By Stephen B. Lavalah
Liberia’s top Presidential Candidates in the just ended October 10 elections have chosen the path of litigation and mediation. The mediation was led by the Chairpersons of the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States while the litigation is being handled by the Honorable Supreme Court of Liberia.
The Presidential Candidates have complained about electoral irregularities, fraud, presidential interference and gross violation of the Elections Law and the Constitution of the Republic of Liberia. Absolutely, their points are very genuine and their path laudable. Hence, it is only hopeful that the law will take its course and their grievances will need to be addressed in accordance with the legal framework laid down by Liberia’s founding fathers.
Let us be very mindful, careful and thoughtful to make no mistake that the best remedy to resolving conflict is through the legal proceedings including alternative dispute resolution mechanisms. Notwithstanding, in competitive society like ours, there can be no democracy in the absence of a free, fair and transparent election. Let us bear in mind that no democracy exists without electoral challenges, pitfalls, lapses, and shortcomings. There will always be human and machine errors up to 5 percent no matter where on earth an election takes place. Nevertheless, this is in no way a justification for cheating, gross irregularities and the inability of the National Elections Commission of Liberia to put into place appropriate and trustworthy electoral system. There is simply no excuse for not doing the right thing.
However, the fundamental questions before us go beyond litigation and mediation. It is above the scramble for power, the hustle for wealth, and the struggle for inclusion in government. For many Liberians and even foreigners alike, many critical questions continue to be brought in the limelight: Why it is for more than four decades Africa’s oldest independent republic has been unable to democratically transition from one elected government to another? Is it because of greedy, egocentric, and wealth -thirty individuals mustering their vigor to become president at all cost? Is it due to the uncompromising spirit and the inability to exhibit self-governance? Have Liberian politicians reached a stage where they simply desire to reap the associated presidential benefits while the very people they claim to lead die of impoverishment, human suffering, and starvation? Are Liberian Presidential Candidates a group of people passionate about reformation or a bunch of disparate job seekers demanding employment from their potential employers (the Liberian people)?
Hence, it baffles a good number of people who still ponder over the justification of the presidential candidates to pause Liberia’s democratic transition in such a disheartening, disappointing and disgusting manner for a country that is emerging from years of intermittent conflict and gradually transitioning from a state of fragility to a more consolidated nation. This concocted plan to revert the democratic gains made thus far should and must not be condoned by the Liberian people who have the natural, inherent and inalienable rights to choose their leaders.
The Presidential Candidates ought to realize that democracy can only be sustainable through the Liberian people who are the custodians of peace and the natural resources of the country. As expressed in the language of the 1986 Constitution of the Republic of Liberia: “All power is inherent in the people. All free governments are instituted by their authority and for their benefit and they have the right to alter and reform the same when their safety and happiness so require. In order to ensure democratic government which responds to the wishes of the governed, the people shall have the right at such period, and in such manner as provided for under this Constitution, to cause their public servants to leave office and to fill vacancies by regular elections and appointments.” From this provision of the Constitution, one can easily surmise that in democracy, the political power ultimately must reside in the common people and not under the jurisdiction of presidential candidates, political parties, coalitions, alliances, elected representatives and independent candidates.
In John Ikerd’s article titled: “Is Democracy Sustainable?” He asserted that to sustain democracy, legal statutes must be rooted in the laws of nature, including the laws of human nature, and the economy must function within the bounds defined by those statutes. Ikerd also stressed that to sustain democracy; all people must be afforded sufficient food, housing, healthcare, education – and a sufficiently clean and healthful environment – to meet their physical and mental needs. He further stated that to sustain democracy, it is pivotal to ensure equality of opportunity, both within and across generations, both nature and society must be protected from economic exploitation and degradation.
Besides, former U.S. President Barrack Obama emphasized in a speech delivered at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, Germany “…But we believe that real prosperity comes from our most precious resource – our people. And that’s why we choose to invest in education, and science and research.” So, in every society, whether it is in a developed, developing or least developed country, the people matter most and their welfare, as well as livelihood, must be prioritized and place at the upper echelon of decision making. People’s voices must be respected and they should be provided the opportunity to freely choose their leaders without irregularities from the National Elections Commission or commotions from presidential candidates and political parties.
Ruminating the Past
Historically, Liberia’s electoral processes have usually been marked by irregularities, fraud, violence and some technical and managerial problems though the general consensus from the international community is most often ranked as free, fair and transparent. Since the civil conflict, there have been no local government elections and in fact, many political parties, coalitions, alliances and independent candidates, as well as civil society organizations and advocates, have registered their discontentment in the structure and composition of the National Elections Commission.
It can be recalled that an ex-warlord of the defunct Independent National Patriotic Front of Liberia, rewarded and turned Senator of Nimba, Prince Y. Johnson, revealed he (Senator Johnson) personally influenced election results in Nimba County and linked President Johnson Sirleaf and her senior sister Jennie, including the former Chairman of the NEC James Fromayan to overturn election results of three legislators from the County, namely: Garrison Yealu, Samuel Korga, and Worlea Saywah Dunah, who contested on Senator Johnson’s then National Union for Democratic Progress.
Moreover, during the 2011 general and presidential elections, one party is on record for broadcasting that if the election wasn’t in its favor, Liberia would experience civil conflict anew. Another party disclosed through far-flung media publications that it wouldn’t recognize any presidential election results and in fact threaten that it would make Liberia “bitter.” Some political parties declared a “Vote of No Confidence” in the Chairman and entire Board of Commissioners of the National Elections Commission. Even President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf admitted instructing the market women to take the voter registration card from their children so that they could not vote for her political rival. Additionally, many political parties chose to vituperate at constituted authority while others from the governing party followed a similar course of action against lots of opposition leaders inclusive of partisans and well-wishers.
All the more so, the November 7, 2011, electoral violence otherwise known as ‘Bloody Monday,’ which led to the death of at least one person as reported by British Broadcasting Corporation as well as several other confrontational occurrences further depict the fragility of the country’s security and peace. More to the point, the menace deriving from the leading opposition party to boycott the runoff election and carry out “peaceful protest” on the basis that the October 11 polls were marked by fraud in spite of the fact that international monitors like the Carter Center, European Union, African Union, Economic Community of West African States among other coupled with national observers comprising of the Elections Coordinating Committee and throngs of various stakeholders accentuated and corroborated that the elections had some errors which can in no way amount to fraud, and it was to a large extent considerably free, fair and transparent.
Despite all of the arguments raised by the Congress for Democratic Change, the party unconditionally accepted the results for all its officials and members that won the legislative elections. Even though the pecking order of the party that professes to be “grassrooters” or “downtrodden” was attired in preeminent Western and African suits and as well as attending lavish Inaugural Dinners while the so-called “our people” or “massive” in West Point, Slipway, Clara Town, New Kru Town and other parts of the country were languishing in abject poverty drudging for a single meal let alone clothes. In fact, most partisans who were wheedled to the party’s political ideology walked long distances and used their scarce resources to obtain campaign materials still ponder over the closed door peace negotiation which was reached barely few days to the inauguration. Some partisans wonder if the decision from the hierarchy was for the sake of ostensive “peace and reconciliation.”
Howbeit, the tide has turned in 2017, where the ruling Unity Party is crying foul and accusing its standard-bearer emeritus, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, for interference and influencing election results in favor of the leading opposition party. The ruling Unity Party that has governed Liberia for 12 years now joined the opposition Liberty Party, All Liberian Party and the Alternative National Congress claiming the October 10 elections were marked by gross irregularities, fraud, and violation of the Elections Laws and the Constitution of the Republic of Liberia. Nevertheless, what remains a paradox is the ruling Unity Party has also accepted election results from all its representative candidates who won the very elections presided over the same Chairman and Broad of Commissioners that they want to be removed in an election in which the Unity Party is also claiming irregularities, fraud, election and constitutional violations.
Yet again, civic and voter education, as well as boundary harmonization and other major electoral reform challenges, seem to be another stiff impediment to ensuring democratization in Liberia. On the day of elections, the names of most people who registered were not on the Voter Roll. Even those who were fortunate to vote had to run halter scatter in search of their polling centers to vote. Some electorates got discouraged and did not even vote. Still, many who voted did not know how to vote, which resulted in the highest number of invalid votes. Most poll workers employed by the National Elections Commission received inadequate training and some even engaged in unethical and unwholesome practices by stuffing ballot papers in the ballot boxes in favor of certain candidates, which led to a rerun in some electoral districts.
Reversing the Trend
With all the scuffles from presidential candidates and political parties against the National Elections Commission, one can only hope for amicable solutions free of violence and a forward-thinking spirit to put Liberia first above the sum of presidential ambition and greater than the quest for wealth or material possession.
In all fairness, we cannot change the Chairman and the entire Board of Commissioners just because a few presidential candidates and political parties have declared a “Vote of no confidence” in their leadership to conduct a free, fair and transparent election, even though, these very presidential candidates and political parties have unanimously accepted the results for their representative candidates. If even the Chairman and the entire Board of Commissioners were changed at this very moment, there would still be dissatisfaction, because some of the presidential candidates and political parties have uprightly accused President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of interfering and influencing the elections in favor of an opposition party. Furthermore, President Johnson Sirleaf has expressed confidence in the Chairman and Board of Commissioners.
Accordingly, the most sensible and reasonable thing to do now is for the presidential candidates, political parties, and the entire citizenry to demand an effective, efficient and transparent electoral system to ensure that from this moment onward the elections will be free and fair. Let us dialogue instead of threatening each other. Everyone agrees that the just ended elections were marked by irregularities; however, we all can change it once we desire to find solutions than shifting blame.
In this light, the National Elections Commission should and must be opened to discuss and welcome suggestions from presidential candidates, political parties and every Liberian including friendly nations and international partners. Together, we can fix our electoral problems through our own imagination, creativity, and national pride.
In so doing, many Liberians from all walks of life have started pondering with keen interest the rationale behind the litigation and mediation path chosen by leading presidential candidates. The already poverty-stricken people are speechless with great disbelief that their presidential candidates who promised to ensure better living standards, equitable distribution of resources, justice for all and access to social services have resulted to banish them into perpetual impoverishment.
Hence, where are all the campaign promises? The wellbeing and needs of the “downtrodden massive” or “commoners,” as politicians usually refer to the ordinary people, have been forsaken under the disguise of gross electoral irregularities and fraud. The very people who woke up early in the morning and stood on the lines to exercise their franchise have been deprived the right to quiet enjoyment and peaceful environment as presidential candidates clamor for power.
The young people who participated in the democratic process still feel the pain of unemployment and many have lost hope of becoming the best in science and technology, agriculture and food production, business and entrepreneurship, and possibly in all aspects of human existence simply because their presidential candidates have ignored their plights and refused to give peaceful transition a chance.
The young generation is unprepared and unequipped to meet the challenges that lie ahead and they desired presidential candidates who are willing to fill the knowledge gap in a country where surveys have proven that the older generation is more educated than the younger generation. The young people need presidential candidates who employ innovative measures to cope with the challenges of climate change, shrinking forests, dying coral, depleting fisheries, encroaching deserts and demanding water supplies. The Liberian people want presidential candidates to compete on best ideas not to collaborate to disrupt democratic transition.
In this 21st Century when almost every nation on the Earth is increasingly and significantly improving in all aspects of development and moving steadily in an upward direction, let no presidential candidate be allowed to hinder the Liberian people in giving peace a chance and making the democratic transition a must.
Our presidential candidates have got to rethink about the very people they want to lead and do away with the old-fashioned job seeking mentality. Now is the time to put Liberia first and carry forward a reformer approach to make our country better than what it is now, not just through grandiloquent speeches, but action to build a peaceful society based on the rule of law and respect for every human person.
The task is upon every presidential candidate to know that Liberia is bigger than their quest for the presidency and greater than their desire for ascendancy. It is time to move forward forever and flip the pages to rewrite our history that we came together in spite of dialect spoken, religion confessed, and sound of our last name or county of origin to transition our country from one democratically elected government to the next.
Our presidential candidates should and must not slap this opportunity away from us. The Liberian people must never allow a few presidential candidates to have so much power to tear us apart. We must wake-up, shakeup, and standup for our country to let peace prevail across this country, and let all of us work together to ensure a smooth transition from one democratic regime to the next.
No time for job seeker presidential candidates, we need serious minded presidential candidates who desire and intend to put their country’s interest first for the greater good of the people. Let us learn from our past, consolidate our present moment, and reshape our future for our children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and generation yet unborn.
About the author: Stephen B. Lavalah is an advocate and the Founder & Executive Director of Youth Exploring Solutions (YES), a passionate, non-profit and voluntary grassroots youth-led development organization. For more information about YES’ work in Liberia, please visit http://www.liberiayes.org.