Bad Weather, Poor Infrastructure Perennial Threat To Smooth Elections In Liberia
By Paul Ejime
It might take longer for Liberians to know the official result of their 10 October 2023 elections, no thanks to inclement weather conditions in a rainy season and poor infrastructure, especially inaccessible road networks.
Some 2.5 million registered voters from the country’s estimated population of five million went to the polls on Tuesday to elect a new president as well as 15 Senators and 73 Member of the House of Representatives.
From a field of 20 presidential candidates in this year’s elections in Africia’s first Republic founded by freed slaves from America in 1847, are three frontrunners.
These are former World-famous footballer George Oppong Weah, 57, the incumbent president of the ruling Coalition for Democratic Change (CDC), who is seeking re-election for another six-year term, former vice-President Joseph Boakai, 78, of the main opposition Unity Party (UP), and businessman Alexander Cummings, 66, a former senior official of Coca Cola Africa, the standard bearer of UP’s break-away Collaborating Political Parties (CPP).
It was the fifth consecutive election cycle since the end of Liberia’s two bloody civil wars that ended in 2005, claiming more than 250,000 lives and uprooting half of the population from their homes and leaving thousands injured.
Post-conflict Liberia, which covers an area of 111,369 km2 in the mangrove vegetation and coastal savanna has seen two peaceful transitions of power from ruling to opposition parties, but socio-economic and health indicators remain grim, characterised by spiralling inflation and high rate of unemployment and use of hard drugs by the youthful population.
Corruption allegations are rife under the Weah administration, including a missing US$100 million drug bust money and with about 50% of the citizens living under the poverty line of less than US$2 a day. These and insecurity in the country have made the attraction of foreign investment difficult.
Located in the tropical rainforest with fertile arable land for agriculture and rain for most of the year, Liberia, is also rich in natural resources, including rubber, timber, iron ore, diamonds, gold, lead, palm oil, and wildlife, but remains a net importer of food with the cost of living, especially prices of food stuff beyond the reach of ordinary citizens.
Some of its 15 Counties are far flung and hard-to-reach rural communities, and despite repeated recommendations by international election observers for change of the national election period to the dry season, this year’s vote still took place under the rains.
Consequently, bad weather and poor infrastructure again compounded the electoral logistic and operational problems.
Turn-out was high with long queues at many polling centres hours before the official opening time of 0800 am. The majority of the 5,890 polling places opened late due to delay in the arrival of polling officials and/or materials.
Announcing preliminary results of 16 polling places (less than 1% of the total) on Wednesday, National Elections Commission (NEC) Chairperson Davidetta Browne-Lansanah, said that bad roads, flooding, and rains damaged some electoral materials and blocked access to some voting districts.
She promised that the “damaged materials will be replaced for the conduct of the elections in the affected areas within a week’s time,” adding that the Commission “will dispatch a team to assist the magisterial team in the affected County as soon as possible. “
The NEC chairperson also disclosed that “due to inaccessibility and lack of mobile network coverage, there has so far been no information from five precincts.”
Liberia’s constitution allows the electoral commission a maximum of 15 days within which to announce the final results from the date of an election.
As part of its electoral assistance to member States holding elections under the Supplementary Protocol for Democracy and Good Governance, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has provided logistical support including 4X4 wheel vehicles, IT materials and a grant of five thousand US dollars to NEC Liberia.
Apart from sending a pre-election fact-finding Mission to assess the level of preparation in the country, the regional bloc also deployed 120 Long-term and Short-Term Observation Mission led by Prof Attahiru Jega, former Chair of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) Nigeria, to observe the 10 October polls in Liberia.
Pre-election violence and some skirmishes were reported, especially in the Lofa County resulting in at least three deaths, which are under investigation by the authorities.
In their separate Preliminary Declarations on the elections, ECOWAS, and the African Union (AU) Election Observation Missions noted that electoral process was generally peaceful, albeit sluggish with some polling places remaining open into late night to accommodate voters.
The organisations commended voters for their “discipline, patience, and peaceful conduct despite the long queues,” and “particularly, the women and the youth for their display of patriotism and commitment to democracy by turning out in large numbers to vote.”
The Missions also commended NEC and the Joint Security Task Force for their professional conduct.
They however, “urged the NEC to maintain a high level of transparency, accountability, and openness in the management of the results collation, tallying, and announcement of final results,” while calling on “the media, political parties, and candidates to refrain from prematurely announcing election results before NEC’s official declaration.”
The ECOWAS Mission reiterated its previous call on the government and the parliament to effect the necessary legal reforms to change the election dates from the rainy to dry seasons so as to minimise the weather and infrastructure challenges.
More importantly, in light of the saying by Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin that: “It is not the people who vote that count, but the people who count the votes,” and given recent experiences in the elections in Sierra Leone and Nigeria, greater attention should be paid to results management, especially the process of tallying and announcement of final results.
Liberia has not completely recovered from the effects of its two civil wars and can ill-afford a relapse to instability from post-election disputation.
Apart from being Africa’s first independent nation, the country has produced other firsts, including Africa’s first elected female President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf (2006-2012), who went on to win a Nobel Peace Prize.
Liberia is also the country with the dubious record of a President Charles D.B. King, who in 1927, claimed victory in an election with more votes than registered voters.
President Weah’s running mate, Jewel Howard-Taylor, is the ex-wife of former Liberia’s President and warlord Charles Taylor, who is serving a 50-year sentence in Britain handed by the International Criminal Court at the Hague, for supporting the civil war in neighbouring Sierra Leone.
The frontrunners in the 10 October presidential polls are all claiming victory. But since the constitution requires a successful candidate to receive 50% + 1 vote, the presidential contest could go into a run-off election, because of the sheer number of candidates (20).
- *Paul Ejime is a Global Affairs Analyst and Consultant on Peace & Security and Governance Communications