The Liberian National Elections Commission Chair Addresses Elections Issues

Conducted by George H. Nubo and Josephus Moses Gray


The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

August 13, 2004

Cllr. Frances Johnson-Morris
Chair, National Elections Commission
Following the publication of your inaugural speech by The Perspective, we expressed interest in conducting an interview with you. We are thankful that you accepted our request. Congratulations on your selection!

Madam commissioner, there have been various comments regarding who will be conducting the next elections - the elections commission or the electoral system of the UN and the international community?

Cllr. Frances Johnson-Morris: When we were appointed there were doubts about the role of the various actors in the electoral process. At first people thought that the UN was going to conduct the elections. That issue has been put to rest. The UN does not have a mandate - they do not have a Security Council Resolution to conduct elections in Liberia. The mandate of UNMIL is to assist the national body, that is the national elections commission in conducting the elections... Other stakeholders, such as the EU, ECOWAS, the AU will be monitoring the process. The organization and the conduct of the elections are the responsibilities of the National Elections Commission.

What does the Accra agreement say exactly about conducting the elections?

The Accra Comprehensive Agreement says that the LNTG (the Liberian National Transitional Government) will request the International community - including the AU, EU the ECOWAS and the United Nations - to jointly conduct, monitor and supervise, as appropriate, the elections. In our induction statement, we did acknowledge and recognize the ambiguity in the stipulations... Under article 18a, the National Elections Commission shall organize elections in a manner that will protect the interest of Liberian people. That article also gives us the responsibility of organizing voter registration...

You mean, therefore, that the CPA contains a major contradiction that allows you to decide what you want to do?

We felt that the agreement is contradictory in many respects - and so we sought clarification. We went to Abuja and we spoke with ECOWAS and the Chief Mediator, Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar. We had meetings with ECOWAS Secretariat and with the Chief Mediator and [put this dilemma before them]: ‘What are we to do as a National Elections Commission? Under one provision of the agreement, you [ECOWAS} ask us to reform the electoral process in Liberia, organize elections in a way that the rights and interests of the Liberian people [are] protected, conduct voter registration, civil education... And then under the subsequent provision you say that the NTGL will request the UN, the ECOWAS, the ICGL to jointly conduct monitor and supervise the process. So what is it?’ We got the clarifications we were seeking and that is, the national body will be empowered, the capacity of the national body will be built, because in the future we will not always be calling on the UN or ECOWAS and the rest of the international partners to come and conduct the elections. So the intent is that the National Elections Commission will conduct the elections. If the parties contend that the United Nations and other international partners must conduct, monitor and supervise the elections, we have to ask then how can one conduct something [and] at the same time supervise and monitor it? It doesn’t make sense! Therefore, after we had that meeting, they went back to look at the circumstances under which the agreement was drafted. There was a lot of pressure in Accra while people were trying to reach a negotiated settlement. People were here dying; mortars were being shelled on civilian targets...! And people had to come up with some kind of agreement. And those who were the facilitators and the mediators - many people were working on the document - so the outcomes of the document are understandable. So this was the intent that the international community will come and build the capacity of the national body to conduct the elections [and] for the future.

So when the negotiators make clarification like this, what do they do? Do they amend the agreement or do they put it in writing that this is the intent or interpretation of the provision? Or do we just take the word of the people who go to the meetings?

The meeting did not end in Abuja. [The ECOWAS Mediator] came to Monrovia and during the meeting I mentioned earlier with the warring faction factions, the political parties and political candidates he reduced that into writing and communicated with the Chairman of ECOWAS (the president of Ghana), and he forwarded us copies of the conclusion reached.

One of the things you talked about during your inaugural address is census. Why don’t you think it is necessary for us to conduct census before the [2005] elections?

Well, it is necessary to conduct census. And I have always been one of those who have spoken of the need to conduct a census because the last census we had in our country was 20 years ago - in 1984. We do not have any reliable data on the population of Liberia. However, there are projections - projections made by the United Nations, some groups have worked on some population surveys and so we can use these figures for the purpose of elections. But we are going to conduct voter registration. Census is not necessarily the prerequisite to holding elections.

National Elections Commission
In our constitution, it is provided that census shall be undertaken every ten years, whereas elections are held every six years. Therefore census is not a prerequisite to elections. Even though it is desired at this time, because we have not had any for twenty years, census is not a political exercise - it is for developmental purposes. Many people do not understand that - they think that census will give us the number of people who need to vote. It takes into account a one-day-old baby; we don’t need that for elections. The only thing we need for elections is qualified Liberians who are eighteen years or above and who are not disqualified otherwise under our law. So voter registration can take care of that. To have elections, we may not need to know how many hospitals there are, how many schools there are, and census has to take these kinds of things into consideration.

You recently talked about campaigning. The year 2005 is around the corner, when should campaigning start?

Campaigning starts in the elections year; maybe four to six weeks to the elections.

Four to six weeks?

Yes, four to six weeks.

Is that enough time?

If you have a organized political party, you don’t need more than that.

What do you consider as campaigning?

There are certain activities that can be considered campaigning and others that should not be considered as such. People form associations based on objectives... You have people who subscribe to your ideology. You need to meet people, you need to talk to people, you need to establish, maybe, your offices, you need to embark upon a membership drive - we don’t consider those as campaigning. What we consider as campaigning is when you call political rally and begin to make political speeches, you begin to explain your manifesto to people, your platform and what you will do, and begin to solicit votes in the elections... You can’t do that until the Commission publishes the schedule of elections and declares campaign period open... Sometimes there is a thin line between campaigning and ordinary political activities... You can have fund-raising activities to support your campaign. But when you go and begin to talk about what you will do when elected, that is campaigning and we will prevent those kinds of things until the time is ripe.

What is the current Commission interpretation of the Residency Clause?

We have said that the Residency Clause is not in the interest of Liberians at this time. And we’ve never supported the inclusion of that constitutional provision. We think that there was a political gimmick inserted in the constitution at the time when we had military government and we wanted to appease them to turn over power to a civilian government. They had put that in the constitution to make them feel comfortable to turn over power.

But this is still in the constitution.

What we intend to do- we are recommending the suspension of article 52c of the constitution because we have been at war for more than ten years. And bonafide Liberians left the country because of the hostilities and traveled or went somewhere and those people want to come back. The inclusion of 52c will not be fair, so we are going to recommend the suspension of that particular provision of the constitution.

Back on the campaign issue - What gives that Elections Commission the authority to say those who are running for the presidency should wait until the Commission gives the go ahead?

We are the referees! We are the referees in this game.

Isn’t it a violation of their rights?

For every game, there are rules people must abide by. We would not be here, if there were no rules. We would not be here to improve them.

Is it part of the elections law?

Exactly! It is part of the regulation.

Does it say six weeks before the elections?

Yes, six weeks or four or something like that. Or maybe it’s even shorted than that.

I understand that some political parties protested when you came up with that decision. Have you responded to them, or did you clarify their doubts?

Well, they were very opposed to that pronouncement and there were lots of criticism, understandably because people wanted to get out there and campaign before the time. I would like to announce that it was in violation of the law or regulations. And besides that, it is not fair - if people are in a race, participating in a race, it’s not fair for one person to begin to run before the whistle blows. We have to all start together.

Let say you and I are running for the same position. I am ready and you are not ready. Do I have to wait for you?

That’s why we are here to make sure that everybody starts together.

So we have to wait until you get your money!

Yes we have to wait - not "get your money", but we have to wait until we say it is time.

Besides the elections law, is there any regulation?

Oh yes, we have just completed the revision of the guidelines and regulations - which we will publish shortly. We made it our business to distinguish between what activity constitutes campaigning and which do not constitute campaigning. So that is clear now in our guidelines because of the outcry against the [earlier] pronouncement...

Recently there were some allegations by CRPP that you are not neutral in the process and your deputy chair is not neutral, and Mr. Weador is not neutral. Any truth to the allegations?

Those allegations are just manifestation of the degree or the level to which our society has sunk. Our society has become morally bankrupt. The allegations against me for instance that I am a confirmed member of Unity Party... I think if you listen to the radio yesterday evening - I was listening and I heard the Unity Party people came up. There was some release saying that since the founding of that party in 1987 or something, they have never received an application from me, nor have I ever approached them for membership in that party. That shows the level to which these people can go. The dishonesty on the part of some people - they make such allegation without an iota of truth. I think those people intend to sabotage the whole process. Our law does not say that membership in a political party disqualifies people from being a member of the Commission. What the law provides is that if you are member of a political party, which I have never been, you must renounce your allegiance to that party and resign from that party before you take seat. And that was done with two commissioners who were members of political parties - my Co-chairman Mr. Fromayan and Commissioner Weador. They resigned from those parties before they were inaugurated. We had to go to the legislature for confirmation hearing, if these people have this kind of information, why didn’t they confront us before the hearing.

I understand that due to rifts within some political parties, you came up to say that the Commission was only going to recognize the existing leadership of each of these political parties. But the CRPP is claiming that you recently recognized a faction of LANU. Is there any truth to that?

Each commissioner (beside the chairman) has oversight responsibilities of a political party. If you have problem in a political party, that political party will send that problem to the commissioner with oversight responsibility for that party. And that commissioner will investigate and render a decision. If the political party is not satisfied with the decision, that party has the right to bring the [matter] to the plenary. Each political is required to submit a listing of their officials, so if you submit a list to the commissioner, the commissioner goes by that list. And under the elections guidelines, political parties are to hold convention every six years to elect their officials...

Some Liberians are saying that the country is not ready for elections. We still have majority of the country under the control of warring factions. Though there are reports that the DDRR program is progressing, the Interim government does not have control over most parts of the country. What is your position? Are we to postpone the elections for few more weeks, few more months or years?

It is not within my purview to change the time set in the Comprehensive Peace Agreement for holding elections. The parties agreed that elections should be held no later that October 2005. The only thing I know is that if election is to be held, the security environment must be guaranteed. Security must be improved. Disarmament and demobilization must take place comprehensively and totally in order to have real free and fair elections... I am working on the presumption that things will be fine [for elections] to be held 2005.

You have hundreds of thousands of Liberians, in refugee camps some in the United States, some in Europe, who all eligible to vote. Would these Liberians be allowed to vote outside Liberia?

No, I do not foresee that. I do not foresee that they will be allowed to vote outside of Liberia. Liberians have the right to vote, but they have the right to vote in Liberia. The International community is largely sponsoring these elections and the international community has not given us any indications that they are willing to support Liberians voting outside the country. I don’t know if they can foot or underwrite the logistical, financial and material support that are required to do that.

What if they were willing to do so?

There is no indication. What they have assured us is that repatriation of refugees will begin as of October this year. Resettlement of internally displaced will be taken place also...

Will the 2005 elections be special elections or regular elections?

They will have to be special - special in a sense that they are not done in accordance with the constitution. The Comprehensive Peace Agreement suspended many of the provisions of the constitution. So these are not elections that are done in accordance with the constitution. And anything that is not done in accordance with the constitution must be special.

1997 elections were special elections and because of that we had Special Elections Law of 1997. Are we going to have Special Elections Law for the ensuing 2005 elections or are we going to go by the 1986 Elections Law?

We are going by the 1986 Elections Law as well as the reforms that we have proposed that will be taken to the NTLA shortly. For instance, we will be suspending [Article] 52c. So the constitution is being tempered with.

Any message to the reading public?

Well, I just want to say that the elections of 2005 are very critical elections. These elections will determine the future of our country. And if they want to participate in the process, and I think it is important that they participate in the process - there are such huge numbers outside Liberia... then it is important for them to come home and vote. I think any true Liberian has the responsibility to come and participate in this process to decide the future of the country.

Thank you

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The Liberian Constitution
The Comprehensive Peace Agreement
Inaugural Address delivered by Cllr. Frances Johnson-Morris, Chair of the National Elections Commission (NEC) Of Liberia