America has spoken, threatening to impose visa restrictions “for those undermining democracy in Liberia.”
The policy statement, issued by U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, begins by expressing the United States’ commitment “to supporting and advancing democracy in Liberia and around the world.”
That means, especially Liberia, whose West African neighbors are in the throes of coup d’etats and post-election turbulence that could dangerously undermine Liberia’s pending elections.
“Today,” Blinken said in a statement released on September 27, “I am announcing a new visa restriction policy under Section 212(a)(3)C) of the Immigration and Nationality Act for those undermining democracy in Liberia. This policy will take effect in advance of the upcoming election.”
Section 212(a)(3)(C) of the Immigration and Nationality Act covers Inadmissibility due to Foreign Policy. This means that a foreign national, whose entry or proposed activities in the United States the Secretary of State has reasonable ground to believe would have potentially serious adverse foreign policy consequences for the United States, will not be granted entry to the USA.
“Under this policy,” Blinken explains, “the United States will pursue visa restrictions for those believed to be responsible for, or complicit in, undermining democracy in Liberia, including through manipulation or rigging of the electoral process; use of violence to prevent people from exercising their rights to freedom of association and peaceful assembly; use of measures designed to prevent political parties, voters, civil society, or the media from disseminating their views; or engagement in any other activity designed to improperly influence the outcome of an election. Certain family members of such persons may also be subject to these restrictions. Persons who undermine democracy in Liberia — including in the lead-up to, during, and following Liberia’s 2023 elections—may be found ineligible for U.S. visas under this policy.”
Given the suspicions raised by the Unity Party that incumbent presidential candidate George Weah and his Coalition for Democratic Change have plans to rig the presidential election, it may seem plausible that Blinken’s statement is directed at Weah alone. Not necessarily.
The same suspicions made repeatedly by UP standard bearer, Joseph N. Boakai, are followed by his warning that any attempt to rig the election, “this will be the end for Liberia”, has also been interpreted by some as a way of undermining Liberia’s democracy. While some Liberians see Boakai’s statement as a warning reminder that election rigging is a recipe for civil unrest, others see it as a potential justification for Liberia to return to war (with former warlord Senator Prince Y. Johnson in Boakai’s corner) if Boakai does not win the election.
Liberia, being Africa’s oldest democracy, is established in the likeness of the American political system. And though Liberia’s democracy, like America’s, is in a state of perpetual imperfection, it is a system of government which, by law, is required to move in pursuit of a more perfect version of itself.
America’s interest in the advancement of democracy in Liberia did not seem apparent to Liberians since our nation’s founding, which is why a one-party system thrived for over a century and, in 1927, that one-party system led Liberia to set the Guinness World Record for the most rigged election in history. That record has yet to be matched or broken — though many have tried!
Also, under that one-party system, we had a president (Tubman) who stayed in power for 27 years until his death. The one-party hegemony was broken in 1980 by a military junta, led by Master Sergeant Samuel K. Doe, who tried to legitimize its grip on power during the elections of 1985, which were rigged in his favor. Several years of mysterious killings, a failed coup and civil war ensued. During the 1997 elections, Charles G. Taylor used the notoriety of his warring faction, National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), to coerce the will of the people to “democratically” vote him into the presidency.
It was then America’s then-President, George W. Bush, who declared in 2003 that “Taylor must go”, in addition to the Accra Peace Agreement that year, which finally liberated Liberia — with the help of the rest of the international community — to pursue the path of peace and democracy.
Such were the times, such were the conditions. Now, near the end of the first quarter of the 21st Century, with Liberia having so much lost time to make up for, the threats to democracy are alive and well right under Liberia’s nose, across the West African subregion. The wave of coup d’etats across contiguous countries from the Republic of Guinea to Republic of Niger, covering about half of the population of West Africa, should be of serious concern to any country that espouses the cause of democracy.
To be clear, this SHOULD NOT be America’s fight. Yet, America’s umbilical relationship with Liberia puts it in a precarious position to help Africa’s oldest democracy to stand firmly, while many others around it are falling.
But can America protect Liberia from itself? The question, rather, is whether America will — and we already know that answer. That is the responsibility of “We The People” of Liberia.
Will the people of Liberia stand by and watch their country relive another episode of rigged elections and the repercussions thereof? We must leverage our resolve to secure Liberia’s democracy without resorting to violence.
America will not protect Liberia from itself.
Blinken closes by saying, “The visa restriction policy announced today will apply to specific individuals and is not directed at the Liberian people or the Government of Liberia. The decision to impose visa restrictions reflects the commitment of the United States to support Liberians’ aspirations to have free and fair elections that demonstrate the will of the people and strengthen democracy and the rule of law.”
What can we learn from all of this?
Can visa restrictions affect politicians who have illegally amassed financial and other material wealth in Liberia? Not necessarily, but this is a topic for another day. Suffice it to say that, if said individuals seek elected office or some other political appointment in the Liberian government, U.S. visa restrictions will hinder their access to any available opportunities or partnerships to fulfill their mandate in office.
It is the Liberian electorate, then, who must decide whether those who are under visa restrictions, Magnitsky sanctions, or some other punitive measure by America — or by any other international partner — should be allowed to hold public office.
God forbid that anyone should turn back the progress Liberia has made toward this more perfect democracy!