Weah might be in for a rude awakening
In a confusing about-face last month, Liberia’s Supreme Court undermined its own ruling that a controversial referendum, scheduled for December 8 alongside the nation-wide legislative elections, is unconstitutional.
Instead of explicitly cancelling the referendum, as most Liberian opposition parties and civil society actors have urged for weeks, the Supreme Court recommended instead that the eight propositions under consideration should be printed clearly in an Official Gazette and on ballots enabling the electorate to vote for or against each separately and independently.
This has buoyed footballer-turned-president George Oppong Weah, whose administration is using the referendum as a to implement sweeping constitutional changes that may open up a small window for him to seek an illegitimate third term in office.
If Weah proceeds as speculated, he would be taking a page from the playbook of Alassane Ouattara of Ivory Coast and Alpha Condé of Guinea, whose successful third-term presidential bids earlier this year happened amid an opposition boycott, nation-wide protests and violent clashes with police.
Ouattara insisted that a constitutional change in 2016 meant his very first term did not count towards a two-term limit; Condé reasoned that a constitutional referendum held a few months before elections enabled him to seek a third term.
While the Ivorian and Guinean presidents may have succeeded in their political coups, Weah may be in for a rude awakening. Regardless of whether an actual referendum takes place, Liberia’s polls next week will be a symbolic referendum on the once-popular, now embattled, president.
Late last year, Liberia’s legislature adopted a joint resolution for a national referendum proposing seemingly benign amendments to eight articles of the 1986 constitution: authorising dual citizenship (article 28); reducing the tenure of senators from nine to seven years (article 45); reducing the tenure of the president pro-tempore of the Senate from six to five years (article 47); reducing the tenure of members of the House of Representatives from six to five years (article 48); reducing the tenure of speaker, deputy speaker, and other officers of the House of Representatives from six to five years (article 49); reducing the tenure of president from six to five years (article 50); changing the date of general elections from October to November (article 83a); reducing the timeframe from 30 to 15 days for the National Elections Commission to act on complaints following a general election (article 83c).
Contrary to the legislature’s resolution, however, the executive branch of government in October 2019 printed an Official Gazette which suspiciously collapsed the eight propositions into three broad ballot measures prioritising enacting dual citizenship, revising the tenure of the president, representatives and senators, and changing the date of the general elections.
For the past year, Weah’s ruling Coalition for Democratic Change (CDC) has focused intently on the simplified propositions in its campaigning, with images of the president plastered on billboards across the capital, Monrovia, and its environs urging the electorate to vote “Yes” on all measures.
Yet, institutions like the Liberia National Bar Association have questioned the constitutionality of the executive’s public messaging since proposed amendments should never be peddled as partisan causes.
They have justifiably demanded a postponement of the referendum to allow for nation-wide deliberations since most voters remain ill-informed about the implications of the eight propositions and why they should endorse or reject them.
Given Liberia’s sharp socio-economic decline under Weah’s watch, the timing of the propositions and emphasis in particular on marginally changing presidential tenures from six to five years is concerning.
The president may argue in the future, as Ouattara did in Ivory Coast, that he is eligible to run for an additional two terms even though a constitutional provision (article 93) strictly forbids an incumbent’s third-term aspirations.
Any attempts by Weah to undermine article 93 would hurl Liberia into political upheaval.
Dual citizenship is equally contentious, as my forthcoming book demonstrates.
During a 2015 constitutional review conference and in Afrobarometer surveys conducted in 2012 and 2018, Liberia-based Liberians registered their disdain for non-resident forms of citizenship. - Agencies