10 March 2017

Liberia: We Must Heed the Warnings of Our International Partners, Especially Unmil and NDI

Two of Liberia's most important international partners, especially when it comes to elections, have warned us to take the 2017 poll very seriously--why?

One partner, the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL), described the month of October as "the most important moment for your country since the Accra Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed to end the 14-year civil conflict.

"It is extremely important," said UNMIL Advisor Michael Page, "because it is the first democratic election that [will enable one government to] transfer to another, and it is Liberians that will make this peaceful transition and not the international community."

He was so right. The last time we had a democratic transition from one administration to another was in January 1944, when President Edwin J. Barclay handed over power to President William V.S. Tubman. President Barclay, at the end of his first eight-year term, had decided to retire and Tubman was elected to succeed him.

After 27 unbroken years in office, President Tubman died following prostrate surgery in London on July 23, 1971 and was succeeded by his Vice President, Rev. Dr. William R. Tolbert. He first completed Tubman's unexpired four-year term to which the two had been re-elected in early 1971, and Tolbert went on to win his own eight-year term of office in 1975. But President Tolbert did not end his term. He was overthrown in a bloody military coup d'état on April 12, 1980 led by Master Sergeant Samuel K. Doe. He ruled the country through 10 years of terror that led to civil war, starting on December 24, 1989 by Charles Taylor and his National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL). Taylor's invasion through the Nimba town of Buutuo on the border with the Ivory Coast began a bloody conflict that lasted 14 years, killing nearly 300,000 Liberians, devastating the country's infrastructure and sending over a million people into internal and external exile.

A series of interim governments followed, none of which was able to end the war, necessitating the direct intervention of the international community, which convened the Accra Peace Conference.

The Comprehensive Peace Agreement that resulted, led to the election of a Chairman of the National Transitional Government of Liberia (NTGL), in the person of Charles Gyude Bryant of the Liberia Action Party (LAP).

The other international partner who has warned of the 2017 election challenges is the National Democratic Institute (NDI).

NDI last week sent a special, high-powered delegation to Liberia to assess the country's readiness for these elections, which they described as "a historic moment for the country--the first peaceful transfer of power from one elected president to another since 1944." The country, said NDI, "is on the brink of consolidating democratic gains since the 2003 political transition..."

To demonstrate how seriously NDI is taking these 2017 elections, its delegation to Liberia included election experts from Africa, Europe and North America, along with NDI's Senior Program Officer Michael McNulty.

The delegation met President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, legislative and judicial officials of various as well as the chair and other commissioners of the National Elections Commission (NEC) and security officials. The delegation also visited registration centers.

Members said they were highly impressed with the prevailing will of Liberians for free, fair, peaceful and transparent elections; yet members acknowledged many development challenges. These include poor infrastructure, particularly in rural areas; lack of a national identification system; difficult macroeconomic trends; dissatisfaction with some elected officials; and service delivery.

The delegation called on GOL to provide adequate financing for the elections, especially given the serious shortfall in international funding. NEC, civil society and the media should intensify voter education, in both rural and urban areas. NDI also admonished the media to avoid inflammatory language and focus on issue-oriented reporting. Political parties were urged to encourage members to register to vote and to reaffirm parties' commitment to credible and peaceful elections.

The GOL and all other institutions would do well to heed the NDI's cogent and timely advice. All of us should do everything possible to ensure that these elections pass off free, fair, peaceful and transparent. They will make Liberia an exemplary nation, set the stage for many future democratic elections and help our country secure its place as one of the citadels of multi-party democracy in the world.

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