NEW THINKING—with Joe Bartuah : When an Individual Owns a Party, Democracy is Imperiled

The list of candidates sent by a political party to the Commission for an election must include a candidate for at least half of all the constituencies in the election. Chapter 4.5(1a), AN ACT TO AMEND CERTAIN PROVISION OF THE 1986 ELECTIONS LAW. September 17, 2014.

Joe Bartuah

In a news story headlined, Three Confirmed Rep. By-elections Pending, written by David S. Menjor and published in the December 24, 2020 edition of the Daily Observer, my attention was readily drawn to this paragraph: “Koung contested on the ticket of the Movement for Democracy and Reconstruction (MDR), the political party owned and run by former war-lord, Nimba County Senator Prince Y. Johnson.” The reporter further wrote, “He [Jeremiah Koung] was at the same time supported by the ruling CDC, due to the political alliance between the MDR and the ruling coalition.” Having closely read this story, my initial point of interest is whether an individual can legally “own” a political party. Is it constitutional for a person, whether highly or lowly placed on the socio-political echelon, to “own” a political party? Put another way, can a political party be a sole proprietorship?

Well, since I’m not a lawyer, I’ll highly appreciate it, were some of my fellow compatriots, who are jurists by training, to proffer some clarification for the common good of the Liberian society. Such clarification as to whether an individual can legally own a political party is imperative, because under the principles of our organic law, as well as our statutes, all are equal before the law and accordingly, all persons and institutions deserve equal treatment by the law, which means that nobody, no institution must be given any preferential treatment to the gross disadvantage of other persons or institutions.

In the mean time, even before the Liberia Bar Association, the Female Lawyers Association, the Louis Arthur Grimes School of Law and other public-spirited institutions and individuals can generously do us a favor, by abundantly clarifying the issue for the sake of the Liberian people–that indeed, a political party can be a sole proprietorship, or not–let’s take a brief look at the relevant constitutional provisions pertinent to political parties. The constitutional provisions on the formation and functioning of political parties, along some of the minimum benchmarks required thereof, are concisely stipulated in articles 78, 79, 80, 81 and 82 of the constitution. Even though the right to associate, or not to, is enshrined in article 17 of the constitution, for a political party, because it inherently has an expressed goal of seeking public office, of seeking national authority, the framers of our constitution were meticulous in ensuring that political parties would definitely have broader national appeals and characteristics, rather than parochial, egregious, or patently ethnocentric underpinnings.

And so, article 78 specifically stipulates that a “political party shall be an association with a membership of not less than five hundred qualified voters in each of at least six counties, whose activities include canvassing for votes on any public issue or in support of a candidate for elective  public office.” It must be noted here that at the time the current constitution was written in the 1980s, the country then comprised only nine counties. Evidently, the framers were deliberate in stipulating that for an association, or any grouping to seek a status as a political party, it must have broader, diverse membership across the political spectrum of the country.

Upon close reading, one might notice that the constitution is requiring a bare minimum of at least 3,000 aggregate membership of registered voters, but the caveat is that such membership must be spread across the country. As it was then, six counties out of nine constituted 66.6 percent of the existing political subdivisions at the time. Now that we have 15 counties, the minimum requirement should be at least 500 registered voters from 10 of the 15 currently existing counties, since 10 is equal to 66.6 percent of 15. Moreover, chapter 4, section 4.5(1a) of the New Election of Liberia, as approved on September 17, 2014, even goes further in attempting to ensure that political parties are not a blatant mockery of what they profess to be—national political institutions.

It states, “The list of candidates sent by a political party to the Commission for an election must include a candidate for at least half of all the constituencies in the election.” Chapter 5, sections (a) and (b) also empower NEC to periodically assess the electoral performances of independent candidates and political parties after every election and if necessary, to suspend political parties and independent candidates, if they can’t garner at least 2 percent of votes in a given election.

In my layman reasoning, I strongly believe that the Legislature made these provisions to discourage, to curb ethnocentric associations, clannish cliques, nepotistic groupings of discriminatory practices masquerading as political parties for latently egregious, pecuniary purposes. We must all be mindful about the preambular declaration of our current constitution regarding our “many experiences” in the past. Of course, based on those past experiences, our lawmakers didn’t want political parties to be some sorts of diamond mines for organizers, “owners” or cartels of rampant briberies and conduits for commercial politics. They were exerting every effort to curb the proliferation of black bag political parties, whereby the organizers or “owners” go around looking for possible candidates and then demanding huge sums of money from them.

Besides that, Liberia is still struggling to emerge from the debris of a devastating senseless war, which severely challenged and compromised our national cohesion for almost a decade and a half. For compatriots who are much older as I’m, we used to have “Greater Liberia”, for example. In other words, there were times when Liberian was balkanized, when warlords exercised absolute power, or a sort of sole proprietorship in their controlled territories. As grotesquely vile as it was, controlling territories, exercising absolute power at gun point, being the sole decider of who lives or who dies in your controlled territory proved to be an extremely lucrative enterprise during their heydays. The psychological liability, which is inimical to national interest, is that those who had in past been “owners” of life-and-death situations would still be eager to exercise absolute power.

Now that we’re in a post-conflict era, removing, curbing all those obnoxious vestiges of the conflict era must be one of the foremost obligations of government. Having said that, let’s reflect on the substantive issue at bar. In the December 8, 2020 midterm election, 15 senatorial seats were vacant for electoral purposes. And so, as per the provision of the section 4.5(1a), all political parties, coalitions or alliances were required to present at list of at least seven (7) candidates to the NEC, since seven (7) is almost “at least half of all the constituencies in the [December 8, 2020] election”, which is 15. According to the NEC’s media releases preceding the December 8th election, 118 candidates—98 males and 20 females participated. Of the total, 44 candidates ran as “Independents”, while 74 candidates represented political parties, coalitions and alliances.

A scrupulous scrutiny of the NEC’s media releases indicates that the Movement for Democracy and Reconstruction (MDR), which the Daily Observer notes, is “owned and run by former warlord, Nimba County Senator Prince Y. Johnson”, featured one and only one candidate—Mr. Jeremiah Kpan Koung—in the entire election. Even though I’m not a mathematician, I did arithmetic during my old school days. The last time I checked my arithmetic note, one (1) was and still is 6.6 percent of 15, not 50 percent. The mere fact that the MDR, which claims to be a national political party, had only one (1) senatorial candidate from only one county in the entire national election is a gross violation of the election law, for which the “party” and its candidate should have been disqualified ab initio, in keeping with the intent and spirit of the law, for failing to satisfy the benchmark requirements of the election law. As a reminder, the language of the law, as quoted at the onset of this article, is: “must include”, not should include. If our erudite lawmakers had wanted that provision to be discretional, they would have said “should” rather than “must.”

To me, the fact that an organization which claims to be national in stature had only one candidate in the entire country to present as its senatorial candidate is the impetus of the massive “irregularities”—as the voter frauds are being euphemistically tagged—that occurred during the December 8, 2020 election in Districts 4 and 5 in Nimba County. That is,  it was only in Nimba County that the MDR had to prove that it, too, is a serious national political institution, not a tribal association, a one-man’s piggy bank, or money-making machine. For those who might argue that the MDR was in coalition or alliance with the CDC, besides Nimba County, nowhere else on the NEC’s candidate listing is the MDR is acknowledged as a coalition partner of CDC; when I checked Bong, Bassa, Grand Gedeh, Rivercess, Lofa, Marbigi and other counties, I didn’t see a single MDR candidate. But as it turned out, the MDR didn’t even have any popular appeal in many parts of Nimba.

There were seven candidates—six males and one female in the December 8, 2020 election. Former Superintendent Edith Gongloe-Weh was the lone female candidate among the rest. Based on published election results, Mrs. Weh walloped the MDR candidate—Mr. Koung—in District (1), the district he currently represents in the House of Representatives. Besides that, she flogged him in nearby District 2. Did I hear somebody say if your house doesn’t sell you, the street won’t buy you? In District (1), Mrs. Weh won 5,873 votes, or 51.8 percent, as compared to Mr. Koung’s 39 percent, a 12 percent margin of victory. Moreover, she beat him in Districts , 8 and 9, and interestingly, Garrison Yealue, another incumbent Representative, was also a candidate who won in District 3.

Now the MDR, “owned and run” by Senator Johnson wants to convince the world that after Mrs. Weh had trounced his candidate in his own district, along with three other districts in a contest involving seven candidates, it’s only in Districts (4) and (5), in Senator Johnson’s home region that the MDR candidate was extremely popular and began to do what he couldn’t do in his home district. The guy who couldn’t accumulate 40 percent of votes cast in his home district, incredibly gathered 45.6 percent in District 4 and 55 percent in District 5. Comparatively, Mrs. Weh’s popularity across the county suddenly ceased to exist; it became still once it came to Districts 4 and 5 to the extent that less than one voters cast their votes for her. To be clear, a candidate with a popular appeal being “unpopular” in a particular region is not farfetched, if the electoral process in such an area that is transparent and the integrity of such process is scrupulously upheld.

And the after orchestrating all sorts of shenanigans, which are now being patently exposed at the ongoing NEC hearings, the perpetrators scurried to Monrovia and began peddling a fictitious narrative that Mrs. Weh didn’t campaign in predominantly Daan (Gio) districts. It’s a fictitious narrative disingenuously designed by shameless voter fraud perpetrators with fragile conscience to camouflage their malfeasance and other forms of criminality. To begin with, when she was Superintendent, Edith Gongloe-Weh was the most traveled Superintendent in the county; she’s exceedingly familiar with, not only the geographical landscape, but more importantly, the demographic, ethnic or linguistic composition of the county, because she knows every nook and cranny of Nimba County.

That’s one of the reasons why in this electoral cycle, she visited more than 700 cities, towns, villages and hamlets across Nimba to directly make her case with our compatriots, rather than limiting her campaign to the parochial confines of ethnocentric sentiments. And so, the notion that the CPP candidate for Nimba County did not campaign in certain areas is a figment of the imagination of anti-democratic elements bent on cunningly disenfranchising the popular will of majority of Nimbaians through fraudulent means.

As a student of political science, I’m aware that in politics, vested interests tend to make odd bed-fellows. Since 2005, Nimba County has been a serious headache for President George Weah and his CDC when he was still an opposition leader. Even at the peak of his popularity, Weah didn’t receive sufficient votes in Nimba. Montserrado has been his stronghold all along. But since “The Light” began to shine on all the pervasive corruptions in Monrovia and its environs, the CDC has been having severe political fever. To put it plainly, because CDC’s popularity is fast declining in Monrovia and its environs, President Weah and his CDC stalwarts are eagerly looking with an eagle’s eye on the nation’s second most populous county. The strategic significance of the “alliance” or coalition” between CDC and the MDR in the December 8th election is that Weah wants to transplant a Senator Koung in Nimba as a beachhead for a possible 2023 in Nimba political incursion.

While the CDC’s popularity has been fleeting in Montserrado County, in a similar manner, Senator Johnson’s honeymoon with Nimba is now waning, partly triggered by his undemocratic habit of hand-picking an individual and then imposing same on the county as he personally rakes the pecuniary and political dividens. Such autocratic modus operandi is now facing robust resistance in the county. For more than 12 years, Senator Johnson had a stranglehold on the county, but now, farsighted Nimbaians are vehemently pushing back. Many voters in Nimba County are now aware that their votes have become an extra source of income for somebody over the years; that their fundament right to freely elect their leaders is being periodically mortgaged for selfish purposes; as a result, they have begun a fierce resistance.

While it is true that Mr. Jeremiah Koung was the MDR candidate in the December 8th election, in strategic terms, Senator Johnson was also on the ballot. Mr. Johnson was abundantly aware that defeating his handpicked candidate was tantamount to a personal defeat for him. And so, as the self-described Godfather Senator was gazing defeat, desperation set in. And then Prince Johnson went back to his INPFL mode, dressed in a camouflage uniform, got on the back of a pick-up truck, to psychologically intimidate and traumatize our people about those dreadful, deadly years as a means of cowing Nimbaians into perpetual subservience. Unfortunately for the self-described kingmaker senator, in spite of all the propaganda, in spite of attempts to portray the December 8th electoral process as a Maan (Mano) versus Daan (Gio) struggle, our people robustly resisted those cunning, ethnocentric platitudes and voted en masse for the candidate of their choice. It was after sensing their resounding defeat at the polls that elements of the parochial group resorted to massive “irregularities”, as the frauds are being euphemistically labeled. There were sordid attempts to disenfranchise a large swathe of Nimbaians and steal the results of the December 8th election. Indeed, that’s the basis of the ongoing hearings at the NEC in Monrovia.

As for the CPP, even though it earned some deserving victories in the December 8th election, it however, needs not be so complacent following the 2020 election. Rest assured that what transpired against the Edith Gongloe-Weh campaign in Nimba County Districts 4 and 5 presages what to expect in the 2023 presidential election. If the CPP doesn’t join the Edith Gongloe-Weh campaign to relentlessly fight this case to its legally logical conclusion, December 8th will be a prelude to the 2023 presidential election. In closing, my humble suggestions are:  (a) Election Magistrate(s) and other election workers found guilty of tampering with ballot boxes and ballots and politicians who have might aided and abetted them must be turned over to the Justice Ministry for immediate prosecution. Doing so would serve as a deterrent for future election workers who might be desirous of abusing their power to the detriment of the larger society. And (b) that all political parties, including Senator Johnson’s MDR be thoroughly assessed to ensure that they’re in compliance with the relevant provisions of the Election Law and those found to be in violation should be “suspended” as the law provides. The National Election Commission can’t have two distinct standards for Prince Johnson’s party and the rest of the other political parties in Liberia. As for the eventual verdict of the NEC regarding the voter frauds in Nimba, the whole world is watching.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Joe Bartuah studied English & Professional Writing (BA), Political Science (BA) and Conflict Resolution, Public Policy and International Relations (MSc.) at the University of Massachusetts Boston and its McCormack Graduate School of Public Policy and Global Studies. He’s the author of, AN AGENDA FOR A BETTER LIBERIA–A Common Sense Approach to Nation-Building and Chief Editorial Officer of LIB-Variety.Org a website published by Consolidated Media, Incorporated, a blogging and free media advocacy non-governmental organization. 

Bartuah, a former Director of Media Relations at the Information Ministry in Monrovia, edited The News, a Monrovia-based independent daily between 1995 and 2001. He is accessible on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and other social media platforms. His email: mienwon2001@gmail.com or akesseh06@hotmail.com.

 

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About Cholo Brooks 14988 Articles
Joel Cholo Brooks is a Liberian journalist who previously worked for several international news outlets including the BBC African Service. He is the CEO of the Global News Network which publishes two local weeklies, The Star and The GNN-Liberia Newspapers. He is a member of the Press Union Of Liberia (PUL) since 1986, and several other international organizations of journalists, and is currently contributing to the South Africa Broadcasting Corporation as Liberia Correspondent.

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