In two weeks Liberians will vote in a referendum to change four aspects of the constitution, following which they will vote in presidential and legislative elections in October or November, depending on the outcome of the referendum.
Speaking to Liberian market-sellers, students, politicians, governance experts, corruption-fighters, and civil society representatives, it is clear that while most support free, fair and transparent elections, many Liberians are yet to experience the dividends of peace: better education, running water, affordable food are out of reach for many - and politicians need to listen to their needs.
The issues to be addressed in the 23 August referendum are: pushing national elections from October to November 2011; shortening the residency requirement for presidential and vice-presidential candidates from 10 to five years; shifting the requirement for election for all candidates other than the president from an absolute to a simple majority; increasing the mandatory retirement age for all justices from 70 to 75.
Critics say voters have not been sufficiently informed of what the referendum is all about, and that it is overly ambitious to hold one in an election year. Jerome Verdier, chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee, told IRIN: “You are holding two elections - because the referendum is like an election - just about the same time under an institution that doesn't seem to have the full capacity to conduct these processes, especially almost simultaneously. That is a recipe for conflict, for confusion, for chaos.”
Opposition parties have voiced concerns over the past few months that clauses in the referendum are designed to favour the ruling Unity Party and sideline some contenders.
Compelling people to vote for issues rather than people, is always a challenge, says Joe Pemagbi, Liberia coordinator for civil society research group the Open Society Institute (OSIWA). This is particularly the case when 40 percent of citizens are illiterate, and the average adult has had just four years of schooling, according to the UN.
Jackson Speare, head of peace-building organization International Alert, in Monrovia, told IRIN: “It is difficult to explain the proposals, even to the educated… Even in Monrovia, I don't think many persons know about the referendum… What is it? What are the positions?... Why is this referendum important before the election? People need answers to all those questions.”
National Elections Commission chairman James Fromayan admitted it would be hard for some Liberians to engage in the referendum process, but civic education teams are doing as much as they can to inform the electorate. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) just contributed $500,000 towards this, he said.
Civic education is equally needed to engage Liberians in the subsequent elections, said Eddie Jarwolo, head of civil society group National Youth Movement for Transparent Elections (NAYMOTE). “People are not linked to development issues in this country; they feel it’s a waste of time for them,” he said. NAYMOTE is trying to raise awareness of who is who and what is what, in the elections, using local radio to spread the word.
The presidential contest is currently personality rather than issues-driven, he said, and that needs to change.
President Sirleaf’s main contenders are the Congress for Democratic Change (CDC) made up of Winston Tubman (nephew to William Tubman, Liberia’s longest-serving president) and ex-FIFA footballer of the year George Weah, who lost out to President Sirleaf in 2005.
Also gaining strength are Liberty Party candidates: politician and attorney Charles Brumskine, and Bong County Senator Franklin Siakor.
Notable among other contenders is former rebel leader and warlord Prince Johnson, who was listed as requiring trial for war crimes in the controversial 2009 Truth and Reconciliation (TRC) report. The report also recommended President Sirleaf be barred from future office given her alleged early financial support of Charles Taylor.
President Sirleaf will be running for the Unity Party alongside vice-presidential candidate Joseph Boakai.
Chelsea Payne, head of human rights and democracy-building non-profit The Carter Center in Liberia, told IRIN: “The best way to get people involved is to go out and tell them what this election is all about. But that is hard - in the southeast there is hardly any radio, even. Some people see their vote as being more useful to people in power than to themselves.”
Liberians need to be made aware that this election is about them, and the issues that they care about, said International Alert’s Speare. Youths need to be engaged in national debates, rather than manipulated by political parties to wreak havoc during voting procedures, as has often been the case in the past, he said.
Too few women running
Women too, feel sidelined from the election process, said Speare. Of 64 MPs in the country, 14 are women, most of them in the Monrovia area. Despite having a woman as president, many women face cultural obstacles from putting their names forward. “For the very few who have come out to put their hands up, they are under threat maybe by the community or from their male counterparts,” Korto Jallah Socree, legislative candidate for the National Democratic Party of Liberia in Montserrado County, told IRIN.
National Elections Commission chairman James Fromayan told IRIN they are trying to appeal to political parties to encourage women to put their names forward. “You can't have an executive committee of sometimes 30 persons and just about two women. That is just not proper,” he told IRIN. Political parties should put their resources behind female candidates, he added.
The perception that women can be leaders is gradually growing, said Speare, but practical impediments such as lack of resources still slow their progress. “The main obstacle to female candidates is money. We can’t give them resources but we are trying to teach them how to mobilize their own.”
International Alert has trained 490 people across the country in how to run for political office - some 60 women are vying for spots in the southeast, he said.
Jobs, healthcare, schools, corruption
The priorities for most women and youths IRIN spoke to were education and jobs.
Ezekiel Yalliah, who sells beauty products at Nancy B. Doe market in Monrovia, told IRIN: “Education is the most important thing. The president needs to work on that one. If you are young it is very difficult to get a job - with no experience how will you do it? We depend on our parents.”
Acarous Gray, secretary-general of the CDC, told IRIN: “A lot of companies have been coming but employment has not really been created to a high extent… We believe that jobs must not only be created for white-collar workers. We have a responsibility to provide jobs for unskilled labourers also.”
The unemployment rate in Liberia is estimated to be around 80 percent.
Political parties must make more of an effort to reach out to Liberians living outside of the capital, analysts told IRIN. A US-based Berkeley University study on Liberians’ priorities for peace and development, conducted in late 2010 found a high degree of socio-economic inequality between Greater Monrovia and the rest of the country: with non-Monrovians two to three times more likely to have no education and belong to the poorest asset group.
“Beyond Monrovia, you don't have much information on electoral activities, and that is extremely risky because when people don't feel that they are up to date on issues, then you have chaos when people don't feel that they are part of a process, a national process as elections,” said Speare.
Investment up, infrastructure still poor
After five years under President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, foreign investment in Liberia is significantly up: Six iron-ore deals have been signed; steel company ArcelorMittal is investing US$1.6 billion in building a railway from the Guinea border to Buchanan port; while oil giant Chevron plans to start exploratory drilling for oil at the end of 2011.
But the country’s infrastructure is still in pieces - some roads have been improved in Monrovia and en route from the capital to Zwedru with the help of the World Bank, the UN Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) and the European Commission, but still just 7 percent of the country’s roads are paved, according to Sirleaf.
Electricity supply has incrementally improved in Monrovia, and a few principal roads are lit by solar-powered street-lamps, but the majority of Liberians still live without light or running water. Those who can afford to, run diesel generators and most businesses get their water delivered by truck.
Just over half of children are currently in school; 38 percent of the population is under-nourished; and the average per capita income is just over $1 per day. While development indicators are up since the war, Liberia ranks 162 out of 169 countries on the UN Human Development Index.
The performance of some sectors has improved - notably the health sector, the ministry for which has been reorganized and divested of many ghost workers. Health clinic facilities have improved across the country - many now run on solar power - and additional nurses have been trained and added to the workforce. But still, just 2.8 percent of gross domestic product was spent on health, according to the most-recently available statistics (2007), and maternal and child mortality are among the world’s highest.
However, building the capacity of fragile ministries, and witnessing development progress, takes several decades, EU humanitarian aid (ECHO) head in Liberia Koen Henckaerts stressed, and no one can expect sudden results.
People should focus more on what the president has achieved, says Monrovia market-seller Annie Wilson. “The government has done well. We see good roads and the justice system has improved overwhelmingly. Everybody is involved in decision-making. Our international relations are on course. So I say bravo to President Sirleaf. I will vote for her.”
President Sirleaf made fighting corruption one of her administration’s priorities, launching a war against it in her 2006 inaugural address.
But while significant progress has been made, says Liberia Anti-Corruption Committee (LACC) Chairwoman Frances Johnson-Allison, corruption is still culturally endemic, and only a minority of institutional leaders is concerned.
“There are three wings of government - legislative, executive and judiciary - and we need all three to want to fight corruption... Only one has done this so far... A lot has been achieved, but corruption is still thriving,” she told IRIN.
The president has shown commitment, setting up an autonomous General Auditing Commission (GAC) to audit several ministries, the result of which was widespread naming and shaming of high-level officials, and a spotlight on the existence of ghost-workers and inappropriate procurement practices. The LACC was also set up to investigate acts of corruption found in GAC reports.
An ongoing case in the courts involves the Liberia Telecom Authority whose ex-chair is accused of plundering fund.
But the LACC has no prosecution or subpoena powers, and GAC head John Morlu resigned earlier this year - some speculated he was doing his job a little too well. “I met a lot of resistance to begin with and many MPs were just not interested, although the auditor is there to support the constitutional oversight role of parliament,” Morlu told IRIN at an aid effectiveness conference in London last week.
The LACC’s Johnson-Allison told IRIN: “We’re at the mercy of our custodians giving us information, but we can’t go to court and undertake investigation.” Local courts are too strained to take on anti-corruption cases, and do not prioritize those that come their way, seriously constraining the LACC’s abilities, she added, calling for a special anti-corruption court to be set up.
OSIWA’s Pemagbi told IRIN: “I think they [LACC] need to be a lot more proactive and a lot more aggressive…. in the anti-corruption fight… For the public nothing has been done until they see some level of prosecution, especially with the big guys.”
Leaders must set an example, said Johnson-Allison, but corruption must be fought at every level. “I don’t know if they [people] are ready to fight corruption. I see ambivalence,” she said.
A vegetable-seller at Nancy B Doe market in Sinkor, Monrovia, Patience Cooper, agrees: “Everyone is corrupt. Because even in your home when your husband gives you your money to go and buy food, you sometimes steal some. So when you talk about corruption, everyone is corrupt.”
However, fighting corruption too, takes time - a 2011 study put it at 30 years with high-level commitment.
Liberians have made strides to reconcile and move on following the brutal 13 years of conflict (1989-1996 and 1999-2003), civil society representatives told IRIN.
In her 26 July Independence Day message to the nation, President Sirleaf said: “Our process of national healing and reconciliation is neither perfect nor complete, but we know we have made the necessary first step on this long journey.”
Some 78 percent of Liberians considered themselves a victim of conflict - having been displaced; experiencing physical violence; or by having their property, land or belongings destroyed, according to the Berkeley University study.
Liberians feel safer now than they have in recent years: two-thirds of Liberians said they felt safe and most said security had improved in the last 12 months, according to the Berkeley University study. Most too, were positive about the country’s prospects for peace, stressing that educating youths, reducing poverty and addressing land ownership issues need to be priorities to sustain it. Ethnic divisions while one of the principal causes of the civil war, were not identified as major causes of instability, they said.
However, the sticky issue of how to take forward the Truth and Reconciliation Committee’s controversial findings remains unanswered. Since they were announced in 2009, there has been little parliamentary activity to address them.
TRC Chair Jerome Verdier is frustrated: “It is very unfortunate that up to present and on the eve of elections, no meaningful efforts have been initiated to ensure the systematic, strategic, and orderly implementation of the TRC recommendations.”
The result of this impasse is that some important reconciliation processes addressed by the TRC, such as the Palava huts designed to boost national dialogue, are not being given enough weight, said Speare. Instead of a national commission being set up to address all aspects of the TRC, these are relegated to over-strained bodies such as the Human Rights Commission to take forward, he said. Rather than sweeping all of the findings under the carpet, the nation needs to start a national debate to address them, he told IRIN.
“We need to ensure that all we do has reconciliation involved as part of it.”
Post-war tensions between the people of Nimba and Grand Gedeh counties in the southeast - now home to some 162,000 Ivoirian refugees - are still there, said Speare, and cannot be ignored.
“We have not done much in terms of reconciliation, especially in the southeast.... If you talk to the people of Grand Gedeh, traditionally as Liberians they say, 'Well, everything is OK'. But it is not OK. “People should not pretend about this… We need to talk about this. We need to settle it.”
For Verdier, going into elections with unresolved tensions “raises the possibility of reigniting this latent conflict in our community and in the country. An entire generation has known nothing but conflict and war. And these are the masterminds; these are the organizers… of the war. And to perpetuate their rule and their participation at the highest level of governance doesn't set any example for the new generation.”
It is against this mixed picture that elections are going ahead: the NEC is packaging up materials to send around the country, and aims to train 23,000 volunteers to help manage the elections.
Local groups and the Carter Center are preparing to monitor the elections. ECOWAS may also send a team.
Liberians must build on the efforts to improve governance and boost development that they themselves and their government have made, said OSIWA’s Pemagbi. “This country can't afford to go back to where it came from. So much has been achieved… People have invested so much time, energy, and resources into rebuilding and promoting democracy.”
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions