In the lead-up to Tuesday's constitutional referendum in Liberia, tensions have escalated between and within political parties jockeying for advantage in presidential and legislative elections that take place later this year.
Opposition calls for a referendum boycott, along with a series of politically connected outbreaks of violence, are heightening security concerns. In a report issued Friday, the International Crisis Group, a respected Belgium-based think tank, warned that the conduct of the referendum will set the tone for the upcoming presidential contest and called on political leaders to "refrain from aggressive statements, particularly those exploiting the memory of the civil war."
Ellen Margrethe Loej, the United Nations representative in Liberia, has called for "an environment conducive to healthy political debate and competition" and said both the referendum and the presidential election "will be a litmus test for Liberia's progress towards peace and democracy."
On this week's ballot are four amendments, each of which must be approved by two thirds of those voting to become law. They include decreasing the residency requirement for presidential and vice presidential candidates from 10 to five years, moving the date for national elections from October to November, raising the retirement age for Supreme Court justices from age 70 to 75, and ending run-offs in legislative and municipal contests, which will make candidates with the most votes the winner and end expensive second-round balloting.
While run-offs would still be required in presidential contests if no contender receives more than 50 percent of first-round votes, supporters of this provision say the amendment would clear the way for local elections that have not been conducted in the post-conflict period due to excessive costs.
In an appeal for calm broadcast nationwide Thursday night, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf warned that politically motivated violent acts "undermine and destroy democracy" and could cause Liberia "to retrogress into another civil conflict." She said gains made since the end of 14 years of war in 2003 are being jeopardized "by the intimidation and violence which some of our compatriots have engaged in during this early stage of the electoral process."
Citing attacks aimed at a leading opposition party office holder and at a senior official in her own Unity Party, Johnson Sirleaf said she directed the security service "to vigorously investigate" these and all similar incidents "and swiftly bring the perpetrators and their collaborators to justice." And she called on politicians "to conduct themselves, and ensure that their supporters conduct themselves, in a responsible and law-abiding manner."
Johnson Sirleaf, who is seeking a second term, faces stiff competition from several opponents including Charles Brumskine, a 60-year-old lawyer who ran third in the country's first post-war election in 2005, and Winston Tubman, a former Justice Minister and United Nations official whose uncle was the country's 19th and longest-serving president.
Tubman, a Harvard-educated lawyer, has teamed with the Liberian soccer star George Weah, who led in the first round of presidential voting in 2005 but lost in the run-off to Johnson Sirleaf -- an outcome that defied most expert predictions.
[U.S. intelligence and diplomatic assessments also foresaw Weah as the near-certain winner, an outcome that was privately favored by at least some of the policymakers most closely involved, senior government sources told AllAfrica at the time.]
To counter charges that he is insufficiently educated to lead the country, Weah recently completed a Bachelor's degree in business management from DeVry University, an online for-profit company with 90 campuses across the United States. (Johnson Sirleaf is a former Finance Minister, banker and United Nations Assistant Secretary General with a Master's from Harvard.)
But instead of a widely anticipated rematch with the incumbent, Weah ended up as the vice presidential nominee of the party he founded, the Congress for Democratic Change (CDC), joining with Tubman in an effort to mount a tougher challenge.
During preparations last year for the 2011 contest, Weah sought to hire a U.S. consultant to formulate a campaign strategy. A Confidential Consulting Agreement prepared by Alan White Associates calls Weah "the right person at the right time for Liberia" and says he is well-placed to "develop a consensus" among those seeking to defeat Johnson Sirleaf in 2011.
The 12-page agreement, dated June 13, 2010, designates the firm as "sole consultant and advisor in the United States" and sets an annual fee of $130,000. The document, a copy of which was obtained by AllAfrica, is marked "confidential" and has the signatures of Weah and Dr. Alan W. White, a former chief investigator for the United Nations Special Court for Sierra Leone, where former Liberian leader Charles Taylor is now on trial for crimes against humanity.
To kick off a successful election effort, White's memo recommended a "mass peaceful demonstration of a 100,000 men, women and children" to mobilize support and promote Weah "as undisputed leader of the opposition community." White told AllAfrica that there was dissension within the CDC and the agreement was never executed. "I did not provide any assistance to Mr. Weah," he said in an email.
[NOTE: In another email after publication on this article, White stated: "The reference attributed to me claiming I recommended that Weah hold a demonstration of 100,000 is not true. I neither advised such action nor would ever advise such action."]
Nevertheless, a large rally involving thousands of supporters took place last month when Weah returned to the country after receiving his DeVry degree. A large and boisterous contingent accompanied him into Monrovia city center and tied up traffic throughout the capital.
Consensus within the opposition has proved elusive. Despite his popular appeal, Weah has been unable to forge the broad political alliance that many observers had expected to emerge to confront the incumbent.
Efforts to effect a merger between the CDC and Brumskine's Liberty Party failed to materialize, after protracted negotiations. And rivalries within the CDC have slowed momentum and diverted the attention of the party standard bearers, Tubman and Weah.
Last week, clashes erupted at the party headquarters, as dissidents assaulted party officials, including the chairperson, Geraldine Doe Sheriff. "Disenchanted CDC aspirants, who lost the primaries, were part of the plot to get rid of me in the party, ahead of the elections," she was quoted telling reporters.
Doe Sherriff, along with the secretary general, Acarous Gray, another target of an attempted assault, are under pressure from Tubman and Weah to relinquish their positions on grounds that they cannot perform the jobs adequately while standing as legislative candidates themselves.
A late-night arson attack was also launched against the home of a former CDC secretary general, Eugene Nagbe, who recently left the CDC to back Johnson Sirleaf and is serving as deputy campaign manager for the president's Unity Party. He and his family escaped unharmed, although a car was destroyed.
In the run up to this year's elections, political alliances have been shifting rapidly. Several of Johnson Sirleaf's previous critics have joined her camp, while former allies are among her most outspoken opponents. There have also been reports of disagreements within the president's Unity Party. But disunity within the opposition, if it continues, has raised the prospects for a Johnson Sirleaf victory, perhaps in the first round.
Although the date of the election - October 11 or November 8 - ostensibly will be decided by the referendum, the International Crisis Group predicts the outcome is likely to face legal challenges and warns that "any major delay could produce serious discord."
Critics argue that holding a referendum this close to an election strains the country's resources and will likely confuse and distract the electorate. Some have said the proposed changes are designed to favor Johnson Sirleaf's candidacy. Tubman told AFP the referendum is "unconstitutional because we don't hold a referendum in the middle of an electoral campaign." In a speech on Friday, Tubman altered his stance, saying he still regarded the referendum violates the Constitution but understands and accepts that there are those who "want to exercise Constitutional responsibility."
Johnson Sirleaf is backing the proposed change, saying that "Vote Yes to All" will benefit all Liberians, not any one political campaign. She says she did not draft the referendum document and is not affected by the residency requirement, whether it is five or ten years, since she moved back to Liberia in 1997, when she made a first, unsuccessful run for the presidency. Residency restrictions were suspended in 2005, because so many Liberians were uprooted and forced to leave the country during the war.
According to the National Election Commission, the timing of Tuesday's referendum is the result of a provision in Liberia's Constitution which stipulates that proposed changes approved by a two-thirds majority in the legislature must be presented for popular vote not sooner than a year later. The four propositions on the ballot passed both houses last August.
Whether or not the referendum is a distraction, activity in the political arena has been dominated by presidential campaigning. All of the contenders are emphasizing the necessity to heal a country deeply wounded by years of dissension and killing, and each is proposing how best to carry this out.
Tubman told Foreign Policy magazine [The Men Who Would Be Queen] that he and Weah have the backgrounds to address the "basic divide" between Liberia's indigenous people and the elite who are mostly descended from the freed American slaves who settled in the country in the mid-1800s.
In an AllAfrica interview, Charles Brumskine said his reconciliation program will provide war victims the opportunity to talk about their suffering, will encourage students to join "a sort of domestic peace corps" to serve in various parts of the country and will finally "give teeth" to real unification.
During her Thursday night address, Johnson Sirleaf stressed the need to maintain post-conflict peace. "Let us commit ourselves to the fundamental premise that never again shall we, as a people, individually or collectively, ever resort to violence or intimidation to settle our political differences, and that we will not allow violence or intimidation, in whatever form or nature, to mar the 2011 elections," she said.
Interviewed in May, the president defended her record, citing a large increase in school enrollment, particularly for girls, reduction in child mortality, economic expansion and large-scale foreign investment, creation of jobs and elimination of the country's debt. "We're very pleased with the progress, although the challenges still remain many," she said, adding: "We've still got much more to do."
Corruption remains a problem, she said. Three decades of economic decline and the deprivations of war have helped entrench the problem "as a way of life," requiring a "multifaceted" and long-term solution. "We continue to fight it, vigorously," she said.
According to the Crisis Group, security concerns remain paramount as the voting moves forward. The report, How Stable is Liberia's Recovery, points to the "persistence of mercenary activities and arms proliferation" as a looming threat, fueled by ongoing unrest in neighboring Côte d'Ivoire where "hundreds of young Liberian fighters were easily recruited for a minimum of $500."
To emerge from conflict and become a functioning democracy, Liberia needs a "political transformation leading to the emergence of a new generation of leaders at local and national levels, removed from the culture of violence and corruption," the Crisis Group report says.