Liberia - Country Constitutional Profile

Africa’s oldest republic, Liberia borders Sierra Leone to the west, Guinea to the north and Cote d’Ivoire to the east, and the Atlantic Ocean to the southwest. According to a 2008 census, approximately 3.4 million people inhabit the country, with the majority living in the Monserrado County. Named after US President James Monroe, Monrovia, the capital, has double the population of the next most populated county, Nimba. Although over thirty indigenous languages exist within the country, Liberia’s official language is English. Kpelle, Bassa and Grebo make up the three largest tribes in the country. Christians make up the largest religious group (85.6%) with Muslims making up the second largest group.

General background

Africa’s oldest republic, Liberia borders Sierra Leone to the west, Guinea to the north and Cote d’Ivoire to the east, and the Atlantic Ocean to the southwest. According to a 2008 census, approximately 3.4 million people inhabit the country, with the majority living in the Monserrado County. Named after US President James Monroe, Monrovia, the capital, has double the population of the next most populated county, Nimba. Although over thirty indigenous languages exist within the country, Liberia’s official language is English. Kpelle, Bassa and Grebo make up the three largest tribes in the country. Christians make up the largest religious group (85.6%) with Muslims making up the second largest group.

Historical, political and constitutional developments

Liberia is only one of two modern African countries to have escaped European colonization. The other is Ethiopia. The Dei, Bassa, Kru, Gola and Kissi were some of the earliest arrivals to the region, around the 12th century. The new inhabitants brought with them skills in cotton spinning, cloth weaving, iron smelting, rice and sorghum cultivation, as well as the social and political institutions of the Mali and Songhai Empires. The 1820s saw the return of freed American blacks to the region following the abolition of slavery in the West. The Back to Africa movement favored by those against black integration in America led to the voluntary return of many blacks to the Pepper Coast, the region in which Liberia sits. The American Colonization Society spearheaded the return movement. Returnees came to identify themselves as Americo-Liberians. They developed a culture that closely resembled that of the American south, even instituting the notion of racial superiority. On July 26, 1847 the settlers declared their independence from America and promulgated a Constitution that would last139 years. The 1847 Constitution, modeled on the American constitution, established the Republic of Liberia, although as a unitary state.

The minority Americo-Liberians dominated the new government and subjugated the inland tribes. Indigenous Africans did not have the opportunity for citizenship until 1904. Gradual modernization took hold of the country in the mid-20th century. During the 1950s bolstered by the US Lend and Lease, and President William Tubman’s economic liberalization policies, Liberia experienced one of the world’s second highest growth rates. The country also took a more active role in international affairs, as a founding member of the United Nations and the Organization of African Unity.

However, Liberia’s stability came to an end with a 1980 coup that overthrew and executed President William Tolbert. Led by Sergeant Samuel K Doe, the coup marked the end of Americo-Liberians’ political dominance. This was followed by two successive civil wars that left over 200,000 dead, displaced millions and shattered the country’s economy and infrastructure. Doe and his cohorts formed the People’s Redemption Council (PRC), suspended the 1847 constitution and created a National Constitution Committee (NCC) the following year to draft a new Constitution. Although criticized by many for corruption and political repression, Doe’s government became a strategic ally to the US from whom it received significant financial backing.

The NCC submitted its finished draft Constitution to the PRC in March 1983. The PRC formed a Constitutional Advisory Committee (CAC) to review the draft constitution ahead of its submission to a referendum vote. In its review, the CAC increased the President’s term from four to six years, and removed the prohibition on military personnel being members of government. The CAC also deleted provisions establishing two autonomous agencies to approve judicial candidates and investigate corruption. On July 3, 1984 the new Constitution was approved in a referendum with 78.3% of votes. This paved the way for elections in 1985, which confirmed Samuel Doe as the President under the newly approved Constitution which became operative in 1986.

1986 Constitution

Modeled after the United States, the Constitution established a presidential system of government with three branches consisting of the executive, a legislature and the judiciary.

Executive Branch

The President holds the positions of Head of Government, Head of State and Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces of Liberia. Elections for the President and Vice President take place in a two round runoff system. Those eligible to for the presidency must have Liberian citizenship, $25,000 worth of unencumbered property, be 35 years of age and should have been residing within the country in the 10 years preceding the election. The President and Vice President cannot come from the same county. As head of the executive branch the President signs or vetoes legislative bills, grants pardons, and appoints cabinet members, judges and other public officials. The President and Vice President serve six year term and may run for a second term. The President can only stand trial for criminal acts committed while in office upon vacating the presidency.

Legislative Branch

The Constitution established a bicameral legislature comprising of a Senate and a House of Representatives. All bills must pass through the House of Representative and the Senate. Candidates for the Senate must be at least 30 years of age and those for the House of Representatives must be at least 25 years. Candidates for both Houses must live in the country or county of representation for no less than one year and pay taxes prior to the elections. Senators are elected for a nine year mandate while House members are elected for a six year term. The legislature has the power to create new counties and other public subdivisions, levy taxes, pay off debts and establish lower courts. It may not create any laws that would have the effect of abrogating the Supreme Court’s decisions. Members of the legislature enjoy immunity from arrest for their opinions or votes cast. The House of Representative votes on the decision to impeach while the Senate presides and adjudicates over the actual impeachment trial.

Juridical Branch

Under the 1987 Constitution, the Supreme Court and other subordinate courts as the legislature may create, constitute the judicial branch. As the highest court, the Supreme Court’s decision is final and binding on all issues. No other branch of government may review the Court’s decisions. In administering justice the Supreme Court must apply both statutory and customary law in accordance with the standard set out by the legislature. The Supreme Court consists of one Chief Justice and four Associate Justices.

Political developments since 1987

It is important to note that the elections held under this Constitution that resulted in the election of Samuel Doe were never endorsed by the International Community as well as other internal actors who saw the whole process as a sham designed to legitimize the Doe regime. This resistance ultimately fuelled a failed coup by Thomas Quiwonkpa, also a founding member of the NPLF. In response Doe adopted reactionary measures that further set the country on the path of internal conflict.

In December 1989, Charles Taylor, a former member of the Doe government who had fallen out with the regime launched an attack that would develop into one of Africa’s bloodiest conflicts. It became known as the First Liberian Civil War and lasted from 1989 to 1996. The conflict resulted in the downfall and death of Doe in 1990, but infighting within the rebel movement led to a split prolonging the conflict to 1997 and attracting the intervention of ECOMOG. Elections held in 1997 led to the election of Charles Taylor as President of Liberia. But this peaceful transition did not last. A new rebel movement, the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) launched an armed insurrection against Taylor’s government sparking off the Second Liberian Civil War. The LURD’s war against Taylor was also supported by another armed group, the Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MDL), which also launched attacks against Taylor in 2003. Under pressure from the International Community, rebels and civil society within the country, Taylor resigned in August 2003 and went into exile in Nigeria. The UN immediately established a mission in Liberia and an interim government took control in October 2004. New elections, in 2005, considered by many as the country’s most credible elections at the time were held with Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, elected as Africa’s first female president. In 2006, the government set up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to address the causes and crimes of the civil wars. Despite the end of the war and transition to a civilian government, Liberia still faces many challenges as it attempts to climb out of a century of repression and more than two decades of political and economic instability. As part of the effort to seek lasting solutions to some of these problems, the government in August 2012 initiated a process to review the country’s constitution. The process, which is ongoing and expected to last two years does not seek to draft a new constitution, but to update the current one.

The Current Constitutional process and Political challenges

Liberia continues to face many challenges as the constitutional review process unfolds. Many of the problems it must address have historical origins. First the constitutional review process has to address the lack of faith many Liberians have in the government. Successive Liberian governments have been riddled with corruption. There exist countless allegations of embezzlement of public funds which has resulted in citizen resentment in meeting their tax obligations, and distrust for the government. The Constitutional Review Committee faces a great challenge in rebuilding public confidence in the government and the process. There is also a need to empower the citizenry; especially women groups to enable them make meaningful contribution to the process. The proposed amendments, once approved by the legislature will be put to a referendum vote, following a period of public review and input.

Structure of government under 1986 Constitution

 

Timeline

1820

American Colonization Society sends its first envoy to Sierra Leone. 

1821

ACS purchase land in Grand Bassa from tribal leaders for trade goods, supplies, weapons, and rum worth approximately $300.  

July 26, 1847 Liberia declares independence from the United states 
1848 Liberia’ first Constitution ratified and the first elections held. Joseph Jenkins Roberts becomes Liberia’s first President
1869 True Whig Party founded, becomes dominant political party in Liberia
1904

The indigenous Liberians brought under the governments control and giving to rights to citizenship. 

1929 An International Commission report finds the Liberian officials are profiting from the forced labor of the indigenous people.
1944 William Tubman elected to the first of his seven presidential terms. 
1946 Right to vote and participate in elections extended to the Liberia’s indigenous property owners and women. 
1958 Racial discrimination outlawed.
April 14, 1979 A rally protesting the increase in rice prices ends in violence and loss of forty lives. 
1980

A coup led by Samuel K. Doe, assassinates Preside William Tolbert and overthrows the government, suspending the constitution. 

1986 A new constitution establishes the 2nd Liberian Republic and Samuel K. Doe becomes Liberia first indigenous President. 
1989 National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) led by Charles Taylor begins an uprising against the government.
1990 Rebels publicly execute Doe as country further splits up. Economic Coalition of Western African States sends peacekeepers. 
1995 Peace deal brokered between the warring factions.
July 19, 1997 Charles Taylor elected president of Liberia. 
1999 LURD launches the Second Liberian Civil War
February 2002 Taylor declares a state of emergency.
July 2003 Rebels battle for Monrovia, Taylor is accused of war crimes, ECOWAS provides peacekeepers to Liberia. 
August 2003  Taylor steps down and goes on exile to Nigeria; international peacekeepers arrive and sign a deal with the rebels. 
October 2003 United Nations Missions in Liberia established and interim government is formed. 
November 23, 2005 Ellen Johnson Sirleaf elected President of Liberia and becoming first female president in Africa.
February 2006 Truth and Reconciliation Committee established to investigate allegations of human rights crimes between 1979 and 2003. 
July 2009 Truth and Reconciliation Committee releases final report with names of those who should be barred from public office for their part in the civil wars. The list of names includes President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.
November 2010 President Johnson Sirleaf dismisses cabinet.
November 2011 Presidential Johnson Sirleaf wins second term. Her main rival boycotts second round claiming fraud.
April 2012 Ex-president Charles Taylor is found guilty of war crimes for aiding and directing rebels in Sierra Leone. He is sentenced to 50 years in jail.
August 2012 Liberia’s Constitution Review Committee established.

Bibliography

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InfoPlease. Liberia, 2013. Web. 2013 June 12.  http://www.infoplease.com/country/liberia.html

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Library of Congress. History Of Liberia: A Time Line. 2013. Web June 13, 2013. http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/gmdhtml/libhtml/liberia.html

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