The Referendum Could Have Given Weah Possible Three Terms – Here’s What History Teaches Us

Editor’s Note The views expressed here are entirely the author’s. It in no way represents the institution.

Until December, 2022, the possibility of a third term for Mr. Weah still looms, provided the entire process—from an act to a referendum—is completed by then. Yet, we should all be wary of any new extension referendum. History tells us this is not a good idea. This seed should not be allowed to germinate. According to the current term rule, Mr. Weah has a possible one term of six years on top of his remaining two years ending in 2023. Two terms are the most, any president can get legally. Barring a constitutional change, which requires a referendum, there is no third term under the law.

According to the 1986 Constitution:

Article 93

The limitation of the Presidential term of office to two terms, each of six years duration, may be subject to amendment; provided that the amendment shall not become effective during the term of office of the incumbent President.

Hypothetically, “reduction” is a workaround the term cap (which amounts to a possible extension). If such Proposal passes and meets the required – (two-third majority in both Houses of the Legislature and a national referendum) – Then the slate would be clean for a sure possible ten years, of two terms, that Mr. Weah could legally serve as president. This is possible because with the passage of such bill before 2023, the second term ( six years) of which he is entitled to run, would be scrapped. The ‘new’ law would then take effect.

The passage of such Proposition, would cancel out the legal second term under this system and introduce the new one. But, the law forbids the implementation of any amendment to be applied until the incumbent’s term (the remaining two years of six) is over. This means that in 2023, Mr. Weah who is still eligible to run for a second term under the current elections laws, can contest again. If he wins, he’d serve under the new law. He would then be eligible to run for office under the new rule of two five-year terms- making it a possible five years (if he wins one term) or possible ten years (if he wins both elections). This is how a third term is possible for the Weah administration.

Implications for Now

The referendum presented an opportunity to reboot some of the system’s flaws that crept in the 1984 constitutional reform process. The reduction of term means, with a shorter circle, public officials might be more accountable and attuned to the needs of their constituents. The Liberian adage that, “You can’t bite the hand that feeds you”, may well prove vital in this case.

However, every effort must be made to avoid a repeat of the challenges to the last two referendums. As in 2011, the civic education was poor at best and contributed to the low voter turnout and failure of the referendum. With over 2 million registered voters, every effort should have been made to conduct a massive civic education for a protracted period. Also, the Weah administration’s lukewarm support for the proposals, was not helpful. 

Additionally, the administration’s push for ‘extension’ proved to be a sore spot in governance, as regionally, Presidents Alpha Conde (Guinea) and Alhassan Ouattara (Cote D’Ivoire) had ECOWAS tiptoeing and afraid of possible regional destabilization. The timing proved to be unfavorable for the government.

Lastly, the opposition under the Collaborating Political Parties – CPP, though lacking the numbers in the legislature, can now use the failed referendum and its cost to the state as proof for not allowing another.  Of course, this doesn’t stop the administration from resubmitting the bill, or a similar version, but it has to be done within time that allows for a referendum at least one year from when it is voted upon by the public. That means within the next year and few months, but no later, if Mr. Weah is to get any extra years.

Lessons from The Past

History tells us that of Liberia’s 19 referendums since independence, eight of these were for extension/reduction of the presidential term. Of these, all but two were free of dangerous fallout directly or incidentally [the 2020 referendum and 1907 one that saw President Barclay enjoy an increase from two to four years]. History reminds us that apart from these, all the other six term extensions/reductions failed.

The first two referendums on extension- 1869 and 1870- eventually led to the first citizens’ uprising in the country and the death of incumbent, President Roye. The 1935 referendum saw democracy sacrificed in favor of sovereignty- President King got a free pass of one term. The 1949 one made Tubman a lifelong ruler as he removed the term cap. Then in 1975, Tolbert technically, reinstated the term cap but did not actually reduce the term limit. The fallout eventually, led to a military coup in 1980. Lastly, the 1984 referendum, was effectively the first actual presidential term reduction but the fallout led to the civil crisis.

A Referendum Overview

A historical review of referendums in the country, offers lessons that should have be learned, from the past, and other implications of future term extension referendums. Within the Liberian democratic experience, there has been eleven referendums held covering a range of constitutional issues including – independence, annexation, increased representation, women and universal suffrage etc. They are the 1846 Independence Referendum, the 1847 Cconstitutional Referendum, the 1849 Constitutional Referendum, the 1861 referendum on Additional Representation in the House of Representatives, the 1927 Composition of the Supreme Court and on requirements for elections, then the 1943, 1945, 1946, 1955, 1972, and 2011 Constitutional Referendums. 

However of specific interest to this article are the eight referendums that dealt specifically with the extension/reduction of the presidential term. They include the following:

Referendums 1869

Two decades after independence, leaders soon realized that the running of government proved more demanding. The issue of immediate survival was no longer the most pressing for the young nation. Governing a people required many other things falling into place simultaneously. Thus, referendums took a completely different trend. The next three referendums (from 1869-1907) were on a specific issue-presidential term extension. The dominant Republican Party, sure of a win in the upcoming elections and understanding the financial drain of holding elections every other year, proposed a term extension that doubled tenure for the president, senators, and legislators.

So, on May 4, 1869, a referendum on the Length of Terms of Office was held and 350 (99.42%) voted yes while two persons (0.57%) voted against it. However, President James S. Payne lost the election to the wealthy Edward J. Roye of the recently formed True Whig Party. Payne’s partisans dominated the Senate, so they rejected the results despite the overwhelming votes of the House of Representatives and the public in favor. Roye claimed the referendum had passed but Republicans insisted otherwise. The issue was left unsettled as President Roye took office.

Referendum 1870

A year into office, the tenure issue resurfaced. Roye argued that he had four years, the opposition, then led by ex-President J.J. Roberts, countered that he had only two. The resulting political tension threatened the survival of the state, so both parties compromised and a similar referendum on the length of terms of office was proposed.

On May 3, 1870, voters decided on the proposal. At the close of polling, Secretary of State John N. Lewis, acting under President Roye’s directive, conducted a count wherein he announced that the referendum had passed, thus, his legitimacy to stay in power for four years. The Republicans rejected the referendum results on grounds that an illegitimate officer had tallied the results. Under the law, only the Legislature was responsible for counting ballots.

The following year, the Legislature organized an election, which Roye refused to contest and threatened to arrest anyone engaged in an illegal election for power grab. Roberts ran unopposed and won. He left for England and returned to a presidential welcome. His supporters then instigated a riot that led to Liberia’s first citizen’s uprising (people power). Roye was eventually deposed and killed.

Referendum 1907

Then on May 7, 1907, the government put forth another referendum on Extending the Term Length for the Senators (4-6 years), Representatives and President (2-4 years) respectively. It received the necessary two-thirds majority. Of the 6,579 reported votes, the Yes Proposal finally passed with 5,112 (77.7%) votes and 1,467 (22.3%) No votes. President Barclay then became the first president to enjoy an extended term of office. This meant that henceforth, the presidents would be elected quadrennially.

Referendum 1935

A most interesting political adjustment occurred in May of 1935- a Constitutional Referendum. That year, there was to be general elections. However, in November of 1934, the legislature passed a special legislation that extended the presidential term but capped it to only one full term of eight years. This law allowed the incumbent to remain in office for another four years to complete his term. It passed in a referendum with the majority voting in favor of it. This resulted in the next general election being held in 1939.

Backdrop; the world was on the brink of a world war and times were hard. Things were even harder for the Negro nation because, Thomas Faulkner accused the government to the League of Nations for engaging in forced labor practices. Faulkner, who had lost his selection on the True Whig Party’s Vice-Presidential slot, ran as the candidate on the People’s Party ticket. He lost the election but believed he was cheated.

The League of Nations and Faulkner wanted to place Liberia under a receivership that would effectively strip Liberia of her sovereignty- something the black republic had out rightly rejected. All the political players rallied the nation and spoke in unison. Liberia would not accept a receivership, nor anything short of full freedom. If it meant keeping the current leadership in power, then so be it. The fear that gripped the nation saw them rally around King, who ran unopposed. Everyone believed that the country needed to show a strong hand and be united if they would survive the weight of the international community. The general sentiments were that some type of freedom was better than any form of slavery-which the receivership would amount to ultimately. Officially, the government said that economic hardship was the reason for the term extension. Eventually, it paid off and Faulkner retired in disgrace and shame, thus erasing his nearly forty years of hard work in building Liberia.

Referendum 1949

Then in a Constitutional Referendum on May 3, 1949, over a century of existence, President Tubman proposed to change the Constitution. Instead of an extension, he wanted to abolish the two-term cap on the presidential term. The voters approved the proposed change with the necessary majority. The year before, the Legislature had passed a law that scrapped the term limit.

Referendum 1975

October 7, 1975, there was a general election alongside a referendum on Presidential Terms. The Proposal was to reinstate the presidential term limit. It would give subsequent presidents a one term of eight years- no reelection or extension. To show support for the cap, President Tolbert promised to not seek reelection even if the proposal failed at the ballot. The voters turned out a massive 90% FOR vote.

Referendum 1984

The 1980 military coup deposed Tolbert, the ruling junta, People’s Redemption Council-PRC, caved in to pressure to turn over to civilian rule. It agreed to hold elections as scheduled (1983) but only after a constitutional reform took place. The Constitutional Committee deliberated and made substantial changes to the 1847 Constitution. As per law, this new document needed to be ratified by the people. The Referendum on a New Constitution was held on July 3, 1984. The turnout was a whopping 82% of registered voters. Of the valid votes cast (547,884), 98.6% (540,113) voted YES for the proposal, while the NOs were 1.4% (7,771) votes. At the end of the counting, there were 19,007 (3.4%) invalid votes, bringing the total votes cast to 566,891.

However, the new Constitution was a bittersweet pill. At its end, Article 97 granted general amnesty to PRC members from all atrocities resulting from the coup. It even made it unlawful for any branch of government to hear or entertain such case/trial. On this point, the junta insisted. The progressives expected to win the election so they drew up a Constitution that was favorable them. It granted much power to the president. When Sgt. Doe reputedly stole the results of the election, he reaped a fruit he did not sow. To an extent, the situation was not much different than when the Republicans believed they would win the in the 1869 election, so they extended the presidential term, only to lose the election. Effectively, the 1984 Referendum gave Liberians a choice of democracy (without justice) or a military junta with no democracy.

History presents a rather grim picture regarding referendums on the extension or reduction of presidential term limits. Based on the record, any president attempting to dabble in this forbidden pond should be wary. Liberians, who vote in these referendums, need to be equally cautious because the political fallout tends to lash back at everybody eventually. These decisions have real implications on the nation’s future, on the wellbeing of its citizens and the survival of the country.

Into the Future

The December 8, 2020 Referendum lacked the political will, enough publicity, and education. The voters proved these points at the polls. To many, everything about the process was most confusing. According to the NEC’s tally of fourteen counties, ten counties returned a YES vote for all eight questions, while voters rejected the eight questions entirely in three counties, Grand Kru, Bomi and Nimba; with Montserrado being the only county that accepted some and rejected others. The results for Gbarpolu hasn’t been tallied as election violence and other irregularities forced the NEC to suspend and redo aspects of the process. Interestingly, the number of invalid votes (wrongly marked or not marked at all) were high in most cases- about one to one-half times higher than valid votes. For example, in in River Cess the valid votes were 3,391 and invalid votes were 8,962. In general, national turnout was low – Montserrado and Maryland recorded the highest turnouts of 37.52% while Grand Bassa recorded the least- 9%.

Judging from this, any reintroduction of the referendum should consider a protracted period of civic education, preferably in all our dialects; a strong political will; a clear message of the importance of such change and most importantly, a serious effort at consensus before pouring money down the rabbit hole.  

D. Othniel Forte is a researcher, social scientist, and a career educator who has authored over ten books (academic and fiction). He is currently a PhD scholar and a university lecturer.

This article was a collaboration with New Narratives as part of our Africa Justice Reporting Project.