2 November 2017

West Africa: Signals From Ecowas Mediation Point to Only One Option for Liberia's Election Saga

Photo: Nick N. Seebeh/Liberian Observer
From left: ECOWAS Chairman and President of the Republic of Togo, Faure Gnassingbé; President of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf; and AU Chair and President of the Republic of Guinea, Alpha Condé, at the high table. The AU and ECOWAS are working to resolve the political impasse that has gripped the Liberian nation since the release of the results of the October 10 polls.

Monrovia — Four political parties - the Coalition for Democratic Change, Liberty Party, Alternative National Congress, All Liberian Party and the ruling Unity Party, represented by their respective standard bearers took turns Wednesday, offering the heads of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), Togolese President Faure Gnassingbe, and the head of the African Union, Guinean President Alpha Condé their inputs on the ongoing elections impasse as regional leaders seek an amicable solution to Liberia's elections predicament.

But while many are hoping that the delays in the court do not push Liberia into an interim arrangement, Article 64 of the Constitution provides a never-before-used option that could entrap the process.

The heads of the two bodies also had separate meetings with the Chief Justice and his Supreme Court justices.

Sources privy to the closed-door discussions said while nothing significant resulted from the meetings Wednesday, a communiqué issued said all the parties agreed to abide by the Supreme Court rulings and commit to peacefully resolving all issues.

That process gets under this Friday afternoon when the high court hears legal arguments in the Liberty Party versus the National Elections Commission for a Writ of Prohibition.

Showdown at the High Court

Mr. Darryl Ambrose Nmah, Director, Judicial Public Information in a statement earlier in the week confirmed that the Justice presiding in Chambers of the court, Justice Kabineh M. J'aneh, has commanded the Marshall of this Court to notify the National Elections Commission (NEC) and Members of the Board of Commissioners of NEC and Charles Walker Brumskine, Harrison S. Karnwea, Presidential & Vice-Presidential Candidates, and all Representative Candidates of Liberty Party to appear before the full bench at 2pm Friday.

Justice J'aneh has also instructed the Respondents, NEC and its Board of Commissioners to stay any and all actions in respect of the pending Run-OFF elections scheduled for November 7, 2017, pending the disposition by the Supreme Court of the Petitioners' Petition.

In response, ahead of the Friday's hearing, Cllr. Jerome Korkoyah, head of the elections commission said Wednesday that the November 7 runoff election is unlikely as the Commission has already began losing days of preparation due to the temporary Writ of Prohibition on the electoral process issued by the Supreme Court of Liberia.

"The loss of today due to the order already means the November 7, 2017 date that was set for the runoff presidential elections does not look possible to meet," he told reporters at a press conference Wednesday evening in Monrovia.

NEC Halts Process, for Now

Korkoyah said prior to the Stay Order, election preparations were on track as ballot papers arrived as scheduled on 28th of October 2017 and while packing had been on-going and ballot papers and other sensitive materials were being prepared and dispatched to centers across the country, parts of the shipments of materials had already arrived in Maryland, Grand Kru, River Gee and Grand Gedeh Counties at the time of the order.

Friday's hearing is likely to give some indication as to how the legal wrangle could be resolved.

Attorney Nmah explains that the Alternative Writ issued to stay any and all actions in respect of the pending Runoff elections is not a final stay order by the Supreme Court. But rather, only in place until the full bench can hear and dispose of the matter from which a final decision will be made by the bench.

Nmah also explained that the Alternative Writ is not an annulment of the Presidential and Representatives Elections held on October 10, 2017, as no such election matter has come before the Honorable Supreme Court of Liberia for determination.

As many Liberians and stakeholders await the high court's weigh in on the issue, many are still keen to see how the visit of both the AU and ECOWAS heads will impact the outcome of these elections.

All this as speculations continue to mount that the regional body is pulling all strings to ensure that the electoral process is free of violence and chaos.

While many appear upbeat that ECOWAS's intervention could lead to a speedy and amicable outcome, at least one of the opposition leaders, Cllr. Charles Walker Brumskine remains relentless in his claims that the elections were rigged, telling the BBC Focus on Africa Thursday that he had the evidence to back up his claims.

"We now realize that the rigging of the elections took place long before Election Day - going back to the printing of ballots."

"We now realize that a company was awarded the contract to print ballots against the decision of the commission that is responsible for approving public contracts and the ballots that were printed by this company carried no serial number at all, negating any possibility of accountability, creating a space for massive fraud."

No Relenting from Brumskine

In one incident, Cllr. Brumskine said, he and his party have evidence in their possession showing that the cover top of ballot boxes that were removed after polling had been closed and ballots had been counted, boxes had been sealed and the cover of the cover of the boxes were removed in order for presiding officers to open the box and put in ballots that they wanted to put in.

"We have some of those covers in our possession, we have submitted into evidence, photos of those covers to the elections commission."

"We discovered hundreds of ballots in Grand Gedeh County that had been taken out of the ballot box and thrown away."

The LP leader argued that poll officers in Nimba were arrested because they had pre-marked ballots that they were using the stuff the ballot boxes with. George Weah received 1,109 votes at a polling place that should not have had more than 500 registered voters.

The Supreme Court after hearing our argument on tomorrow (Friday) will decide whether or not we have made a sufficient case based on the principle of due process of law to have the elections start the second round and give us a chance to present our case before the commission and the supreme court or the Supreme Court might decide I don't have a case and will therefore order the commission to proceed with the second round.

Sources privy to the discussions between the ECOWAS heads and political leaders say, Weah was adamant after backing down from irregularities complaints in two previous elections in 2005 and 2011, repeating the same this time around is not in the cards.

"Weah's argument was he accepted two Fraudulent elections and since now is his time, the rest of his rivals should accept it as well," said a source speaking on condition of anonymity.

The events of the past 48 to 72 hours suggest that Liberia finds itself in a delicate political and constitutional dilemma

"I committed to the chairman of the African Union and the Chairman of ECOWAS unlike 1985 in Liberia when President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf then ran to be Senator of Montserrado County when her party lost the elections and she and others fell that they were cheated, they brought a war on our country that cost the loss of lives."

"Our country was completely destroyed. I committed, this time around under my leadership, not a single Liberian will be killed, a single drop of blood of any Liberian will be shed.

Brumskine's fears have been bolstered by the AU head, Conde who said their presence in Monrovia was a show of concern about what happened during the aftermath of the elections.

"We found it necessary that it was our duty to identify with our brothers and sisters in Liberia, listen to them, analyze the situation and also we consulted with the diplomatic corps, the election commission, the Supreme Court and the inter-religious council."

President Conte: "Everybody is aware that there were some mishaps during the elections."

In a rare acknowledgement that ECOWAS was concern about the issues, Conde declared: "We insisted on the responsibility of the Supreme Court. We also talked to our sister [President Sirleaf] that she should remain above the fray."

" We think they will resolve it as we are going back with assurance because all the parties, in spite of all their grievances, despite all their discontent they have all agreed to follow the law and support the Constitution of Liberia."

Running Out of Time

Amid the legal wrangle, the incumbent, Sirleaf appears keen on ensuring that however the saga ends, it must be within the window provided by the constitution.

"We will like to say to you Mr. President that we believe ECOWAS stands by the position that this democratic process must be concluded within the time frame of the Constitution so that I may be able to retire and end this transition successfully."

But while many are hoping that the delays in the court do not push Liberia into an interim arrangement, Article 64 of the Constitution provides a never-before-used option that could entrap the process.

Article 64 states: "Whenever the office of the President and of the Vice-President shall become vacant by reason of removal, death, resignation, inability or other disability of the President and Vice-President, the Speaker of the House of Representatives shall be sworn in as Acting President until the holding of elections to fill the vacancies so created.

"Should the Speaker be legally incapable or otherwise unable to assume the office of Acting President, then the same shall devolve in order upon the Deputy Speaker and members of the Cabinet in the order of precedence as established by law.

"The Elections Commission shall within ninety days conduct elections for a new President and a new Vice-President."

Legal experts say, by definition, both the President and Vice President can be legally disqualified from performing because their legal tenures have expired. That is what the constitution references when it mentions "or other disability".

Many political and diplomatic observers are hopeful that the ongoing predicament does not reach that point.

Judging from the mood and atmosphere surrounding the ECOWAS mediators this week, at least one presidential candidate privy to those discussions appear to think that the body language progression of President Sirleaf signals a mood swing hinting that light may be at the end of the tunnel.

"Between the morning when we first met the Presidents to the afternoon when we returned for the conclusion, EJS mood changed significantly - from melancholy and unhappy to upbeat, smiles, and happiness in the afternoon."

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