021 to further authenticate his victory, Hon. Snowe said, adding: “It even happened in Nigeria where former Vice President Abubakar Atiku challenged the election of current President Muhammedu Buhari through the court process, but Buhari was certificated by the Independent National Elections Commission (INEC) to begin working as President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria while going to court.”
Senator Snowe pointed out that the court finally cleared President Buhari of all the allegations and his victory was further validated by the court,” Mr. Snowe further stated.
He also recalled the Sierra Leonean example, when President Julius Maada Bio of Sierra Leone who was even certificated right away and sworn into office immediately after he was declared the winner of the Presidential election, while awaiting the formal inaugural ceremony to which he invited guests.
According to Senator Snowe, Bio was attending to a court case brought against him by his main contender Samora Kamara.
The Bomi County Senator, who once served as Speaker of the 52nd National Legislature, said he was citing those instances to send out a clear message that Liberia has a lot of lessons to learn from these countries that have succeeded or are succeeding in resolving their electoral disputes through the court system without obstructing the functions of their respective electoral bodies.
“While our law says that a man is presumed innocent until proven guilty, it is a different thing when it comes to the case of the election where people challenging winners in support of the Liberian electoral laws say the winner should not go to work until the case is finished,” he reasoned. “So, in that case, you are now guilty until proven innocent.”
Senator Snowe said what really changed the electoral law and has plunged our elections in much trouble was the Supreme Court opinion of 2014 that made it mandatory for someone to be totally cleared against all disputes before being certificated to take seat.
He further explained that had it not been this, by now all those declared winners by NEC would have been certificated and would have started working while their challengers take their cases to the court.
In this case, Snowe noted, there would have been at least 29 Senators working, while not mentioning the case of Lofa Senator Elect whose case he said is a special case.
“There was a Supreme Court opinion on this matter and the public needs to see this opinion. It was a three- two decision on the Supreme Court Bench. The two females on the bench went on one side. That is, Justice Youh and Justice Wolokollie said that when you are declared winner, you should be certificated and go to work and whoever has an issue should go to court while Chief Justice Francis Kpobor and then Justice Kabineh Janeh and retired Justice Philips Banks went to the contrary that you should go through the court process before certification, a situation which generated a very slim opinion of the Supreme Court Bench on this matter”.
Mr. Snowe, who during the senatorial race resigned from the former ruling Unity Party to contest as an independent candidate, said the National Legislature is now reviewing that opinion to see how best it can be ratified in line with other countries like Ghana, Nigeria and Sierra Leone earlier referenced.
He said this decision is imperative because it borders on having elections that will not bring about chaos and confusion, stressing that if nothing is done now until 2023, there may be crises and the country might not have inauguration in January of 2024.
There are some pundits who posit that if the opinion coming from Senator Snowe is anything to go by, then it could definitely resolve the looming crisis the country may experience in 2023 when Liberians will be going to the polls to elect a president, vice president, 15 senators and 73 representatives.
The recent senatorial election and the attendant controversies brought to the fore weak electoral laws and the attending contradictions and interpretations that made things very difficult for the electoral body, the NEC, to take firm decisions so that it will give the Liberian people, major stakeholders and the development partners confidence that it is in charge and will do better in the bigger events in 2023.
There are still outstanding cases involving results from Nimba and Grand Cape Mount Counties while for Lofa County, Senator Elect Brownie Samukai is yet to be certificated due to a lot of legal issues surrounding his qualification to participate in the election.
Only a few counties had their election crises resolved directly from the polling centers while many have to go through NEC and the Supreme Court.
It can be recalled that while it was handling down the verdict in the case that cleared Senator Botoe Kanneh to be certificated by NEC, the Supreme Court of Liberia lamented the failure of the Ministry of Justice to prosecute election offenders accordingly as a threat to the country’s peace and existence.
It was the considered position of the court that the Frank Musa Dean-led Ministry of Justice’s inability to take decisive punitive measures against electoral violence sent a wrong signal of trouble in the future.
“We fear that if election violence is not handled decisively now, future elections in our country will be disaster-prone,” the Justices wrote in their verdict.