A Response to the US Amb. McCarthy’s “What Would JJ Roberts Have to Say about Liberia Today” Op-Ed

US Ambassador Michael McCarthy.

Your Excellency,

I extend warmest greetings to you and the entire Embassy staff for the wonderful job you continue to do on behalf of the great people of the United States in supporting development efforts, enhancing democracy, promoting peace, empowering communities, and strengthening security in Liberia.

Your love and caring support for Liberia are quite immeasurable and despite the growing frustration and hopelessness occasioned by the current harsh and unbearable economic situation in the country, I want you to know that Liberians remain very grateful to the United States. Indisputably, the United States remains Liberia’s reliable and righthand friend, an historic relationship that is deeply rooted in the magnanimous role the United States played in the establishment of the small but very important West African Country.

The birth of Liberia in the aftermath of the end of slavery in the 1800s was an exceptional providence realized by a collective effort harnessed by moral, financial, and material contributions of members of the US government, religious leaders, and philanthropists. Obviously, like many of us today, our founding fathers would be highly unimpressed, to say the least, by the present undesirable state of a country that was meant to be a shining example of freedom, justice, and equality.

That is exactly why I was profoundly touched by your well-thought-out op-ed of March 14, 2022 “What Would JJ Roberts Have to Say about Liberia Today”. Reading your op-ed, for the most part, I realized that you were a bit removed from your ambassadorial capacity and that was quite understandable.

I could also feel your deep emotions as you immersed yourself in the position of the everyday Liberian who lives, witnesses, and experiences the unjustified pains and sufferings as they languish in slums and villages. No safe drinking water, no jobs, limited or no access to quality healthcare, education, basic sanitation and hygiene services, poor nutrition, and shabby shelters.

Trust me, I’ve been down that very road for many years, and with the disturbing mental portrait, I could vividly picture the extent of your disappointment at the gross underdeveloped nature of the country after 175 years of independence, the inherently corrupt governance ecosystem as being manifested by the current government, and the hopeless state of innocent and poverty-stricken citizens.

Frankly, your op-ed further broadened the scope of my reflection to look further beyond JJ Roberts and imagine how other individuals who contributed to the establishment of Liberia from a colony to a constitutional republic would also feel today about the historic project (Liberia) they so struggled to achieve? President James Madison, for example, mobilized funding support toward the achievement of the goals of the American Colonization Society (ACS).

What would President Madison have to say about the gross incongruities that exist between Liberia he then envisioned and today’s Liberia where injustice reigns? As we all know, Thomas Buchanan was the first Governor of the Liberian Colony. I’ve also been wondering what would Governor Buchanan have to say about today’s Liberia where the average citizen goes to bed hungry with no idea of what happens the next day? Also, the ACS graciously named Monrovia after President James Monroe. I’m very sure it was a proud and momentous moment for the President. However, it is anyone’s guess as to what would President Monroe have to say today about a filthy city that bears his name.

I’m sure you’ve heard about the legendary prelate, the late Archbishop Michael K. Francis. Really, he remains an irreplaceable conscience of the Liberian society. The Bishop was an embodiment of the fight for human rights, justice, democracy, and good governance in Liberia. Obviously, I don’t even need to ask, what would the globally acclaimed prelate have to say about the current displeasing state of the nation he so loved and fought to transform.

One thing that remains clear is that if the Bishop were alive today, he would be very unrelenting in his undiluted advocacy and fiercely confront perpetrators of the ongoing hardship and suffering of the Liberian people, the gross fiscal improprieties, human rights violations, the secret and gruesome murders, and sexual exploitation and abuse. Although Bishop Francis is no more, however, his extraordinary legacy is a great source of inspiration and courage for many of us to continue the fight for justice, equality, and economic stability in our country.

Your Excellency, as a Liberian with so much love for my country, your op-ed aroused strong emotions within me. It engendered a moment of reflection on how our leaders are so insensitive and cruel to their own people. They continue to kill the dreams and aspirations of a promising nation with the potential to be the gleaming star, in the words of President Ronald Reagan “a shining city upon a hill whose beacon light guides freedom-loving people everywhere”.

Yes, I have no doubts that Liberia has the potential to become that shining city upon the hill whose assuring light can ignite freedom, justice, and equality across Africa if only we muster the courage and collectively harness our individual strengths and potentials to boldly confront and defeat the prevailing evil culture.

Let me confess sir, as a Liberian, I am really ashamed and embarrassed by the current situation in my country triggered by the disastrous acts of successive governments, and sadly, the current government is not even helping the situation. The government is clueless, irresponsible, and pervasively corrupt. Nevertheless, I am not hopeless because of the enormous opportunity we can leverage together to engender a sense of renewal with the propensity to change the story of my beloved country. That is exactly why it became imperative for me to respond to your op-ed in acknowledgment of the gravity of the implications of the current precarious state of affairs in Liberia, and to further reason with you on how we can chart a common course to restore my sinking nation and put it on the right trajectory.

As I have already emphasized, I quite understand your disappointment especially given the unadulterated fact that your country continues to use large amounts of its taxpayers’ resources to lift people from poverty and facilitate development in Liberia but the very resources end up in the pockets of certain unscrupulous and unpatriotic Liberians. That is very frustrating but our consolation is the fact that every well-meaning Liberian abhors such unacceptable thievery and abuse and sternly condemns same.

Truly, I must commend your country because, in spite of the incessant abuse of power and misapplication of resources by the current administration, your country continues to support Liberia in improving and strengthening the country’s age-old but fragile democracy; enhancing governance by supporting government ministries and agencies to be transparent, accountable, and efficient; improving access to quality education, healthcare, and sanitation services; empowering individuals and communities; strengthening and improving the security system through support to national security agencies, especially the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL), the Liberia National Police (LNP), and the Liberia Immigration Services (LIS). This is quite a remarkable and historic benevolence that remains an indelible imprint on the minds of Liberians.

However, Your Excellency, we cannot just continue to do business as usual. I think there’s a need for all of us to introspect soberly on why this vicious cycle remains unbroken and continues to outplay all of us in lieu of all the efforts your country continues to make. I sincerely think there are some gray areas in our historical journey and relationship that should be reviewed NOT in the context of identifying and apportioning blames for the current situation but to help us (the United States and Liberia) collectively recalibrate in a way that positively changes the course for Liberia.

Take, for example, I’ve been wondering for too long since our independence in 1847, our political and governance history has been replete with violence, injustice, and pervasive corruption which have subjugated, marginalized and kept the average Liberian in an impoverished and helpless condition.

The mind-boggling question is how could we have successfully built such a terrible governance ecosystem when in fact, we’re a direct and loving offspring of the great United States, the world’s most sophisticated and successful democracy? What actually went wrong along the way? Was our independence prematurely declared to the point that the United States got upset and abandoned us which led to an immature and exuberant government setting the wrong tone for governance? Strangely, the United States shunned (didn’t recognize) Liberia’s independence for fifteen years (1847-1862) after it was declared.

So much went on during those crucial formative years. As young, fragile, and vulnerable as we were, we were constrained to sort things out for ourselves. Unfortunately, we were like abandoned teens struggling to survive and I’m sure even colonial powers competing at the time to partition Africa were wondering how could a nation birthed out of the great United States be left vulnerable?

It wasn’t until September 23, 1862, before the first treaty of commerce and navigation was signed between Liberia and the United States to jumpstart the journey that brought us here today. The truth is that we unnecessarily had a difficult start to our relationship in the aftermath of the declaration of independence. Would this narrative in a significant way account for why the minority maintained and operated a one-party system for 133 years (1847-1980) that kept the majority in a voiceless state?

Your Excellency, I think I’m inclined to also share the view of many pundits that this protracted period of the domination of the political, social, and economic life of the country by one group of Liberians set the stage for the bad political and governance culture that has overwhelmed us today. So, I’m here wondering, what would Liberia look like today had the United States taken decisive actions to solidify the foundations of our democracy by holding successive governments accountable to govern on the principles of openness, fairness, equality, and justice?

Probably, I’m being a bit naïve taking into account “sovereignty” but here’s the thing, we depended on the United States from the get-go for almost everything-healthcare, education, infrastructure, security, food, and investment just as we pretty much do today. In fact, our relationship is a peculiar one (parent-child) in which the label “sovereignty” is hardly a subject to reference in many respects and that’s quite understandable. So, with such a level of engagement, how come the United States is the credo of democracy, and conversely, her lovely offspring, Liberia is host to the vices of injustice, corruption, poverty, and human rights abuse?

Your Excellency, I am sure taking some time off to reflect on these critical questions will provide some pretext for the current socio-economic and political decadence in Liberia. It would possibly lead to your country taking some strategic and decisive actions to get Liberia out of her present nightmare and put it on the trajectory of democratic governance where freedom of expression, freedom of association and assembly, judicial integrity, media integrity, and human rights will be guaranteed.

One critical area of focus right now is elections. As we both know, elections are at the heart of democracy because they’re intended to enable the people to freely participate in the governance of their own country by choosing the leaders of their choice and holding them accountable. The United States remains the largest supporter of elections and other democratic initiatives in Liberia. Take, for example, the current headquarters of the National Elections Commission (NEC) was constructed by the United States through USAID which relieved the government of the economic burden of paying more than $100,000.00 United States Dollars annually in rental fees for private properties that housed the NEC.

It is also important to highlight the important contributions of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), particularly for supporting democracy development in Liberia. I can also recall the landmark support to the NEC by UNDP in constructing nineteen well-equipped and functional magisterial offices across the fifteen counties. Each of those facilities has offices, a conference room, an internet connection, a communication setup, and a large warehouse.

Thanks to the leadership of Chairman James M. Fromayan for the innovation in conceiving these dreams, negotiating and working with USAID and UNDP respectively, to actualize those historic projects. Today, those facilities play a pivotal role in the decentralization and delivery of electoral services.

The United States also continues to invest millions of dollars in procuring electoral materials, educating the electorate through civic and voter education activities, and building the capacities of elections workers, civil society organizations, women, youth, advocacy groups, local and traditional leaders with the aim of improving and increasing participation in elections. I can safely say that the little progress that has been made towards the enhancement of democracy in Liberia over the years can also be considerably credited to the enormous contributions of the United States.

However, Your Excellency, there are two critical areas in electioneering that can never be ignored if an election is to be deemed credible. The first area is the credibility of the Election Management Body (EMB). When the EMB’s credibility comes into question, it undermines the entire process the said EMB has to manage. Since the reconstitution of the current board of commissioners, the Commission has been persistently in the spotlight not for good reasons for the most part but as a subject of corruption, fraud, and irregularities.

Take, for example, Electoral District # 15 By-Election was chaotic and deemed not credible when it was established that a data center staff tempered with the results. Interestingly, that staff is said to have gone unpunished and was subsequently nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate as a commissioner and sits on the current bench. That is worrisome for several reasons.

There are also credible reports that some members of the Commission deliberately inflated figures in the 2023 elections budget and awarded contracts to relatives for personal gains. These are a few of the many disturbing news that we all frequently gather about the NEC. What is even more disturbing about the situation is the fact that there’s no credible justice system to investigate these matters and effectively serve justice in order to deter a reoccurrence.

Now, the integrity of the Commission has significantly eroded over time thus creating doubts about the credibility of the ensuing highly anticipated elections in 2023. If appropriate legal actions cannot be taken to address the current credibility problem, I would propose that the United States through USAID support the creation of a counterpart arrangement.

The way such an arrangement works is not to create an alternative body but to simply bring credible, knowledgeable, and experienced commissioners and subject-matter experts from other electoral commissions as a team to work with their Liberian counterparts to prepare and deliver all the key activities involving the 2023 elections. This is a credible and acceptable practice. Take, for example, in 2011, the former Chairman of the Ghana Electoral Commission, veteran Afari Gyan was a counterpart to the NEC and the process worked very effectively.

His insights were quite important for the planning and implementation of key activities. It also kept the NEC very mindful of doing the right thing as there was an independent counterpart who did not only contribute to the planning process but kept them in check to ensure the right thing was done. Also, in my capacity as Director of Civic and Voter Education at the NEC, I was part of technical missions drawn from electoral commissions of other countries under the auspices of ECOWAS and the Mano River Union, respectively, to assess and assist Electoral Commissions in Guinea (Conakry), Cote d’Ivoire, and Ghana in their preparations for elections. So, I hope the United States can provide such vital support in a timely manner for the conduct of the 2023 elections.

Your Excellency, the second area of concern is the integrity of the voter roll. The credibility of any election is contingent upon the integrity of the voter roll. The voter roll contains the records of all the voters in a given election. In essence, a voter’s eligibility information is fully captured on the voter roll. That is why the voter roll should account for all voters, not some, not less, and not more.

The current voter roll is not credible to be used for the conduct of elections. It has never been independently audited. Instead, it’s only been manipulated, or adjusted from time to time. In 2011, a facial recognition (Deduplication) exercise was carried out on the roll and about 10,000 duplicate names were identified and submitted to the Ministry of Justice in keeping with the law to be removed from the voter roll.

That is yet to happen. Also, there has been no time that the Ministries of Health and Justices in concert with the NEC as required by law have worked together to remove the names of dead people from the roll. In 2017, when I personally took up issues with then-Chairman Jerome G. Korkoya regarding the inundated voter roll with duplicate names through an op-ed, he was invited by the Senate to discuss the issue.

During the hearing, Chairman Korkoya confirmed my claim that there were thousands of duplicate names on the voter roll but understated the number which he put at 30,000 at the time. The Chairman was not truthful, he deliberately lied in his estimate because of the implications an alarming estimate could have on the NEC’s credibility under his watch.

Furthermore, the roll has been updated (not audited) twice with multiple registration cards in the hands of voters. The updates were basically aimed at updating the addresses of voters who have changed locations/addresses or those who turned 18 years or older to register in keeping with the 1986 Constitution.

It may also interest you to know that there were individuals who criminally conducted voter registration exercises in their homes using the same registration equipment as the NEC. One such criminal exercise was the one involving an aid in the office of former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. He was caught with multiple registration cards in his possession that he had already produced from his criminal enterprise but as usual, he faced no legal consequences and that case died naturally.

Only God knows how he got the registration equipment and what eventually happened to the records of those he had registered before he was caught. During the 2017 elections, there were thousands of voters with voter registration cards in their possession but their names were not on the Final Registration Roll, the FRR as it is officially called.

When they went to vote, they were asked to write their names on a separate list which according to the NEC was a valid process. The electorate, political parties, and independent candidates did have such information until the conduct of the polls. In fact, the NEC for the first time in the middle of polling provided a link to its polling staff to confirm the names of voters whose names were not found on the voter roll. I was a victim of that situation. My name was not found on the voter roll and the polling staff attending to me pulled up the so-called link on his mobile phone and according to him, my name was on the “online roll” so I was allowed to vote.

I brought up the issue as part of a larger complaint and when it was appealed to the Supreme Court because the NEC refused to rule against herself, the Court ruled ordering the NEC to delete the so-called “online roll”. Whether or not such a clandestine voter roll was deleted, it’s anyone’s guess. In essence, the NEC had a separate illegal voter roll from the legitimate FRR that only they (NEC) knew about and operated. Again, only God knows how the votes on that illegal voter roll were counted and accounted for.

Your Excellency, given this vivid account plus what you might already know, the 2023 elections will not be credible if the current FRR is used. Therefore, brand-new voter registration is needed and biometric registration is the best option. I know it’s an ambitious project that’s never smooth in terms of cost, logistics, and technical expertise, but it is worth undertaking in order to improve the integrity of our elections. Other countries have done it and they’re reaping the benefits therefrom. From now to the 2023 elections, we have enough time to accomplish this crucial democratic enhancement milestone.

As such, I have no doubts that the United States through USAID can provide the funding to secure the much-needed equipment and technical support just as they’ve always done. Now that the need is much more critical, I am very hopeful for your timely intervention as we strive to safeguard our struggling democracy.

Kind regards.