Elections 2005: Issues And Thoughts
September 9, 2004
Although the National Elections Commission (NEC) may have just started serious work on the elections slated for October 2005, we’ve heard and read some comments emanating from the NEC on sensitive issues concerning the elections, and some of these comments are cause for genuine concerns as to the expected outcome and its relative fairness.
Normally, one would have expected the political parties, the so-called “stake holders”, to be the ones to impress upon the NEC to implement the basic electoral provisions of the Constitution, if the elections were to be considered free and fair. But because these political parties are abnormal, coupled with their own individual narrow interests in the election process, it is therefore a fight that the real stake holders of Liberia, the people of the Republic, need to take to the NEC, laying out the inferred and plain justifications for the call to implement the necessary provisions and requirements as provided for.
As I have stated many times before, the coming elections in 2005 are very crucial to our continued existence as a people, and key to Liberia becoming a member of the civilized world once again. Therefore, it is imperative that the NEC adopts a more positive attitude to guarantee a successful return of Liberia to constitutional democratic rule. In so doing, the NEC cannot therefore afford to ignore pertinent issues relating to the election, that have generated a lot of comments and concerns from the people. Here again, and for emphasis, we restate some of these critical issues for the NEC to reconsider as we move gradually to October 2005.
The Census Issue
The NEC has ruled out the holding of census before the elections, irrespective of a Constitutional provision (Chapter VIII, Article 80(e)), which mandates that, ‘immediately following a national census and before the next election, the Elections Commission shall reapportion the constituencies in accordance with the new population figures so that every constituency shall have as close to the same population as possible; provided, however, that a constituency must be solely within a county’. This provision is very clear on what needs to be done before elections, especially since the last census was conducted in 1984 (20 years ago). Although the Commission has argued that the holding of a national census is not a prerequisite to the holding of elections, there have been numerous arguments to the contrary that the conducting of a national census is indeed a precondition to holding any fair representative elections.
The elections in 2005 are not about electing a president and vice president alone. Except the NEC is suggesting that we are going to have another proportional representation system of election. God forbade! Otherwise, we must do our utmost best to adhere to provisions of the Constitution of Liberia that were not suspended as a result of the coming into force of the CPA. The NEC is under obligation to guarantee, through the holding of free and fair elections, the just and equitable representation of the people in the first branch of government, the National Legislature. And the reason for the census is very unambiguous: to constitutionally reapportion the constituencies for a fair representation of the people.
How else can the NEC fairly determine how many representatives each county should have? If the NEC uses some assumed figure as it is planning to do, it will leave the elections process and results, especially counties representation, open for legitimate challenge. And the 1984 census figures cannot be used either, since obviously there have been changes and shifts in population density and distribution. To have a fair legislative representation, constituencies must be reapportioned appropriately. To reapportion constituencies, a national census must be conducted. There is no short cut! The constitution is clear on this.
There are about 13 more months to elections, and instead of the NEC conceding that a national census is impossible to undertake now, it should rather acknowledge the challenge and pursue the process with a view to achieving the ultimate. With the input of, and in collaboration with the Planning Ministry, the UNDP and UN Population agencies, and the NTGL, a workable process and timetable can be developed to ensure successful implementation. Instead of conducting just voter registration, a joint voter registration and national census can be undertaken simultaneously, and using the same resources. We have the capacity, including the personnel to do this right, and while the support of the international community is forth coming, we cannot afford to leave it for next time. And we cannot knowingly and continuously keep breaching provisions of the Constitution either.
Voting Outside of Liberia
During an interview conducted by Mr. George Nubo & Josephus Gray, details of which were published by the Perspective on August 13, 2004, the head of the NEC, Cllr. Frances Johnson-Morris indicated that Liberians abroad will not vote during the coming elections, except if they make it back to the country in time to be registered and to vote. The basis for her conclusion is that the international community has not shown to the NEC any indication of wanting to support such a process. But has the NEC made a case for Liberian outside of the country to vote, especially for those refugees in West Africa, for whom the UNHCR has existing statistical data?
Contrary to the view of the honorable chair of the NEC, the issue of Liberians outside of the country voting in the 2005 elections will not be an isolated, strange and unique case for the international community. For instance, for the coming October 2004 elections in Afghanistan, the international organizations involved with the Afghanistan electoral process have just about completed the voter registration of over 800,000 Afghan refugees in Iran and 1.5 million more in Pakistan. These refugees will be able to vote right in their camps and in the elections scheduled for October 9, 2004. Their votes will be counted too because they are Afghans, and although outside of Afghanistan, their leaders and the international community recognized the need to have them included in the process. Why shouldn’t the international community be prepared to do the same for Liberia, if the case is made? Can we not watch the Afghanistan process and input the idea into our own?
I don’t believe the Afghans waited to be told to include their citizens in refugee camps in the electoral process before they did. Is the NEC waiting for the international community to be the one to propose such a move? Out of a population of 24 million (2003, UN), about 2.3 million (about 9%) Afghans who are refugees in neighboring countries will have the opportunity to vote during Afghanistan’s elections. This is about the same percentage of Liberians in refugee camps in West Africa, compared to the total population of the country. Out of a population of 3.3 million Liberians (2003, UN), about 315,000 are refugees in West Africa (2003, UN Briefing Notes). Why shouldn’t the efforts be made to give them the opportunity to vote? .
These Liberians, as unfortunate as their situations are, have the right to vote too. Their case is even compelling when one considers that the efforts to repatriate them are a far cry from even the nominal. Their own government (the NTGL) lacks the moral compassion to understand the plight of these people. Additionally, the case of the internally displaced, those still languishing in dilapidated displaced camps right under the nose of the NTGL, leaves the refugees to wonder if they will ever get back home. The refugees, particularly, have a lot of interest in who becomes president of Liberia, for it could determine how sooner or later they will be repatriated and start to rebuild their shattered lives. The NEC should make this case, and not assume that the international community is not interested. The international community is committed to helping us, but they should not be left alone to think for us on every aspect of our nation’s rehabilitation.
A cardinal rationale for these elections is that the process will enhance and accelerate the return of Liberia to constitutional rule, and therefore to normalcy. The NEC therefore must keep in focus what these elections are intended to achieve, so that its policies, pronouncements and guidelines are structured to achieve that goal. But the recent assertions made by the Chair of the NEC, Cllr. Frances Johnson-Morris (interview by George Nubo & Josephus Gray published on the Perspective, August 13, 2004) that official campaigning will start six weeks or less to Election Day, will adversely affect the goal of hastening the return of Liberia to normalcy.
First, the six weeks or less slated for campaigning is just not enough a time for a general election on such a level as the October 2005 elections. The inadequacy of good roads alone poses an enormous challenge that cannot be overlooked. It may take up to two weeks just to travel (by road) from Monrovia to Kolahun. And if these elections are meant to be for the people, then the candidates and their parties must be given enough time to take their messages to the people. Since we have now reverted to primitive communication (word by mouth) in this day and age, due to the lack of the necessary communication infrastructures that would have immensely improved the candidates’ abilities to communicate with the people throughout the country, there is a need to allot adequate time to campaigning.
But even more important, is the fact that the campaigning process has the propensity to greatly accelerate the normalization of activities in the countryside. So the longer the period, the better it will be for the people. Again, these elections are not just for the presidency alone, otherwise we would just restrict campaigning to Monrovia, and six weeks or less would have been ok, as was the case in 1997. But this time around, the people are going to elect their representatives and senators. As a direct result, those who would want the votes of their counties, districts, towns and villages will have to go to the people wherever they reside to ask for the votes. This means that the people must first be in the cities and towns in order for the aspirants to go there to campaign. Consequently, the aspirants will then be forced to join in the numerous calls to the NTGL and the international community to expedite the process of repatriation and resettlement, or else they (the aspirants) get no constituents, and thus get no vote.
Interestingly, we will start to see a lot of advocates of repatriation, resettlement and rehabilitation. There will also be advocates of a gun free and harassment free countryside, since they too would have to travel the roads to get to the voters, and in some cases, sleep in the same surroundings as the voters. If the voters are not save, the aspirants too will be in danger. And for those who believe in stomach politics, they will have a lot of time to take food up to the people, in exchange for votes (let’s give the people enough time to eat from them). So, at least a five-month campaigning period, which would include time for conventions, is not illogical. It would also show who has the resilience and stamina to go all the way, thus separating the serious contenders from the minnows.
I am a firm believer in the ability of the NEC; that it is capable of setting the stage for Liberia’s transformation. But a lot will depend on how well the NEC acknowledges the critical and immense role it has to play. And as it sets requirements and formulates policies, it should keep into prime focus the interest of the greater Liberian society. The NEC must institute a pro-active approach to the process leading up to the elections, and actively engage the NTGL and international institutions that have committed to supporting the process. The future of Liberia depends on these elections. We are counting on the NEC to fearlessly and impartially take the process to its deserving end. “With God above, we will over all prevail…”