Liberia’s 2017 elections in retrospect

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In his inaugural address on 22 of January, 2018, the new President of Liberia, Mr. George M. Weah, said that “today, Liberians have reached an important stage on the road to freedom, justice and democracy …“. In fact, it was the end-2017 elections that, for a variety of reasons, some of which were presented in a recent paper by Ms. Massa Crayton (Liberia Country Officer) and myself, were already a turning point in Liberia’s political history. Once the elections were over and the elected president sworn in, it seems useful to us and even necessary to draw lessons for both the future of Liberians themselves and for the sub region. Thus, the Liberian experience inspires us with four essential lessons that we would benefit from remembering and exploiting!

The first lesson is the reminder of the fact that it is extremely important for election management bodies (EMBs) to manage elections in strict compliance with electoral legislations. This applies to all types of EMBs, whether independent, mixed or governmental. Indeed, failure to comply with the legal provisions governing elections can have serious consequences. In Liberia, “[…] irregularities, […] violations of the electoral code and internal rules of the Electoral Commission” are among the reasons that led the Supreme Court to postpone the second round of presidential elections with all the risks that accompanied such a decision.

In Kenya, a few months earlier in 2017, the Kenyan Electoral Commission’s non-compliance with the Constitution and election legislation had already produced a more serious outcome. The members of the Supreme Court of Kenya had purely and simply canceled the results of the first round of voting. Although in Liberia the Court rejected the request to cancel the results of the first round made by the second and third place candidates, the Liberians and the sub-region still had to hold their breath for several weeks. We could have avoided such fears, especially since the situation could have degenerated at any moment!

The second lesson relates to the importance to be given to the time between the end of the elections (including possibly the resolution of the electoral disputes) and the inauguration of the elected president. In Liberia, this period is at least 3 months which allowed to reasonably manage the disputes relating to the 1st round, in spite of the delay observed, without endangering the constitutional deadline envisaged for the inauguration of the new president-elect. In Ghana, where this time is only barely a month, the litigation of the presidential election of December 2012 was only resolved in August 2013 when the new president was already invested in January 2013 (i.e. 7 months before). Although electoral litigation can always take longer and measures can always be taken to avoid a constitutional impasse, it is better to leave a reasonable margin to avoid a situation where one would have to ask an already invested and installed president to leave power. To reserve sufficient time between the end of the electoral period and the inauguration of the new president also allows for a well-prepared transition between the outgoing team and the new team (especially in the event of alternations).

The third lesson relates to steps taken to ensure an orderly transition period and reasonable transmission of power between the outgoing and succeeding governments. Through a presidential decree, the outgoing president, Mrs. Sirleaf, set up a joint committee to organize the transfer of charges between her government and that of her successor, and set the terms of reference. This committee, with the support of development partners, has commissioned an audit of public goods (furniture and buildings) by department whose report is used in the handover process. All major projects, including bills currently under development or study in Parliament, have been indexed with recommendations/suggestions from the outgoing government etc. This is again, no doubt, an example to ponder for most countries of the ECOWAS region.

While waiting to evaluate the effectiveness of this mechanism, the initiative seems very interesting and promising. A law on the transition period between the exit of a government and the entry of the newly elected President also exists in Ghana. However, its implementation, following the 2016 presidential election, has been problematic and initiatives are underway to amend it. Such a mechanism, which can help reduce the vandalism of public goods observed in our countries during the period of presidential (and government) shifts, is to be encouraged.

The fourth and final lesson we can draw from Liberia’s end-December 2017 elections is related to the role played by ECOWAS. We are accustomed to seeing ECOWAS provide assistance to countries that hold elections, deploy election observation missions, participate in preventive diplomacy, including to ensure that the will of the people is respected. But this time in Liberia, ECOWAS found itself in another unexpected but ultimately very useful role. In the run-up to the elections, ECOWAS and ECONEC/RESAO, the West African Electoral Commission Network, set up a technical team of former EMB presidents from the region, who were sent for an exploratory mission to the country. The team, whose recommendations cut across most of the criticisms of the electoral process, significantly assisted, and almost acted as custodian for the Liberian Electoral Commission when it came to making the corrections prescribed by the Supreme Court before the second round of voting.

As can be seen from these few lessons learned from Liberia’s recent experience, the sub-region continues, bit by bit, to lay the foundations for the consolidation of democracy in each of our countries. For now, we can only wish President Weah and Liberia “Good luck”!

 

Mathias Hounkpe
Program Manager of the Political Governance and Democratic Consolidation Program at the Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA)

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