Ref.: Restoring Decorum and Respect to our Public Square
Dear Fellow Compatriots:
More than a year ago, I launched this letter series to add my voice to the national debate on challenges facing our nation. Then, as now, I was convinced that when reasonable and patriotic voices remain silent, the voices of irrationality, selfishness, and greed gain currency and the mistaken impression is had that they speak for all Liberia. Reasons beyond my control necessitated the suspension of the series.
So, recently when I mentioned to a friend that I was contemplating re-launching my letter series, his response was, “Morris, people like you, who have had the privilege in the past to serve this country should not be silent when inexperienced political upstarts and gravy seekers masquerade around here as national leaders, speak irresponsibly, and undermine our peace.” My friend concluded: “In our current political climate, our people need reasonable alternative voices.”
I listen to my friend, but was still reluctant to reinsert myself in the current debate. Several events in the past month or more have compelled me to go back to my computer to provide the Liberian public an alternative voice on issues that impact our common patrimony, including particularly the press conference conducted by the some members of the House of Representatives. Other questions such as, for example, repeated allegations of corruption that seem to point finger to officials of government; and the mistaken assumption by a few members of the Legislature that whenever and wherever they speak, their speech is privileged, protected and enjoys legislative protection will be addressed in subsequent letters.
My Fellow Compatriots, please permit me to now focus on issue of the press conference.
The Press Conference: It was politically and historically unprecedented. Of course, you may say, but Morris, “our democratic climate and new freedoms are unprecedented”. But here is why it was shocking to me: It was based on a newspaper story and may have in fact been the constitutionally appropriate clarification to provide in a question and answer session with an audience. Some legislators have argued that they accessed the internet and heard the President make the statement.
The question is, was the President’s statement wrong? Or did it speak to some truth? Congresses or parliaments, whether in Westminster (Parliamentary) System or the Republican System of Government, such as ours, have responsibilities to review, revise, appropriate, re-appropriate – and approve or reject in whole or in part the national budgets of their governments. So, when the President of Liberia states that this is what happened this past September in the Liberian Legislature, was she wrong with truth telling? Or would she have been more politically correct not to have said that the Legislature took it, to cover the Legislature’s backs, as it were?
The argument has been made that a meeting was held and that she agreed to the allocation of the budgetary appropriations. How many of us have been in negotiations and because of reasons beyond our control we accept certain conditions, even if they are painful and violate deep personal principles? Does our acquiescence mean that we were really fully in support of the decision? Or does swallowing the bitter pail prevents the individual from ever expressing his or her disappointment? Some compromises can be painful. Have we forgotten our Liberian story so soon?
My Fellow Compatriots: There are critical questions that we, as a people, need to ponder as we are bombarded with different shades of opinion from different quarters on this and on other national issues. We should examine the hidden agendas and the motivations.
The first question is, what did the President say that was so wrong, so offensive, and so offending that it incurred the apparent wrath of some members of the House of Representatives? I understand that the President remarked, when she was asked, and I am abbreviating and paraphrasing the question, “… Why did you give so much money to the Legislature?” Do you hear the word, Legislature! The questioner did not make specific reference to the House of Representatives. Why did some members of the House of Representatives take so much umbrage to the statement?
The President reportedly responded, “We did not give it to them; they took it.” Perhaps, the members of the House so offended may have thought that the President should have said, “They appropriated it to themselves”. Same difference, my friends say.
Constitutionally, the President’s response was factual, because Article 34, Subsection (d) of the 1986 Constitution of Liberia states that the Legislature shall “… levy taxes, duties, excise and other revenues, to borrow money, issue currency, mint coins, and to make appropriations for the fiscal governance of the Republic of Liberia…” My emphasis! Fiscal governance refers to the budget of the Republic. The budget approval process is a budget appropriation process. When the Legislature appropriates, it could readjust the budget, as I am aware it does annually. This is not a presidential authority; it is also not unconstitutional for the Legislature to appropriate or readjust the budget. This is one of the reasons why they hold budget hearings – and in fact government officials to defend their appropriations. The President signs the budget when the Legislature votes to approve. The President may also exercise line item veto authority when she determines it necessary or in the national interest.
Legislators have however inferred various qualifiers to the President’s statement. Notwithstanding, was the statement itself factually inaccurate or wrong? Furthermore, to a more fundamental question, could the House of Representatives not have awaited the return of the President, as the House of Senate did, if there had been good will and a spirit of respect and cooperation? The President spoke to the letter, spirit, and intent of the Constitution and to practices that obtain in parliaments and congresses in much of the democratic world.
Did any member of the House of Representatives challenge the veracity of the President’s statement? No! Rather, I have heard some members of the House say that the President’s statement pitted the public against them. What did they do that the public would now go against them because of a factual statement made by the President?
Regardless of the merit and demerit of the President’s statement or what some members of the House of Representatives would like to make of it, I, as a Liberian citizen, enjoying the same freedoms that legislators enjoy, have heard some members of the House of Representatives speak in a manner that has been politically and historically unprecedented. The President is our national leader. The President is the symbol of our Nation and our Flag. The President is a Mother and a Grandmother and our nation’s Mother and Grandmother. I once had a mother of sainted memory and I loved, respected and cherished her. So, when I hear young people, even if they are legislators or whatever, because of political and personal reasons, speak to the President of the Republic of Liberia in a manner that is disrespectful and undeserved, then I am compelled to say that such members of the House of Representatives are wrong. They are wrong today; they are wrong tomorrow. And whenever it happens, they can rest assured that in a public manner I will call their attention to such statements.
My Fellow Compatriots: Multiparty democracy does not connote the demise of moral values and morality itself. Our democracy would be strengthened if we remain true to our moral code. The manner in which some legislators have elected to refer to the presidency of this county is unacceptable. The Liberian people know where and who some of the legislators were just seven short years ago. Even in the great United States, a country we admire and respect and use as our model or democracy, the President is respected because he is the symbol of that great country. When a few years ago a congressman made a pejorative reference to President Barack Obama while he was addressing the Congress of the United States, that congressman was rebuffed by even his own Republican Party. Further, throughout the recent presidential debates between President Barack Obama and his Republican Challenger, Mitt Romney, as much as they strongly disagreed on most issues, Mr. Romney was respectful to President Obama.
When will we, Liberians, learn to be civil in our discourse? When will we learn to respect our leaders? What is happening to Liberia, my Fellow Compatriots? Women, our Mothers and Sisters, and Daughters, are you listening and seeing? Civil Society Organizations, are you following what’s happening to our Liberia? You do not have to be the President’s personal friend. But she is our President. When she is disrespected, our nation – and all of us are disrespected. Liberia, are you taking a long view to see what the future would be like if the current trend continues?
During the press conference, an ultimate was issued: the President should retract her statement, or else…? Ultimatum! What ultimatum! What temerity? What if the President does not retract? Retract what? Retract Article 34, Subsection (d) of the 1986 Constitution? “Retract, retract, retract??” In my view as a Liberian citizen, I hope the President will neither apologize nor retract any statement.
When in the 165-year history or more recently in the modern political history of this Republic did the Legislature conduct such a press conference to demand that the President “retracts” a statement he made? Under W.V. S. Tubman? Under William Richard Tolbert, Jr.? Under Samuel Kanyon Doe? Under David D. Kpomarkpor? Under Wilton S. Sankawulo? Under Ruth Perry? Under Charles G. Taylor? Did these presidents not have problems and disagreements with the leadership of their legislatures? Were their relationships always cozy or smooth? Did the legislatures always receive everything they wanted or win every issue they advocated? Historians tell me, no! Did the legislatures conduct press conferences to express their disagreements with the presidents? Historians also tell me that that never happened!
So, what is wrong with our legislature, with our House of Representatives? Where is political decorum? What has happened to the tools of consultation and dialogue?
My Fellow Compatriots: I do not imply or insinuate that press conferences by members of the Legislature are wrong. Far from it. Legislators are our national leaders. They should inform us of the conduct of the affairs of our nation. But when press conferences are used to exacerbate petit feuds or quarrels or create and widen cleavages either on matters intern to the legislature or between the legislature and the presidency, then something that imperils our nation’s progress, unity, peace, security, and cohesion is emerging; then reasonable voices should speak out. This country cannot move forward in a state of conflict: investors will not come when we are engulfed in huge palaver making; the legislature refusing to do business with the Executive and vice versa! This is unacceptable.
The people of this country hired Legislators to work for them and on their behalf, not to feud and bring the government to gridlock. Yet when the issue is really a big picture issue, it is easy to understand – and to work to resolve it. But, the President makes a statement abroad; one newspaper captures and publishes it. How many persons read that newspaper? My best guess, out of generously, maybe a few hundred readers. How much of the story reverberated through the rumor mill with its own twists is anyone’s guess. But sooner rather than later, both the rumor mill stories and the newspaper story would have died, naturally, perhaps even prior to the President’s return.
Then, the President returns and is approached by the leadership of the House of Representatives: Madame President, while you were away, one of our newspapers reported such a story. It almost caused a problem in the House. Could you in one of your public appearances find a way to provide clarification for our collective good? It would be useful. This would have been a gentlemanly approach. The branches of government are not war.
The President clarifies – and invites the leadership of the House and Senate to launch. And they all jaw-jaw and wine and dine. This is what we, Liberians, are good at, talking. In the past, this was the way our government conducted business. And so, the government almost always presented a united front, because the actors worked to renew and reinvigorate the climate – and remove the poisons from the environment. There were plenty, plenty small, small and big, big disagreements and problems. But government officials realized that they had a shared responsibility to keep the ship of state sailing smoothly.
My Fellow Compatriots: I would like to take particular note of the leadership role that the Liberian Senate has played and continues to play, as elder statesmen of our Upper House and as honest brokers working tirelessly to reconcile and bring the House of Representatives and the Presidency together. Former President Pro Tempore, Honorable Cletus Segbe Wotorson – and President Pro Tempore, Gbezohngar M. Findley, along with their Colleagues, Senators Fredrick Cherue, Clarice Jah, John Whitfield, Sumo Kupee, Edward Dagoseh, among others, have spent hours trying to end the ongoing conflict between the Executive and Leadership of the House of Representatives. Because the Senate has stayed above the fray, it has contributed to reducing the steam and intensity of the wrangling and the untended consequences for national governance.
Morris M. Dukuly, Sr.
Former Speaker/Transitional Legislative Assembly/TLA