.... In the case of Election 2023 Liberia, my hope will be that Liberians will repent and atone for the mistakes of 1985 and choose the legal route this time around in the face of any electoral disputes arising from the 2023 general elections. Liberians should resist the current waves of political manipulations and distortions of facts and information as legitimate electioneering tactics.
In just seven months from now, Liberians will go to the polls on October 10, 2023 to elect new national leaders (i.e., president, vice president, and legislators).
Already the local political landscape is being beset by intense pre-election wrangling, acrimonious politicking, bigotry, egotism, and related electoral absurdities. There are also noticeable attempts to undermine the integrity of the 2023 elections by those claiming rigged elections in advance of October 10.
Some people have even gone to the extent of bequeathing unto the sitting president the fate of his predecessors from the general elections of 1985 and 1997 should his government make any attempts to rig the 2023 elections.
But how so? Why go to extreme measures of predicting doom in the country resulting from potential rigged elections in 2023? What would happen if it turned out that those claiming rigged elections emerged as winner or loser of the 2023 presidential race?
Should Liberians then prepare for another civil war as happened in the aftermath of the 1985 and 1997 elections? Are there still not lessons learned about electoral democracy in Liberia since the first multiparty elections of 1985?
These are questions whose answers border on sustaining national unity, peace, and stability in Liberia. And EU’s chief observer at Election 2023 Nigeria Barry Andrews probably got it right when he opined about the results of the Nigerian presidential race thus: "Our message is very clear - that we would encourage any complaints to be brought through the appropriate legal channels,” even as he acknowledged observing “significant shortcomings” in the Nigerian electoral process (Nwonwu, 2023).
In the case of Election 2023 Liberia, my hope will be that Liberians will repent and atone for the mistakes of 1985 and choose the legal route this time around in the face of any electoral disputes arising from the 2023 general elections. Liberians should resist the current waves of political manipulations and distortions of facts and information as legitimate electioneering tactics. For if no foul play is intended by the statement that the sitting president will be a “one term president” come Election 2023, then how does a counter statement that the sitting president will get “a first-round victory” come Election 2023 equate to a desired by the sitting government to rig the 2023 presidential race?
I think all Liberians need to pray for a free, fair, transparent, and peaceful elections in October than attempt to incite the public unnecessarily on bogus claims that usually paint the sitting government as the new bloodsucking demon in town.
Creeping Signs of 1985 Tensions
The zest and political themes surrounding the 2023 elections are not quite different from the 1985 elections. In 1985, Liberia faced a serious political quagmire regarding its ability to hold free, fair, and transparent national elections after 133 years of one-party rule from 1878 to 1980 and nearly five years of military rule from 1980 to 1984. There were highly visible signs of contentious politicking and competing interests in Liberia in 1985 between the old powerbrokers in the TWP (erstwhile ruling True Whig Party) and the new powerbrokers in the PRC (the then ruling People’s Redemption Council), just as it is the case today between the ruling CDC (Coalition for Democratic Change) and the opposition UP (Unity Party), LP (Liberty Party), and ANC (Alternative National Congress), etc.
The TWP and its supporters saw the 1985 elections as an opportunity to regain state power, while the PRC and its supporters saw the elections as an opportunity to retain state power. It was a sort of “do or die game” between the two groups, and the Liberian public only became unwilling pangs in this political gamesmanship.
Of course, the old powerbrokers were represented in the 1985 elections by LAP (i.e., the Liberia Action Party), while the new powerbrokers were represented in the elections by NDPL (i.e., the National Democratic Party of Liberia).
In 1985, like today, there were multiple attempts by the old powerbrokers to ostracize and paint the new powerbrokers locally and internationally as uneducated, immature, inexperienced, visionless, ill-mannered, and grossly unfit for the post of president of Liberia.
Soon, after the 1980 coup but not long before the 1985 elections, the traditional intellectual class (i.e., journalists and clerics) joined the camp of the old powerbrokers by providing a sustained campaign of assaults, provocations, and castigations against the new powerbrokers in uncertain terms.
The current levels of suspicion and animosities underpinning activities leading to the 2023 elections are not quite different from the political scenarios of 1985.
In 1985, the old powerbrokers succeeded to a larger extent in their campaign to malign, isolate, and ostracize the new powerbrokers until the downtrodden class (i.e., street peddlers, youths, and ordinary folks” decided to align with the new powerbrokers.
The downtrodden class never had anything close to the intellectual sophistication, financial wealth, and independence of the intellectual class and the old powerbrokers, but they had a real gem—a huge voters’ base.
Hence, the old powerbrokers saw alignment of the downtrodden class to the new powerbrokers as unacceptable and too dangerous to the attainment of their objective of regaining state power, so swift actions had to be instituted to discourage and dismantle such collaboration.
These swift actions culminated into a series of clandestine activities throughout the 1980s, before and after the 1985 elections, which resulted in a series of coup attempts, public agitations, and eventually the 14-year civil war from 1989 to 2003.
I see Liberians moving down these slippery slopes once more with the current levels of tensions building up in the country in the run-up to the October elections.
Like in 1985 the most outlandish adjectives are being thrown at the incumbent leadership from every direction, while the vision-bearers in the opposing camps remained clueless about the best direction Liberia should take to stimulate national human-capital development and socioeconomic growth.
Historically, the political crises that engulfed the 1985 elections in Liberia started with underground leaflets and newspaper articles popping up across Liberia with damaging stories about the sitting government and its head.
The stories kept coming with more disturbing details about corruption, human rights abuse, and suppression of press freedom among government officials, but the government kept mute on addressing these issues.
Then came discoveries of various arms and ammunitions, coup attempts, and drugs busts across Liberia, but the government acted less forcefully and transparent in its reactions.
Then came Election Day on October 15, 1985 when all four participating political parties declared victory in the presidential race, as if the legislative race did not matter. The government’s inactions in 1985 amid these arms discoveries, failed coup attempts, and electoral rigmarole escalated whatever political tensions that were already brewing in the country in light of the 1985 elections. The net result was that the government lost credibility with the public and the rest of what happened next is now history.
I see these very signs and political tactics used before, during, and after the 1985 elections gradually creeping upon the Liberian nation and people as the country prepares for Election 2023. Like in 1985, the newspapers (and this time not underground leaflets but), radio talk shows, and social media platforms have begun to publish damaging stories about the government and its head, while the government remains mute.
The intensity of corruption and human rights violation charges levied against government officials is also on the rise, with little or no meaningful reaction from the government.
Like in 1985, arms and ammunitions have been discovered across the country, along with huge drugs busts, but the government is still mute on these issues. Political tensions are also brewing everyday between the incumbent leadership and political rivals just as in 1985, but Liberians are showing no anxieties about a possible repeat of the errors of the past.
Yet, care must be taken by all peace-loving Liberians not to undermine the integrity of the 2023 elections and plunge the country into another chaotic situation.
In December 2022 Liberia averted a potential coup d’état because the Liberian army chief of staff refused to act favorably after he “received multiple text messages from people home and abroad, asking him to stage a coup amid president [George Manneh] Weah’s prolong [sic] stay from the Country” at the time (Menjor, 2022).
A month later in January 2023, Liberian security officers discovered consignments of illegal arms and ammunitions at the main national seaport and a private home in Monrovia. Subsequent drugs busts netted huge quantities of narcotic drugs worth millions.
These discoveries elevated the threat levels in Liberia from merely speculative to serious, but many Liberians still don’t seem to care about the potential impacts of these discoveries on Liberian democracy. And I want to wager that one of the main reasons for these outcomes is that since the successes of the 1980 coup and 1989 military invasion, many Liberians now think that the shortest way to state power in Liberia is through armed insurrection rather than through the ballot box.
Hence, if care is not taken to arrest the current waves of agitations, castigations, and dissensions in the run-up to Election 2023, the politics of division and bigotry will continue to take root in Liberia and Liberia will once more become the theater of violence.
In fact, I found it strange that many Liberians opted to react angrily to public assurances given by the Liberian army chief of staff and the defense minister that the Liberian army will exercise its constitutional mandate to preserve peace and stability in Liberia in the face of armed insurrection or electoral violence arising from the Election 2023.
In particular, the army chief of staff warned Liberians that anyone found violating the laws of Liberia during the 2023 elections will be held liable for his or her actions regardless of status or affiliation in society, adding, “We will execute our constitutional duties.
We will not allow anyone or a group of people to obstruct our hard-earned Peace and Democracy. We will support the LNP [Liberia National Police] and relevant agencies to protect key installations where necessary” (Menjoe 2023).
Like the chief of staff, the defense minister warned in a commemorative speech marking the 66th anniversary of the Armed Forces of Liberia in February 2023 that Liberians should “not dare cross that Democratic Red-Line beyond the collective will of the people if your [their individual] dreams fall short by perpetrating violence” because the Liberian army “will stand by the expressed will of the people in line with the Constitution of Liberia” (Dopoe, 2023).
The statements by these two national security officers seem fair, honest, forthright, and welcoming in attempts to prevent any form of violence during the October 10 elections, but some Liberians still find the statements threatening because, as retired Liberian army general Mansfield Yancy exclaimed during a political rally at the former Camp Schieffelin in 1984, “Liberians are a funny and peculiar people.”
And one will not have to struggle very hard to note the peculiarity of Liberians in this instant case, which shows the growing impact of the politics of division on our individual psychies.
Constitutional Requirements for the Liberian Presidency
From 1878 to 1980 under one-party TWP rule, Liberian citizens of voting age were forced to watch helplessly from the sidelines as the TWP hierarchy handpicked one national leader after another at TWP-organized electoral caucuses.
The last two TWP-selected presidents prior to the 1980 coup, William V.S. Tubman and William R. Tolbert, Jr., were “elected” unopposed at TWP caucuses and not by eligible Liberian voters through direct citizens-driven multiparty elections.
The 1985 elections became the first national elections since independence in 1847 in which Liberians voted directly for their candidates of choice without the additional burdens of property ownership and affiliation with the ruling party.
The 1985 elections produced two career politicians, one military officer, and one classroom teacher as presidential candidates from four independent political parties, which reality represented a far cry from TWP-caucus elections, which usually featured a single candidate for election by acclamation or the proverbial white ballot.
Now, as someone who in my capacity as a print journalist covered the 1985 electoral process from political party registration, campaigning, and voting to declaration of the official vote tallies and results, I felt that the 1985 elections created great prospects for the promotion and sustenance of electoral democracy in Liberia, if not pluralistic democracy in general.
The 1985 elections were an open field in that all four participating political parties were formed in 1984, with technically no ruling party and opposition parties in place. No party produced a political platform going into the 1985 elections, so none of the four parties had a winning advantage over the other.
Hence, voters participating in the 1985 elections had to rely solely on their own preferences and perceptions of individual presidential and legislative candidates rather than on individual party philosophies, plans on national unity, peace, and development, and other tangibles.
Mind you, the way the Liberian electoral system is set up anyone from any background can be president of Liberia provided that that person meets five basic constitutional requirements: 1) be a natural born Liberian; 2) be [at least] 35 years of age; 3) be owner of real property valued at minimum US$25,000 American dollars; 4) be resident in Liberia ten consecutive years prior to a presidential election; and 5) be a majority vote getter or decisive winner in a presidential election.
The first four requirements are usually enforced by the national election commission, which has constitutional authority to organize elections, qualify candidates and political parties in an election, and certificate winners after an election. The fifth requirement is usually enforced by eligible voters.
These five requirements are the only “constitutional qualifications” to becoming president of Liberia. Indeed, it stands to reason that individual presidential candidates, along with their political parties and supporters, may be inclined to question the constitutional qualifications of fellow contestants, but they are generally unqualified to question the abstract qualifications of fellow presidential candidates except during political debates.
I use the words “abstract qualifications” to refer to the individual preferences of voters. And like in previous elections in Liberia since 1985, voters participating in the 2023 elections will have unrestricted rights to choose a candidate of choice in the presidential and legislative races, based solely on their individual preferences.
These individual preferences or “abstract qualifications” could include a candidate’s physical outlook, dress code, outspokenness, leadership skills, professional work experience, level of education, popularity, international contact, charity giving, business acumen, political party affiliation, religious affiliation, financial prowess, ethnicity or county of origin, and so on.
And, because the Liberian Constitution imposes no educational or leadership requirements on potential presidential candidates, it will remain the prerogative of voters to exercise their free speech and free association rights in choosing a presidential candidate of choice, based solely on individual preferences.
These individual voter preferences or abstract qualifications usually formed the backbone of any electoral process in a democratic system, and to pretend that “popularity” or “name recognition” is not a major decisive factor in an election is simply an attempt to obscure this basic reality in Liberian electoral politics. Generally, though, politics is driven by popularity or name recognition, and no politician worth his or her salt will deny this reality.
For in the search of name recognition, political parties and individual politicians usually hold lavish political rallies and retreats, lengthy public speeches and press conferences, visit families in distress, offer scholarships to students, and galvanize their partisans and supporters to undertake street protests on various governance issues just to generate recognition public and acceptance.
Unfortunately, many Liberian political parties and presidential candidates often spend an awful lot of time on badmouthing their opponents than on producing, sharing, and explaining their political platforms to voters on how they plan to govern and develop Liberia should they be elected.
This politics of division must now be replaced by tangible governing and development alternatives in the 2023 elections if Liberia must enjoy peace, unity, and genuine development in the future.
Electoral politics in Liberia today is characterized by acts of bigotry, egotism, and disrespect, coupled with an entitlement frenzy among potential presidential candidates. And there can be nothing more glaring of this sort of attitude than a defeated presidential candidate feeling empowered and inclined enough to the tell the rest of his Liberian compatriots that they made a “mistake” in electing his opponent in 2017.
But, how so? What if he were elected instead? Would it be prudent to still call the outcome a mistake? I have argued in the past that “The lure of ethnic entitlement to the presidency of Liberia, and the greed for political and economic power by few Liberian men and women have reduced Liberia to a beggar state…” (Gbessagee 2009).
Accordingly, the current public incitement about possible rigging of the 2023 elections in favor of the incumbent may not be anything more than a mere political ploy to call into question and delegitimize the results of the 2023 elections even before the elections are held, but the message should not be overlooked.
For if the goal here is to sway public opinion away from an incumbent win to an opposition win in Election 2023, then such tactics are not good for promoting electoral democracy and national unity, peace, development, and stability in Liberia.
Back in 1985 LAP played similar tactics in attempts to edge ahead the pack in the presidential race and the results became deadly for the whole country. In 2023 let the ballot box be the only determiner of individual and party victories. Let independent and party-backed presidential candidates sell their political platforms to voters in a timely manner so that the voters will make independent choices based on their own preferences.
This is the beauty of the free, fair, and transparent democratic elections for which Liberians have labored so long.
And every political party has a base, so a presidential candidate attempting to badmouth another presidential candidate is only a waste of precious time and goodwill, as such badmouthing will not sway a true partisan to leave his or her party and vote for a candidate in another party. Let us allow true multiparty elections to take root in Liberia.
About the Author
Nat Galarea Gbessagee is the former director of public affairs at the Liberian Ministry of Information, Cultural Affairs, and Tourism. He is an educator and social commentator on contemporary Liberian issues. He holds a Ph.D. in rhetoric and technical communication from an American university. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(EDITOR’S NOTE: The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Daily Observer.)