Liberia’s constitutional future: Religious and centralized?


By Ibrahim Al-bakri Nyei, 12 May 2016
Photo credit: One Europe
Photo credit: One Europe

By proposing the establishment of a “Christian State” and the deferral of proposals for a decentralized system of governance, the latest outcome of the Liberian constitutional reform process threatens to heighten socio-political tensions and to undermine local self-governance – writes Ibrahim Al-bakri Nyei.

In response to the failure of piecemeal reform proposals in an unsuccessful constitutional referendum in 2011, President Sirleaf-Johnson established a five-member Constitution Review Committee (CRC) in August 2012 tasked with conducting public consultations and preparing proposals for constitutional reform for submission to the President. Following the completion of nation-wide public consultations, the CRC organized a National Constitutional Conference, from 29 March to 3 April 2015, which brought together actors from across the nation. The Conference produced 25 proposals for consideration for constitutional reform. After carefully reviewing the CRC’s report with the 25 proposals, the President forwarded the proposals to parliament in August 2015 endorsing some of the proposals while suggesting that some others be addressed through policies and legislation. However, she rejected, inter alia, the “Christian State” proposal on grounds that it “could foment division amongst our people based on religious beliefs”.

After a long delay, in March 2016, a Joint Committee (on Good Governance, Judiciary, Elections and Inauguration) of the House of Representatives, which comprises of 35 members from all counties, finalized its report on the proposals. The report clusters the 25 proposals into four categories: (a) proposals recommended for referendum; (b) those suitable for referendum but recommended to be deferred; (c) those recommended for statutes; and (d) proposals that could be addressed through policies along with those to be fully ignored. Under Liberia’s constitutional system, constitutional reforms must be drafted in appropriate constitutional language and be approved by 2/3 of members of both the House of Representatives and the Senate before being put to a referendum.

This piece discusses two controversial proposals that have shaped the debate on religion and the state and the continued call for rearranging the political order through decentralization, and how these issues emanating from the Joint Committee will affect the general process of constitutional reform considering the stated positions of key actors in the political leadership.

The “Christian State” recommendation: Aggravating societal tensions? 

One of the most controversial proposals of the National Constitutional Conference was the formal declaration of Liberia as a “Christian State” (Proposition #24). Despite criticisms from significant political and religious – both Muslim and Christian actors, the Joint Committee has recommended that the proposal should be submitted to a referendum. After nearly three years of debate on this issue, there is yet no clear explanation as to the implications of declaring Liberia a “Christian State” in terms of development, public policy, and legislation. So far, the only justification for the proposal, hazily indicated by the Joint Committee, is the “country’s history of being founded on Christian principles (meaning its identity) to be restored as it were in the preamble of the 1847 Constitution...”  This on the surface would suggest that the campaign is largely about form changing the language and has less to do with substance – solving a particular national problem. In practice, Liberia has already been somewhat of a “Christian State” given the dominance of churches in politics throughout the country’s history and the complete and official lock down of government and private businesses seen on all major Christian festivals.

The practical consequence of the formal declaration remains unclear even to its floor supporters. According to Mr. Semah Komala, President of the National Muslim Students Association of Liberia, it is more of a campaign for “state privileges and protection for Christians and the marginalization of Muslims in the increasing competition for economic and political status in the country, particularly with the increasing number of young and successful Muslims in government and the private sector”.  

The recommendation of the Joint Committee on this proposal is expected to aggravate latent tensions already brewing in Liberia between Muslims and Christians working together in the Inter-Religious Council of Liberia (IRCL), an inter-faith group that was instrumental in mediating conflict during the civil war and facilitating peaceful dialogue. Even after the civil war, the IRCL continues to be a revered platform for promoting peace, reconciliation and dialogue amongst politicians, religious leaders and local communities. Presentations from some church leaders connected with the Council of Churches at the legislative public hearing on the “Christian State” proposal caused tensions in the IRCL driving the National Muslim Council of Liberia to suspend its membership in the IRCL.  

Given these outlying tensions, the debate is expected not only to affect constitutional reform, but also shake the very foundations of the inclusive society and developmental state objectives articulated in the country’s long-term vision dubbed Liberia Rising 2030 (Vision 2030), which the constitution is being reformed to support. The proposal, no doubt, runs contrary to the overarching goal of the vision which seeks a Liberia of “One People, One Nation, United for Peace and Sustainable Development”. 

This is why prominent actors, including the President and the leadership of the Legislature, and the Liberia Council of Churches, continue to oppose the proposal towards the formal establishment of a “Christian State”. Yet, this “divisive” proposal continues to dominate the discourse on the constitution due to the extremist posturing of a handful of evangelical preachers and few politicians, including Senator Jewel Howard Taylor, wife of former Liberian President and convicted war criminal, Charles Taylor. If the outcome of the 2008 census, in which 85% of Liberians identified as Christians, is anything to go by, this proposal is likely to pass if taken to a popular referendum. Nevertheless, with the recent denouncing of the proposal by the Liberian Council of Churches and the condemnation from prominent politicians, it is unlikely to make it to the referendum.

Deferring local self-governance   

The establishment of a decentralized system of government is probably the main proposal with overwhelming nationwide consensus. Civil society actors, academics, and local politicians rallied and made a convincing case for political decentralization to empower local residents to choose their own leaders. Accordingly, the Constitutional Conference passed Proposition #11, which provides that “Superintendents, Commissioners, Mayors and Chiefs should be elected”. 

In a rather surprising move, the Joint Committee recommended the deferral of proposals relating to decentralization and the direct election of local officials. If endorsed by 2/3 of members of both Houses of the Legislature, the deferral would shortchange the citizens’ hopes and aspirations for the long awaited system of decentralized governance. The nationwide debate and consultations on constitutional reform were abuzz with proposals for the election of local officials, who since 1847 have been appointed by the President of Liberia. 

With the increasing absence of the state in many local areas, evidenced by the lack of social-economic development and poor governance, there is strong support for decentralization of political, fiscal and administrative power to local levels. Successive regimes have successfully resisted proposals for decentralized systems of governance since the 1970s. Ad hoc and half-hearted reforms towards decentralization, such as the ongoing establishment of service delivery centers and newly created county councils, do not give local people the power of self-governance and local sub-units the authority to design and implement development programs as central agents in Monrovia continue to make decisions and appoint local officials.

The Joint Committee recommended that Proposition #11 be deferred and should not form part of any referendum in the absence of a lingering decentralization bill – the draft Local Government Act, a draft bill providing for full decentralization of political, fiscal and administrative powers to sub-national political units. Crafted over a three-year period through nation-wide consultations, the bill still lingers in the office of the president awaiting submission to the legislature. In the wisdom of the Joint Committee, the Bill must be passed before the constitution is amended to support decentralization. However, the recommendation to defer a referendum on Proposition #11 on the back of an abeyant draft bill “is counter-intuitive, because it is the constitution that should set the general principles before statutes can articulate the details”, according to Bornor Varmah, an Attorney-at-Law.  

Considering the heightened pressure for decentralization from local civil society and Liberia’s international development partners, it is likely that the House of Representatives would overturn this recommendation in favor of a referendum on the issue. A failure to submit this proposal for a referendum could raise another level of tension. In the presence of a potentially inflammatory “Christian State” proposal, which is loaded with sentiment, the failure to include the decentralization proposal could aggravate political tensions and ultimately undermine the success of the overall constitutional reform process. 

Other proposals of note

The Joint Committee also recommended for popular referendum proposals to reduce tenures of elected officials – the president and members of the Legislature a proposal with strong support from the presidency and civil society organizations. The position of legislators, who currently benefit from long tenure in the Senate (nine years) and House of Representatives (six years), remains unknown, shedding doubt on its potential adoption. The current President’s support for the proposed shortening of official terms has come on the verge of her expected completion of a second six-year term - a total of 12 years. 

Delays and regression in the constitutional reform process

Almost two months after the completion of the report of the Joint Committee, the House of Representative has not done much to move the process forward before taking it to the Senate for a fresh round of deliberation and action. The delay evinces the fact that constitutional reform is of secondary priority to Liberia’s current political leadership. Indeed, public financing of the CRC, which was far less than donor’s program support, spoke of the level of poor commitment the leadership had to reform the constitution as a foundation for governance, peace and stability.

Under the current Constitution, referendum on constitutional amendments must be “conducted by the Elections Commission not sooner than one year after the action of the Legislature”. The legislative delay means that a substantial and genuine constitutional reform through popular referendum is unlikely any time before the curtain falls on the sitting government in January 2018.

Overall, the recent trend shows a cloudy constitutional future for Liberia. The denial or deferral of the people’s right to select their own local leaders could awaken a new movement for rights and participation particularly in grassroots communities. The advancing of recommendations for a referendum over the controversial “Christian State” proposal, already laden with crisis, could potentially aggravate emerging religious tensions in Liberia. Liberians have not witnessed such religious tension in many years since the end of the civil war. Put together, both proposals run contrary to fundamental objectives of constitutional reform to promote social inclusivity, stability, and local empowerment.  

Ibrahim Al-bakri Nyei is a Liberian activist, political commentator and blogger. He currently works as a policy analyst at the Governance Commission of Liberia. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in Voices from the Field contributions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect International IDEA’s positions.

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