Liberia: US-based journalists criticise supreme court

ALJA National President Moses D. Sandy

The Association of Liberian Journalists in the Americas (ALJA) has described a recent ruling by the Supreme Court of Liberia as a sad development in the West African nation’s quest for adherence to the rule of law. 

The decision was the reversal of the National Elections Commission (NEC) disbarment of the vice presidential candidacies of Harrison Karnwea of the Liberty Party and Amb. Jeremiah Sulunteh of the Alternative National Congress (ANC) from participating in the 2017 general and presidential elections for violating the National Code of Conduct. 

ALJA said if Liberia is to achieve national development, peace, and tranquility, then, the need for compliance with the rule of law by all Liberians cannot be overstated; adding, “No Liberian regardless of political or social connection is above the laws of Liberia.”

The association said the rule of law lays the foundation for continued peace, stability, and national development in any society. “The future of any country that allows its citizens to arrogate laws unto themselves with impunity is doomed”, the Association emphasized.

ALJA in a press release issued on Monday, July 24, said the Supreme Court’s opinion delivered on Thursday, July 20 was more political than legal.

It followed a hearing conducted into separate complaints filed a week ago by vice presidential hopefuls, Karnwea and Sulunteh, respectively against the NEC for banning them from participating in the 2017 election for violating Sections 5.1 and 5.2 of the National Code of Conduct, was more political than legal.

The NEC on July 7, 2017 issued rejection letters to Mr. Karnwea and Amb. Sulunteh for violating the National Code of Conduct.

The diaspora-based Liberian press corps, said although they are not lawyers, they strongly believe the court’s ruling which overturned the NEC’s decision for what it calls “procedural error” has done more harm to the commission in its effort of ensuring free, fair, transparent, and credible elections in Liberia than good.

ALJA said the ruling has literary eroded the authority of the NEC in the execution of its statutory duties.

ALJA said besides undermining the authority of the NEC in the performance of its duties, the Supreme Court’s ruling further emboldened selfish politicians in violating Liberia’s electoral laws with immunity; adding, “The Supreme Court has open a floodgate for the filing of more selfish driven complaints against the NEC by politicians and political parties.”

The association said the ruling sets a bad precedent and it has nullified the efficacy of the National Code of Conduct, which the Court on March third of this year paradoxically upheld as a law of the country when it ruled in the Serena Mappy Polson versus the Republic of Liberia case when she challenged the constitutionality of the Code of Conduct.

The US-based group said it finds it incomprehensible that at a critical time like this in the history of Liberia, the Supreme Court opted to put Mr. Kanwea and Amb. Sulunteh on a pedestal for wrongdoing after admitting that they violated Sections 5.1. and 5.2 of the Code of Conduct, but their violations especially that of Mr. Karnwea was not “grievous” as claimed by the National Elections Commission.

ALJA said while it respects the authority of the Supreme Court, it however, begs to differ with the Court on how it handled the Karnwea and Sulunteh complaints filed against the NEC.

The association maintained Mr. Karnwea and Amb. Sulunteh intentionally broke the electoral laws of Liberia and they should have been held liable for their willful and intentional actions instead of giving them pats on the back as done by the Supreme Court.

Mr. Karnwea, former Managing Director of the Forestry Development Authority (FDA), resigned in March 2017 while Amb. Sulunteh’s tour of duty as Liberia’s Ambassador to the United States, Mexico, and Canada ended in December 2016.

The Liberian government in 2014 enacted into law a National Code of Conduct for public officials and civil servants. Section 5.1 and 5.2 of the Code of Conduct provides that “All officials appointed by the President of the Republic of Liberia shall not (a) Engage in political activities, canvass or contest for elected offices (b) Use government facilities, equipment or resources in support of parties or political activities.”

The code further states that such persons cannot (c) Serve on a campaign team of any political party, or the campaigns of any independent candidate.

Moreover, Section 5.2 says “Wherein any person in the category stated in section 5.1 desires to canvass or contests for an elective public position, the following shall apply:(a) Any Minister, Deputy Minister, Director-General, Managing Director and Superintendent appointed by the President pursuant to article 56 (a ) of the Constitution and a Managing Director appointed by a Board of Director, who desires to contest for public elective office shall resign said post at least two years prior to the date of such public election”. (b) “Any other official appointed by the President, who holds a tenured position and desires to contest for public elective office shall resign said post three years prior to the date of such public election”.

Commenting on the Supreme Court’s claim which states that “the NEC made serious error in that Mr. Karnwea’s rejection letter was single handedly signed by the Chairman instead of everyone on the Board of Commissioners”, ALJA said it is baffled by the objection raised by the Supreme Court.

The association said the NEC has seven commissioners, but the Supreme Court’s proposition for every commissioner to sign disqualification letters before they are considered legal and enforceable runs contrary to the tradition of the commission.

ALJA maintained that such proposition creates unnecessary bureaucracy because the chairman is the official spokesman of the commission.

Section 2.10 of Liberia’s New Election Laws, captioned: Duties of Chairman and Co-chairman, provides that, The Chairman of the Commission shall have the following special duties and functions: a) Be the official head and spokesman of the Commission; (b) Presides over all meetings and hearings of elections contests; (c) For the purpose of expediting the hearings and determination of all election offenses; and other business of the Commission shall apportion the Republic into five (5) administrative areas and assign a commissioner to an area who shall, in consultation with the Commissioner…¦direct and supervise all election activities in his area of assignment including the hearing and determination of election offenses arising there from which determination, having been previously approved by the Commission shall be final; (d) Controls, supervises and directs the administrative operation of the office of the Commission and in consultation with the Commissioners, takes such corrective administrative measures for the smooth and effective operation of the Commission.”

ALJA said it wonders why the Supreme Court did not raise the same objection to the reported unilateralism of the NEC Chairman, Jerome Korkoya, when he singlehandedly signed the commission’s rejection letter, which disqualified Assistant Minister, Abu Kamara, of the Ministry of Post and Telecommunications from contesting as a candidate for the Montserrado County electoral District number 15 representative seat for being in violation of Sections 5.1 and 5.2 of the Code of Conduct.

On July 11, the Supreme Court conducted a hearing into a writ of prohibition filed against the NEC by Mr. Kamara for the wrongful disqualification of his candidacy.

ALJA said instead of the challenging the legality of the NEC rejection of Assistant Minister Kamara, the court in unison sanctioned the commission’s action and reaffirmed the constitutionality of the Code of Conduct by dismissing Mr. Kamara’s complaint for the lack of legal justification.

ALJA noted that Mr. Karnwea and Amb.Suluteh’s complaints filed against the NEC for disqualifying them from participating in the election was a litmus test for the Supreme Court and Liberia as a whole in standing in defense of the rule of regardless of political or social connections, but regrettable the court failed miserably in meeting the expectation.

Meanwhile, ALJA says although Section 5. 2(a) and (b) of the Code of Conduct are hash and punitive, unless they are repealed through a legal process, they are legal and constitutional; and they must be respected and heeded to by all Liberians. The Association said unless the law is undone legally, no amount of political or judicial arm twisting will stop it from biting its violators.