By Tarty Teh
Our recent tragic history has drawn more attention to statecraft than to any national endeavor as our ticket to national growth and prosperity. However, there are more complex notions of statehood that we do not expect everyone to understand and appreciate. But no matter the complexity, anyone who rises in the ranks of presidential contenders to hold the office of President of the Republic should understand, or at least make a convincing pretense of understanding, that freedom of speech does not mean that we all will behalf like good boys and girls or sing the elected leaders’ praises on cue.
President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was involved in politics long before she won a senate seat in 1985 which, by the way, she refused to take because there was something else that did not go the way she wanted. And since she became President of Liberia nearly four years ago, there have been a host of allegations against her government — some of them grave enough to spark constitutional crises in this country, if only we had an independent judiciary or a congress with a heartbeat. But most of the scandals have not been fully investigated; they are stuck in various commissions, committees, and panels where they continue to gather dust.
But President Sirleaf should understand that besides the hefty amount of power that the Liberian Constitution has set aside for her use, there are still some rights left for the citizens to exercise toward counterweighing her bent toward excesses in the use of power not properly assigned by the Constitution or case laws. Those remaining rights are for the roughly three million Liberian citizens who are not presidents. I don’t believe, however, that the special privileges and prerogatives that are set aside for the President are necessarily a waste. They were intended to help her stay focused on the business of leading the country. But if the President does not concede the natural rights of the ordinary citizens, then by what system of logic does she deem herself presidential timber, and an “Iron Lady” at that? Does being a strong woman mean always getting away with murder?
After the end of the 14-year war that she played a central role of starting, we now have a fragile peace that is largely guaranteed by foreign troops. The foreign soldiers are not a permanent fixture of our security infrastructure. And so we have yet to determine the structural integrity of our national security. Yet President Sirleaf found it necessary to employ loud mouths like Harry Greaves and Mary Broh to taunt and harass edgy citizens who are still coping with the devastation of the war barely four years behind us.
I personally believe that the Liberian Constitution has already allotted the President too much power. I believe we are overdue for a constitutional convention that should take away some of the power. Without the power to appoint city mayors, we would not have had a Mary Broh dragging citizens out of their displaced homes at the edge of the rainy season. Without the right to appoint superintendents, county governments might set their own development priorities, etc.
But the President has so much power that she has ventured into targeting individual citizens. She has sued somebody again. Her first lawsuit against another private citizen came just eleven days into her presidency. This is only my commonsense argument. I need expert help, however. What was the reason for the constitutional provision that the president should not be sued? Commonsense tells me that it was because the President’s time is too precious to be spent in court for lawsuits some of which might be frivolous. And what does it tell us when the President herself brings frivolous suits?
What I know as a non-lawyer is that the Constitution clearly says that no one can sue the President, but it does not similarly prohibit the President from suing someone. But how big must the Constitution be in order to cover all the tender spots of a supersensitive President? The Liberian Constitution, like any sensible such document, is no bigger than a grade school student’s exercise book. But the President is clearly hurt because somebody accused her, and — sadly — the Constitution has left her naked by not insisting she should not be accused either.
Maybe what she wants now is for us to put together a team of eminent persons to try to stroke her ego for any bruises caused by the latest allegations leveled against her. I personally don’t find it instructive to have to read the newspaper article that has the President hopping mad as a means of determining whether she is wrong or was wronged.
In my native Bush Grebo language there is a saying that whatever brings palm nuts to town is called a basket. In this case, whatever keeps the President out of court is called civility. A reasonable assumption was therefore made in the writing of the Constitution that the President would not voluntarily check herself into court. In other words, if we didn’t sue her she wouldn’t sue us.
So, what was put in the Constitution — that is, “Thou shalt not sue the President” — was meant to hold back the flood of potential lawsuits from roughly three million citizens. Of course the reverse is negligible and is therefore constrained only by commonsense — not by a constitutional provision or by codified law. The President is the reverse. If we the citizens are trying to keep the President out of court by not suing her, then it follows that the President should do her bit to stay out of court by not suing us. The intention was not to tie up the citizens and free the President to go on a litigious rampage.
Now, let’s look at the conduct of the newspaper that has accused the President of taking kickbacks from a rubber plantation company in Maryland County. I don’t know if the paper has told the truth. I would not have wondered whether or not the paper told the truth if the President hadn’t sued it. If the paper lied, it will not be the prime source of reliable news after it is shown that the President did no such thing. But accusing the President — even falsely — is not a crime. That is the person who volunteered to take on the responsibility of putting things right in Liberia. That is the logical person to blame when things go wrong.
Sure enough there is a proper respect due the President — any president — even if she has not gotten her bearing after nearly four years of trying to restore civil and fiscal order. That respect is more for the institution and secondarily for the person. Even so, what has been used against President Sirleaf, and for which she has taken umbrage, comes from a range of constitutionally protected forms of expression — free speech and free expression of opinions in writing.
Take those two away, and the threat of physical violence increases markedly. But on closer inspection, the ban on physical attack on the President is not all that total. There may be no statues regarding approved objects one can hurl at the President in disgust. However, over-ripe tomatoes, rotten eggs, and apple pies are among some conventionally approved objects you can toss at the President to emphasize your disapproval. But don’t try this at home — meaning Liberia — if you want to live to tell the story. But you can do it in the good old U.S.A. where many of us lived and studied. This is where we got most of our good examples of a functioning democracy.
Now, let’s get back to the bad journalism that started the President’s latest tantrum. I suppose that what the President considers to be good journalism is the backup singing that Information Minister Laurence Bropleh and Daily Observer Publisher Kenneth Best provide. It’s called lip-syncing. The New Democrat and Public Agenda newspapers seem well on their way to doing the real thing.
But even if no Liberian newspaper ever gets it right, that will not be sufficient to explain our backwardness as a nation. What got us backward after more than a century and a half of nationhood is not bad journalism; it is bad government. And if we are going to fix one and or both, we must follow the order in which they occurred — government first and journalism next. In fact to put bad journalism next to incompetent government as vices that deserve the same urgent attention is to minimize theft, bribery, and other endemic ills that have made national development almost impossible for 162 years.
The irony here is that President Sirleaf, tender feelings and all, is not a bystander in the comedy of errors of the past four years; she starred in most of them. Any correction should therefore begin with her. <>
Copyright © Tarty Teh 2009
September 28, 2009, Monrovia, Liberia
Contact Tarty Teh at:
Phone and text: (231) 6-617-433