When President Ellen Sirleaf on October 14, 2007 appointed an acting mayor of the city of Zwedru in Grand Gedeh County, it piqued the Liberty Party and the Congress for Democratic Change. The two parties promptly went to court to petition for a writ of prohibition to stop the president from violating the laws of the country by making such appointments.
The parties basically relied on an August 20, 1979 law enacted by the legislature to regulate the elections of city mayors in Liberia. The government resisted this attempt on grounds that the mayoral elections law was unconstitutional since it is inconsistent with Article 54d of the 1986 Constitution of Liberia. Unfortunately three of the five justices of the Supreme Court agreed with the government’s claim.
In the majority opinion written by the Chief Justice, His Honor Johnnie N. Lewis, the court decided on January 11, 2008 that the August 1979 law that sought to regulate the elections of mayors and all other laws that call for the elections of mayors in the country as unconstitutional on grounds that since the constitution did not expressly state that mayors should be elected, it gives the president the right to appoint them under Article 54d.
Horrible from Public Policy Standpoint
The Supreme Court’s decision subsequently emboldened the executive. The president then went ahead and appointed city mayors in other places including Monrovia. The actions of the acting mayor of Monrovia since that appointment have kept the Monrovia City Corporation (MCC) in the media limelight.
While there have been a lot of people who support the way the mayor behaves, others have been alarmed on the basis of rule of law and the proper way of doing the business of governance. When the Supreme Court made its ruling that the president has the power to appoint mayors, the court failed to take into consideration the core functions of city governments: law making and raising of taxes.
The court failed to account for the fact that if mayors and city councils are not elected, the chartered cities which they would be serving respectively as chief executives and law makers would technically lack the powers to make laws and raise taxes or impose any financial charge. If they are allowed to have such powers, it would be in total violation of the aged old principle of “no taxation without representation”.
With the imposition of parking fees on users of the city center in Monrovia, the people at the MCC have effectively violated this principle of imposing levy on the people of Monrovia without firstly getting their expressed consent.
Dealing with the legislative powers of Liberia, Article 34d (i) of the Liberian Constitution states in relevant parts that “…No other financial charge shall be established, fixed, laid or levied on any individual, community or locality under any pretext whatsoever except by the expressed consent of the individual, community or locality. In all such cases, a true and correct account of funds collected shall be made to the community or locality”.
This constitutional provision simply means that the MCC, as it currently exist has no authority to impose any fees on the residents of Monrovia for whatever reason as the consent of the people living in this area has not been sought and given for such imposition.
This provision was also placed in the constitution to serve as a safeguard against the imposition of punitive charges on opponents of the government in power. If the MCC is allowed to continue with the imposition of this financial charge, there is nothing that stops the government from imposing other financial measures on their political opponents under the guise of providing employment for youths.
Since the people that this financial charge is meant to target have not given constructive consent to the imposition of the charge by voting into office the Monrovia City Council, there has to be a referendum held to lend legitimacy to the issue, or the legislature could pass a law imposing parking fees across Liberia.
Justifying Illegal Actions
Some people have embarked upon a trivial argument regarding the amount of money being charged for parking in central Monrovia. This is a distraction and not the crux of the argument. The mean issue here is whether or not the MCC, as it currently exists, has the right to place a “financial charge” on residents of Monrovia.
This is where the Supreme Court’s opinion in the previous case went awry. The court handled the appointment or elections of mayor’s issues without taking into consideration that municipal authority goes far beyond just the appointment or election of someone to hold a municipal office.
Municipal authorities are not like offices of ministers, ambassadors, or superintendents. These are structures that bring together legislative, executive, and judicial authorities in administering the affairs of a fixed geographical area.
How can the president have the power to appoint mayors and by extension city council members, when powers that such people perform lie outside the jurisdiction of the president. The principle – agent relationship that exists between the president and her cabinet cannot extent to such municipalities.
The MCC has now gone ahead and imposed a financial charge on the people of Monrovia. On what basis is the imposition of that charge legal? If the president from whom the mayor and city council currently draw their authority lack the legal authority to impose taxes on anyone in this country. How can the president’s agent then have such a power?
During the times of dictatorship in Liberia, many Liberians including the current president fought to change all the wrongs that were being perpetrated in the country at the time. If arbitrary action was wrong during those times, they remain wrong even now.
Bad Example and Anti-democratic Move
Liberia copied its system of government from the United States of America. In the US, governance is basically concentrated at the local levels. City mayors and councilmembers in the US are elected on a regular basis by residents of the cities over which they preside. Neither the President of the United States nor any governor of any state would dare to appoint mayors or city councilmembers in the face of public arguments against such a move.
Even in countries that are known to be undemocratic, municipal authorities are derived by a vote of people living in the direct communities that are meant to be governed. It beats the imagination that President Sirleaf, who is one of the people in Liberia who fought for the institution of democracy during the time of the military, would be the same one to argue in favor of disenfranchising Liberians living in cities.
The president doesn’t stop there but go on to, by implication, impose financial charges on the people in one of the city of Monrovia through her agent the city mayor in flagrant violation of Article 34 d (i) of the Liberian constitution.
This error was made by the president in her government’s opposition to the Liberty Party and CDC’s challenge to her appointment of the City Mayor of Zwedru. Now all well-meaning people in the country need to get together and advocate for a reversal of the court’s decision to disenfranchise people residing in cities in Liberia.
Madam President, having fought very hard to bring sanity to this country, you are now slowly setting the stage for arbitrary actions in the future. If this travesty is allowed to continue without the people of Monrovia voting in a referendum, you would have laid the legal ground works for any future tyranny to justify arbitrary imposition of financial charges on communities in this country.
LamiiKpargoi is a 2011 US State Department sponsored Community Solutions Program (CSP) fellow. CSP is run by IREX USA. Mr. Kpargoi is the author of numerous political commentaries. He’s never shy of making his views known on serious issues. He’s also a licensed attorney-at-law in Liberia. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.