By John H. T. Stewart Jr.
|Chairman Jerome Korkoya|
In October this year, Liberians will be going to the polls to elect senators in what will be special elections because they will be held to replace only senators whose tenure would be expiring this year. According to political observers, these elections will to a large extent prove to be a dress rehearsal for Legislative and Presidential elections in 2017. Earlier in April, the National Elections Commission (NEC), kicked off the process commencing with the updating of the voters registry (put at an official cost of US$1,909,876.50). This exercise yielded poor results as only 100,000 new voters were registered which fell 300,000 short of the projected figure of 400,000 new voters.
But the pending October elections are just a pointer to Presidential and legislative elections in 2017, as those elections are bound to engender controversy. Controversy will likely revolve around the simple majority requirement. The 1986 Constitution provided for an absolute majority requirement ostensibly as a consensus building tool in a country that had been deeply fractured along ethnic, political, social and other lines. But owing to an appeal by the LINU and some other parties following the referendum results of 2011, that provision was thrashed by a Supreme Court decision which ruled to have it replaced by a simple majority requirement.
The proposal to amend the Constitution was rejected at the 2011 referendum but, was passed by the Supreme Court. In retrospect it appears that it was the NEC and not the Supreme Court that had erred because the NEC had included invalid votes in its vote count. Now with so many candidates contesting it can be expected that the elections may leave communities more deeply divided than ever before as many of those currently serving as legislators made it through on very narrow margins based on the Simple Majority formula.
Another issue that proved controversial was the demarcation of constituencies based on a 20,000 thresh-hold provided for by the Constitution. During the last 2011 elections, this constitutional provision was set aside by the Legislature. Although the act constituted a violation of the Constitution, it nevertheless went virtually unchallenged and was therefore left to stand. At this point it remains unclear how such developments are likely to impact the upcoming elections but tensions and disputations likely to be generated during the October elections may certainly provide a glimpse into how the 2017 elections may likely pan out.
Ahead of the 2017 elections however is a Constitutional referendum on a host of issues including the proposed change of National symbols, the tenure of the President and Legislators amongst others. Then Liberians will have the opportunity to undo those changes made to the Constitution as a consequence of error on the part of NEC particularly the absolute majority requirement-a provision enshrined in the 1986 Constitution. Surprisingly, the ongoing national discourse on proposed changes to the Constitution has remained silent on these issues laden as they are with such potential for conflict.
And as the clock ticks towards October, what promises to be a crowded field of contenders is slowly emerging in the various counties. Like the last by-elections, voter apathy may likely affect turnout which has been observed to be quite poor in recent by-elections held around the country. But this reality, notwithstanding, does not in any shape or form suggest that voter apathy will have a crippling effect on the 2017 legislative and presidential elections as the record shows that voter turnout during such elections have been quite impressive just as it was in 1985, 1997,2005 and 2011.
For now the concern is whether the NEC will be fully prepared, when the time comes, to hold the elections, given financial and other constraints such as logistics currently bedeviling the institution. The NEC has reportedly requested an amount of 15 million United States dollars from GOL to fund the special elections. But given budgetary shortfalls and GOL’s critical financial situation it remains to be seen whether GOL can go it alone or whether it will have to count on assistance from its foreign partners.
Assistance from foreign partners may prove however untenable if the NEC fails to adequately address itself to issues of transparency and accountability currently being raised by the Legislature, the general public and others in the donor community. There are claims both from within and without the Commission that the NEC Executive Director, Lamin Lighe has been conducting business in ways that appear to be in violation of NEC’s own procurement policies and PPCC regulations.
The logistics contract for instance, valued at US$1,909,876.50 which was awarded to the Efficient Logistics company appears to have been awarded without the PPCC endorsement. According to available records, as far back as December 2013, the Efficient Logistics was already performing tasks for the NEC relative to the Voters Roll Update (VRU) in the absence of a contract and, it is not clear whether the NEC published an invitation to bid in the local dailies.
The contract itself was approved and signed by Finance Minister Amara Konneh on 03rd March 2014 and on 24th March 2014, acting Justice Minister Wheatonia Barnes attested to and signed the document. A notable absence however is the signature of the PPCC Executive Director, a fact which appears difficult to reconcile with claims that the contract was indeed approved by the PPCC. But the contract was awarded anyway and was dated retroactively to January 2014 well after the VRU exercise had begun.
But the sidestepping of PPCC requirements witnessed by the deployment of Efficient Logistics personnel and vehicles in the field when a contract had not been signed apparently did not go down well with the NEC’s line managers especially its Director of Procurement, one Ms. Williams who penned her concerns to Executive Director, Lamin Lighe, in a memorandum dated 16th December 2013.
Amongst other things she wrote “…………I have observed in recent times that the Commission particularly your office has taken some decisions that tend to weaken the procurement process such as, the awarding of contracts without the consent and involvement of the entire procurement committee/unit and the selection of vendors to perform procurement related services without formal contracts.
These are clear violations of the PPCC Act and NEC Procurement Policy. Mr. E.D., I believe that we should not place the ‘cart before the horse’ that is to say we should not compromise the interest of the Commission. The NEC should do everything possible to comply with the PPCC regulations so as to avoid conflict in the future.”
But the memorandum from Ms. Williams may have apparently incensed the Executive Director as can be gathered from his response to the memorandum from her (Ms. Williams).
On 16th December 2014, he wrote “I acknowledge receipt of your communication dated December 16, 2013 in which you asserted that the Commission and my office in particular were violating the PPCC Act and the NEC Procurement Policy. Unfortunately Miss Williams your communication is vague and makes it difficult if not impossible to adequately respond to your allegations. For the sake of the record and also to ensure procurement processes are competitive and transparent in adherence to the PPCC Act and the NEC Procurement Policy, kindly provide specific details of instances where the Commission and particularly my office violated the PPCC Act or the NEC Procurement Policy.
As I await your soonest response, let me assure you once more that my office is always open to address whatever concerns you may have.
C.A. Lamin Lighe /Acting Executive Director
But barely a week later on Christmas eve, December 25, 2013, Acting Executive Director Lamin fired off another letter to Ms. Williams threatening to take what he called administrative actions against her if she did not respond by 31st January 2014. His letter reads…
“Dear Ms. Williams,
“I write to remind you of my communication dated December 19, 2013 requesting you to furnish my office with specific details of instances where my office violated the PPCC Act and the NEC Procurement Policy in the nature you referred to in your letter.
It is also in the light of the above that the Commission seeks the specific details of those violations so as to correct and prevent the reoccurrence of such violations in the future.
Let this communication serve as final reminder for submission to my office of specific details of violations of the PPCC Act and NEC Procurement Policy as alleged by you. Failure to comply by January 31, 2013 will leave the Commission with no other alternative than to take the appropriate administrative actions.
C.A. Lamin Lighe/Acting Executive Director
But the tone of this letter raises questions as to whether his (Executive Director Lamin Lighe’s) intent was to elicit the truth or to brow beat Ms. Williams into submission and silence. And by going by the tone of her written response to Mr. Lighe, it is clear that Ms. Williams felt threatened and this appears to be simply because she dared to raise her concerns about what she considered violations of the PPCC Act and NEC’s Procurement Policy. And on December 26, 2013, just a day after Christmas, she responded providing details or specific instances of the violations as demanded by the Executive Director.
Amongst other things she wrote “……. Permit me to provide you specific instances which I hope will draw recollection to events for which my memorandum unfortunately did not provide clarity thereof:
A. Awarding of Contract to La Cape Printing Press
The company mentioned above, participated in the bidding process for the recurrent budget and did not even come second to wining the bid during the evaluation; yet the La Cape Printing Press’ name was sent forward to the PPCC in a letter dated 27th August 2013 seeking the approval by the Commission to award the Company the printing contract using the Sole Sourcing Method for the upcoming Voters Roll update. The Procurement Committee members, including the Director of Procurement, were not aware of the decision. Moreover the Procurement Unit has not been served copy of the communication to date.
If you can recall, during the Procurement Committee and Voters Roll Update (VRU) meetings, you and the Chairman of the Procurement Committee Commissioner Jonathan K. Weedor announced that companies who won the bids for the recurrent budget will not be allowed to procure for the project budget; there I was subsequently instructed to prepare Invitations to Bid and Bidding Documents (IFB) for the project budget. Astonishingly, a communication was received from the PPCC prior to the preparation of the IFB and bidding documents requesting the NEC to submit all the documents leading to the award of the contract to La Cape Printing Press. As Director of Procurement, I found this very surprising when my office had not commenced the preparation of the IFB and bidding documents for printing, to have learned of such communication from the PPCC.
B. Requesting that Total Liberia Inc be awarded the Petroleum Supply Contract:
During one of our Cash Management Committee (CMC) meetings chaired by Commissioner Davidson, you declared to the Committee that the ‘Total’ Filling Station should be given the Contract to supply the Commission with petroleum products during the VRU process. I advised the Committee that it was not prudent to award a contract to a company without a transparent procurement process. I further said that ‘Total’ had repeatedly informed the Commission that its filling stations were owned by individuals who had leased the franchise from Total Corporation. Hearing this information I was immediately informed by the then Chairman of the CMC, Commissioner Davidson to abide by the procurement procedures.
C. Awarding Vehicles Rental Contract to Efficient Logistics
Efficient Logistics did not enter into a Contractual Agreement with the Commission; neither is there any transport company that I am aware of. But, you insisted that they should be hired to transport the Gender Team out of town when there is no written request for this purpose. These are few of the many instances and violations of the PPCC regulations and NEC Procurement Policy.
I therefore hope my response will constitute sufficient justifications for my observations and concerns as it relates to strict adherence to the PPCC Act and the Procurement Policy of the National Elections Commission.
Johnetta Williams/ Procurement Director
Interestingly, since Ms. Williams penned her response to Mr. Lighe, he has not responded on paper but he has effectively, according to insider sources, and with the apparent approval of Chairman Korkoya, replaced Ms. Williams by another individual with lesser qualifications, a move which according to sources, has not gone down well with other staff members because, in their view, it is tantamount to a witch-hunt directed against Ms. Williams for daring to expose Mr. Lighe’s faux pas.
According to insider sources, Ms. Williams has been serving as Procurement Director for six (6) unbroken years with credit and without blemish. Yet, for no apparent reason other than the fact that she dared to question what she saw as fraud and official misconduct she has been removed from her position sadly with the approval of the Chairman. Why has he (Chairman Korkoya) let Executive Director Lamin Lighe off the hook in the face of such glaring breaches of policy by Mr. Lighe?
Sources at NEC allege that in order to have things go its way, Efficient Logistics provided cash inducement in the amount of US$40,000 (forty-thousand United States dollars) to each Commissioner with the exception of Commissioner Jeanetta Ebba-Davidson who insider sources say refused to accept the offer. One of the Commissioners they say, soon after receiving his share, bought a used vehicle for his girlfriend and flew off to Accra, Ghana for rest and holiday.
Admittedly, the actual truth of these accounts of happenings at the NEC are difficult to establish in the absence of hard evidence and so they remain in the realm of hearsay however; I did raise the issue first with Commissioner Sam Joe and then with Chairman Korkoya both of who dismissed the allegations with a virtual wave of the hand.
But these speculations/allegations aside, of the three (3) examples cited by Ms. Williams, it is the contract with the Efficient Logistics which has raised most concerns in the public and the House of Representatives was amongst those first responders. Apparently alarmed upon hearing that the Efficient Logistics had been awarded such a huge contract (1,909,876.50) without complying with PPCC requirements, members of the National Legislature, specifically the House Committee on elections took up the case. (Sources now put the total amount spent at US$5.6m)
The Commission including its Chairman Cllr. Jerome Korkoya, was summoned to meet with the House Committee on elections. Then it appeared that NEC leadership was sailing into troubled seas for some members of House of Representatives had openly expressed that they harbored notions of bribery in a deal worth almost two million U.S. dollars (1,909, 876.50). There were also speculations in the public that NEC officials were apparently induced by the offer of bribes of forty thousand U.S. dollars (40,000) to each Commissioner save one who reportedly refused the offer.
But NEC Chairman, Cllr. Jerome Korkoya has however shrugged off any such allegations of bribery and impropriety on the part of Commissioners. In an interview with him at his office, he declared that the Contract awarded Efficient Logistics was done within the full ambit of the law and he defended the Sole Sourcing of the printing contract to the La Cape Printing Press arguing that the named printing press had a history of service to NEC although, according to insider sources, there is no evidence that La Cape Printing Press ever did produce any such materials for NEC.
Chairman Korkoya also dismissed allegations that the NEC had spent U.S.$600,000 on the production of materials for the Voters Roll Update (VRU) exercise, when the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) had produced and made available to NEC the very same materials. Responding to allegations by political parties (Alliance for Peace and Democracy) that NEC was changing the rules of the game unilaterally.
Chairman Korkoya maintained that the NEC had the right as referee to draw up rules to govern the elections so long the rules do not violate the Constitution nor elections laws. He further maintained that should any party(ies) feel aggrieved, they have the right to seek remedy through the Courts. But so far no political party has challenged the move by NEC although the possibility of such cannot be ruled out.
That issue aside, both observers and insider sources say that other then issues of transparency and accountability, the nationality of some Commissioners including its Chairman Jerome Korkoya are suspect because they are believed to be holders of United States passports and by implication citizens of the United States of America. Admittedly, this question was not put directly to Chairman Korkoya during our brief interview owing to intervening circumstances beyond our control.
But the question is, does Chairman Jerome Korkoya or any of his colleagues actually hold U.S. nationality? If this is true then did he lie under oath during the confirmation process? Can or should a foreign national preside over elections in Liberia and, should foreigners be allowed to compete in elections? This issue of nationality is one which is not likely to go away anytime soon at least not before the 2017 elections and, Chairman Korkoya and other Commissioners in similar straits may find themselves hard pressed to provide answers to a suspecting public.
For now all eyes remain focused on the October elections and unlike previous elections where voting and other materials were prepositioned, insider sources say this has not yet happened as logistical support for the process remained hinged on the outcome of the current debate on the proposed 2014-2015 national budget. Even Election Magistrates in the various counties are said to be lacking vehicles for operational use and insider sources say for strange and unexplained reasons, there are plans underway to have them rotated before the elections.
And there are questions whether the huge amount, now US$5.6m, according to fresh reports, spent on logistics (vehicle rental) for the Voter Rolls Update (VRU) exercise which targeted 400,000 new registrants but produced only 100,000 was wisely spent at all especially now that the lack of logistics is said to be the biggest headache plaguing the Commission. Currently the Commission (NEC) is engaged in an exercise to replace lost or damaged voter registration cards and this exercise which commenced on July 7th is expected to run thru to July 14th.
This exercise should be followed by the vetting and announcement of nominees expected to contest, the designation of polling centers, the publication and validation of voters rolls and last but not least the holding of elections proper. It must be borne on mind that these are process which should be completed within specified periods before the elections date and should the non fulfillment of any of these steps occasion a delay in the holding of elections in the country, the risk of a constitutional crises will loom large.
It would for example mean that the mandate and tenure of some legislators (senators and representatives) would have expired and they would therefore be holding office illegally. And so it becomes an issue of urgent concern to have these matters including those of “House Cleaning” addressed well in time. This is a matter to which Chairman Korkoya and all other stakeholders should accord critical attention.
In all of this it must never be forgotten that these elections are but a dress rehearsal for 2017 at which time UNMIL will not be around to guarantee security or to protect any special interests. Liberians will be on their own. Elections have always proven to be a contentious affair in Liberia as politics in this country have in the past and even now been a Zero sum game in which the Winner takes it all. It creates and builds tension and is like a primed fuse waiting to explode. For this reason the entire process has to appear credible and the results must be credible.
Stolen elections results in 1985 produced such disputations and national ill will that they paved the way and opened the door to violent conflict and the use of violence as a tool for political and social change in Liberia. The experience proved disastrous and today, Liberia finds itself lagging far behind and lowly ranked on the World Development Index as a direct consequence of prolonged and unfettered violence.
It therefore behooves Chairman Korkoya to be mindful of the potentially dangerous implications of ignoring the need for house-cleaning. The NEC cannot afford to be perceived as a biased, corrupt and non credible institution. He must do all he can to reign in Executive Director Lighe and or control his excesses for they are hurting the image of the Commission and may hurt it even more.
It is very important that NEC should, in this regard, stand above reproach for, this is a high stakes affair and nothing should be taken for granted. Seeking out and exacting retribution from those who blow the whistle on corrupt acts is not the way to go and he (Chairman Korkoya) should be aware of this. It means that Ms. Johnetta Williams should be reinstated to her position as Procurement Director without fail. Should he however turn a blind eye or fail otherwise, he may soon become a political liability and an eventual casualty in this high stakes game.
Verbium sapienti sat - a word to the wise is sufficient!
About the Author: John H.T. Stewart Jr. is a contributor to ThePrespective.org.
He is a Freelance Journalist and former Commissioner of thedefunct Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Liberia (TRC). He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org.