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Protect Liberia’s elections from its political class

 By S. Karweaye

Liberians will go to the polls for elections in October 2023. In line with its mandate, the National Election Commission (NEC) released electoral dates ahead of the 2023 general and presidential elections with the date of the election being put on October 10, 2023, and campaigns will begin on September 4, 2023, and end on October 8, 2023. 

In Liberia, the campaign period is a very delicate time and is often characterized by violence, abuse of power, hate speech, and corruption. For the 2023 general elections, Liberians will elect a president and vice president, senators, and members of the house of representatives. The elections come with huge logistical and operational challenges, but the greatest challenge facing election officials in Liberia is the enforcement of rules, and by extension, securing the cooperation of the political class. The 2023 elections, if not well managed, portend to be a turbulent one concerning upholding democratic values in Liberia

The framers of the Constitution of Liberia chose population to be the basis for sharing political power, not wealth or land. Article 39 of the Constitution states: “The Legislature shall cause a census of the Republic to be undertaken every ten years… ” The census provides significant information for development planning. Unfortunately, the census, which should have been held since 2019, has been postponed thrice. The estimated cost for the census is US$20 million with the Government of Liberia expected to contribute $3 million, while the United Nations Population Fund (UNFP) and other partners provide the larger portion of the census budget.

In September 2022, the Plenary of the House of Representatives passed a joint resolution forwarded to it by the Liberian Senate calling for the NPHC to be conducted this year. The resolution, as passed, sets October 24 to November 7, 2022, as the new date for the 2022 National Population and Housing Census. However, with barely 13 months until elections, it is becoming increasingly apparent that the government’s plan to conduct a census is heading to a mess, as the writings on the wall clearly indicate. 

Accusations and counter-accusations of significant corruption among some public officials at the country’s statistical house — Liberia Institute of Statistics and Geo-Information Services (LISGIS) have surfaced, The corruption allegation against LISGIS came to light after FrontPage Africa reported that out of US$1.8 million received by LISGIS from the government of Liberia as a share of the budget to conduct the delayed national housing and population census, only US$ 700,000 has been transferred by LISGIS to the Census account, which is being managed by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). FPA investigation established that to date, the remaining US$300,000 remains unaccounted for. Also, FPA gathered that LISGIS Director General Francis has been making withdrawals from the LISGIS census account unilaterally and converting the same into personal use and in some instances, amounts withdrawn are distributed among him and his principal deputies.

The Liberia Anti-Corruption Commission (LACC) had indicted several senior officials of LISGIS, including director Francis F. Wreh, Mr. Lawrence George, Mr. Wilmot Smith, and Mr. Dominic Paye for corruption before President George Manneh Weah thru the 54th Legislature dissolved the anti-graft commission. he former LACC had documented thru an Investigative Report that Mr. Francis F. Wreh, Mr. Lawrence George, and Mr. Dominic Paye in the discharge of their duties as director general, deputy director general for administration, deputy director general for information and coordination, and comptroller respectively knowingly and wilfully authorized the withdrawal and spending of cumulatively US$70,000 of the census fund in June this year. Unfortunately, the Executive Mansion thru President Weah challenged the report on grounds that the accused were never given due process. The President then hastily moved along with the Legislature and announced the dissolution of the entire LACC and its officials, effectively trashing the indictment.

The National Election Commission’s integrity has been called into question after the Chairperson of the NEC was hooked for corruption, conflict of interest, and money laundering by the Liberia LACC. The LACC’s findings against Davidetta Browne-Lansanah are a result of a month-long investigation into a Daily Observer report that the electoral body leased twenty facial recognition thermometers at the total cost of US$182,320 from a firm with family links to the NEC chair. In the end, the LACC investigation found Mrs. Lansanah to violate Section 1.3.6, of the National Code of Conduct, which speaks against conflict of interest; Part II, Section 2.2 of the LACC Act and section 15.3 of the Money laundering Act of 2012. The NEC Chairperson has neither resigned nor dismissed. 

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In September 2022, the Liberian Senate amended the Elections Law and declared all election magistrates’ seats vacant nearing crucial elections. According to James Fromayan, a former Chairman of the NEC, the Senate amendment is unfortunate, and the Legislature has embarked on tampering with the election law for the wrong reason, rather than for the good of the country.

Historically, elections if not managed through a transparent process are a major trigger for conflict and instability in Liberia. The worst-ever case of electoral malpractice was witnessed in Liberia during the 1927 presidential election. During the 1927 general elections, King beat his opponent Thomas Faulkner to the presidency, receiving 243,000 votes compared to Faulkner’s 9,000. This is despite there being less than 15,000 registered voters in the country. As a result, Liberia has the dubious achievement of being listed in the Guinness Book of Records for the most fraudulent election reported in the history of the world. Charles King resigned in disgrace and retired from seeking higher office thereafter until his death. This happened following the publication of an international report on the existence of forced labor practices in the country.

During the 1985 presidential election, Samuel Doe and his Interim National Assembly government engineered a large-scale election fraud to keep Doe in power including the burning of ballot papers for opposition candidates. After the election, Samuel Doe appointed a 50-man board — including two senior Doe aides and 19 members of his Krahn tribe — to count the votes by hand. Emmett Harmon, head of the Special Election Commission that supervised the counting, said Doe received 265,000 of the 519,000 votes cast in the Oct. 15 election, against 137,000 for his main challenger. The aftermath of Samuel Doe and his National Democratic Party of Liberia (NDPL) rigging the 1985 election and installing Doe as president of Liberia led to General Thomas Quiwonkpa’s November 12, 1985, coup and the Liberian civil war which led to the death of Samuel Doe and over 250,000 people according to Human Rights Watch and more than 750,000 internally displaced or refugees according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. 

The US Department of State 2021 human rights report stated, “in December 2020 the country held midterm senatorial elections that observers deemed largely peaceful, although there were some reported instances of vote tampering, intimidation, harassment of female candidates, and election violence.” Unfortunately, no further action was taken. Despite its best efforts, the NEC is unable to tackle allegations of voter fraud, voter intimidation, or voter suppression as evidenced in past elections. The structures of accountability and law enforcement in Liberia are often under the control of politicians (especially those in power) who exercise undue influence on the actions of those agencies. For example, the police are responsible for investigating crime, including that related to elections. But the NEC has no operational control over the police to ensure the investigation of allegations of electoral fraud. The ministries of justice which exercise a complementary role in criminal prosecution, have typically shown little interest in electoral accountability in Liberia. This makes any form of accountability difficult. Furthermore, How can the present NEC fulfill its duties when the institution has integrity issues?

Elections are the fundamental element and the most important event in any democratic regime and should be the immediate goal in any attempt to establish democracy. The brutal and destructive civil wars that erupted after Doe rigged the 1985 elections should serve as a warning to all Liberians. However, given the weakness of Liberia’s electoral and judicial institutions, the political class has little incentive to play by the rules. We must demand President George Weah fire the current NEC Chairperson, Mrs. Browne-Lansanah for the sake of integrity and confidence in the electoral process as well as those indicted for corruption at LISGIS.

The success of the 2023 Liberia elections will hinge partly on tough love from international election observers and foreign governments. The United States in particular can help avert a crisis by supporting a framework for electoral accountability that encourages respect for the rule of law in Liberia. This framework must include punitive measures. Within this context, the United States should consider targeted sanctions and travel bans against individuals who abuse their office or who undermine the electoral process through their political parties or supporters. In instances where such actions trigger mass violence, observer missions, and the United States and other foreign governments should demand accountability.

Civil society, especially those engaged in democratic advocacy, should be supported and empowered to conduct civic education, build confidence among the electorate and document infractions in the electoral process, provide technical and political support to the NEC to allow it to hold the political class accountable. Elections with integrity are not the sole instigator of citizens’ trust in democracy, but they remain a crucial steppingstone for our development and unity as a people. Therefore, the Liberian government, public office seekers, and the people must commit to making the electoral process credible, free and fair, without which efforts to consolidate democracy in Liberia will continue to remain a pipe dream.

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The New Dawn is Liberia’s Truly Independent Newspaper Published by Searchlight Communications Inc. Established on November 16, 2009, with its first hard copy publication on January 22, 2010. The office is located on UN Drive in Monrovia Liberia. The New Dawn is bilingual (both English & French).
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