Liberia Gears Up For National Referendum

By Nathan N. Mulbah – Attaining independence in 1847 was a landmark for Liberia as a sovereign state. As the first independent country sub-of the Sahara, Liberia became the beckon of hope for many African countries that were still under the scourge of colonialism.

Though there are some people across the continent who still feels strongly that the independence of Liberia came on a Silver Platter, that independence set the basis for the sustained struggle for independent in other countries on the continent.

With independence, a constitution was evolved to give legitimacy to the ‘social contract’ between the governed and the governors on the one hand, and amongst the governed on the other.

A constitution is actually a set of fundamental principles or established precedents according to which a state or an organization is governed. These rules together make up (i.e. constitute, what the entity is). When these principles are written down into a single or set of legal documents, those documents may be said to comprise a written constitution.

The Liberian Constitution of 1847 was the first constitution of Liberia. Largely modeled on the Constitution of the United States, it remained in effect from its adoption on July 26, 1847 until its suspension by the People’s Redemption Council on April 12, 1980.

The Constitution created a unitary state governed by three branches of government: The executive, legislative and judicial branches. The executive branch was led by the President of Liberia, elected by popular vote of all land-owning citizens to a two-year term. Legislative power was held by the Legislature of Liberia, a bi-cameral body made up of a House of Representatives and a Senate. The judicial branch consisted of the Supreme Court of Liberia, made up of a Chief Justice and four associate justices, and circuit courts created by the Legislature. Article one of the Constitution enshrined civil liberties similar to those protected by the Bill of Rights in the United States Constitution.

A Constitution is a sacred document but not necessarily cast in stone. Article 91 of the 1986 Liberians constitution provides methods by which the constitution can be amended. It states that: “The constitution can be amended whenever a proposal by either: (1) Two-thirds of the membership of both Houses of the Legislature, or (2) A petition submitted to the Legislature, by not fewer than 10,000 citizens which receives the concurrence of two-thirds of the membership of both Houses of the Legislature, is ratified by two-thirds of the registered voters, voting in a referendum conducted by the Elections Commission not sooner than one year after the action of the Legislature.” In the case of the impending referendum, the proposal emanated from the Legislature with technical advice and support from the National Elections Commission.

First Referendum 1847

The first referendum conducted in Liberia was on September 27, 1847 to approve the constitution. Since the constitution was approved in a referendum, it was amended several times from 1847 to 1980. Among these amendments, the term of the president was extended to four years in 1908, and to eight years in 1934.

Second Referendum 1984

The 1986 Liberian Constitution replaced the 1847 Constitution which was suspended on April 12, 1980, following the coup d’etat which overthrew the presidency of William R. Tolbert, Jr. The process of writing a new constitution began on April 12, 1981, when Dr. Amos Sawyer, a political scientist at the University of Liberia, was appointed chairman of the National Constitution Drafting Commission (NCDC), the 25-member body that was given the responsibility of drafting a new constitution for Liberia. The NCC completed its work in December 1982, and submitted the draft constitution to the People’s Redemption Council (PRC) in March 1983; subsequently, the PRC published the draft Constitution for public debate.

The PRC also appointed a 59-member Constitutional Advisory Committee (CAA) to review the draft constitution. The CAA completed its work on October 19, 1983. On July 3, 1984, the new constitution was submitted to a national referendum and approved. On January 6, 1986 the Constitution came into force.

Since the coming into being of the 1986 Liberian Constitution, there have being several Legislative amendments, but in August 2010, the National Legislature passed a Joint Resolution proposing a Constitutional Referendum to amend four provisions of the 1986 Liberian Constitution.

Impending Referendum

The four provisions that the current Joint Resolution is seeking amendment to are: Articles 83 (a) and (b), 52 (c), and 72(b). The proposal for the amendment in these constitutional provisions came on the heels of series of consultations across the spectrum of the Liberian mosaic relative to electoral law reform aimed at strengthening governance in the West African state that is frantically channeling all efforts to make a comeback from the brink of a failed state.

The details of the provisions to be tested in the referendum were carved by the 52nd Legislature. Those propositions are: Articles 83 (a), 83 (b), 52 (c) and 72 (b).

Article 83 (a) states that the current constitutional date   for conducting election for President, Vice President, members of the Senate and House of Representatives and for Chiefs, City Mayors and City Councils be changed  from the second Tuesday in October of each election year   to the first Tuesday in November of each election year. Also, the proposal is seeking for the election for City Mayors and their respective councils, as well as for chiefs to be conducted three years following each general and presidential election.

Article 83 (b) which is considered as the proposition that requires serious attention, has to do with what constitutes the quorum for ascendency to elected office.

In the 1986 Constitution, Article 83 (b) reads: “All elections of public officers shall be determined by an absolute majority of the votes cast. If no candidate obtains an absolute majority in the first ballot, a second ballot shall be conducted on the second Tuesday following. The two candidates who receive the greatest numbers of the votes on the first ballot shall be designated to participate in the run-off election.”

But the proposal for amendment wants it change to read as follows: “Except for President and Vice President, all elections of public officers shall be determined by a simple majority of the valid votes cast in any election.

Election of President and Vice President shall be absolute majority of the valid votes cast. If no Presidential ticket obtains an absolute majority in the first ballot, a second ballot shall be conducted on the second Tuesday following expiry of the time provide for Article 83 (c).The two presidential tickets that received the greatest number of valid votes on the first ballot shall be designated to participate in the run-off election, and the ticket with a majority of the valid votes cast shall be declared the winner.”

In essence, when Article 83 (b) is amended through the referendum, all elected post for public officers will be based on simple majority of “First Passed the Post” except for the president and vice president.

The proposal seeking amendment in Article 52 (c) wants the residency requirement for presidency be reduced from ten 10 years to five (5) years prior to an election.

Currently that Article provides that “Resident in the Republic ten years prior to his election provided that the President and the Vice President shall come from the same county.” However, when the proposed amendment is approved, it shall reads as follows: “Resident in the Republic for five consecutive years immediately prior to the election in which he/ she seeks to contest provided that the President and the Vice President shall not come from the same county.”

Admittedly, the residency clause has been a source of controversial in past elections.  As such, it is expected that when it is tested in a referendum for amendment, the political bickering that normally attends elections relative to this clause will be put to rest.

The fourth proposition that has been forwarded to the National Elections Commission to be tested in the forthcoming referendum is Article 72 (b) which proposed that, the Chief Justice, Associate Justices of the Supreme Court and judges of subordinate courts shall serve for life, except that they shall be retired at age seventy-five.

At the moment, Article 72 (b) reads: “The Chief Justice and Associate Justices of their Supreme Court and Judges of the subordinate courts of records shall be retired at the age of seventy; provided, however that a justice or judge who has attained that age may continue in office for as long as may be necessary to enable him render judgment or perform any other judicial duty in regard to proceedings by him before he attains that age.” But if a resounding yes emerges from the referendum, that provision will read as follows: “The Chief Justice and the Associate Justices of the Supreme Court and judges of the subordinate courts of record shall be retired at the age of seventy five; provided, however that a justice or judge who has attained that age may continue in office for as may be necessary to enable him/her render judgment or perform any other judicial duty in regard to the proceedings by him or her before he/she attains that age.”

By all indications, with the constitution of a Referendum Coordinating Committee headed by Blamoh Sieh, it is fait-accompli that the NEC is gearing up in full to fulfill the constitutional mandate of conducting a national referendum to test the four propositions in keeping Article 91 of the 1986 Liberian Constitution. But conduct of the Referendum comes with serious challenges that must be tackled head on.


Voting in a national referendum is not something that many Liberians of voting age are familiar with, especially first time voters. Many voters here are accustomed to voting for people and not issues. But a referendum is basically a process that allows citizens to approve or reject a law passed by a legislature. Better still a referendum is the principle or practice or referring measures proposed or passed by a legislative body to the vote of the electorate for approval or rejection.

However, owing to the fact that about 75% Liberians are illiterate, articulating the issues will be a major challenge to the NEC. The issues must be depicted in symbol for the bulk of rural and urban Liberians who cannot read and write. To have four issues on one ballot paper is almost impossibility. In keeping with international best electoral practices, the option will be to have four ballot tickets to address the four propositions.

Civic Voters Education/ Information

The referendum coordinating committee, cognizant of the serious challenges in the lead-up of the referendum, has commenced engaging the relevant sections of the NEC as well as partners to carve an effective strategic that will drive the process to its logical conclusion. The Civic Voters’ Education and the Public Information Sections are now embroiled in serious activities aimed at getting the message wide and far across the country.

Toward this end, a work plan to hold series of awareness consultations across the country. During these consultative interactions, the NEC will meet with political parties, civil society organizations, community based organizations and media groups. The referendum Coordinating Committee will also hold regional consultations in the various political sub-divisions of the country as well as stage a workshop with civil society and a dialogue with political parties.