Liberia: NEC Must Put Foot Down on Pre-election Campaigns, Violations, Unhealthy for Bourgeoning Democracy

Six months ahead of the August 5, 2023 date set aside for campaigning, by the National Elections Commission, senior government officials, including officers of the Executive Protective Service, tasked with protecting the presidency were seen wearing T-shirts and donning pre-campaign gears, while holding guns and walking by the incumbent, President George Manneh Weah.

LATE LAST MONTH, the National Elections Commission, the body tasked with conducting elections for all elective public offices, and administering and enforcing all elections laws throughout the Republic of Liberia, released a revised timetable for the upcoming Presidential and Legislative elections, emphatically declaring that Presidential and Legislative Campaign period will begin on August 5 and end on October 8.”

IN THE DAYS LEADING to the ruling Coalition for Democratic Change’s much-trumpeted “million-man march” assembly at the Antoinette Tubman Stadium last Saturday, the streets of the capital were filled with posters, flyers and civil servants parading T-shirts and berets.

ON THE DAY itself, even security agencies, like the Executive Protective Service, got in on the act, officers of the EPS, tasked with protecting the presidency were seen in their partisan gear, including T-shirts and berets, holding guns and walking by the incumbent, President George Manneh Weah.

THE MANDATE appeared to be clear, that officials and civil servants were required to show their loyalty to the government in power.

ECHOES OF CONCERNS have been filtering in various corridors of the country that the Weah-led government may be using state resources and intimidation to force civil servants into the street and wear partisan gear, prompting many to raise red flags that the guidelines regarding pre-campaigning prior to the holding of elections in October are being ignored.

LIBERIA HAS A RUGGED history when it comes to such issues.

IN THE BUILDUP TO THE 2005 Presidential and legislative elections, the Carter Center observed that “it is an “open secret” that government resources are being improperly used to support particular parties. These allegations have been strongly denied by both the government and party leaders.”

IN THE BUILDUP to the 2017 elections, the issue of pre-election campaigning was also visible, prompting Cllr. Jerome Korkoya, then chair of the Elections Commission to caution political parties against the act.

AT THE TIME, Chairman Korkoya was emphatic: “Whether they were put up by friends of John or movement of somebody, the Commission had given one week’s notice to remove everything.”

NEC at the time instructed magistrates around the country to collect the names of people found to be in violation. “Political parties holding rally, rally are allowed under the laws but doesn’t require wearing political parties T-Shirt around. People in the habit of printing copy books and spreading it around in the name of helping students must also stop. You don’t need to put your pictures on copy books. The only reason I see people will want to do that is to cheat by putting themselves ahead of the others,” Cllr. Korkoya declared in 2017.

AHEAD OF THE October elections, the current NEC leadership under Madam Davidetta Brown Lansanah has been quiet on the issue, despite obvious signs of violations by the ruling CDC government, parading around with T-Shirts and posters trumpeting the incumbent President Weah’s 2023 bid for re-election.

IN THE BUILDUP TO THE 2017 ELECTIONS, the Carter Center recorded noted: “To ensure a level playing field in the campaign, unfair incumbency advantages should be addressed and the use of state resources in favor of specific candidates should be prohibited.”

EVEN THEN, the Carter Center reported that it had received complaints about the misuse of state resources by the ruling party and incumbents. “In the context of elections, state resources include not only government vehicles and fuel, as well as public space, but also public office. According to good international practice, administrative officials should not use their office to support or show favor to a particular political party.”

THE CARTER CENTER’S WARNING CAME amid allegations of superintendents and other local administration officials openly supporting the ruling party (Margibi, Nimba, and Lofa). “Two local administration officials for Margibi County told the Center’s observers that they felt pressure to do so as well. Chiefs in Grand Bassa and Grand Cape Mount candidly informed the Center’s observers that they are supporting the vice president and urging their communities to do the same,” the Center recorded.

AHEAD OF THE October elections, this lingering problem of pre-election campaigning and clear violations of the Code of Conduct is still prevalent.

LAST SEPTEMBER, the Senate concurred with the House of Representatives to enact a bill amending Section 5.2 and Section 10.2 of the 2014 Code of Conduct. The change to Section 5.2 of the Code of Conduct was aimed at obliging numerous Weah-government officials to retire by Friday, October 7, 2022, if they wish to run or canvass for elected offices in the October 2022 elections.

WHAT IS CLEAR in Part V of the existing Code of Conduct is the focus on political participation. The Act states that “all officials appointed by the president” are not allowed “to engage in political activities”. This portion of CoC covers contesting for elective office, campaigning for a political party or candidate, and using resources and facilities of government to back partisan politics. It further provides that appointed officials who want to canvass or participate in an election must resign at least two years before elections (three years in the case of tenured officials). Controversy arises because most people who stand for elective office in Liberia are active public servants, local government appointees, or officials in state-run public enterprises and autonomous agencies.

SADLY, SIX MONTHS to the October elections, laws are being violated and the Code of Conducted appears to have been thrown out the door.

THE NATIONAL ELECTIONS Commission owes it to the people of Liberia and the donor community doling out millions of dollars to ensure free and fair elections, and to put its foot down on all political parties, especially the incumbent government.

WE MUST all keep in mind that the genesis of Liberia’s problems started with the disenchantment over the November 1985 Presidential elections won by Samuel Doe. The opposition felt cheated and some took matters into their own hand and went on a warpath to remove Liberia of Doe, which led to a brutal civil war that killed hundreds of thousands of Liberians and sent another hundreds of thousands into exile.

TODAY, LIBERIA is still paying the price for that war and still trying to pick up the broken pieces of its aftermath.

IN ADDITION TO NEC, the Weah-led government must show leadership and ensure that such practices which were exhibited over the past few days, are not repeated.

WE MUST ALL be responsible in our actions and hold the experiences of the past in the back of our heads as they pose a massive threat to Liberia’s bourgeoning democracy.

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