In strongly worded statements this month that bordered on hyperbole, current and past representatives of the US government urged Liberiato speed up electoral litigation proceedings for a peaceful transition of presidential power.
In response to the Liberian Supreme Court’s suspension of a runoff election that should have taken place on November 7 between football star-turned-politician George Weah and the current vice president, Joseph Boakai, the successive US proclamations were misguided at best.
First, the US embassy accredited in Liberia claimed on November 15 that “cumulative anomalies observed” during the October 10 presidential and legislative races were insufficient to warrant a rerun and that electoral disputes should be handled expeditiously.
Former US Ambassador to Liberia and Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Linda Thomas-Greenfield continued on November 17 by rebuking Charles Walker Brumskine of the opposition Liberty Party (LP) for challenging the election results, which were alleged to be fraudulent.
A week later, on November 20, two members of Congress advised US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to support a speedy resolution to the political stalemate because it could “jeopardize peace and stability in both Liberia and the entire West African region”.
While US political interference in Liberia’s current electoral deadlock may appear benign, it is neither helpful nor useful. As a nation struggling to overcome a 14-year armed conflict and find its own democratic footing, Liberia needs the rule of law more than ever before, not political expediency.
As evidenced by recent outbursts about Liberia’s electoral process, the US government has this uncanny ability to promote democracy while simultaneously undermining it. Having previously supported embattled autocrats such as Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, Burkina Faso’s Blaise Compaore and Liberia’s Samuel Kanyon Doe, the US paradoxically remains one of the major funders of judicial system-strengthening in Africa.
For example, following Liberia’s first post-war polls in 2005, which ushered in the election of Africa’s first female president – Ellen Johnson Sirleaf – international donors, such as the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), invested in renovating courts, training judges and magistrates, and topping up the salaries of employees of the judiciary.
Over the past 12 years, various aspects of the Liberian judiciary have improved with linkages to other institutions aimed at providing access to justice for all Liberians, though the process is far from perfect or complete. Ongoing electoral challenges in Liberia are emblematic of the country’s hard-fought attempts to advance the rule of law above all else.
Besides, contrary to the eruption of political violence in Kenya after Raila Odinga challenged the August 8 vote and the Supreme Court of Kenya ruled in his favour, election results announced by the National Elections Commission (NEC) on October 20 prompted a succession of legal challenges without any outbreak of violence in Liberia.
The blissful irony is that Liberia’s electoral litigation processes this year have been more peaceful than elections in 2011, when property was destroyed and civilian casualties recorded during an opposition boycott of the runoff.
Although the LP’s Brumskine initially appeared to be the lone ranger, a maverick of sorts in his legal crusade to expose alleged irregularities and procedural errors, he was later supported by a coalition of other parties, including the ruling Unity Party (UP) and a few other smaller outfits.
Regardless of whether or not their case warrants a rerun, the LP and its primary intervener, the UP, presented some troubling findings.
For example, allegations abound about a discrepancy between the final voter registration roll certified by the NEC in September 2017 and the one shared with the UP after it requested it on November 14. In some cases, voter ID numbers entered into the system produced two distinct names, calling into question the validity of NEC-issued numbers.
The fact that only some political parties had access to the final voter registration roll is also cause for concern. In previous elections, as attested by former NEC chair Frances Johnson-Allison, voter registration lists were published in the public domain before the elections.
Despite these glaring mishaps, the NEC predictably ruled in its own favour last week, arguing that there is insufficient evidence to substantiate claims that its execution of the October 10 elections was fraudulent. In further rejecting an appeal by the LP and UP, the NEC Board of Commissioners insisted that allegations of irregularities did not warrant a rerun of the polls, nor would the outcome of the results have been significantly altered otherwise.
Brumskine’s LP has already announced its intent to make an appeal to the Supreme Court and Boakai’s UP may likely follow suit. This is what democracy looks like, smells like, tastes like, regardless of the outcome of these appeals.
The US government officials who have attempted to browbeat Liberia into political submission clearly have selective amnesia. They have forgotten that in 1985, allegedly rigged elections sanctioned in the name of expediency led to more than 15 years of death and destruction in Liberia.
They have also forgotten that on December 12, 2000, the US Supreme Court ruled in favour of George W Bush against an electoral challenge by Al Gore. Although elections were held on November 7 that year, the Supreme Court did not issue its ruling until December 12. Americans waited for the outcome for over a month, without unwarranted interference by outsiders.
Liberians have already demonstrated that they too can exercise patience and restraint. Whatever the outcome of Liberia’s legal petitions, they are a marker of a fledgling democracy borne by Africa’s first black republic.
After all, democracy is a process and not an event. One size does not fit all.
By using the rule of law to resolve electoral disputes, Liberia is taking pages out of the Kenyan and US playbooks. The US would do well to refrain from making alarmist political statements and allow Liberia’s current litigation process to reach its logical conclusion.
Robtel Neajai Pailey is a Liberian academic, activist and author of the anti-corruption children’s book, Gbagba.
Edward Emmett Dillon is a Liberian attorney at the Ministry of Justice, Republic of Liberia.