A call for accountability before elections in Liberia


By Tarnue Johnson

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
May 13, 2005


What a fresh air of relief in the process of enforcing a mandate for peace and justice in Liberia! What a clever and bold move to restore hope and perhaps eventually install a new barometer for social peace and political accountability! Has the time of the people truly come in Liberia? I hope so! But I guess one should harbor no illusions that only time will tell as everything gets into high gear in Monrovia.

At long last the United Nations is trying to ensure some accountability by endeavoring to put a freeze on misfeasance and more, particularly on the part of those who have committed wonton and the most ghastly deeds against the Liberian people! Let us at last demonstrate in precise terms that these characters can no longer have a free reign. That the era of reason and accountability is afoot!

I am too busy at present teaching and trying to complete a book project but quite frankly I could not let this issue pass by without commenting. I felt obliged to write and voice my opinion because I feel that this issue is too important to be ignored as a new dawn breaks. Indeed, it is now time for Liberians to open their eyes as the dawn rises from the depths of lethargy and lost times. Let us raise our reasoned voices with a singular view of shinning even greater light on the need to ensure free and unfettered elections in October.

In this quest perhaps there is a more legitimate stance that stipulates that there can be no free and fair elections without a legal framework to restrain warlords, child killers and others who would conspire to subvert a democratic process and bearings of a free society.

This would not be a provocative stance but rather a more realistic and humanistic one. It is clear that people who have been listed on the United Nations watch list and earned other distinctions in local and international society as hardened political criminals have very limited stake in the practice and a viable tradition of democratic self governance. One could hardly disagree that the evidence in our recent historical past is not friendly to this proposition. Indeed, I find it difficult to challenge such an assumption!

So, why should we deceive ourselves that the citizenship rights of recognized political criminals can not be restricted in terms of limiting their ability to take part in and influence such a very vital epoch making election in Liberia. There is nothing so far, based on my humble rendering of the Liberian constitution that states that those who commit serious crimes should not have their voting rights suspended at least temporarily before a more decisive election in the history of the nation, especially if such behavior has posed severe strains on the maintenance of national security, integrity and our sense of nationhood. And even if provisions in the current Liberian constitution were to create such an impression, then such provisions should be overruled and therefore deemed of limited applicability given the extraordinary circumstances, challenges and times in which we find ourselves.

After all, why allow those who have terrorized our people to have a say in deciding on a governance arrangement that would stop terror once and for all? And sometimes even a major say based on the calculus of relative electoral strengths. We are all doomed in civil society if we follow the twisted logic of some who might depart from these assumptions as they have shown on a number of specific occasions.

Indeed, characters who will argue that the constitutional and citizenship rights of these political criminals should be protected at all costs are those who have frankly chosen the persistence of a Hobsian state of nature (civil chaos) over civilization and order in Liberia. They are the same characters who were invoking all sorts of nebulous and myopic notions of national sovereignty and specious constitutional precedents meant to hinder the removal of Charles Taylor two years ago.

They are the same actors who today are being effectively challenged to reframe their assumptions by civil society organizations including the Center for Democratic Empowerment led by Ezekiel Pajibo; regarding the auditing of corrupt government officials to check their infamous and rampant misuse and misapplications of scarce public resources. There is no political wisdom or received doctrine that renders that national sovereignty and the exercise of individual rights are free tickets for the conduct of criminal behavior in society. The only way that could be is that if such a society is a sort of idealized and Romantic vision conceived in the mind of some intellectual scribbler.

Such a view would thus lack balance and judicious proportion for all practical purposes; and would therefore be misleading and obnoxious to say the least. I am of the opinion that criminal behavior especially in the most heinous fashion is not necessarily congruent with the free exercise of individual rights and responsibilities in the context of a free, just and humane society.

Thus, the need for atonement and accountability in Liberia makes it obvious that there should be a way of limiting the participation of well known killers and political gangsters from amongst our mist. We see some of these people currently in and out of the interim administration proving themselves as corrupt and as criminal as ever. Some have assiduously endeavored to change their spots but self-evidently cannot change their skins and blemish textures that continually remind us of their infinite capacity to inflict damage; and thereby derailing the process of transition to a functioning civil society and a healthy democracy.

Figuring out these things with four months left to go may not be as burdensome and difficult as it seems because some of the major crimes and killings perpetrated against persons and communities have already been documented. Records of heinous crimes also exist in our collective memory. This suggests that it may not be so difficult to identify the culprits even without a war crimes tribunal that have been delayed for obvious reasons. Carrying out such a mandate may not be that drastic after all as we have seen it in action in other countries around the world dating back to antiquity including in ancient Greece and Rome.

Like many profound aspects of the functioning of political society, there is a long running discourse concerning the disenfranchisement of felons in the political, philosophical and legal sciences. We see that the status of criminal offenders in the polity has been considered by a wide range of philosophers and intellectual big wigs including Aristotle, John Locke, Montesquieu, Immanuel Kant etc.

What emerges somewhat as a consensus out of this long standing discourse and interchange is that criminal offenders should not be permanently deprived of their citizenship in general but can be deprived of certain citizenship rights such as voting under certain conditions (see Manza and Uggen, 2004). These conditions will dictate the specific patterns of attitudes toward various categories of offenders within a national polity.

In the United States for example, felons and some ex-felons in some states are not allowed to vote. In the 2000 presidential election the disenfranchised felon population was estimated to range from 4.1 to 4.7 million Americans comprising approximately 2.3 percent of the voting age population (ibid). Only the liberal states of Maine and Vermont do not have restriction on the voting rights of felons and ex-felons.

While there may be many intervening variables at work that might undermine the veracity and validity of cross cultural comparisons in this particular context, one would still be compelled to ask as to why should we in Liberia allow well known political criminals especially murderers and chronically corrupt individuals to vote and run for high offices in that country? There is already ample evidence that Charles Taylor is constantly meddling in aspects of domestic affairs particularly those relating to the forthcoming elections.

Why should these characters be allowed to participate in electoral politics when there has not been any accountability for crimes so far? Is that the pay you get for perpetrating and abating violence against one’s owned people? I sincerely hope not! I hope the time of the people has truly come!

Therefore, I could not agree more with UNMIL’s electoral division that those affected by travel restrictions should also be banned from participating in the general elections. It is now left up to the national elections commission to show courage and boldness in ensuring that this injunction is not violated. No amount of constitutional gimmick or histrionics about the protection of individual rights can suffice to escape this crucial challenge. The challenge has nothing to do with the pursuit of blind vengeance; it has everything to do with the principled protection of the vital interest of our commonwealth and our basic revered and compelling sense of human decency.

I wish that the idea of a voting ban and electoral participation could also be extended to some of the most notorious foot soldiers of various rebel clans that afflicted so much havoc and suffering on the Liberian people. These are the same young adults and older folks as well who went in the streets in 1997 under the slogan “You kill my ma, you kill my pa, I will still vote for you Charlie…!”

They are the same people who are again frequenting the streets these days chanting” You know book, you na know book, I will still vote for you...!” How long shall this madness continue? I have little doubt that our people must be tired of all this. Why would they think that people will continue to rely on illiterates and political criminals to run a failed nation and troubled society? Has anyone try to imagine the enormity of such undertaking? When does it end? I really do not think it makes sense especially when we are trying to send home the message that crime doesn’t pay! Or are we after all? Will these elections be business as usual like all other previous elections including the elections of 1997? I certainly hope not. I hope the time of the people has truly come!

About the author: The author is currently a university professor in Chicago, Illinois, United States