On May 12, 2014 President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf signed into law the National Code of Conduct in pursuance of that constitutional mandate with two titans of the Liberian Senate, former Pro-temp Gbehzongar M. Findley of Grand Bassa County and Senator Jewel Howard Taylor of Bong County currently. Both Senators had co-sponsored the legislation and the Governance Reform Commission (GRC), headed by Dr. Amos Sawyer, former Interim President, facilitated the process over several years.
Code Sponsored by Jewel and Gbehzongar
The 22-page legislation took 11 years from the end of the country’s civil crisis and eight years into the administration of Madam Sirleaf to be crafted and passed into law. The swiftness of the passage, paradoxically despite being delayed for almost a decade, and the political complexion of the sponsors of the bill sent shudders into certain political spines. The irony of having two stalwarts of the former ruling party of the National Patriotic Party of former President Charles Taylor, including his wife as sponsors was also not lost on keen political observers. Both Jewel Howard Taylor and Gbehzongar Findley had cemented ties with Liberia’s politically savvy President Sirleaf over the years of democratic governance and had ascended to leadership positions in the Senate.
Code Meant to Strangulate Political Ambitions
To understand why certain spines would shudder under the weight of the legislation is to know the political alignment that led to its passage and the perceived targets of the most controversial portion of the bill. Although the Code of Conduct had been expected by framers of the constitution to set clear guidelines for the behavior of public officials and civil servants, yet it came with a controversial provision that, according to critics, sought to clip the political wings of certain officials who were deemed to be using their offices to gain clear and unfair political advantages. Proponents, including the sponsors, political allies of the President, and Speaker of the House Alex Jenekai Tyler, strongly denied the criticisms that the Code of Conduct was specifically meant to derail the political aspirations of certain officials of government.
The controversial provision required all presidential appointees to resign their positions two years before any election, and for those having tenured positions, such as Executive Governor of the Central Bank of Liberia (CBL) to resign 3 years ahead of any election. That would mean if Governor J. Mills Jones or any other person in that category wanted to seek elected office in advance of the 2017 presidential elections, he would have to resign his position by October 10, 2014, a deadline long passed. In the case of other appointed officials, they would have to resign by October 10, 2015.
Is “Ngaf” a Traitor or New Breed Politician?
Only Foreign Minister Augustine Kpehe Ngafuan resigned before the October 10, 2015 deadline and his resignation has spawned endless conjectures on the real reasons he resigned. Ngafuan’s resignation has been called everything, from traitorous to fear of being unveiled as a corrupt official who had a hand in the controversial Japanese Grant money that had seen the dismissals of key officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The former minister’s supporters say he is not corrupt and should be taken at his word that he intends to be active during the 2017 presidential elections and would not want to break the law, despite his disagreement with the controversial provision of the Code of Conduct. Yet, some of his old political allies, including those supporting Vice President Joe Boakai’s bid for the presidency in 2017, say privately that “Ngaf” acted as a spoiled brat and has blind ambition, which has led him to openly indicate his desire to contest for the presidency against a fellow Lofan and a senior member of the political establishment.
His detractors say counting tribal and traditional affiliations as factors, and with the Vice President coming from Lofa County, should have automatically forced the former minister to suppress his political ambition for now, since he is young and has many more political seasons in his life time. The former minister’s supporters on social media see no traitorous characteristic in his action and in fact say the Vice President is too old and much too aligned with the policies of the ruling Unity Party, which has been dismembered by President Sirleaf and her operatives, and thus should give way to a younger, more electable man or woman. The minister’s allies say only someone like him, young, energetic and uncontaminated by allegations of corruption, who represents the “reform” wing of the Unity Party, can mount a credible campaign to replace Madam Sirleaf as president. But critics say the former minister is tainted with corruption and his resignation was a cover-up.
Whither Thou Goest, J Mills Jones?
Dr. J. Mills Jones claims he has been using financial inclusion as a policy measure to decrease poverty by removing barriers to entry for thousands of Liberian entrepreneurs, especially those in the informal sector. His actions have been viewed skeptically by many legislators and thus a key provision of the law may have been designed to block his political ambition to be president in 2017, based upon previous efforts to investigate the legality of the CBL offering loans to consumers. The CBL says it only lends portion of the banks’ reserves to increase their ability to relend to the unbanked segment of the population.
Critics of the governor say his grandstanding by appearing in rural areas with a contingent of supporters, preprinted T-shirts emblazoned with his picture and unbridled revelry are patent political actions. Other critics point to his entry into his hometown Greenville, Sinoe County in early 2015 on the back of a pickup truck with palm branch-waving supporters, looking like Jesus arriving in Jerusalem. That to critics did not show a positive picture of a technical bank governor but a politician enjoying the glory of the presumptive 2017 electorate.
According to some observers of the political scene, the portion of the Code of Conduct that requires tenured officials to resign their positions three years ahead of any election was specifically targeting the Central Bank Governor, who had been using “our money” to advance his personal political agenda. Jones and others affected by the Code of Conduct provision requiring their resignations are review ing their legal options and it is predicted that they might seek redress in the courts. Elijah Seah, a consultant at the presidency, says in one of his social media blogs that he and others will file suit against the illegal provisions of the Code of Conduct. Fireworks on this suit and others are in what will be a very contentious 2017 presidential and general elections.
Unclear Signals from President Sirleaf
Although President Sirleaf has indeed called members of the hierarchy of the Unity Party to meetings in order to discuss the roadmap for 2017, yet many of her former allies are still unsure where the president stands regarding who she will support for the presidency. Political observers, including this writer, believe the president has no choice but to “appear” as supporting Joe Boakai for the presidency. Although her support for Boakai appears lukewarm and tentative, the president has enough political acumen to determine the direction of the political wind in order to decide her best course of action for 2017 and beyond. Recent resignations from the ruling party by Speaker Tyler and his political sidekick, Representative Moses Kollie of Lofa County portend, for some, unusual alliances in 2017 and will continue to give the president cause for caution.
In African presidential politics, one has to craft a narrative and scenario for succession that would protect the long-term security of the outgoing president, close friends and family. As of now, it is unclear to the ordinary observer where the president is leaning, but people who know her well say the best political poker player ever in Liberian history is steering the political machinery and no one should ever underestimate the political direction of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. From the National Code of Conduct to presidential succession, EJS always goes with her instincts, which have never steered her into a political dungeon. Will 2017 be any different? Only time will tell.