Code of Conduct:
A Murky Cloud Over The 2017 Elections?
By Alston C. Armah
Just a little over two months ago, the Supreme Court of Liberia handed down a ruling which may significantly shift the configuration of potential contenders having their eyes on elected public offices. For all the right or wrong reasons, the Supreme Court bench was divided 2 against 3, as the high court voted to uphold the constitutionality of the controversial Code of Conduct of 2014. The constitutionality of the Code of Conduct had been challenged on grounds that it is not only a witch-hunt but also an attempt to disenfranchise Liberian citizens of their constitutional rights to stand for election to public offices, as guaranteed by the 1986 Constitution.
But the high court in its majority (3–2 vote) opinion, upheld the constitutionality of the code of conduct, referencing inter alia Article 90 of the Liberian Constitution which empowers the Legislature to prescribe a Code of Conduct for all public officials and employees. Chief Justice Francis S. Korkpor together with Associate Justices Kabina Jai’neh and Sie A Nyene Youh voted to uphold the constitutionality of the Code of Conduct, while Associate Justices Philip A.Z. Banks and Jamesetta Howard-Wolokollie dissented. The Code of Conduct is a law intended to guard against conflict of interests and acts of official corruption. It requires that some categories of public officials interested in seeking elected offices should resign at a time certain before the date stipulated for conduct of a pending election.
The enactment of the Code of Conduct has come with mixed reactions, giving rise to debates pros and cons. Supporters of some of the people aspiring for elected positions have argued that the Code of Conduct is discriminatory and not in the interest of peace, fairness and equal participation for all. Meanwhile supporters of the Code of Conduct have equally argued that the Code is all embracing, and will provide a level playing field by guarding against conflicts of interest and other undue advantages that some candidates may have during electioneering periods.
The ongoing debate on the Code of Conduct is typical of almost any law made to govern society. To some people the law may not be fair, yet to others it may be just and equitable. So is the nature of law – it can be just or unjust depending on the individual’s standpoint and value system. As a citizen of Liberia and an adherent of the rule of law, I am convinced that the intention of the law is good. It sets the parameters within which government officials are to conduct themselves and the public business. The 1986 Constitution of Liberia grants unto the Legislature the power to enact a Code of Conduct for public officials. This power is what the Legislature has exercised, and the Supreme Court has said that the Legislature did not act beyond the scope of its powers. In essence, the Court has told us that the enactment of a Code of Conduct is provided for by the constitution, and the action of the 53rd Legislature was intra vires ab initio. In a society based on the rule of law, we can do nothing but to obey the opinions of the Court.
By upholding the constitutionality of the Code of Conduct, the Supreme Court has made a landmark decision which political pundits describe as “throwing a monkey wrench in the 2017 presidential and legislative elections.” Already supporters of people who may be affected by the enforcement of the Code of Conduct have begun expressing their disappointment in the Supreme Court’s ruling, and if some of their comments are anything to go by, then the 2017 elections will be eclipsed by not only a litany of protests but a marathon of legal showdowns at the Supreme Court.