She was born to lead, so say many international admirers of Liberian president and former United Nations assistant secretary general, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf.
The Liberian leader has all of the best credentials for good leadership: a Harvard graduate degree; and a long and colorful resume that starts from the World Bank to Citibank and then the United Nations plus an ambitious political quest for the Liberian presidency that led her to prison several times under the late Liberian junta leader, Samuel K. Doe regime.
Despite President Sirleaf’s alleged support for violence in Liberia in late 1989 against the Doe regime, the Liberian people gave her the benefit of the doubt to lead the country in a new direction. That benefit seems to be failing and Liberians are once again attempting to turn their backs on her as they have always done to past leaders of the country, including Charles G. Taylor who now faces criminal charges for crimes against humanity in The Hague.
According to both international and national observers, they say President Johnson-Sirleaf’s biggest failure is her inability to stamp out excessive corruption in her government. In fact, Liberians living in the United States are rushing to return home because they can easily get rich through corruption while working for the Sirleaf government then being in the U.S.to work for ‘pennies’, especially now that oil has been discovered in the country. Even one of Sirleaf’s son who once worked as a manager at Wachovia Bank in the U.S. is reported to have returned home to Liberia where he is rumored to have been placed on the board of directors of the national oil company.
Sources say there are several reasons why many ordinary Liberians that once revered President Johnson-Sirleaf are now escaping her charm: corruption and nepotism are the key ones. In fact, the European Union financed National Audit Commission of Liberia accused the Johnson-Sirleaf government as being the most corrupt administration in the history of the country since independence in 1847.
In response, President Johnson-Sirleaf canceled the contract of the head of the Commission, American trained financial expert and fraud investigator, John Morlu II. This type of action is typical of most African dictators to dismiss or silent bureaucrats that challenge them on policy and regulatory issues.
But after six years in office, Liberians are preparing to reject their once loved leader by rejecting a constitutional referendum that could have drastically amend the country’s constitutions in ways President Sirleaf opposed when she was in the opposition against the Military regime of Doe. Unfortunately, the voices of the Liberian people were heard and the amendment failed in ways she did not expect, and for which she is now regretting.
There are several things that Liberians do not want and that they want to change: residency clause and a whole lot. The President and approximately 85 percent of her top officials are United States citizens; some have Canadian and European citizenship and have lived out of the Liberia for decades. Liberians want this change based on their experience of a 14 years conflict at which time politicians ran away and left them in poverty.
Under some of the current provisions, President Sirleaf would not be eligible to run for office and so she wants to trash the constitution by way of change. But isn’t this what most of male African dictators have done? If President Sirleaf succeeds, it means there is no hope for Africa because both the male and female politicians on the continent are nothing but the same. They all change constitutions to suit their stay in power.
Liberian constitutional referendum, 2011
A referendum to amend the Constitution of Liberia was held on 23 August 2011. Voters rejected all four amendments proposed regarding judge tenure, elections scheduling, presidential candidate requirements and the electoral system. The National Elections Commission oversaw the referendum.
Both houses of the Legislature of Liberia passed a series of four amendments to the current Constitution of Liberia on 17 August 2010. Per Article 91(a) of the Constitution, the amendments must be ratified by two-thirds of registered voters in a referendum held not sooner than one year after the passage of the amendments in the Legislature. Though all four amendments will be voted on in the same referendum, Article 91(b) requires that each amendment be individually approved by the voters.
Initially, NEC Chairman James M. Fromoyan announced that the referendum would not be held before the scheduled presidential and legislative elections on 11 October 2011, stating that the estimated cost of holding both elections in close proximity would be prohibitive. However, he reversed his position in September 2010, citing the fact that of the estimated US$69 million needed to conduct the 2011 elections, 65% of those funds would be used to hold runoff elections for legislative seats. He noted that as funding for the runoff elections had not been secured and that one of the proposed amendments would eliminate those elections, it was prudent to hold the referendum before the 2011 elections. With assurances for funding the referendum received from the government and foreign donors, the NEC scheduled the referendum to be held on 23 August 2011.
Article 52(c) of the Constitution requires that presidential and vice-presidential candidates have been residents of Liberia for 10 years prior to their election. A proposed amendment would have shortened the residency requirement to five years, as well as specify that residency must be held for five continuous years immediately prior to the election.
The terms of appointment for judges in the Liberian judicial system are defined by Article 72(b):
The Chief Justice and the Associate Justices of the Supreme Court and judges of subordinate courts of record shall be retired at the age of seventy.
A proposed amendment would have increased the mandatory retirement age for all justices to seventy-five.
Currently, Article 83(a) of the Constitution states:
Voting for the President, Vice–President, members of the Senate and members of the House of Representatives shall be conducted throughout the Republic on the second Tuesday in October of each election year.
The current date falls near the end of the rainy season in the country, which causes logistics difficulties for holding elections. The proposed amendment would have altered the date of national elections to the second Tuesday of November.
Additionally, municipal elections for mayors, city councils, and paramount, clan and town chiefs have yet to be held since the transition back to constitutional rule in 2005. In 2008, the Supreme Court ruled that so long as the country could not afford to hold municipal elections, the president could appoint mayors in consultation with local leaders. However, the Court ruled that once it was financially able, the National Elections Commission would be required to hold elections for municipal positions.
As the Constitution does not specify a date for the holding of these elections, the proposed amendment would have staggered these elections with presidential elections, with elections for city mayors, city councils and chiefs held three years after each presidential election.
Article 83(b) mandates a two-round voting system for the presidential and legislative elections:
All elections of public officers shall be determined by an absolute majority of the votes cast. If no candidate obtains an absolute majority in the first ballot, a second ballot shall be conducted on the second Tuesday following. The two candidates who received the greatest numbers of votes on the first ballot shall be designated to participate in the run-off election.
As a cost-saving measure, this article was not enforced for the 2005 legislative elections, where candidates were elected by a plurality. The proposed amendment would have made this arrangement permanent, using a single-round first-past-the-post method for all legislative and municipal elections while maintaining the two-round system for presidential elections.
President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf announced her support for all four of the amendments, but said that her administration viewed the amendment regarding the switch to simple majority in legislative elections as the only crucial proposal due to its financial implications. The opposition Liberty Party also announced its support for the amendments but argued for more comprehensive constitutional reform. National Patriotic Party leader Jewel Taylor stated that she would vote against all four amendments, believing that the residency clause amendment discriminated against recent returnees and the extension of judge tenure would delay replacement of the country’s judges with more qualified appointees. Congress for Democratic Change presidential candidate Winston Tubman called for a boycott of the referendum, calling into question its constitutionality, the impartiality of NEC Chairman Fromoyan, and the feasibility of holding the referendum so near to the 2011 elections. Tubman later backed away from calling for an outright boycott, while still expressing opposition to the amendments.
President Sirleaf declared the day of the referendum a public holiday. The referendum was overseen by 1,949 registered domestic and international observers, including officials from the National Democratic Institute, International Foundation for Electoral Systems, the African Union Civil Society Group and ECOWAS. Voting was held at 4,457 stations across the country and proceeded peacefully, with only a single isolated incident of violence reported in Barclayville. However, the vote was marked by low turnout and confusion regarding the reasons for the referendum. Several women’s advocacy groups criticized the government for a lack of awareness among women regarding the referendum.
Several voters called in to local radio stations on the day of the referendum to report that their ballots had a significant error on them, with one question asking whether the voter wanted to increase judges’ retirement age from “75 to 75 years” rather than the correct “70 to 75 years.” NEC officials acknowledged and apologized for the error, noting that the ballots had been printed in Denmark and thus the error had been discovered after the printing had been completed. The NEC also stated that polling stations with the incorrect ballots had posted clarifications. NEC Chairman Fromoyan later told reporters that the error would have no impact on the results of the referendum.
The official results were scheduled to be released on 7 September 2011. However, the NEC finished counting one week ahead of schedule and released the results on 31 August 2011. None of the four amendments gathered the required two-thirds majority necessary for ratification.