Liberia: Unsafe Ground For Elections
By Francis W. Nyepon
The next Liberian election must resolve the long-standing political squabble, which has dogged Liberia for decades. The question for this generation is not whether the elections take place in 2003, 2005 or 2006; but rather, "what kind of country does the people of Liberia deserve"? And, "how should democracy be rooted so as to avoid a repeat of war as the only means of settling disagreements and disputes?"
This generation bears the responsibility of making the country whole. The special circumstances of our country and our conflicting interests require new and innovative approaches to solving our problems. This generation must be thought provoking in forging a sustainable democracy in which the majority of Liberians can participate freely and become part of a society in transition. Such an exercise must be fundamentally rooted in equal access, opportunity, respect for individual liberties, and tolerance for our diversity.
This transition must begin with free, fair and transparent elections from the bottom up and not begin with the contentious presidential contest, which guarantees one person imperial powers and ample opportunity for amassing enormous amounts of wealth and power. This transition must become the foundation upon which participatory multiparty exchange can begin. It must be structured so as to offer Liberia the best opportunity for building and sustaining institutions and communities through a decentralized system.
The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) 1996 brokered peace ended the enormous human suffering in the country. In so doing, elections were seen as the only alternative to ending the 7-year civil war. A system of proportional representation was designed contrary to the old voting system introduced by the 1986 constitution, which brought the entire country under a single electoral district.
But six years after the ECOWAS arranged election; the conditions that necessitated the civil war in the first place still persist. On the one hand, our country is still mired in poverty, rife with disease and resistant to persistent efforts to rise out of its terrible state. On the other hand, ethnic rivalry, insecurity, corruption and incompetence mount across the political spectrum with no end in sight.
Freedom of speech, assembly and the press are far-fetched owing to the worsening human rights records of the Liberian government. Respect for the rule of law is viewed as a privilege given only for good behavior by the government.
The Liberian government is convinced that prosperity will come to the country once every opposition leader runs into exile and the nay Sayers and critics are frightened into submission. On the other hand, warring groups (factions) continue to create unbearable conditions for the Liberian people as well.
Conditions for Elections
The necessary conditions for election do not exist to permit free and fair elections in Liberia today. The country has not had a census for the past 20 years. The continuous social dislocation of the population has displaced one quarter of the population and killed another quarter. The politics of doom and destruction must come to an end. Serious flaws, which currently exist in the electoral process, must immediately be done away with, if the playing field is to become level. National censuses, voter education, demarcation of electoral districts, voter registration are necessary prerequisites if Liberia is to have a credible national election.
Entire towns and villages have been destroyed during the civil war and continuous conflict. New political sub-divisions have been created thereby adding to the existing chaos. The 1984 pre-war census put the number of people in Liberia at 2.5 to 3 million. The absence of the country's population record speaks volume. An assessment of the pre-election period and the electoral framework must be acceptable to all sides and the Liberian people.
In six months, the 2003 municipal, chieftaincy and presidential elections are scheduled to take place in Liberia. The need for some sort of "political arrangement" to properly define the role of the security forces cannot be over emphasized. Liberians have a predatory relationship towards those, who are supposed to guarantee their protection; And as voters, there is a need to build a relationship of mutual respect and trust between the security forces and the people in order to be guaranteed multiple benefits. The role of all security forces needs to be defined before commencing elections in Liberia. It is imperative that this definition takes place in such a way that the function of the security forces does not intimidate the voters. They must view their cardinal responsibility as creating a safe and secured haven for all Liberians without, harassment, intimidation, and unwarranted force.
The national security forces as currently constituted are not the political overseers of the 2003 elections. The Liberian people must insist that their function be based on specifically defined roles by internationally accepted norms and standards. Liberians must demand and call for restructure within the now constituted national security forces before the elections. To accomplish this, proper training and restructuring of the whole security apparatus will become necessary, and must be based on the protection of the inherent rights of the voter. They should be perceived and received as problem solvers and not as harassers and intimidators.
International Stabilization Force
The introduction of an international stabilization force is necessary to provide confidence and dignity to the voters and achieve peace in Liberia. The focus should be on ending the current conflict through a negotiated settlement with an immediate ceasefire and without preconditions. There must be an immediate deployment of an international stabilization force to monitor the ceasefire, disarm all combatants, and provide an enabling environment to facilitate the holding of free and fair elections by a Transitional Governing Authority (TGA).
A three-year election cycle is being proposed to provide a unique opportunity for Liberia to relinquish the winner take all political system and remove the contentious imperial presidential contest as the forerunner to the building of democracy in the country.
The three-year election cycle is intended to decentralize the Liberian society and build institutions and communities. Its vision is to increase the role of civil society in the democratic governance of the country and organize the process by which social and infrastructure development can take place to begin the country's economic recovery.
The three-year election cycle will expose the incompetence of leaders, and the dysfunction of the centralized government; it will restore basic services and build an entrepreneur class while putting an end to monopolistic business practices and promote respect for the rule of law. It will provide for the full participation of all citizens and end the exploitation of ethnic division among Liberians.