Last week on October 7, it was reported that Liberia’s President, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, asked for more emergency powers to help contain and prevent the current Ebola crisis. Liberia is already under a state of emergency and curfew, which began in August. But according to VOA News:
“In a letter to the Plenary of the House of Representatives and the Senate, Sirleaf asked for powers to amend seven different articles under the constitution, including freedom of movement, speech, religion, confiscation of private property, and elections.”
Besides asking for extra powers, and citing the current “state of emergency”, President Sirleaf then proceeded on October 8th to suspend nationwide elections for Senate due to be held later this month. Yahoo News reported that,
“Almost three million voters had been due to take part in Senate polls on Tuesday but organisers said there was no way a “mass movement, deployment and gathering of people” could go ahead without endangering lives.”. A presidential proclamation claimed the state of emergency allowed her to “to suspend… any and all rights ordinarily exercised, enjoyed and guaranteed to citizens.”
You can read her power request letter here.
One chilling request is that “the president has asked for a temporary extension of the state of emergency removing a constitutional right to make public speeches which could “undermine” the response to the epidemic.”
Opposition to the election suspension was swift. Tokpa Mulbah, a member of the House of Representatives from the People Unification Party, stated that “The Chief Executive, Madam Sirleaf, does not have that constitutional authority to make such a pronouncement. So based on that, we will be drafting a resolution Thursday to be sent to the Liberian Senate for a vote and placed in front Madam Sirleaf to sign so that the Elections Commission can go ahead to conduct elections from now till December 30 so that come second Tuesday in January the new 15 senators will be able to take their seats.”
In fact, the House went on to vote to reject Sileaf’s request “for more powers to restrict freedom of Movements, speech, religion, assembly and of the press, as well as property rights, through a motion filed by Representative Brown. Both Houses, in a Joint Resolution passed on Friday, October 10, 2014, unanimously voted to overturn a President Sirleaf’s decision to indefinitely cancel the October 14 Mid Term Senatorial elections.”
Is is unclear if the Senate concurred with the House. According to AllAfrica, the Senate is torn and is still debating.
Freedom of the Press has also been under attack since the curfew. Apparently, “journalists were not included on a list of exempted professions able to move freely around the country at night. (They were added six days later.) In early October, citing privacy concerns, the government announced that reporters could be arrested for speaking with Ebola patients or photographing treatment centers without written permission from the health ministry.” Further information regarding the freedom of the press during the Ebola crisis can be found here.
Liberia spent two decades of civil war, and the election of President Sirleaf was seen as a more stable, constitutional rule. Liberians should reject this attempted power grab, even in the midst of such a tragic time in their country, in order to safeguard their liberties for the long-haul.