MONROVIA: Political theorists and development experts have often blamed Liberia’s entrenched poverty, conflict and underdevelopment on imperial presidency where the two other branches of government, the Legislature and Judiciary, play subservience to a single person occupying the presidency. Though all Liberians detest the situation, including politicians who only detest it when they are in opposition but espouse it when power is in grab, this system of governance continues to persist. Yet again, Liberia is at a cross road as the newly elected legislators who are expected to man the 55th National Legislature – both representatives and senators – go the polls to elect their leaders today. With the results expected midday or this afternoon, Liberians are asking if what would come out of the process will be “winner-takes-all” where the emergent House and Senate leaders would be political kin and kith of the incoming president or whether it will be a politically heterogenous governance system that supports checks and balances envisaged by democratic forebears, including the drafters of the 1986 Constitution. The Analyst reports.
Nearly 73 members of the House of Representatives and 30 members of the House of Senate are electing their leaders today. The President Pro-Tempore of the Senate and the Speaker and Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives, when elected, will assist the President of Liberia and the Chief Justice and Associate Justices of the Supreme Court to steer the social, political and economic affairs of the Liberian state.
The Judiciary Branch of Government is virtually apolitical, and will therefore be leaving the governance of the state largely with the Executive, represented by the Presidency, and 103 elected lawmakers of the Senate and House of Representatives.
Though the Constitution of Liberia provides that the three branches of Government are coequal and coordinate branches, the other two—Judiciary and Legislature—often bow to the whims and caprices of the President, and that comes from the character and political alliance of the leaders of those two branches.
Many have been calling for the leaderships of the other two branches, mainly the Legislature, to be strong and independent, and to exert robust oversight over the Presidency, something that is authorized by the Constitution of the country.
In the last two presidential periods—Unity Party’s 12 years and the Coalition for Democratic Change’s six years – the Legislature were not strong and independent, as leaders of the Legislature (both Senate and House) either belonged to a single political party or hailed from the same county or region. This watered down the Legislature’s oversight responsibility, emboldened imperial presidential and undermined effective governance.
As the next six-year governance epoch under the Unity Party unfolds, there is an ongoing debate on whether the imperial presidency culture should be maintained or whether it should be severed and replaced with what is called “governance equilibrium”. And the debate is heightened in the face of campaigns towards electing the next President Pro-tempore of the Senate and the Speaker and Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives.
In the race for Senate Pro-tempore are Senator Nyonblee Karngar Lawrence of the Unity Party Alliance and Senator-elect Milton Gbezohngar Finley who is supported by the Coalition for Democratic Change. And vying for the Speaker of the House are current deputy Speaker J. Fonati Koffa of the CDC and Representative Richard Koon of the incoming ruling Unity Party.
It appears that some Liberians, incoming ruling UP, are opting for the Richard Koon-headed House of Representatives while there are reports that the UP’s pro-tempore candidate Lawrence is having an easy work to victory on the senate wing.
Brouhaha broke out days ago when it was reported that President-elect Joseph Boakai called a meeting of several newly elected representatives for the expressed purpose of luring them into voting for UP candidate Koon. There were some reports that he allegedly promised bribes, some said he intimidated the lawmakers, to vote for Koon.
Some observers are of the view that if the overtures of the President-elect and his UP works, if both Lawrence and Koon win their respective posts of President Pro-Tempore and Speaker, the Unity Party will be wielding enormous power unchecked, something that will be detrimental to effective and safe governance.
Proponents and supporters of a UP-takes-all governance system contend that it won’t be the first time a Liberian leadership would be resting in the hands of one group or party. They cite examples from UP’s first term (2006 to 2018) when ex-president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and ex-Speaker Alex Tyler, both hailing from Bomi County and of the Unity Party, presided over Liberia’s governance system. They are also citing the example of President George Manneh Weah, Speaker Bhofal Speaker, and Pro-Tempore Albert Chie, all of the CDC, presiding over the national leadership for six years.
They also point to the fact that President Weah and Senator Chie hail from the same county, Grand Kru.
With those recent examples, aside from the age-old tradition coming from the days of the True Whig Party, the National Democratic Party of Liberia (NDPL) and the National Patriotic Party, supporters of the UP-takes-all governance system contend that there is nothing wrong constitutionally and historically if Representative Koon and Senator Lawarence were elected House Speaker and Senate Pro-Tempore respectively.
Conversely, there are Liberian politicians, civil society activists and ordinary Liberians who are calling for a break from the vicious circle of winner takes all political tradition which, according to them, emboldens imperial presidency and that in turn undermine democracy and development.
“One party takes all, or one county or region takes all politics has never translated into the much-desired quality of governance and transformation this country needs,” said Timothy J. Kroweh, Executive Director of the Liberia Integrity and Transparency Platform.
“This country can never graduate and leapfrog from its current stagnation except we break clean from systems and traditions that have kept us down, and it is unfortunate that there are Liberians citing unproductive undertakings of the past to justify their political egos,” Kroweh continued. “There must be a moment in history that we choose to cut the corner and push ourselves away from those archaic systemic practices that have held this country back. Having the President, Vice President, Speaker and President Pro tempore, at times Chief Justice from the same political party and region constitute recipe for conflict in disguise, and sustained backwardness.”
Amongst Liberians who are also calling for political equilibrium is Representative-elect Taa Karto Wongbe, who says the only way to achieve an independent legislature and for the separation of power doctrine to be effective is to have an opposition as the Speaker.
The Nimba County District 9 lawmaker-elect said: “We have to be honest here! The American version of ‘separation of power’ doesn’t work for us! We just saw this horror movie! The last 6 years were some of the worst in our country’s history in terms of governance. We were all in opposition and we saw the Executive Branch of government abuse power and having a blank check to do whatever they wanted. There was no checks and balances.
“I am saying, let’s try something different! Let’s force ‘separation of power’ by intentionally having an opposition person as the Speaker!”
He continued: “This is an ideological discussion. We need new thinking around our political system, and I will argue that we need to contextualize these ideas like ‘separation of power’ and ask ourselves if they really work for us, knowing who Liberians are. Our people have suffered enough.”
Another Liberian, UL student Stephen Darkollie said: “We expect Mr. Boakai to concentrate on how he will change this country for the better, instead of doing the same old things that his predecessors did to maintain an imperial presidency.”
Like many other Liberians, Mr. Darkollie thinks a government of inclusion where major players and parties have leverage to wield power is the surest way to stability and development.
He adds: “Take for instance: The President-elect, Boakai, is from the West. The Vice President-elect, Jeremiah Koung, hails from the North. Nyonblee Karnga Lawrence comes from the Central-south. All three leaders belong to the incoming ruling Unity Party. Therefore, the most plausible, sensible and effective governance, peace and development thing that can happen is for the Speaker of the House to come from the main opposition party, and perhaps the deputy speaker to come from the independent bloc and from the opposition.”
According to him, transformation and progress which are the mantra of the new UP in their strive for power calls for doing something radical that is a far cry from the debauched past.
“If the UP fails to ensure that happens, and it succeeds in cowering new lawmakers to elect its chosen legislative leaders, it will fail in garnering the moral authority to boast of any real transformation they preach around here,” Darkollie said further. “It would be quite clear that they are not here to bring change but rather here to replicate the failures of past leaderships in ensuring a transparent, transformational and accountable governance system.”