Liberia: 2023 Wahala

"We must discourage friends and neighbors from being used and abused by unethical politicians."

--- The lyrics to a popular Liberian piece say in part, “I hear dem say dey want me go, dey want me go, I say ehn ehn!”

The 2023 Legislative and Presidential elections are only 16 months away. Already signs of what may lie ahead appear palpable given the rising political tension associated with senatorial by-elections.

This is particularly evident in the Lofa County senatorial by-elections which have produced so much tension that could easily morph into open conflict between supporters of the ruling CDC and their allies, on the one hand, opposition and supporters. That development cast serious aspersion on the independence and neutrality of the National Elections Commission (NEC) as a fair and impartial arbiter as we edge closer to elections.

Additionally, those developments also cast aspersion on the credibility of the Supreme Court Bench as a fair, independent, and credible body into whose offices a flood of post-election protests and disputations are likely to flow. Already its mettle is being tested at the lower rungs of the judicial ladder in the ongoing case of alleged forgery and criminal conspiracy involving ANC leader Alexander Cummings and ALP leader Benoni Urey.

At the heart of the matter is elections. But whether or not those elections will be conducted on a level playing field is the question.

With only 16 months left until election day, the Voters’ Registry (VR) remains corrupted to date and there is no telling when clean-up will be done. Although the Supreme Court ordered its clean-up before the conduct of the 2017 run-off elections between George Weah and Joseph Boakai, it was never done and has still not been done.

It remains unclear at this point whether the NEC will opt for biometric registration of voters or whether it is going to retain the Optical Mark Recognition (OMR) system currently in use. This promises to be a strong bone of contention if left unaddressed.

The other issue is whether there will be a return to the constitutionally approved Constituency elections or the currently used Electoral District, which is an arbitrary and unconstitutional formula derived by the Legislature in 2011.

But as things stand, political parties who are the principal stakeholders in the electoral process appear to be in a state of disarray, compounded by their dismal grasp and understanding of the political landscape and its unfolding dynamics.

From all indications, most political parties appear consumed with one overriding objective and that is to vote George Weah out of office.  To the best of publicly available information, there has never been a time in recent history where political parties have sat at the table to discuss issues related to the economic governance of Liberia. 

More than ever before, there is an urgent need for a roundtable discussion amongst political parties on the future of Liberia well before the 2023 elections.  However, political parties appear complacent and lack focus on the real issues. 

Rather,  the focus has been on the division of spoils — jobs. For example, one salient point stressed in the CPP Framework Document is the allocation of cabinet posts and supposedly that goes all the way down the bureaucracy and perhaps even further afield to include town and paramount chiefs.

Yet, in street corner discussions, it is the people that are talking about the hard times engulfing the nation while government officials wallow in luxury and comfort, not caring an inch about the sufferings of the people.

More to that, it can be recalled that violence attended the recent senatorial by-elections in Gbarpolu and Cape Mount counties.

Additionally, media reports that the CDC has trained and deployed militants, allegedly to protect CDC candidates as well as the threat from opposition elements to respond in kind, has raised fears that the 2023 elections will be characterized by violence perpetrated mainly by CDC elements.

Such tendencies could likely be held in check if our political parties, civil society actors and foreign partners acting in concert, can bring their immense influence to bear on all and sundry to avoid the use of violence and, instead, resort to the use of the courts to settle electoral disputes.

Recalling history, there are lessons to be learned from the conduct of past elections as a guide to what one may expect down the road. The 2014 senatorial by-elections in whose aftermath a flood of complaints swamped the Supreme Court, can prove instructive in this regard of how things may likely evolve in 2023.

It can be recalled that in the 2014 Grand Cape Mount senatorial by-elections, Varney Sherman, running on the ticket of the Unity Party, was pitted against Foday Kromah of the ruling CDC.  At the end of the polling period, Varney Sherman had accumulated a total of 13,000 votes while his chief rival Foday Kromah accumulated a pittance of 3,000 votes.

But Kromah cried foul, insisting that he had been cheated of victory. This was in face of the fact that his party, CDC, had conceded defeat and accepted Varney Sherman as the winner.

The local presiding elections magistrate looked into the case and concluded that Sherman had indeed emerged winner but Kromah, not being satisfied, took his case straight to the Supreme Court. It must be noted that the CDC’s concession to defeat meant that Kromah, who ran on that party’s ticket, lacked legal standing to even take his case to the NEC Board of Commissioners, let alone the Supreme Court.

This was because he (Kromah) did not run as an independent candidate which would have given him the required legal standing to contest the elections results.

But in a strange twist and in clear contravention of the electoral law, section 8.25 the then Justice in-Chambers, Phillip Banks, rather than requiring Kromah to fully exhaust available legal remedies (NEC Hearing Officer and Board of Commissioners) before bringing his case directly to the Supreme Court, elected to sit on the matter.

By that singular act, Justice Banks struck down section 8.25 of the elections law, which may haunt the 2023 elections if the Legislature does not before then repeal the law set by Banks’ faux-pas, setting a dangerous precedent.

But the issue was clear — Varney Sherman had won the elections by an overwhelming vote count of 13,000 against the 3000 vote count garnered by Kromah. But despite his win, more troubles lay ahead for Sherman all of which analysts attributed to the rift between himself and President Sirleaf although he would eventually be confirmed as a winner.

However, to Sherman’s greatest dismay, Kromah’s challenge, which was widely perceived as bogus, prevented his seating until the challenge before the Supreme Court had been disposed of.

As a result Senator-elect Varney Sherman could not vie to be President Pro Tempore of the Senate because he had not been officially seated thanks to Banks’ dangerous precedent.  

As things stand, the NEC Board of Commissioners' current head is entangled in conflict of interest issues.  One of her colleagues is known for his involvement in alleged electoral fraud, while others are alleged to also have integrity issues.

So the question is what if, just what if George Weah loses the 2023 elections despite the odds against the opposition, but cries foul, and does not exhaust the NEC grievance process and instead proceeds directly to the Supreme Court? Will the declared winner of the elections be inaugurated into the office while a legal challenge from George Weah is pending before the Supreme Court?

What would such development portend for the peace, security and stability of the state if the President-elect cannot be seated while a challenge to his victory is pending before the Supreme Court? Clearly, no one at this point can determine what the outcomes would be; however, it will be naive to assume that a truly dying man will not clutch at a straw.

The lyrics to a popular Liberian piece say in part, “I hear dem say dey want me go, dey want me go, I say ehn ehn!”

What if in 2023, the Liberian people say they want  George Weah gone and he says “ehn ehn” — then what? Will “Baboon divide kola”? 2023 Wahala loading!