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Note: This document is from the archive of the Africa Policy E-Journal, published by the Africa Policy Information Center (APIC) from 1995 to 2001 and by Africa Action from 2001 to 2003. APIC was merged into Africa Action in 2001. Please note that many outdated links in this archived document may not work.

Liberia: Election Commentary

Liberia: Election Commentary
Date distributed (ymd): 970816
Document reposted by APIC

This posting contains two commentaries on last month's election in Liberia, one by Africa Faith and Justice Network and the other by Friends of Liberia. Additional news and commentary can be found at

August 1997 (afjn-infoact)

Africa Faith and Justice Network (AFJN), 401 Michigan Ave. NE, P.O. Box 29378, Washington, D.C. 20017 Tel. 202 832 3412; Fax. 202 832 9051; Email: For information on subscribing to the afjn-infoact listserv, please write to, or send the message "help" to


"The End Justifies the Means"

The quotes above capture the behavior of Liberian voters who went to the polls on Saturday July 19 to vote in an election that capped Liberia's onerous peace process. Charles Taylor, the originator of the Liberian civil war, which began on December 24 1989, won the election by a landslide, taking more than 70 percent of the vote. None of the other 12 candidates got 10 percent.

Even Ms. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who was touted as a serious rival, received less than 10 percent of the votes cast. About 700,000 Liberians participated in the election which took place uneventfully. Taylor will be inaugurated in early August and will become Liberia s 21st President.

It is almost impossible to grasp the meaning of why the Liberian people voted the way they did. Yet some pointers are easily available.

Taylor was the most financially endowed of all the candidates; he had the most means available to any candidate to travel throughout the country unmolested; there were too many candidates and he had the most name recognition of all of them. He overwhelmed the Liberian people with his radio broadcast (Taylor virtually monopolised the airwaves); even suggesting at times only his election can ensure peace; he threatened the election commission that if they dared postpone the election only an "angel" would be able to protect its Chairman.

Wary Liberians were convinced that a Taylor presidency was the best bet for peace. It was a case of "your vote or your life"; Liberians chose their lives.

Was the Liberian vote free and fair? Not exactly. Was it an exercise in democratic liberties? Hardly. Did evil prevail over good? Perhaps. But Liberians were given an opportunity to choose a leader and they did. The result must be respected. If one is to find a saving grace in this process it is that Taylor did not become President by force; even though force was a contributory factor. He became president through the "consent of the people." Though a pyrrhic victory, the Liberian people compelled him to occupy the presidency by subjecting him to the ballot box. The ballot box not the bullet made Taylor's day. All is not lost. Now that Taylor can lay claim to "legitimacy", he must now rebuild what he has destroyed. Can he or will he? That is the question.

Friends of Liberia (FOL)

For more information on the FOL E-Mail Network contact Steven Keenan <> or Friends of Liberia, 1616 North Fort Myer Drive, 12th Floor, Rosslyn, Virginia 22209 (Mailing Address: P.O. Box 28098,Washington, D.C. 20038). Tel: (703) 528-8345; FAX: (703)528-7480; e-mail:

Liberia's Special Elections
Preliminary Statement of Findings

July 23, 1997

Friends of Liberia (FOL) has completed its observation of Liberia's 1997 Special Election and has determined that, despite problems, this process was free, fair and transparent. As many as 90 percent of registered voters cast votes at almost two thousand voting sites throughout the country - a clear expression of their strong desire for peace and democracy. After nearly eight years of civil war and on the eve of 150 years of nationhood, the people of Liberia must now move forward to rebuild their country. We think this is the message voters were trying to send. We urge all Liberians to put aside their differences and respect the results of this election.

The conclusion by Friends of Liberia that the Special Election was free and fair does not infer that it was without underlying problems. A great many of the 800,000 Liberian refugees outside the country did not participate in the election. The time available for civic education was inadequate in light of high illiteracy rates and the effect of the war on the people's sense of security. Many minor irregularities occurred when illiterate people voted since the Elections Law limited assistance to the physically handicapped, and poll worker manuals did not specify how to address issues related to voters who could not read or write. Despite commitments made in the Special Elections Law, the election did not appear to have been played on a "level playing field." Liberians need to address issues such as: campaign spending, possible voter intimidation, and distortions of the truth.

Friends of Liberia served as a neutral and independent observer in Liberia's Special Election fielding a team of 34 observers drawn from a pool of American citizens who have lived and worked in Liberia and who have a personal commitment to Liberia and its future. Friends of Liberia teams observed the registration process, the political campaign, the conduct of election officials and, ultimately, election day balloting and counting. These teams, deployed in nine counties, visited more than 400 polling centers.

To develop a full understanding of the electoral process, Friends of Liberia, before and after the election, conducted an intensive round of meetings throughout Liberia with election officials, the political parties, and the international organizations involved in the process. Friends of Liberia also met with key nongovernmental organizations actively engaged in the electoral process and with a commitment to human rights and democracy.

We approached the observation of the 1997 Special Elections determined to assess objectively whether the election process was free and fair according to international standards. Friends of Liberia was also guided by its longstanding commitment to the conditions under which, in its view, elections should be held. These conditions, endorsed by members of the U.S. Congress, include the following:

-Former faction leaders would not use military force to influence the election process.

-Voters and candidates would have unimpeded access to each other and to polling sites.

-Refugees wanting to do so could return safely to register and vote.

-An independent election commission would administer an unbiased election code.

-Materials for carrying out voter registration and balloting would be in place.

-Eligible voters would be informed about the election process.

-International and domestic observers would be able to report freely on the election process.

Friends of Liberia feels that, for the most part, these conditions have been met.

Turning out to vote in large numbers, some walking for several hours to voting sites, Liberians showed the world that they have a strong sense of civic duty and love of country. Voters, party representatives, observers and candidates should be proud of their contributions to an election process conducted under extremely challenging circumstances. Special recognition should be given to the poll workers, who exhibited a tremendous spirit to make this process work despite poor living conditions, lack of food, and late salary payments. Friends of Liberia was impressed by the emergence in this election of domestic observer groups.

This election provides an opportunity for Liberians to transcend years of acrimony, destruction and bloodshed. Ultimately, the government emerging from the election has the responsibility to unite and work for the healing and reconciliation of the entire country. Friends of Liberia believes it is vital to the process of peace and democracy that the new government of Liberia make every effort, at every level, to fulfill this mandate. A first step should be to ensure respect for the rights of all political parties to continue to express their opinions peacefully. There should be strict observance of human rights and the rule of law. The new government should interact productively with citizens as represented by civic, religious and human rights organizations. Anything less could subject Liberia to renewed chaos and the condemnation of the international community.

For its part, Friends of Liberia will continue its dedication to the rebuilding of Liberia. We will watch closely and critically the performance of any new government. We will speak out when we see evidence of abuse of fundamental freedoms. As in the past, we will advocate that the United States government adopt policies toward Liberia that support good governance.

Friends of Liberia

Founded in 1986, Friends of Liberia (FOL) is dedicated to helping Liberians achieve peace and democracy. Its eight-hundred members include returned Peace Corps volunteers, Foreign Service officers, missionaries, development workers, expatriate Liberians, and others who care deeply about Liberia. The organization has conducted fact-finding missions, provided relief and medical assistance, brought the warring factions together in public forums and conflict resolution workshops, and advocated for effective U.S. government policies. FOL is a tax exempt 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that is recognized and registered by the U.S. Agency for International Development as a private voluntary organization (PVO). It is a member of Interaction, the association of international humanitarian organizations, and affiliated with the National Peace Corps Association. Funding for the FOL election observation project came from the U.S. Agency for International Development in a grant administered by the International Foundation for Election Systems.

Note: Presented at a press conference, aired live on Radio Monrovia, on July 23, 1997 at St. Theresa Convent, Randall Street, Monrovia.

This material is being reposted for wider distribution by the Africa Policy Information Center (APIC), the educational affiliate of the Washington Office on Africa. APIC's primary objective is to widen the policy debate in the United States around African issues and the U.S. role in Africa, by concentrating on providing accessible policy-relevant information and analysis usable by a wide range of groups and individuals.

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