TUBMANBURG, Bomi – Amid ongoing dialogue on reforms in Liberia’s electoral system, two former officials in Bomi are calling for an amendment in the National Code of Conduct to include other officials in the legislature and judiciary.
The constitution authorizes the legislature to prescribe a Code of Conduct for all public officials and employees of the government and that was done in March 2014 when the National Code of Conduct was enacted into law.
The act provides guidance for appointed government officials and employees against actions that would undermine their integrity. Officials and employees affected by the law include ambassadors, ministers, consuls, chief justices, associate justices of the Supreme Court, Judges of the subordinate courts, superintendents, other county officials of other political subdivisions; members of the military from the rank of lieutenant of its equivalent and above; and marshals, deputy marshals and sheriffs as stipulated in Article 56 of the 1986 constitution.
The law, among other things, restricts government employees from engaging in corrupt practices and playing active roles in electoral exercises while still serving the posts they were originally appointed.
Sections 5.1 and 5.2 of the law, which focus on political participation, only affects officials appointed by the president. According to the provisions, presidential appointees are not allowed to engage in political activities, canvass, or contest for elected offices or use government facilities, equipment or resources in support of partisan or political activities. The law also prohibits them from serving on a campaign team of any political party or for an independent candidate.
However, officials appointed by the president wanting to canvass or contest for an elective public position are required to resign their position at least two years prior to the election they intend to contest. For occupants of tenured positions, the law requires them to resign three years ahead of elections.
The exception to the provisions is that, in the case of impeachment, death, resignation or disability of an elected official, any official appointed by the president wanting to contest to fill such position must resign his or her current position within thirty days following the declaration of the vacancy by the National Elections Commission.
But Alfred Zinnah, who previously represented Klay District, and Zobong Norman, the former president of Bomi County Community College, say the law in its current form is discriminatory. They want it amended to affect all public officials, instead of just those in the executive.
Zinnah said laws are made to affect all in a country and not a certain group of citizens. He said while the intent of the document in its entirety may be good, the bias in Sections 5.1 and 5.2 invalidates its good intent.
He emphasized the need to have the law amended, as it also prevents capable individuals in the executive from serving in elected positions. He said, if not amended, the law would be a factor of confusion. He, however, blamed the situation on lawmakers whom he called “selfish.”
“That portion of the code of conduct – 5.1, 5.2 – is just a bad law, wicked law, and devilish law. Nobody should make laws to deprive [a] certain group of people. Is it a crime that I serve my country,” he said.
“Why didn’t they make the law to allow them as lawmakers too to resign two years before going for election? So, are they telling us that they are more Liberians than any other person? The people that crafted that law only did that because they had the intent to perpetuate themselves into power.”
Norman also expressed fear that the political participation section of the Code of Conduct could lead to a political division in the country. He said the law deprives a group of Liberians of exercising their rights to contest for public positions.
“Bad laws cause trouble. Why will I leave bad law with my children? We are just from war, we are to fix it now. Why should we wait for issues,” he also said.
Since the Code of Conduct was passed into law, it has largely been unenforced. When enforced, it has been done selectively. The Office of the Ombudsman, which is legally responsible for enforcing the law, has never been approved. Former president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf appointed members to the office in the waning days of her tenure, but they were never approved.
The key portion of the act that has been enforced is the clauses barring appointed public officials from contesting elections unless they resign.
Many have, however, argued that the law was unfair because it exempts other officials of the government, including representatives and senators.
The dean of the Louis Arthur Grimes School of Law at the University of Liberia, Negbalee Warner, described the Code of Conduct as discriminatory. In July 2016, Warner argued before the Supreme Court that the Code of Conduct passed by the National Legislature was completely discriminatory.
Bong’s former superintendent, Selena Polson Mappy, had also filed a petition before the Supreme Court to declare the code of conduct unconstitutional. Mappy had hoped to contest for representative of Bong’s sixth district.
However, the Supreme Court ruled against her case, stating that the law was constitutional. However, later during the 2017 election season, the Supreme Court ruled that the National Elections Commission should not have disqualified Harrison Karnwea’s candidacy for violating the Code of Conduct by not resigning within the required time. The court ordered the commission to assess a fine on Karnwea instead.
However, the law does not explicitly state any penalties for violation of this clause, other than the implied disqualification from the race, leading to criticisms that the court was legislating by its liberal interpretation of the law.
In an interview with FrontPage Africa, human rights lawyer Tiawon Gongloe expressed such sentiments.
“If you resign even one day before your application to the National Elections Commission, according to this opinion of the Supreme Court, you are in compliance with the law,” he said.
“The Supreme Court itself said that desire and intent are not valid arguments when it comes to compliance. So, I was surprised in the end when the court said once you resign you are in suspended compliance.”
This article was produced with funding from Internews for the Citizens in Liberia Engaged to Advance Electoral Reform (CLEAR) project.
Featured photo by Foday Sesay