On the road to Sanniquelli, third largest city in Liberia. Inadequate infrastructure is one of the challenges facing the country as citizens prepare to vote on October 10.
By Vivian Lowery Derryck
Washington, DC — The Kenyan Supreme Court’s monumental decision on 1 September to annul the presidential election and order a new poll in two months time is reverberating through the continent. But the decision is particularly significant for Liberia, which holds the next African national election on 10 October.
The Kenyan decision is a victory for civil society and the institution of the judiciary, plus it reinforces peaceful resolution of electoral disputes and/or malfeasance. These are all important lessons for Liberia as the country holds its first post-civil war election without the UN.
The Liberian poll will test both the electoral process and the country’s major institutions in a hotly contested race to replace the two-term first democratically elected female president in Africa, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.
George Weah, twice denied the prize, campaigns with Jewel Howard Taylor, former wife of convicted warlord and former president Charles Taylor, as his running mate, raising a host of bitter Liberian civil war memories as well as legal issues. Current Vice President Joseph Boakai carries his party’s standard and, with his vice-presidential candidate, former Speaker of the House Emmanuel Nuquay, represents slow but steady progress in reconstructing a country devastated by more than a decade of civil war and the 2014-2015 unprecedented Ebola crisis. Meanwhile, 18 other candidates are vying for the presidency, including former warlord and current Senator Prince Johnson, Attorney Charles Brumskine, twice defeated in earlier presidential runs, and former Coca Cola executive Alex Cummings.
Teachable moments from Kenya for Liberia’s upcoming election
The intense political landscape is further fraught by the Liberians having organized this election largely on their own, after UNMIL’s major reduction in presence—from 15,000 peacekeepers to 260 police and 230 troops. That means Liberian responsibility for accurate voter registration; ballot security; ballot availability and voter access on election day in outlying counties during the rainy season; polling stations (5,390) management; monitoring the count; and ensuring accurate transmission of results to the central election headquarters for the final tally.
This massive undertaking with hugely reduced logistical support and security apparatus from UNMIL means that impoverished Liberia and its international donors have been forced to absorb the bulk of the multi-million-dollar tab. Reduced resources mean increased vulnerabilities.
Enter Kenya and the teachable moment. The glaring irregularities exposed in the Kenyan election may bring closer scrutiny to the preparations, counting process at the polling stations, and transmission of the ballots to the Liberian National Election Commission (NEC).
The Kenyan crisis centers on the role of institutions, the judiciary and the electoral commission, two especially vulnerable institutions in Liberia. The Liberian Supreme Court has decreed several controversial election-related rulings and the citizenship of Counselor Jerome Korkoya, the head of the NEC, is under scrutiny. So there was no surprise when the Kenya situation hung over the proceedings at the dedication of the 8th Judicial Circuit Court Complex in remote Sanniquellie, Nimba County the day after the Kenyan bombshell.
The Kenyan debacle was front and center in the Chief Justice’s remarks at the opening when he applauded the bold decision of the Kenyan court, reinforced the importance of the judiciary in the democratic process and reiterated Liberian dedication to the rule of law and faithful adherence to the constitution.
There is an opportunity for Liberian officials to do more than laud the Kenyan court and its bold decision. According to news accounts, the fraud in Kenya took place after accurate counting at polling stations, when the results were forwarded as changed vote tallies, and intercepted e-mails were replaced with fraudulent vote counts. Falsified vote certification forms were also submitted. The Kenyan case offers a teachable moment to demonstrate to citizens the distinction between a flawed vote and a flawed count.
The East African experience also reinforced citizen faith in national institutions. Raila Odinga’s dogged persistence in appealing to the institution of the judiciary resulted in a hearing. It’s a lesson that should be heard across the continent, but especially in Liberia with its upcoming contest.
To benefit immediately, African Union, U.S., EU and UN Electoral Assistance Division officials should send IT specialists to Kenya who can quickly review the Kenyan anomalies. The team or similar experts should then immediately travel to Liberia to inspect the Liberian system for similar vulnerabilities. If any are found, safeguards could be put in place against potential mischief. To reassure the public, the experts and the Government of Liberia should hold a joint press conference and publicly discuss any vulnerabilities found and measures taken to correct them.
In addition, Liberian polls would benefit from having independent election statistics experts present on Election Day, with a special invitation to University of Michigan professor and elections statistics expert, Professor Walter Mebane, whose forensic analysis incontrovertibly exposed the Kenyan deficiencies.
Liberian officials say that they are on schedule and will be ready. Billboards, radio programs, newspapers, jewelry and casual conversations are consumed with election news. The Sunday after the Kenyan decision, pastors referenced it and prayed for peaceful, transparent elections.
Government efforts and international assistance are supported by a massive civil society effort, including a highly experienced Women’s Situation Room with its national outreach involving churches, NGOs, professional organizations, the private sector, youth groups and a 150,000-motorcycle brigade currently in training to monitor the polls.
Liberians are proud people. They want this election to run smoothly and to conclude peacefully with a universally accepted winner so that the world will witness Liberia’s first civilian handover from elected leader to elected leader in more than 80 years. They yearn to solidify their status as a successful post-conflict nation of peaceful, violence-free elections. Therefore, all 20 candidates for president should be willing to unite behind a joint statement confirming that each will reject a poll that shows discrepancies between the final tallies at each polling station and the tallies sent to election headquarters in Monrovia, and denounce any evidence of tampering with the process.
All the candidates signed a general statement supporting peaceful elections at a recent ECOWAS meeting, but given the Kenyan events and the multiple vulnerabilities in any given electoral system, a specific new reconfirmation is warranted.
As a bonus, while obtaining commitments from the political parties to reject tainted election results, the issue of the citizenship of Counselor Korkoya of the National Elections Commission, could also be addressed. It’s a thorny issue that already has been raised to question the legitimacy of the process and even a call to postpone the elections. Since Counselor Korkoya has overseen at least two previous elections successfully, in the spirit of national unity, all political parties should agree to let him serve in this election and then resolve the nationality question post-election.
Major national elections either strengthen or weaken pivotal democratic institutions. In the case of Kenya, the judiciary was strengthened and citizens have renewed faith in that foundational institution. Let the international community benefit from the Kenyan case as a lessons-learned and avoid in Liberia the unsettling uncertainty and huge expense being incurred in Kenya. The lessons-learned are relevant for any country and every future election:
Liberia just happens to be the election in West Africa looming in a little less than one month. The international community, partnering with Liberian politicians, its judiciary and its electoral bodies, can make positive history by doing everything in their joint power to ensure a clean election–thereby rekindling the “love of liberty” in the country’s national motto and aiding Liberians on their path to national reconstruction.
Vivian Lowery Derryck is founder of The Bridges Institute. She visited Liberia earlier this month t o assess the gender impact of the 12-year Sirleaf presidency, where she witnessed firsthand the astonished reaction of government officials and ordinary citizens to the Kenyan court decision and discussed follow-up with Liberian colleagues.