Advancing Democratic Governance: Lessons from Liberia's 2023 Elections and Innovative Strategies for a Better Future

An elderly woman casts her vote at one of the polling places at Paynesville City Hall (Photo: Daily Observer/Anthony Kokoi)

By  Frantz Sawyer, Founder/Executive Director, The Amos Claudius Sawyer Foundation

The recent national elections in Liberia, conducted in October 2023, followed by a consequential presidential runoff in November of the same year, have yielded valuable lessons for reflection. The collective opinion of international and regional observers and monitors affirms that the closely contested election was conducted with a commitment to freedom, fairness, and transparency. The majority of Liberians exercised their voting rights in a peaceful manner, facilitating a smooth transition from one government to the next. Notably, former Vice President Joseph N. Boakai, Sr. emerged victorious over President George Weah and is poised to be inaugurated on January 22, 2024. Liberia, once again, exemplifies political maturity, showcasing its ability to conduct peaceful elections and transitions, a tradition upheld since 2005, followed by successful instances in 2011, 2017, and now in 2023. 

Commendations are due to the Liberian people for their active participation. It is noteworthy that the 2023 elections mark a significant milestone as the first in recent post-conflict times that Liberia managed and financed primarily on its own, with technical support from key donor partners. This stands in contrast to previous years when the United Nations and donors played pivotal roles as both financiers and overseers, including providing security measures.

While the overall atmosphere of the 2023 elections in Liberia maintained a semblance of peace, certain moments were marred by tension, particularly instances of election-related violence involving fervent and exuberant youthful crowds. Notably, on September 29, 2023, clashes erupted between supporters of the Unity Party, led by former Vice President Joseph Boakai, and the CDC, resulting in two fatalities and approximately 20 injuries in Lofa. 

Another troubling incident unfolded in Nimba, where violence prompted the suspension of voting during the runoff, compelling the National Elections Commission to order a rerun in district 4, encompassing Beo-Longtuo Town in Nimba County. Adding to the challenges, heated confrontations erupted in Monstserrado in early October, just days before the initial round of voting on October 10th, as supporters of the Congress for Democratic Change (CDC), led by President Weah, clashed with those from the All-Liberian Coalition Party (ALCOP), led by Mr. Lusinee Kamara, resulting in one reported fatality. These instances underscore the need for ongoing efforts to address and mitigate election-related tensions and violence for the sake of fostering a truly peaceful and inclusive democratic process.

Against the backdrop of the recent electoral violence in Sierra Leone in 2022 and the subsequent allegations of rigging and fraud that fueled post-election tensions, parallels were drawn between Sierra Leone and Liberia, given their shared cultural and historical ties. The specter of a potential spillover effect loomed, especially in a region prone to civil unrest and crises. Observers, acutely aware of these risks, collaborated closely with the National Elections Commission (NEC) and political parties to alleviate concerns, working toward reducing tensions and preserving peace. Despite an undercurrent of intensity in the closely contested election, where the ultimate victor emerged with a one percent difference, the culmination was marked by the triumph of peace and stability. This underscores the significance of proactive measures and collaborative efforts in safeguarding democratic processes in the face of regional challenges.

As the nation gears up for the forthcoming inauguration, it is imperative to reflect on the pivotal lessons gleaned from the recent election and delineate the comprehensive initiatives that the Amos Claudius Sawyer Foundation is poised to shape. Aligned with its mission encompassing Democratic Governance, Rule of Law, and Peacebuilding, the Foundation deems it fitting to evaluate election-related activities within this contextual framework. In 2024, the Foundation is diligently crafting major policy initiatives in response to the discerned experiences of the 2023 elections.

1. Enhanced Voter Education and Sustained Public Engagement:

Addressing a significant shortcoming in the 2023 elections, notably the high number of invalid votes, the Amos Claudius Sawyer Foundation advocates for a paradigm shift in voter education. It asserts the necessity of making voter education a fundamental aspect of civics education in senior high schools, well in advance of students reaching voting age. The Foundation challenges the conventional notion of limiting voter education to just months before an election, urging its institutionalization and implementation far in advance. Special emphasis is placed on reaching rural voters, and the consideration of a robust, continual voter education program even in non-election years.

2. Permanent Voter Registration:

The Amos Claudius Sawyer Foundation champions legislation mandating year-round voter registration, ensuring citizens are registered upon reaching voting age, irrespective of election cycles. Critiquing the practice of conducting voter registration shortly before an election, which may encourage fraudulent practices, the Foundation lauds the positive impact of biometric voter registration introduced in 2023. It contends that biometric registration should persist beyond election months, enabling the National Elections Commission (NEC) to register citizens when they come of age, eliminating the need for adult voters to re-register for each national election. The sole management concern lies in updating addresses when individuals relocate.

3. Establishment and Maintenance of a National Election Debate Commission or Secretariat:

The Amos Claudius Sawyer Foundation, in collaboration with other NGOs, vigorously pursues the creation of a sustainable national debate organizing mechanism. It envisions an entity equipped with robust staffing capabilities, adept at conducting data-driven research, polling, and formulating national themes for inclusive debates. Recognizing the shortcomings of previous hastily assembled debate consortia, the Foundation advocates for an established entity that is well-funded and staffed by professionals. This envisioned Commission aims to set standards for candidate participation based on factors including scientific polling of the electorate.

4. Independent Media Consortium for Reporting Vote Tallys:

Acknowledging the legal mandate of the National Election Commission (NEC) for reporting official results, the Sawyer Foundation underscores the role of media organizations in responsible reporting. The Foundation aims to mobilize resources to facilitate the formation of an Independent Media Consortium, operating under a set of standards and guidelines for accurate reporting of tally results. Emphasizing transparency, the Foundation seeks to minimize disparities in tally reports among media organizations, ensuring a coherent and reliable presentation of election results. The aspiration is for media houses to unite under a single consortium, adhering to quality and tracking standards, thereby bolstering the integrity of their reporting and fostering public trust.

The Amos Claudius Sawyer Foundation is confident that the amalgamation of these initiatives will not only mitigate election tension and the risk of violence but also position Liberia as a beacon of exemplary democratic practices within the African continent, setting a standard for emulation by others. While Liberians can take pride in their demonstrated political maturity during the 2023 elections, as noted by numerous missions and institutions, the Foundation acknowledges that there is still work to be done. Undeterred, the Sawyer Foundation, in collaboration with its dedicated partners, is resolute in its commitment to propel Liberia forward, ensuring sustained positive strides in the pursuit of democratic excellence. About the Amos Claudius Sawyer Foundation: The Amos Claudius Sawyer Foundation is an independent, non-profit organization dedicated to advancing social justice, education, and democracy through inclusive and sustainable initiatives.  Our mission is to empower individuals and communities to create positive, lasting change by fostering informed citizenship and supporting programs that promote equity, resilience, and responsible governance.