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“In President’s Absolute Power Debate” – FPA Editorial: A Rejoinder

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Under the topic, “Absolute Power Debate” as indicated above, the newspaper FrontPageAfrica, in an Editorial, says that “we have, no doubt, that eradicating the deadly Ebola virus out of Liberia should be the number (one?) priority of each and every Liberian, but we must tread carefully how we proceed with granting absolute power to a single branch of government . . .”.  But “Supreme Court Chief Justice Francis Korkpor threw his hat behind President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf’s (absolute) power quest. Simply put, the pursuit of absolute power, simply, does not make sense for Liberia at this time”.

The Republic Liberia

Liberia, as we know, is a small, Third World, developing nation characterized by turbulent facts of past, recent past history and the prevailing challenges, including the immediate, present danger of the Ebola Epidemic; therefore, the issue of absolute, political power presents an additional challenge or line of inquiry, particularly, in terms of the President’s request for Emergency Powers with which to deal with the Ebola menace efficiently/effectively, according to the President.

Absolute Political Power

For the benefit of our reading public, what, then, is “absolute power” and what are the emergency powers requested by the President?

Absolute Power

The English word, “absolute” means complete, unconditional, final, despotic, without or free from all limitations. Absolute Power, then, is one in which the power holder is without or free from all limitations, constitutional or statutory.

But the term absolute power is frequently used to express and contrast limited power wielded by the human person. Those forms of government are absolute in which the sovereign or power holder is the sole source, representative and dispenser of power and not obligated to secure, by virtue of a constitutional provision, the co-operation and consent of others to his measures (especially of legislative bodies, ministers and counselors), nor limited in the exercise of his power by the rights—those of a political nature at least—of others. It is evident that of such absolute power there are different grades.

The Liberian Constitutional Democracy

Under the Liberian, Constitutional Democracy, there is no Absolute Power, only a defined set of Citizens’ Bill of Rights and associated conditions/situations  which the State or supreme political leader (the President of Liberia) is under obligation to uphold, defend and protect at all times. However, the Liberian Constitution provides [Article 86 (a&b)] that upon declaration of a state-of-emergency, “. . . the President may suspend or affect certain rights, freedoms and guarantees contained in this Constitution . . . . subject . . . to the limitations contained in the Chapter (constitution)”.

President’s Requested Emergency Powers

We present, hereunder, the President’s letter of Request to the National Legislature, addressed to the Speaker of the House of Representatives dated October 1, 2014:

A. Article 1 of the Liberian Constitution –   Alteration of Election Time and Manner (Not cancellation) “The President may by proclamation, after the period and manner provided . . . under the Constitution for elections by which the people cause their public servants to leave office or bill vacancies. However, that no deviation from the constitutionality prescribed period shall cause the extension or reduction of any terms of office therein prescribed”.  

“In March this year”, the letter continued, “the there was an outbreak of the Ebola virus disease in our sub-region, Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia. As a result of the continuous spread of the virus with enormous loss of lives, human tragedies and an impairment of health, safety and “security of the citizens of the Republic and grave risks posed to the existent and sovereignty of this nation which presents a clear and present danger. We declared, with your approbation, state rights of freedom of movement, rights of assembly, and large public gatherings, the closure of schools and public entertainment centers.  All of these measures were taken to combat, contain and eradicate the spread of the virus”.

“As a consequence of these measures taken under the State of Emergency to contain the spread and eradicate the virus and self-surviving measures taken by the people and residents of Liberia in restricting their travel and contact, the necessary environment for the conditions and state of affairs to continue. As a result, the National Elections Commission (NEC) has informed of its inability to undertake several of the processes that are pre-requisite to conducting the 2014 Senatorial elections”.

B. Article 12 – Labor. “The President may, by proclamation, procure certain labour or services during this state of emergency. In this fight against Ebola, we will be requiring services and labour from each and every community in Liberia for the combat and eradication of the disease whenever and wherever necessary and possible. Accordingly, the privileges, freedom and requirement of services and labour provided for in this Article will be affected whenever and wherever possible and necessary”.

C. Article 13 – Free Movement. “The President may, by proclamation, limit the movements of certain individuals, groups or communities as the case may be to prevent the further spread or contain the epidemic in certain areas. As you are fully aware, the movement of our citizens and residents from place to place is a key factor for the spread and transmission of this deadly and dreadful Ebola virus. To stop and contain the spread of this virus, the movement of individuals, groups or communities as the case may be is a manifest necessity. Accordingly, the guarantees and safeguard provided in the Article 13 of the Constitution will be affected”.

D. Article   14 – Religious Restriction. “The President may, by proclamation, restrict certain practices, generally or specifically, if she finds that such practice further endangers the public health and contributes to the spread of the virus. In many of our counties, where certain religious and tribal practices such as the bathing and worshipping of dead body is religiously observed, the spread, transmission of the disease have been prevalent and the death toll have been enormous. To prevent the death and spread of this disease, these practices will be restricted whenever and wherever it becomes necessary”.

E. Article 15 – Restriction on Speech. “The President may, by proclamation or executive action, prevent any citizen, groups of citizens or any entity protected under Article 15 of the Constitution from making any public statement in person, by print or electronic, which may have the tendency of undermining the State of Emergency, confusing the public on the nature of the health care threat, otherwise causing a state of panic about the health care or security condition of the station, “because falsehood and negative reporting on the state of the affairs is likely to defeat the national effort in the fight of the Ebola virus, it is important that such be discouraged and prevented. Accordingly, the Government of Liberia will restrict speeches that will confuse the citizens and residents including the raising of false alarm thereby creating fear during the state of emergency”.

F. Article 17 – Assembly. “The President may, by proclamation, limit the right to assembly for any reason.

G. Article 24 – Expropriation of (private) property. “The President may, by proclamation, appropriate any private property or prevent the use thereof in order to protect the public health and safety during the state of emergency without payment of any kind or any further judicial process. Provided however, that the property will be released to the rightful owners upon the end of the state of emergency and that the Government pays for any damages thereto”.

And, finally, the President concludes that “The death tolls brought about by this disease have been overwhelming, particularly, in counties like Lofa, Montserrado, Bong, Margibi, Nimba, Bomi among others. We are advised by both national and international health authorities that victims of the Ebola Virus must be buried and laid to rest in isolated places and not in any ordinary public graveyards or cemeteries. Such a number of deaths we have seen and experienced, present a problem as public cemeteries are very few and inadequate. Therefore, the Government of Liberia will use any available land in any town and inadequate. Therefore, the Government of Liberia will use whenever the safety of the people or dwellers of such community demands. Such land to be leased will be released or returned to the rightful owner upon the end of the state of emergency. The provision of Article 24 of the Constitution will therefore be affected or suspended whenever and wherever necessary”.

While we are in complete agreement against the grant or consideration of the notion of absolute, dictatorial, political power in our country, we find that the President’s request, as made to the Nation’s Legislature and presented above says and contains nothing about Absolute Power, contrary to the FPA Editorial. The Request is anchored on the Nation’s constitutional provisions.

Unless, there is another request privileged only to the FrontPageAfrica, there is need for the newspaper to harmonize, publicly!!

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