The stakes have never been higher in Liberia's recent political history. For the first time ever since the death in 1971 of President Tubman and the smooth peaceful accession to power of his Vice president, the country will be witnessing what is expected to be a peaceful transition of power from a 12yr. ruling incumbent to a new democratically elected successor.
The field of contenders for the throne is crowded with the latest count put at 24 and amongst them, former warlords, ex generals of former factions, clergymen, etc. Already tensions are beginning to rise especially since the Supreme Court's decision trashing the complaint of contender Selena Polson Mappy, former superintendent of Bong County.
She had argued that provisions of the Code of Conduct barring former officials (presidential appointees) from contesting elections who had not resigned at least two (2) years prior to the date of elections was unconstitutional but she was overruled by a majority opinion of the Court declaring that the code of Conduct did not in any way constitute a violation of her rights under the Constitution.
And as if to leave no doubts about where the NEC stood on this matter, its Chairman Jerome Korkoya has emphatically declared that the Supreme Court's decision will be followed to the letter, meaning in effect that the candidacies of individuals like Dr. J. Mills Jones and others are effectively placed on hold by this latest decision. And for the record, there were two (2) dissensions namely those of Justices Jamesetta Howard Wolokolie and Philip A. Z. Banks who argued otherwise.
Although it is not clear whether the decision applied to all and sundry who had some form of presidential appointment (board membership of public institutions for instance) like in the case of Alex Cummings of the Alternative National Congress (ANC) who has been serving as a board member of the Booker Washington Institute (BWI), his party Chairman, Lafayette Gould, has already declared that the decision does not affect the candidacy of Mr. Cummings. Well, only time will tell!
However the chairman of the Movement for Economic Empowerment (MOVEE), Dee Maxwell Kemayah has declared that in spite of the Court's decision his party's standard bearer, Dr. J. Mills Jones will contest the 2017 elections anyhow.
While there are some who argue that the Court's decision is final and binding, there are others like Counselor Frederick Jayweh for instance who argue that Mappy, Jones and others do have a legal recourse to the decision.
Counselor Jayweh contends that that a Motion for Re-argument could be filed before the Court so as to grant aggrieved individuals another opportunity to present their case perhaps with greater clarity or with more convincing arguments so as to overturn the current decision/opinion.
In any case there is no certainty or guarantee that the Court will grant the Motion for Re-argument when prayed to do so and if granted whether such arguments could possibly occasion a change of hearts on the part of Justices Korkpor, Yuoh and J'aneh to to have the opinion reversed.
Another issue which the Supreme Court may be likely to deal with is that of those candidates holding dual nationality. During the elections of 2005, for example, it was revealed that candidate George Weah held U.S. citizenship as well as his natural born Liberian citizenship.
The NEC chairman at the time, Counselor Frances Johnson Morris however overruled objections to have him disqualified on grounds that such would have not augured well for peace and stability.
So far, none of the concerned parties have taken any concrete step to bring the issue before the Supreme Court although some have publicly accused NEC chairman Korkoya and Commissioner Sam Joe of holding United States citizenship. The key issue then will be whether a foreign national, under the Constitution and under current circumstances can preside over national elections.
In the court of public opinion, a foreign national cannot, under current circumstances, preside over national elections, however this may not necessarily be the case should a Supreme Court opinion be requested by aggrieved parties.
But again this has to be tested and until an interested party raises the issue and brings it before the Court for disposition Chairman Korkoya and fellow Commissioner Sam Joe shall remain put except if removed for cause.
But there are yet other issues of concern which could, if left unaddressed, have a bedeviling effect on the overall electoral process, chiefly amongst them, the flawed Voters Registration process and the apparent lack of political will by President Sirleaf to arrest the situation.
For example, it is a known fact that a consultant in the President's office, Amos Siebo, was caught red-handed with Voters Registration materials in the privacy of his home.
Who knows for sure there was no collusion between NEC officials and Mr. Siebo? Also, just how many Amos Siebos are out there remaining yet undiscovered?
In similar vein who knows for sure how many other NEC personnel are involved in such acts like the official in Cape Mount caught recently who had been doing cross border registration?
Just how widespread and to what extent has such fraud been perpetrated is anyone's guess especially in the absence of a thorough official probe. And why President Sirleaf has not yet commissioned such a probe remains puzzling but troubling.
Aside from cancellation of his (Siebo's) contract by the Ministry of State, the matter is being treated as routine affair. In the minds of the public, of all persons who should be concerned about such development, it should be President Sirleaf whose reticence is a source of worrying concern to local and foreign observers alike. And therefore in their opinion, it is important that President Sirleaf breaks her silence on this matter.
Why because her continued silence could be interpreted as acquiescence to the perpetration of fraud in the electoral process. Currently it is being generally opined that had such development taken place at the time in 2005 when she was contesting the presidency, particularly when her political adversary the late Transitional Chairman Gyude Bryant was in charge of the government, hers would have most probably been the largest cry of foul. But so far she (President Sirleaf) has kept her silence.
Additionally, there is also the case of a NEC worker, laden with Voters Registration materials, crossing over to neighboring Sierra Leone to register voters. So no one knows for sure how widespread is such irregularity. And so Chairman Korkoya's claim that NEC had registered over a million voters in the first week of the exercise remains dubious and suspect for obvious reasons.
More to that, the 300 proposed new centers created by Chairman Korkoya have not been identified and no one knows for sure how many registrants have been recorded since the various electoral districts have no defined population figures.
Could the one million plus registrants be coming from those newly created unidentified centers? Moreover, there have been reports of confusion resulting from the frenzied dispatch of Optical Mark Recognition (OMR) forms into counties whose coding figures do not correspond with those of the OMR cards for the particular county.
There is also the case of the flawed Voters education program whose virtual failure can be reflected in the low turnout at the various VR centers around the country. For example, out of a Voters education budget of US$400,000 dollars, nearly half of that amount, US$160,000 was allocated to the purchase and installation of an electronic billboard at the NEC compound but which is yet to be installed even as the extended VR exercise approaches its end.
The contract for the purchase is said by NEC sources to have been awarded to former Deputy Finance Minister Sebastian Muah through a non-competitive bidding process far removed from the scrutiny of the Public Procurement Concession Commission (PPCC) as required by law.
Moreover, it is an open secret at the NEC that its Board of Commissioners has not been holding regular plenary and consultative discussions and the effect can be seen in the haphazard and fraudulent VR process.
Probably this can explain why for example there are now open allegations that the specs submitted by NEC technicians for equipment especially for the cameras were subsequently changed thereby resulting in the purchase of low quality inferior equipment, unsubstantiated delays in the process thus necessitating an extension costing Government well over a million dollars. Latest information (unconfirmed) says that the specs for equipment were, most likely than not, changed by top officials of NEC.
According to the information from credible insider sources, the responsible technicians at NEC submitted all the requisite equipment specs to UNDP. But for unexplained reasons a NEC employee, Mr. Wettee Swen, an individual completely lacking the requisite technical expertise was selected to represent NEC during the purchasing of the cameras and other elections related materials.
And it is he (Wettee Swen) who is being accused of collusion in the changing of the specs allegedly on instructions of Chairman Korkoya. Insiders say the change in the specs was done apparently to get cuts on the deal.
And although Chairman Korkoya was fully aware that Mr. Wettee Swen did not possess the technical expertise to perform the task he was being assigned, he Chairman Korkoya selected Mr. Swen anyway to travel with Mr. George Barashtavili, the UNDP Chief Technical Advisor on Elections to purchase the equipment based on completely new but inferior specs.
Sources suggest that UNDP Technical Advisor Mr. George Barashtavili, who by dint of experience should have known better, more likely than not acquiesced to the crooked deal for personal gain because it is highly unlikely that UNDP would have purchased faulty equipment which they had not fully tested to ensure that the equipment passed all compliance checks before shipping same to Liberia. After all, this was not the first time that UNDP was purchasing elections related equipment and on all such previous occasions, sufficient due diligence was exercised.
But President Sirleaf's silence amidst all these ongoing developments is leading to rising public speculation that she has a hidden agenda. And the fact that open spats have surfaced between she and her Vice President of 11 years about what he claims is her demonstrated lack of support to the Unity Party and his quest to succeed her says more than enough about brewing disquiet between the two and such has been the talk of the town lately.
There are suggestions in many quarters that her perceived support of Counselor Charles Brumskine, which is the most probable cause of the disquiet, is likely to have a boomerang effect on his candidacy and he may as a result suffer massive defeat at the polls except of course if something unsuspecting happens.
And fears about NEC officials tampering with elections results or rigging the polls, is the main source of worrying concerns to the public.
Now that she (President Sirleaf) is about to leave office and the fact that she has no clear intended successor up to this point is troubling although signs are pointing to Counselor Charles Walker Brumskine.
According to diplomatic observers in Abuja, the mere prospects of a Charles Brumskine presidency is very unsettling because he is accused of having displayed open hostility to ECOWAS/ECOMOG and playing a starring role undermining the sub-region during its peacekeeping efforts in Liberia.
As a then loyal foot-soldier of former President Charles Taylor, now a convicted war criminal, Brumskine's repeated clarion calls for a so-called Status of Forces Agreement between ECOWAS and the Government of Liberia was, according to diplomatic sources, intended to undermine the 1996 Abuja Peace Agreement whose provisions called for the restructuring and retraining of the country's security forces as a safeguard against a relapse into armed conflict or against future gross abuses of human rights as had been the case even before and during the civil conflict/war.
His dogged persistence, along with that of his boss Charles Taylor, paid off handsomely and eventually led to the disgraceful exit from Liberia of the ECOWAS Peacekeeping force, ECOMOG.
Rather than being restructured under Taylor, which Brumskine had boasted was President Taylor's sovereign right that could not be delegated to non-Liberians, the country's security apparatus was instead flooded with Taylor's loyal NPFL fighters. And only two years later in 1999, civil war broke out again and before long the whole country was in flames.
By then the so called sovereignty had been ripped into tatters.
Once again ECOWAS had to come to our rescue and at a time when our major ally, the United States, was virtually pussyfooting over the idea of a military intervention in Liberia, Nigerian and other West African troops were back on the ground, never mind the hazardous and potentially life threatening situations that loomed; and they did so just in time to avert a major bloodbath in Monrovia. As such, Liberians have the duty to recognize their enormous sacrifice in financial and material resources and above all in precious human lives.
As one diplomat put it, as Chairman of ECOWAS, President Sirleaf should, in good sense of judgment refrain from sending "succession" signals that may, more likely than not, offend the sensibilities of key players in the sub-region without whose efforts and costly sacrifices, the attainment of peace in Liberia would have proved elusive.
As regards current developments some diplomatic observers in Monrovia say they foresee, given all the hiccups in the VR process, a messy dispute and controversy laden electoral process leading to a deteriorating security situation that may likely provoke the military intervention of the West African Community if President Sirleaf does not get her act right in time.
For example, observers' further say that her decision to have Governance Commission Chairman Dr. Amos Sawyer convenes a forum of contestants and political parties to discuss electoral matters is a clear indication that President Sirleaf recognizes that there are indeed serious problems at NEC that require her urgent concrete intervention.
But there are public concerns that her proposal to have Dr. Sawyer preside over such a forum could prove to be nothing more than a convenient subterfuge intended to wash her hands clean of the problem should her declared honest intentions fall short of any decisive concrete action to address the situation at the NEC.
Already and not surprisingly, some political leaders, including notably All Liberian Party leader Benoni Urey, have declared that they will not attend such a forum.
And it remains unclear whether those actors affected or likely to be affected by the Supreme Court's decision on the Code of Conduct will be in attendance at such a forum if it does ever convene. So far no date has been set for the convening of the forum neither has the list of invitees been made public.
In the final analysis, the buck stops at President Sirleaf. Her quest to ensure a fitting successor trusted enough to inherit her mantle should not constitute a priority greater than the future peace and stability of the country and by extension the sub-region at large.
She must also bear on mind that consciously or unconsciously, she long since ago threw wide open the "gates of tribulation" that saw for the first time ever in more than 100 years, a former Liberian Head of State, Gyude Bryant, standing trial for corruption.
And there is absolutely no guarantee that she (President Sirleaf) could not find herself in similar straits once having left office especially given the rampant corruption in her government which she herself once described as a vampire. Thus while one can reasonably understand that she has the right to choose a successor who she trusts, it should however be left to the Liberian people to decide, through an open free fair and transparent process, whoever is to succeed her.
Thanks to ECOWAS, the United Nations and the rest of the international community she (President Sirleaf) inherited a war ravaged nation but disarmed and at relative peace with itself ready and waiting to embrace true reconciliation.
Sadly and unfortunately even after nearly twelve(12) years, the nation is still not reconciled and the President's much proclaimed "Road Map to Peace" has proved illusory which by the President's own admission speaks of failure in this regard.
That aside, the President ought to and should bear on mind that the legacy she has striven to build over the years will come crashing down should elections results prove contentious and conflictual.
She should draw lessons from the 2014 Senatorial elections which proved very contentious and which saw an unprecedented number of electoral disputes reaching the Supreme Court but lingering there for not less than three (3) years.
She has only a few months left in office and perhaps the best thing she can do now to prevent potentially looming conflict is to get the electoral process back on even keel by overhauling the Commission and redoing the VR exercise.
Yes, indeed critics may complain and contend that redoing the VR exercise is far too expensive and may induce hardships but choices are too few and far in between. In the opinion of Loss prevention experts, the costs of corruption far exceed the costs of redoing the VR exercise.
And there is no price too high to pay for peace, justice and reconciliation in a broken and divided nation.
ECOWAS/ECOMOG provided ample concrete evidence and examples to this effect.
Hundreds if not thousands of their soldiers spilled their blood here on our soil in order to protect us from ourselves. Many of their fallen sons and daughters today lie buried in unmarked graves never ever again to be seen by their loved ones.
Were their sacrifices in vain or have we forgotten so soon. Perhaps trauma induced amnesia has taken hold of us such that we appear to have forgotten so easily the horrors that attended our 14 yr. bloody civil war and the gallant role played by member states of ECOWAS to end the conflict.
As such we feel duty bound to call on President Sirleaf, soon to be retiring honorably as Chairman of ECOWAS, to not dishonor its sacrifice in Liberia by flirting with the idea of a successor who once actively sought to bring ECOWAS to its knees in Liberia.
As recently as 2003 when the country was again engulfed in bloody conflict and when all appeared lost for Liberians who were virtually drowning in their own blood and bodies were being piled up before he U.S. Embassy in order to provoke U.S. military intervention, the answer from the Americans was "African boots first on the ground" meaning that if African troops namely troops from West Africa did not come in to get the first taste of fire, U.S. troops were not going to come in.
And of course there was no hesitation on the part of ECOWAS for within a short time, Nigerian troops followed later by other West African troops arrived on the ground.
Had there been no Nigerian troops at the Roberts International Airport back then in 2003, Charles Taylor's then newly arrived consignment of arms and ammunition would have prolonged the agony and suffering of the Liberian people much longer.
Today with UNMIL's drawdown nearly complete, it is West African troops, specifically Nigerian troops remaining behind to "tote our load" just in case we lose our senses again.
And so we ask is their sacrifice forgotten so soon and are we so filled with ingratitude that we lose sight of the bigger picture in our vain attempts to cover up our exposed underbellies and thereby sacrificing the sanctity and credibility of our electoral process? This question rightly belongs to our national leadership but first!
Enter now, Chief Advocate of SOFA, Great Hero" of ECOWAS/ECOMOG, close friend and former associate of convicted war criminal Charles Taylor-- President Charles Walker Brumskine of Liberia, ha ha ha ha... Ah pueh-eh! He will stay long insah!
The stakes have never been higher!
John H. T. Stewart Jr., Contributing Writer