Resurrecting the Rule of Law in Liberia

The rule of law is more than a legal concept. It encompasses more than an established set of rules and legal institutions. In the case of Liberia, there can be no rule of law without the commitment of those relatively few people who administer those rules on behalf of a post-conflict state that has endured twenty-five years of civil war and exploitation. This Essay seeks to prove that existing legal architecture and institutions in a post-conflict state matter less to the rule of law than does the character of the people who run the legal system. The Essay does not suggest that legal rules are, or should be, subordinate to personality in the orderly functioning of a postconflict society. However, it concludes that emphasis on creating new laws to address the perceived causes of state failure will ultimately accomplish little if the judges and lawyers who operate the legal system are not genuinely committed to the rule of law. This argument is developed by outlining, in very broad terms, the pre-conflict Liberian legal system and how it failed to serve as a meaningful bulwark against warlord predators. Then, the Essay focuses on a particular case, decided by Liberia’s Supreme Court on August 23, 2007, involving Liberia’s former head of state, Charles Gyude Bryant, who served as chairman of the National Transitional Government of Liberia (NTGL) from October 2003 until the inauguration of Liberia’s current President, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, on January 16, 2006. The Bryant case provides an example of how the presidential immunity provision in Liberia’s Constitution was invoked in an attempt to trump the rule of law with the rule of impunity, and how the Supreme Court of Liberia’s judgment offers hope for a better day in Liberia’s legal future, notwithstanding the divided opinion of the Court.

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