Presidential Transition in Liberia: An organized presidential transition/ a successful administration and public governance

By Ahmed Sirleaf


As of 2017, Liberia had no Presidential Transition Act (or a National Transition Act) in place. To sort things out in the immediate terms, then President Sirleaf issued Executive Order number 91. We most likely still have no MAC (Ministries, Agencies, and Commissions) process of agency preparation and review for presidential transitions. Agency leaders should have prepared months ahead of the election for potential multiple transition scenarios and act accordingly. The outgoing administration has the legal responsibility to cooperate with and help the incoming administration to ensure a smooth transfer of presidential and executive powers from President Weah to Boakai.

The transfer of presidential power is not a seamless process in any democracy. It can be arduous, painful, acrimonious, difficult and contentious at times. However, the Boakai-Koung transition team, along with the outgoing administration of President Weah, must ensure a peaceful transfer of power from President Weah to President Boakai.

Here are few points to consider:

  1. Ensure that President Boakai begins to govern immediately after inauguration. Establish a foundation of solid planning, personnel, and policy through daily agency briefings during the transition process; thereby reducing disruptions; shift immediately from transition to governing.
  2. Put in place contingency processes/policies led by dedicated, experienced and technical leaders from various backgrounds (some of this would have been put in place way before the election) that could be carried over to governing immediately after inauguration.
  3. Ensure a well- resourced and organized transition team that is diverse and inclusive—that will send a message to citizens as to what kind of government the new team will form, and who will serve in it.
  4. To avoid fragility in the transfer of presidential power, have the current president issue an executive order to govern and guide a joint transition process and structure, in the absence of a predetermined statutory requirement.
  5. Institute processes (if not pre-determined by statute) like, norms, traditions (if any), and where there are no statutory transition planning requirements, quickly draft an executive order language for the new president to sign on Day One to cover areas that are not protected by existing law.
  6. Create an office of Presidential Personnel after inauguration to ensure a smooth nomination, appointment, and confirmation process.
  7. Finally, the transition team should establish procedures that ensure transition notes, agency briefing materials, and reports are turned over or shared with new officials of relevant ministries, agencies, and commissions.

Sirleaf-Weah transfer of power history.

As President-Elect Joseph Nyumah Boakai and Vice President-Elect, Jeremiah Kpan Koung prepare to assume executive leadership of Liberia, a careful presidential transition will be needed. How the new administration transitions to office will be critical for their ultimate success in office. It’s not a seamless process. To be successful is to successfully transition and transfer and/or receive power. The transition team they form, the transition structures they erect, including who runs those processes and structures will presage whether the new government will succeed or not.

No prior Presidential transition history in 74 years

When President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf transitioned out of office to President Geoge Weah, here was the process. In 2017, Liberia had not experienced a peaceful presidential transition from one president to the next in 74 years. “The last time an elected president turned over presidential power to another elected president dates back to 1943 when William V. S. Tubman, the nineteenth President of Liberia succeeded Edwin J. Barclay,”  according to the Final Report of the Joint Presidential Transition Team (JPTT, 2018). I was the lead author of this report. Because of that long hiatus in the presidential transition, there was no established law guiding such process. As a result, then outgoing President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf issued an executive order to establish a structure, the Joint Presidential Transition Team (JPTT). Executive Order 91 (EO-91) was issued to provide a roadmap for the transition, according to the JPTT report. The first instrument created by EO-91 was the Joint Presidential Transition Team (JPTT). In a conciliatory spirit, the two executive leaders, outgoing President Sirleaf and incoming President Weah co-chaired the JPTT.

Executive Order 91: Scope and mandate

The Joint Presidential Transition Team’s mandate, emanating from EO-91, covered the period from final election results announcement on December 29, 2017, to January 31, 2018.  The JPTT task was to ensure a smooth transition from the President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s administration to Senator George M. Weah’s. The work of the JPTT continued past inauguration, executing activities that helped the new leadership. However, these efforts were thwarted and discouraged. For example, no recommendations were respected or carried out. Governance experts’ advice was ignored.

The JPTT structure

The JPTT had a steering committee, a secretariat, and six technical standing committees (TSC). The TSC were:

  1. Governance
  2. State of the Economy
  3. Infrastructure
  4. Human Development
  5. Inauguration
  6. Security & the Rule of Law

The Secretariat was headed by Mr. Jordan Solunteh, the Director General of the Cabinet and Mr. Nathaniel McGill, then Chairman of the Coalition for Democratic Change (CDC). Their scope was to oversee the coordination of the six technical working committees, as well as the Secretariat. I, as a member of the committee on governance, with other colleagues, coordinated and received daily working notes, which we demanded from the various sub-committees, which we used as a basis that informed ongoing daily briefings of the then president-elect, Weah. Our work also culminated into an unpublished, yet historical final report.

Excerpts of the report further describing structures and mandates

JPTT Secretariat:  the Secretariat, headed by the Director General of the Cabinet (DGC), played a central coordination role. As a clearing house, the JPTT Secretariat received and collated reports from the various sub-committees. The Secretariat assigned one of its members to work with each of the six sub-standing committees. This structure ensured seamless communication and coordination, thus creating a feedback loop in all directions.

Technical Standing Committees (TSC): the JPTT was assisted by six technical standing committees on various themes and subject matter areas. These included: Governance, Infrastructure, State of the Economy, Inauguration, Security and the Rule of Law, and Human and Social Development. Each TSC (comprising of outgoing and incoming counterparts) met numerous times separately, as well as collectively.

As stated earlier, some of the TSCs created further subcommittees depending upon the variable nature of their work. For example, the TSC on Human and Social Development created five such sub-working groups. On a weekly basis, the Secretariat required the TSCs to provide briefing notes on their work and deliberations. Finally, towards the end of the transition process, each of the TSCs wrote a final report. These reports formed the basis of the JPTT Report.

JPTT Final Report Recommended to the incoming administration as follow:

  1. The JPTT be enshrined in the Liberian electoral process by being enacted into law and necessary budgetary allotment be made by the new the Legislature. Budgetary allotment should include funding for inaugural events.
  2. Orientation and training for new lawmakers and executive members in key areas of governance and national administration; especially pertinent to the Public Procurement and Concessions Commission (PPCC) law and other public financial management regulations.
  3. That a detailed transition report be prepared by the General Auditing Commission (GAC) to include a baseline assessment of all Ministries, Agencies, and Commissions (MACs), including a comprehensive audit and verification of government assets, and finished projects or unfinished projects implemented by the outgoing administration.
  4. An extension of the GOVCOM’s (subcommittee on Governance) activities beyond January 31st deadline, as governance advising needed continuity.
  5. There should be clear and uniform guidelines for JPTT Committees’ functions and mandates, especially regarding the formats of various TSCs’ reports that formed the basis of the final JPTT Report.

Accountability and handover notes

As the sub-committee on governance, one of our sub-working groups was on Handover Notes and Government Accountability. As we pushed for the Sirleaf administration’s cabinet members and public agency leaders to provide handover notes, we outlined in our requests for notes on things like current projects, contracts, monitoring and evaluation reports, as well as accounts/budget balances and government obligations. Some MAC leaders tried to comply. However, it is my opinion that the incoming administration at the time was not interested in learning about what the outgoing government had done. Not so with certain line ministries and agencies that were not considered premium government entities. The Boakai-Koung transition team should avoid these pitfalls if it wants to hit the ground running on Day One and start governing immediately.

1 Comment
  1. Isaac Song Dapaye, Sr. says

    This insightful piece by scholar Ahmed Sirleaf has significantly influenced my thinking on the essential requirements for effective governance following a change in leadership.

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