14 September 2017

Liberia: U.S. Congressional Foreign Affairs Committee Weighs in On Liberia Elections

Photo: Boakai Fofana/ allAfrica.com
President Sirleaf and members of a U.S. Congressional delegation (file photo).

Monrovia — The U.S. Congress Foreign Affairs Committee Wednesday conducted hearing into "The Future of Democracy and Governance in Liberia" recalling Liberia's emergence from ruthless civil war orchestrated by jailed former President Charles Taylor.

In opening remarks, Representative Ed Royce, Chairman of House Foreign Affairs Committee said - "We remember the horrors of Charles Taylor, his brutal regime in Liberia, and his support of the vicious rape, mutilation, and murder of tens of thousands of people in Sierra Leone and the region."

Jewel Howard-Taylor Speaks About Charles Taylor

"When I chaired the Africa Subcommittee, we worked diligently, and across party lines, to send a clear, unified message -- Charles Taylor must be brought to justice. And against the odds, he was."

Rep. Royce commended President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf for leading efforts in preserving the country's peace, rebuilding its infrastructure and economy, despite enormous challenges.

"I commend her strong leadership through two terms. She is stepping down from office, admirably, and setting an example for other African leaders," he said.

He noted that next month's elections will provide an opportunity to consolidate democratic gains and peaceful transfer power. "If done successfully, Liberia will be a model to fledgling democracies across Africa," he said.

He urged the United Sates to "remain a willing partner to support a peaceful transition of power, where the will of the people is respected and upheld, and beyond, so that this country, the ancestral home of many Americans, can continue its hopeful track."

Royce was a strong advocate in bringing Taylor to justice and sponsored the resolution that brought Taylor to Justice, noting back in 2005 when Taylor was exiled in Nigeria, that leaving him at large threatened to knock down over US$750 million investment the U.S. had made in Liberia since his departure at the time and threatened security in the region by promoting a culture of impunity in the region.

Taylor's Tracks In October Poll

Key loyalists to former President Taylor including his former wife, Jewel Howard Taylor, Chief Cyril Allen, Kuku Dennis and others are parading the helm of the Coalition for Democratic Change - a conglomeration of Senator George Weah's Congress for Democratic Change, Taylor's National Patriotic Party and former Speaker J. Alex Tyler's Liberia Peoples Party.

Taylor's ex-wife is the vice standard bearer on the CDC's ticket.

In Taylor's stronghold, Bong County, which served as the headquarters of the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), some of Taylor's loyalists are using his return to woo votes.

Speaking last Tuesday in Saclepea, Nimba County while on a campaign spree, Senator Taylor, though intimating that her ex-husband is not involved in Liberian politics, said her agenda is to put the Agenda set by former President Taylor back on the table.

"Former President Taylor is not involved in Liberian politics, but I believe the NPP he created is a grass root party that made promises to its citizens since 1997. Because of what happened in our government and the abrupt closure and arrest of President Taylor we were not able to fulfill those promises; but the NPP is now strong and so we want to call upon all the NPP stalwarts across the length and breadth of Liberia to come on board and help us win these elections, we'll put that agenda back on the table," she said.

It can be recalled recently, a representative candidate contesting on the CDC's ticket in a campaign message labeled Taylor's ex-wife as the embodiment of the former president and that voting for the CDC ticket will re-embody his presence in the county.

Candidate Josiah Marvin Cole told his compatriots "Let me borrow from our former President that God's willing, I will be back and Senator Taylor represents former Liberian President Charles Taylor on the ticket."

Corruption - Liberia's Weakest Link

Mr. Dave Peterson, Senior Director for Africa Programs, National Endowment for Democracy (NED) presenting the NED's report to the committee said corruption remains the weak point in Liberia's democracy, as is the case for many African democracies.

According to him, though Liberia's corruption menace is far below Nigeria's, the impact is just as destructive for Liberia.

"Nepotism, ethnic favoritism, shady contracts, vote-buying, land deals, and other forms of both grand and petty corruption can only undermine popular support for democracy," he said.

He said despite many of the candidates expressing readiness to out root corruption, as has President Sirleaf, Liberians have seen little progress.

"Liberia must overcome many other challenges to consolidate its nascent democracy."

"The struggling economy, massive unemployment and dependence on the informal sector, ethnic conflict, religious conflict, land conflict, women's rights, environmental destruction, and many other difficult problems will not be easily solved.

Yet I remain optimistic that with political will, popular commitment, and some modest assistance from international partners, Liberia can consolidate its democracy and steadily improve its governance," Mr. Peterson noted.

He, however, added that Liberia is fortunate to be surrounded by democratic-minded neighbors who are more likely to support Liberia's democratic trajectory than to subvert it.

The kinds of cross-border attacks that used to occur back and forth between Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Cote d'Ivoire have ended.

The steady withdrawal of UN and ECOWAS troops is not a sign of fatigue or diminished support, but of confidence that Liberia's own security institutions are strong enough to maintain order and protect the country.

Lack of Independence and Trust

According to Mr. Peterson, one of NED's partners that have been monitoring the Legislature for many years observed that it has not always showed the independence and integrity that Liberians would like.

Mr. Peterson: "Only one-third of Liberian voters believe that members of the House of Representatives reflect their views, according to Afro barometer, and one of the popular issues in the campaign has been the call to cut legislators' and government officials' salaries and benefits, which are indeed relatively high.

The legislature's budget is almost equal to that of the entire education system.

"Likewise, the judiciary remains weak. The Supreme Court's recent rulings on the eligibility of certain candidates have stirred controversy and questions about its independence. Having seen the critical role the Court played in the recent Kenyan elections, Liberians are skeptical that their court would be able to show the same integrity.

Liberia's local justice structures are quite weak, suffering a shortage of magistrates and a lack of resources for police and prisons.

Some Liberians have criticized the millions of dollars spent on the Special Court that tried Charles Taylor, when relatively little went to improve the justice system in local communities."

The Future of Liberia's Democracy

Also presenting report to the Committee, Mr. Christopher Fomunyoh, Senior Associate and Regional Director for Central and West Africa National Democratic Institute (NDI) informed the Committee that according to recent focus group studies undertaken by NDI, Liberians are enthusiastic about the elections and have faith in their ability to determine the outcome.

Mr. Fomunyoh outlined that the future of democracy in Liberia will hinge, in the short-term, on the perceived success or failure of the October polls and in the long-term, on the ability of future leaders to consolidate the gains that have been made in the last decade in improving governance and meeting citizen demands.

He told the Foreign Affairs Committee that if voters have confidence that the electoral process is fair and credible and that their collective will is reflected in the outcome, which would go a long way in laying the foundation for greater stability, peace, and sustainable development.

According to him, the NDI assessment mission to Liberia from September 3-9 observed that Liberians are optimistic that the elections will be meaningful, peaceful and credible as President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is stepping down without any attempt to alter the Constitution to her advantage as done by some African leaders.

However, some challenges including concerns over whether the voter register will contain the names of all Liberians that registered to vote; the timeliness of electoral preparations, notably the delivery and deployment of voting materials; and divergent interpretations of recent NEC and Supreme Court decisions remain major contentions.

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