Liberia: A Synopsis of What Needs to be Done in the Lead-Up to the 2023 Elections

Editor's note: The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors. They do not purport
to reflect the opinions or views of the Daily Observer Newspaper.

After almost two decades since the end of the prolonged civil war in Liberia in 2003, it is quite unfortunate that Liberia is still in a transitional state. The country is still brittle and struggling to recover from the shock and wanton destruction of the crisis. So many Liberians continue to live with the devastating effects of the war psychologically, economically, and socially.

The economy is still in a terrible state and is yet to be revitalized to work for everyone. Roads and infrastructure, healthcare and sanitation, jobs, and education are still grossly inadequate or virtually non-existent thus, limiting or denying citizens access to basic social services. One of the key factors that account for the slow and uncertain national recovery process is bad governance which is a direct result of the quality of leaders who are periodically elected and entrusted with the country’s leadership responsibility. 

Despite successfully conducting three solid rounds of elections in 2005, 2011, and 2017 plus several legislative by-elections and special senatorial elections, sadly, Liberia is still a victim of bad governance. The irony is that the current corrupt and impoverished state of the country does not reflect these enumerated democratic achievements.

Obviously, the situation speaks volumes about the degree of problems associated with our electoral system and processes as well as the gross lack of understanding of the citizenry of their rights, roles, and responsibilities reflective of the quality of leaders they elect to public offices. Hence, if the ensuing 2023 elections are to serve as a turning point, a lot needs to be done including the following:

  1. Change the Voter Registration System and Conduct a Fresh Biometric Voter Registration (BVR)

The country needs a fresh voter registration in order to transition from an Optical Mark Recognition (OMR) system to a complete Biometric Voter Registration system (BVR). Although there seem to be current efforts by the National Elections Commission (NEC) toward this transition, time is of the essence here because a BVR process requires huge resources, logistics, and time.

While the BVR may not also be problem-free, as there are always privacy concerns and huge costs associated with it, however, it has greater advantages such as fast authentication, accuracy, and scalability. The system has been tested by several countries and has proven to be very efficient and effective. 

Unlike the BVR system, the OMR system involves huge manual effort (paperwork) to collect and record the particulars of eligible voters. The current voter roll is a product of such voter registration efforts in 2011 which has been manipulated several times by the NEC in multiple forms. During the registration process, unscrupulous individuals carried out their own private registration exercises in their homes with some using NEC materials including scanners and cameras. One such person worked directly in the office of former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

He was apprehended after registering many people and issuing them voter ID cards. The high-profile individual was never prosecuted for such a criminal act. What happened to the list of people registered and cards issued to them remains unaccounted for.

Following the 2011 registration process, the NEC conducted a deduplication exercise to remove duplicate names from the voter roll and the process identified more than 10,000 duplicate names. The list compiled in both hardcopy and electronic versions was submitted to the Ministry of Justice for removal from the roll in keeping with the law. Those names have not been removed from the roll yet.

If they were, then, it was done without the knowledge of the political parties and other key stakeholders. The NEC has also conducted two voter roll updates to update/change the addresses of voters who have changed their addresses over the years and also registered citizens who have turned 18 years and above and wanted to be registered to vote in keeping with the law. New voter ID cards were issued during those processes.

With so many duplicate names on the roll, there is a high likelihood that individuals changed multiple addresses to new ones thereby enabling such individuals to vote multiple times in a given election. Also, during the 2017 elections, the NEC omitted the names and particulars of several eligible voters from the Final Registration Roll (FRR).

The remedy employed by the NEC was to create a separate list of voters affected by that situation across the country and permitted them to vote on Election Day. The justification for creating that illegal list was that the names and particulars of voters in that category could only be verified on a separate online roll but not in the official FRR. Only the NEC knows whatever happened to that illegal online roll.

How those votes affected the overall election results in 2017 remains a mystery. When this crucial election fraud issue was captured in the Liberty Party vs NEC landmark case, the Supreme Court ruled that the NEC should completely delete the online registration role.

No one knows whether or not the roll was deleted per the Supreme Court’s ruling. Additionally, the ECOWAS technical team to Liberia in 2017, following their assessment of the voter roll had this to say “Since the Exhibition of the roll was carried out on the 12th of June 2017, the total number of valid registered voters of the team viewed in the database, as at this date was 2,045,483. This figure conflicts with what NEC declared as the total number on the roll at the time the Exhibition took place, which was 2,182,956.

Therefore, from our analysis, between the times of the Exhibition, the PRR [Provisional Registration Roll], and declaring the FRR [Final Voter Roll], a total of 138,146 records were added to the voter roll.” In other words, the total number of registered voters was inflated by 138,146 records.

From all indications, the combination of these serious issues must worry every well-meaning Liberian. The roll is no longer credible and has the propensity to significantly undermine the credibility of the outcome of the highly anticipated 2023 elections. The integrity of the voter roll is directly proportional to the credibility of elections. The 2023 elections are no exception. That’s why instituting an efficient BVR system now is a national imperative. 

  1. Address the Credibility Problems of the Current Electoral Management Body (EMB), the NEC

The Electoral Management Body (EMB) of any country must be an integrity institution and it should act as such. The EMB must never at any point be a subject of corruption, partiality, or malpractice of any sort. The EMB must be open, authentic, accountable, credible, and transparent in all of its dealings.

The reason is simple, if the electorate and citizens, in general, should accept the results of elections, they must first trust the EMB in every respect in terms of the manner and form in which it exercises its duties and responsibilities and the processes it manages. Contrary to possessing these non-negotiable values, the current EMB, which is the NEC in the case of Liberia is challenged by serious credibility problems. 

Specifically, the LACC investigation found Lansanah to be in violation of Section 1.3.6, of the National Code of Conduct, which speaks against conflict of interest; Part II, Section 2.2 of the LACC Act, and section 15.3 of the Money laundering Act of 2012. Interestingly, Lansana admitted and confirmed that David Brown, Vice President for Operations of Tuma Enterprises was "her brother from the same father, while Arnold Badio, owner and incorporator of Tuma Enterprise is a brother to David Browne from the same Mother."

The Chairperson of NEC, Davidetta Browne-Lansanah was investigated and found guilty of corruption, conflict of interest, and money laundering by the Liberia Anti-Corruption Commission.

However, Judge Ciapha Carey of Criminal ‘C’ dismissed the case due to some legal technicality. The judge dismissed without prejudice” means that the state can refile later. The Judge granted a motion from Lansanah’s lawyers to dismiss the indictment on the grounds that the Liberia Anti-Corruption Commission violated the National Code of Conduct of 2014 when it took upon itself the function of the Ombudsman, to investigate violators of the law as provided in Section 12.2.

Under the 2014 law, the office of the Ombudsman has exclusive authority to receive and investigate alleged violations of the code and impose administrative sanctions.

Another Commissioner, Floyd Sayor linked to the same scandal for secretly outsourcing the contract to Tuma Enterprise, a company with a link to Mr. Sayor, without a bidding process. Sayor was also the subject of the electoral district # 15 by-election fraud case. To the shock and dismay of the country, but was nominated by President Weah and confirmed by the Liberian Senate to serve as a commissioner at the NEC. 

Absolutely, the chairperson and commissioners of an integrity institution such as the NEC cannot be guilty of crimes of this magnitude and at the same time keep their jobs. Only a compromise, cooking the numbers to favor the appointing powers (the President) and governing CDC will keep such people in their jobs.

The results of all subsequent by-elections in the lead-up to and including the 2023 elections will be manipulated by the NEC to favor any candidate of the governing CDC. A case in point is the just-ended Lofa Senatorial by-election in which NEC cooked the numbers for the implied CDC candidate.

The NEC’s own website reported gross discrepancies in the numbers from polling several places/precincts that did not require any expert explanation or interpretation. Unfortunately, the deeply broken opposition’s gross lack of leadership paved the way for such a criminal act to be perpetrated by the NEC. Had it gone the other way around, the CDC would have never accepted such results and would cause serious public disruptions to get their way done. What happened in Lofa was simply a litmus test of what is expected to happen in 2023. 

Weah and the CDC are performing decimally and have brought the country to its lowest point in decades, but the fact is that their strategy for 2023 is well on course. So, the cliché mainly introduced by some members of the opposition “nobody stupid here” really means the opposite, and you know what that means! The CDC succeeded in dismantling the CPP, a body that had the potential to silence Weah and defeat him at the polls, successfully weaponized the justice system against the so-called opposition, situated the NEC appropriately, and are enormously amazing resources.

In short, the CDC has put in place powerful machinery for Weah’s reelection in 2023 while the opposition is still in utopia hoping for election victory in the ensuing elections in Liberia in 2023. If the necessary alignment and realignments don’t happen now to forge a common front in order to aggressively challenge the NEC now and subsequently take on Weah, another round of a Weah six-year is imminent.

If things remain as they are, make no misstates, all the electorate can vote for Boakai or Cummings, they’ll lose because NEC will cook the numbers for Weah. The stage is set, and you can painfully thank me after October 2023. This situation requires the urgent attention of all stakeholders for the right structural change to be instituted at the NEC so the votes will be counted fairly. That way, people will win or lose fairly. As such, acceptance of the results becomes highly likely and violence becomes less likely. However, as it stands, the current bench at the NEC is not credible and must not be trusted with ensuing elections. If that happens, it may cost the nation hugely. 

  1. Deploy Elections Experts as Counterparts to the NEC to Jointly Plan and Execute the 2023 Electoral Activities

Another effective way to deal with the credibility issue besetting the NEC is to deploy regional or international counterparts very early to jointly plan the electoral activities with their Liberian counterparts and implement them together. The practice is common in elections management the world over.

In 2011, the NEC invited the former Chairperson of the Ghana Electoral Commission to work with his Liberian counterparts. The process was very smooth and a well-experienced election expert par excellence, Afari Gyan provided quality and valuable insights and support that ensure transparency and facilitated the conduct of the elections. The process makes everyone very careful and extra cautious in everything they do. It promotes fairness and transparency. 

Also, I remember quite vividly going on such missions under the auspices of ECOWAS and the Mano River Union (MRU) during my time at the NEC. In 2012, I was part of a mission comprising experts from other electoral commissions to Ghana to investigate whether or not Ghana was ready for the 2012 elections. Our report informed measures taken by ECOWAS to address the highly volatile political situation as Ghana was on edge of electoral violence.

In the same year, I was designated by the NEC to work with the Electoral Commission of Sierra Leone to provide them with 10,000 voting screens to guarantee the secrecy of the ballot, and also with the support of ECOWAS, I assisted the Guinean Electoral Commission in planning and executing their legislative elections. In other words, democratic institutions and partners of Liberia (UNDP, USAID, EU Commission, etc.) should be encouraged to support the timely identification and deployment of highly qualified election experts as counterparts to the NEC to plan, organize, and deliver the 2023 elections in a transparent and credible manner. 

  1. Timely Provide the Needed Resources and Deploy External Auditors to get the Best Results and Curtail Waste and Abuse  

Electoral activities are timebound. When the timelines and guidelines for elections are released by the Commission, the required resources (money and logistics) must be provided in a timely manner to enable the commission to meet all of the key dates. Once you miss an activity, it runs into the next one, thus, causing uncertainty, confusion, and delays which eventually hamper the overall process.

It is a recipe for irregularities and fraud because the NEC will work under pressure and unrealistically seek to meet established dates. That is why given the enormous scope of work to be done in preparation for the ensuing BVR process and the elections in 2023, the government and the NEC need to establish the trenches timeframe for remitting funding and logistics for the timely and effective execution of planned electoral activities.

The timely availability of the needed resources will be a strong indication of the successful and credible delivery of the 2023 elections. Also, given the current credibility issues at the NEC, external auditors should be deployed even before the first remittance for the period of the elections to review and validate every major financial request on a daily basis before they are approved for disbursement. Such a measure or scrutinizing of all financial transactions will ensure the scrupulous application of resources to get the best results and curtail abuse. 

About the author: Josiah F. Joekai, Jr, is a former Director of Civic and Voter Education at the National Elections Commission of Liberia. He is a published author, currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Industrial-Organizational Psychology at Adler University in the United States of America.