Inaugural Address delivered by Cllr. Frances Johnson-Morris, Chair of the National Elections Commission (NEC) Of Liberia
April 30, 2004
His Excellency Charles Gyude Bryant, Chairman of the National Transitional
Government of Liberia;
His Excellency Wesley Momo Johnson, Vice Chairman of the NTGL;
The Speaker and Members of the National Transitional Legislative Assembly;
The Chief Justice and Associate Justices of the Supreme Court of Liberia;
His Excellency Ambassador Jacque Paul Klein, United Nations Secretary General’s Special Representative to Liberia;
Heads of Warring Parties to the Liberian Civil Conflict;
The Doyen and Members of the Diplomatic Corps;
Heads of Registered Political Parties present;
Representatives of the Donor Community;
Heads of local and international non-governmental NGOs;
Prelates and Members of the Inter-Religious Council of Liberia;
Fellow Commissioners of the National Elections Commission of Liberia;
Members of the Fourth Estate;
Our partners in progress;
It is exactly 97 days or approximately three months one week today since, in keeping with the Comprehensive Accra Peace Agreement, the Chairman of the National Transitional Government of Liberia (NTGL), His Excellency Charles Gyude Bryant nominated us along with six other sons and daughters of the land to carry out the mandate of the National Elections Commission of Liberia as prescribed under the CPA. In the spirit of true nationalism we unconditionally accepted the challenge and, under the doctrine of checks and balances, subsequently placed ourselves at the disposal of the National Transitional Legislative Assembly for confirmation proceedings. Our convocation here today bears testimony of the success story behind our encounter with the Law Makers.
HISTORY OF ELECTIONS IN LIBERIA
Elections in Liberia are as old as the state itself. They even precede the declaration of independence in 1847. During the formative years of the state; that is from 1822 to 1847, the agents and later the governors of the settlements were the only officials who were appointed by the American Colonization Society. All others were elected by the settlers. During the nineteenth and early decades of the twentieth centuries elections were conducted by judges of courts.
In 1912 President Daniel E. Howard alluded to the necessity of an independent elections institution when he stated in his inaugural address “I think the time has arrived when our courts of justice should be dissociated from the management of our political campaigns.” The President then went on to add that he would “submit to the Legislature at their present session an act creating the office of Commission of Election.” Rigorous research may reveal that such a submission was made.
Up to 1927, the results of only one election were protested. This was the election of 1869 in which the ballots cast had more words on them than when they were given to the voters for marking. It is highly unlikely that the protest of 1869 would have been fairly attended to by the Legislature since its membership was made up largely of one political party. The Department of state and the Legislature determined the results of the election of 1869.
There was only one contestant in the presidential election of 1871. Controversy over that election led to the forced removal from office of President Edward James Roye. Perhaps if there had been an independent judiciary the constitutional crisis of 1871 might not have erupted and President Roye removed from office by force. There is no evidence that the judiciary played a determining role in the outcome of the election of 1871.
The election of 1927, as history has recorded, is still the most rigged ever. At a time when the total number of eligible voters in the country did not exceed 15,000 the winner of the election received 240,000 votes while the loser got 9,000 votes. Perhaps, if there had been an independent elections Commission, the opposition would not have taken the case all the way to the League of Nations. The case almost cost Liberia her independence.
FUNDAMENTAL PROBLEMS ASSOCIATED WITH PAST ELECTIONS IN LIBERIA
Throughout the political history of Liberia, election malpractices have and continue to haunt us as a nation and people. The end results of which, as we all know them, are the wanton destruction of lives and the fabric of our society. In the past, some of our past elections commissioners are known to have consciously given in to threats and intimidation, most often than not from the incumbent national leaders and swayed from the normal course of standardized election conduct to one only satisfactory to the incumbent.
A classic example of this type of situation in the electoral history of Liberia is the 1985 National Elections. It can be recalled that before the ballots were counted following the polling, President Samuel K. Doe set up a 50-member Commission instead of the then Special Elections Commission (SECOM) chaired by a seasoned diplomat, Emmett Harmon, to count the ballots.
On the day of the announcement of the election results, President Doe, led a battalion of the AFL to the Unity Conference Center in Virginia, the venue of the program and sat right behind the Chairman of the elections commission. I need not tell you in whose favor the results were announced.
The 1997 election, characterized as free and fair by the international
community, demonstrated the will of the Liberian people to reinstate
democracy in their land.
Fellow Liberians, ladies and gentlemen: We are at a crossroads. Judging by our bitter past experiences in relations to the myriad problems which over the years have attended the conduct of our national elections, and the consequential destruction of our nation’s fabric, the conduct of the 2005 general and presidential elections provides a golden opportunity for us to make a difference. The decisions we make and the actions we take in furtherance of these decisions in regards to the pending election will determine our destiny as a nation and people following almost two decades of fratricidal civil war. To sustain the gains we have made so far at this turning point of our nation’s history, we must avail ourselves of the opportunity to tread a new path devoid of those vices that have the proclivity to plunge us into another round of violence.
THE ROLE OF THE NEC VIS-À-VIS THAT OF THE UNITED NATIONS IN THE 2005 ELECTIONS
The Comprehensive Accra Peace Agreement represents the way forward for Liberia following nearly two decades of civil conflict which rocked the very foundation of our nation-state on account of a perennial governance crisis. Unfortunately, certain provisions of this piece of document, regarded as the road map to peace in Liberia, are fundamentally ambiguous and, therefore, controversial. One of such provisions is the role the CPA ascribes to the NEC in the conduct of the 2005 elections. Article XIX (4a) of the Agreement states: “The Parties agree that the Transitional Government provided for in this Agreement shall request the United Nations, the African Union, ECOWAS and other members of the International Community as appropriate, to jointly conduct, monitor, and supervise the next elections in the country.”
In their attempt to unravel the ambiguity attending this provision of the accord, there are those who argue simplistically that the only role of the NEC in the 2005 elections will be to organize voter’s education and registration programs in collaboration with other national and international organizations under the supervision of the United Nations.
While this provision of the document delegates to the UN, AU, ECOWAS and other members of the International Community the responsibility of jointly conducting, monitoring and supervising the 2005 elections as stipulated under Article XIX (4a), in the same vein, this provision ignores the other key roles assigned the NEC under the Agreement. For instance, under Article XVIII (1 & 2a), the NEC is charged with the onerous and Herculean task of reforming the present electoral system in order to ensure that the rights and interests of Liberians are guaranteed and that the elections are organized in a manner that is acceptable to all. These responsibilities, ladies and gentlemen, are inconsistent with the view that the NEC has only a limited role in the 2005 elections.
Consequently, the NEC envisages the role of the United Nations, the African Union, ECOWAS and other members of the International Community to be one of support, facilitation, and collaboration with the NEC rather than a role which would have the effect of supplanting the National Elections Commission (NEC).
Our perspective on this role of the UN and other members of the International Community finds support under Article XXIX of the Agreement wherein, among other things, the parties call for “the urgent establishment of a consolidated United Nations Mission in Liberia that will have the resources to facilitate (emphasis is ours) the implementation and coordination of the political, social, economic and security assistance to be extended under this Agreement.” Again, the parties, under this article called on ECOWAS, in collaboration with the UN, AU, EU and the ICGL, to set up a monitoring mechanism in the form of an Implementation Monitoring Committee (IMC) in Monrovia that will ensure an effective and faithful implementation of the Peace Agreement by all the parties.
In line with this understanding of the CPA, therefore, collaboration between the NEC, UNMIL, EU and other international donor agencies has already commenced. As a result of this collaboration, the NEC has been able to develop a provisional operational timeline for the 2005 elections. This timeline, however, to a large extend, depends upon a number of key factors which are beyond the control of the NEC.
Among these factors are the speedy implementation of the current Disarmament, Demobilization, Rehabilitation and Reintegration Program as well as the resettlement of internally displaced persons (IDPs) to their original communities, and the repatriation of refugees from neighboring countries and beyond. The availability of resources to implement other activities in accordance with the timeline is also essential.
Notwithstanding the foregoing contingencies, the NEC has resolved to proceed under the assumption that all will be well and that the preconditions for holding the 2005 elections will be met. In this light, activities aimed at undertaking electoral reform as mandated by the CPA will kick off during the first week of June and end on July 30, 2004. These activities will take the form of a consultative process among stakeholders to include signatories to the CPA, the Chief Mediator, witnesses, representatives of AU, ECOWAS, UN, the NTLA, ICGL, political parties and civil society organizations on electoral systems and other electoral law proposals.
The consultative process is intended to engender an electoral framework that will permanently respond to the need of the Liberian people for an election system that promotes inclusion rather than exclusion of certain portions of our citizenry based solely on election results.
This, we believe, is necessary if Liberians are to abandon the culture of violence which has now firmly taken root in our society over the lat two decades.
In the light of the foregoing, the NEC would like to use this occasion to impress upon all political parties and political groupings the resolve of the NEC to take advantage of the opportunity afforded it under the CPA to open a new chapter in the history of elections in Liberia.
How does the NEC hope to achieve this goal? It is our hope that the stakeholders mentioned herein will share this vision and work with us during the consultative process to identify gaps and weaknesses in the system in order to jointly upgrade the system. We also intend to launch a vigorous civic and voter’s education campaign which will be implemented by civil society organizations to prepare the electorate to conscientiously exercise their franchise.
THE QUESTION OF THE PROLIFERATION OF POLITICAL PARTIES
At this juncture, we wish to address ourselves to one of the election-related issues which of late have generated so much concern in many quarters. The question of the proliferation of political parties as we approach the 2005 post-war elections seems to bother many Liberians. Already, there are 18 registered political parties in the country with strong indications that more are to follow later. Most Liberians are of the conviction that the current multiplicity of political parties is unhealthy for a country with a population of less than three million people. They argue that the situation has the potential to confuse the electorate as to who the best candidates are.
The Liberian Constitution unequivocally provides for multi-party democracy. Under the circumstance, it would have amounted to a breach of the Constitution had the erstwhile Elections Commission (ECOM) attempted to limit the number of political parties. However, with the suspension of relevant provisions of the Constitution in the context of the CPA, and the subsequent empowerment of the NEC to undertake electoral reform, we wish to assure our fellow Liberians and our partners in this business of our determination to take advantage of this window of opportunity to lay a new foundation upon which Liberia’s new electoral system will be built.
PRE-MATURE POLITICAL ACTIVITIES
While the NEC, in keeping with the 2005 election timetable, is yet to formally announce the commencement of political activities in the country, it is regrettable that some political parties have and continue to take undue advantage of the delay in the confirmation of members of the NEC to undertake campaign activities in contravention of the election laws of Liberia. We want to remind all those political parties and individuals involved in this practice that Pre-mature campaigning violates Section 14 of the 1986 Guidelines and Regulations of the Elections Commission which states:
“The Elections Commission shall determine and publish the date when canvassing and campaigning shall begin and close in any election; no political party or candidate shall be allowed to proceed to canvass and to campaign unless so declared, and no political party or candidate shall continue beyond the closing date of the campaign. All public political rallies and activities for whatever purpose shall be subject to the approval of the Commission. Failure to adhere to any of these guidelines shall constitute an election offense punishable under Section 10.26 of the Elections Law.”
Consequently, the NEC hereby calls upon all those political parties and groups which have thus transgressed the Elections Guidelines and have further posted placards, flyers, banners and portraits of presidential candidates on public buildings, light poles or other conspicuous places in furtherance of their illegal campaigns to demonstrate their commitment to fostering a fair process in 2005 by proceeding to remove these public relations materials within 48 hours or face the full weight of the elections law.
THE CITIZENSHIP DIMENSION
Ladies and Gentlemen: in our collective strive to make the 2005 national election different from previous elections in Liberia in terms of its mode of conduct, it is imperative that all of us, including our international partners, put in place mechanisms that will guide against those situations that have the tendency to militate against our uncompromising resolve to see an outcome acceptable to all.
In this context, the question as to who is a Liberian citizen eligible to exercise his/her franchise in the pending election remains critical to the entire electoral process. Realizing that most of the ethnic groups in Liberia are also found in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast, how can we establish the true identity of a bona fide Liberian citizen from another person of the same ethnic group from these neighboring countries? While the participation of non-Liberian citizens in the 2005 election is hypothetical, we cannot rule out the possibility of such scenario.
Accordingly, as part of our pre-election activities, the NEC, in collaboration with the Ministry of Finance and other relevant government agencies and parastatals, will initiate the issuance of national identification cards to all eligible voters as a requirement and prerequisite for voting in the 2005 elections.
THE ROLE OF THE MEDIA
As we embark on this Herculean task of exploring every means available at our disposal in finding a lasting solution to our perennial problem, the role of the media in this venture cannot be overemphasized, especially as it relates to its participation in the conduct of free, fair, transparent, credible and democratic elections come 2005. In order to be relevant to the process, the media, especially the independent media, guided by the theory of social responsibility, must be seen to be objective and unbiased in its reportage of issues relative to the electoral process. It is our pledge that in our quest for transparency in the entire electoral process, we will seek to forge partnership with the media, as with the rest of the civil society organizations. In order to sustain this partnership, it is essential that the media remains responsible in its coverage of the electoral process and not take on a partisan posture.
In conclusion, we want to assure all Liberians and our partners in the international community of our unflinching commitment, determination and dedication to the task before us. Indeed, we shall be courageous in taking the necessary steps that would better serve the interest of the Liberian people, over and above the interest of any individual or groups of individuals. For us, no sacrifice shall be too great to make in seeking to achieve our goal of ensuring free, fair, transparent, credible and democratic elections in Liberia in 2005.
To achieve this daunting task, fellow Liberians, adequate support to the Commission and the preservation of the independence of the Commission can not be over-emphasized. We call upon the Liberian National Transitional Government and our international partners to lend us their support in this regard.
We shall forever remain grateful to the human rights and pro-democracy organizations in particular, and the civil society organizations in general, for our selection to serve on the NEC. We also owe a debt of gratitude to His Excellency Charles Gyude Bryant, Chairman of the NTGL, for nominating us and the National Transitional Legislative Assembly (NTLA) for confirming our nomination.
God being our helper, we shall succeed in this endeavor. I THANK YOU