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Homepage > Regions / Countries > Africa > West Africa > Liberia > Liberia’s Elections: Necessary but Not Sufficient

Liberia’s Elections: Necessary but Not Sufficient

Africa Report N°98 7 Sep 2005


Everything indicates that Liberia’s October 2005 presidential and legislative elections are likely to be transparent and fair. Many hope this will permit an exit strategy to be implemented that could see international actors leaving the country as soon as the end of 2006. The probable result of such a scenario would be that, in the words of one ex-combatant, “the UN will be coming back in 2007 or 2008”. Liberia has been crumbling for at least 25 years. Elections are but a small, early step in a lengthy reconstruction process that will be sabotaged if Liberian elites refuse some form of intrusive economic governance mechanism, or if international partners pull out before a sustainable security environment is achieved. If the international community does have to return in several years, it will be to mop up yet another war that will cost far more than remaining seriously engaged over the next decade or more.

The UN, the U.S., the European Commission and the World Bank must stay the course, working in conjunction with the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the African Union (AU) to rebuild Liberia’s shattered institutions and infrastructure, and assuring Liberia’s security first through maintenance of the UNMIL peacekeeping presence and eventually through the training and mentoring of new Liberian security forces. In a regional context in which UN peacekeeping forces are drawing down to zero in Sierra Leone, Guinea remains volatile, and violence in Côte d’Ivoire simmers just beneath the surface, anything less than full commitment to reintegration and reconstruction in Liberia will most likely contribute to a new, wider conflict.

Despite the fragility of the situation, there is much room for optimism in Liberia today. Preparations for elections are on track, though such areas as campaign finance will require continued and serious attention. Refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) are returning home, even if not under ideal circumstances. Life in both Monrovia and distant counties is taking on the rhythms, sounds and appearance of normality. Most importantly, issues of economic governance and high level corruption have become a central preoccupation of almost everyone in the country as a result of investigations conducted by ECOWAS and the European Commission. The intrusive Governance and Economic Management Assistance Program (GEMAP) that donors and diplomats have proposed is in the final stages of negotiation with the transitional government.

The discussions that have emerged out of this proposal are heartening. Liberians in Monrovia, the hinterland, and the diaspora are arguing its merits and demerits. Some are motivated by pure self-interest, but many are not. The liveliness of the debate, like the thoughtful planning going into the elections, augurs well for the future, provided the plan is not gutted on the disingenuous grounds of national sovereignty.

Beyond the three key elements necessary to move Liberia forward in the short to medium term – clean elections, international involvement in revenue collection and economic governance generally, and the maintenance of security – there are several important longer-term issues which will need to be addressed. They include citizenship (increasingly problematic across West Africa), reintegration of ex-combatants, decentralisation of government, transitional justice, judicial reform, and possibly also constitutional reform aimed at lessening executive power.

These issues should all be addressed as soon as possible after the elected government is inaugurated. An inclusive national conference might be a helpful way of determining the priorities among these and other issues and building public support for further change. The international presence, having assured credible elections and continuing to assure security and that monies due to the government arrive, will give space to the government to take on these other daunting tasks. The candidates for elected office, the Liberian people, and international partners should all begin to raise their sights toward these more ambitious goals at the same time that they continue to ensure the success of the three foundational elements of elections, economic governance and security. Liberia is quickly approaching the second stage of its recovery: a smooth, well-planned transition will be as important as the individual policies.

Liberia could surpass Sierra Leone in all major indicators within three to five years and within ten years stand (once again) solidly ahead of other countries in the region such as Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Mali, and Niger. The country is rich, its population is small, and Liberians overseas send large remittances home. If these elements are multiplied by donor assistance and good management of resources, Liberia should make quick progress. However, another, gloomier scenario is also possible, even with the basic security provided by UN peacekeepers and a good election. If the theft and impunity that have characterised the transitional government are not corrected, Liberia will likely follow in Sierra Leone’s footsteps, languishing at the bottom of the Human Development Index, failing to create jobs for young men, and probably sliding back into war by the end of the decade.


To ensure successful conduct of the October 2005 elections:

1.  The political parties should respect the Liberia Political Parties Code of Conduct’s guarantees of an atmosphere conducive to free and fair voting, especially its provisions barring any form of electoral fraud, obstruction, intimidation, abuse, or harassment of rival parties, journalists, or election officials, or any use of public resources for party activities.

2.  The National Electoral Commission (NEC) and United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) should continue to monitor parties’ and candidates’ campaign financing as well as their adherence to all Liberian laws governing elections.

To ensure more effective governance:

3.  The National Transitional Government of Liberia (NTGL) should:

a) embrace and commence implementation of the Governance and Economic Management Assistance Program (GEMAP);

b) continue to pursue aggressively the investigation and, when warranted, the arrest and prosecution of all NTGL and National Transitional Legislative Assembly (NTLA) officials accused of stealing public funds; and

c) follow through on its proposal to create an Anti-Corruption Commission with prosecutorial powers.

4.  The political parties should commit in their election platforms to implementation of GEMAP.

5.  The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) should:

a) publish its audit of the NTGL; and

b) continue to support an economic governance plan with “teeth” like GEMAP.

6.  The European Commission should publish its audits of the Central Bank, Roberts Field International Airport, Monrovia’s Freeport, the Forestry Development Authority, the Bureau of Maritime Affairs and the National Petroleum Refining Company.

7.  Donors should:

a) continue to push for a comprehensive economic governance program with real oversight functions along the lines of GEMAP and match success in this area with consequential, coordinated, long-term aid;

b) make capacity-building and mentoring an integral part of every aspect of the GEMAP plan so that Liberians assume full responsibility for all aspects of their governance at the earliest possible time;

c) “Liberianise” as many of the oversight responsibilities as possible by cultivating the press, civil society and religious leaders as allies, thus empowering them to institute a new civic culture, for example:

i.  change the make-up of the GEMAP oversight committee to include a second civil society representative; and

ii.  provide for both such representatives to be chosen by civil society entities rather than other members of the committee; and

d) begin phasing out direct funding for service delivery for international non-governmental organisations (INGOs) once economic governance oversight is in place, transfer those funds to government agencies, conditioned on commitment of budget funds to raise salaries to a liveable wage, and ensure that the recruitment process for government jobs is competitive and based on merit.

To ensure sustainable security:

8.  The United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) should:

a) commit to a peacekeeping or peace stabilisation presence in Liberia for at least four years, with troop drawdown to begin, assuming continuing stability, no earlier than late 2006;

b) fast-track the return of all internally displaced persons to their home counties in conditions of safety and dignity so as to encourage their participation in the October 2005 elections; and

c) address immediate rule of law issues, including by:

i.  resolving – with force if necessary – the illegal occupation of Guthrie and Sinoe plantations; and

ii.  monitoring the actions of the Liberian National Police, immigration officials and others at checkpoints and intersections and bringing officers suspected of corruption before an examining committee that can dismiss the guilty.

9.  The European Commission should make available substantial funds for urgent programs to reintegrate ex-combatants.

10.  The U.S. should continue to make available substantial funds for urgent programs to reintegrate ex-combatants.

To consolidate peace and stability over the longer term:

11.  The post-October 2005 elected Government of Liberia should, inter alia:

a) make judicial reform a priority;

b) integrate Mandingoes into the fabric of the government, and promote reconciliation and just mediation of both cultural and land-use/ownership disputes between Mandingoes and other groups, especially in Lofa and Nimba Counties;

c) organise a series of consultative national conferences to establish a broad consensus on the reform agenda of the new government, which may include decentralisation, constitutional reform, and the issue of citizenship for people of non-African origins, including the Lebanese; and

d) form a commission to address questions of constitutional reform, whose findings would accompany those of the national conference.

Dakar/Brussels, 7 September 2005

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