Liberians In the Diaspora Can Impact the 2005 Vote


By Abdoulaye W. Dukulé


The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
March 22, 2005


Many Liberians in the Diaspora, particularly those in the United States, are disenfranchised by the decision of the Elections Commission to limit voting to only inside Liberia in the October 2005 presidential and general elections. This becomes even more frustrating because it is the first time that elections would be held without any candidate having an undue advantage. There is no incumbent and there is no super-warlord wielding a gun at the heads of voters. Freedom of expression is slowly becoming reality and Liberians stand the chance to make real free choices for the first time in history.

This happens however after the middle class of Liberia, both intellectual and economic, has fled the country in waves since the outbreak of political violence in the 1980s. Since the military coup in April 1980, Liberians have fled their homeland and now their number, in the US and Canada, according to officials of the United Nations is around 400, 000.This amounts to almost 15 percent of the entire population and perhaps, all statistics being equal, 30 to 40 percent of the electorate, because most of those who fled were of voting age.

The Elections Commission did not think twice before casting aside this important portion of the electorate. Their excuse was that there was no money to carry out such an exercise. They never really tried to find out if voting in the US and Europe was possible. The fact that Cote d’Ivoire and Guinea opposed political activities among refugees in their countries closed the issue. The commission never contacted Liberians in the US to find out if there were possibilities of organizing elections here and if Liberians were capable of taking care of the cost of voting, with the help of the embassy and the consulates.

Liberians in the Diaspora have played a major role in keeping the nation-state in one piece during the past two decades when successive governments hardly paid employees. No worker in Liberia, including ministers, since 1990, could afford to buy a bag of rice with a monthly salary and pay rent. The Liberian state survived because people who worked received financial assistance from families and friends in the Diaspora.

Remittances from the Diaspora kept the economy going. It was the money sent “from abroad” that made it possible for people to take taxis from Paynesville or Barnesville to go to work months after months without getting paid. It was also those remittances that helped keep schools open.

The same Liberians in the Diaspora would be expected to foot the bills for every presidential and legislative campaign, except in the cases of those financed by “special corporate interests.” Every politician running for office in Liberia has his or her support groups in the US. These support groups will be the ones to provide the logistics for every campaign.

It is therefore an aberration of historical proportion that those who have supported the economy and the state for decades and will also finance the political campaigns will not be allowed to vote.

Many candidates eyeing the presidency had made it known that they would support a vote by Liberians in the Diaspora. The same international organizations that helped such expatriates as the Haitians, Iraqis and others to vote in the US could have helped Liberians organize their elections in the US. The possibilities of paying for such an exercises abound but someone would have had to take the lead.

Around Chairman Gyude Bryant, there were two schools of thought. This writer had a chance to interview Varney Sherman and Harry Greaves, both close to the Chairman. Varney Sherman, in an interview featured in the documentary A Day In Monrovia, (ATSC 2004) said that he would favor a vote by Liberians in the Diaspora. He explained the feasibility of the process both legally and technically and emphasized the great number of Liberians in the US many of who would return home as retirement age draws closer and therefore have a stake in the elections.

On his part, Harry Greaves, in an interview published here, said that the logistics were lacking and pointed to the fact that many non-Liberians had Liberian passports and that lots of Liberians in this country had taken up American citizenship. His approach seems to have prevailed. Recently, in a conversation, he simply asked: “Can anyone tell me where the money would come from for such an undertaking, when we can’t find money to run elections here on the ground?”

During the July 2004 Symposium organized by the Embassy of Liberia in Washington, DC, the issue formed a central part of the agenda and was fully discussed, to the point where conference participants started to talk about how to finance the process. Professor Patrick Seyon presented three successful models of Diaspora votes that went well for Haitians, South Africans and the Philippines among others. Ambassador Charles Minor forwarded the recommendations from the symposium to the authorities in Monrovia. And that was that.

Therefore, as things stand, Liberians in the Diaspora would not cast a ballot in the upcoming elections, unless they travel to Monrovia to register and later return to cast a vote. This would be a noble thing to do but unless one were going to take part in the entire electoral process, traveling twice to Liberia to cast one ballot is rather an expensive act of patriotism that would cost at least $3,000.00.

Liberians in the Diaspora can however weigh on the outcome of the elections the same way they have supported the economy. With money and ideas, Liberians in the US can support their candidates. At home, the same remittances that bought the bag of rice can be used for the electoral process. In helping to create healthy conditions at home, Liberians in Diaspora will also be making a long term investment: a good government would create the conditions for economic growth, jobs and decent salaries… and that would put an end to those collect calls asking for money.

There are support groups forming for every candidate in the US. Those partisans can send delegates during the campaign season to work for their candidates. The money raised in the US does not have to be turned over to the candidate or put into a party bank account: it could be used to buy campaign paraphernalia to be sent to Liberia. A campaign worker representing a Liberian association in the US speaking to people in his or her village, church or mosque can make a world of difference.

Liberians in the Diaspora can make a serious impact on October 11, 2005 elections. For example, if twenty people who strongly believe in an issue were to put up $300 each, they could finance a 2- person team to go home and campaign for a particular issue.

Sending representatives to take part in the electoral process has the added advantage of not only decentralizing the campaign but also de-personalizing the issues. A group of people concerned about the environment could bring that issue to the front while helping a given candidate without waiting for that candidate to make two-line pronouncements on the environment. Another group could have its representatives talk about political reforms and so on.

Ten small groups campaigning on various issues for the same ticket could do a lot more than just the candidate rushing from one village to another, with a truckload of partisans. It will especially turn the campaign into a debate on issues, rather than a popularity contest.

The Diaspora can also support the independent press during the campaign period by buying advertisement on issues and for candidates, both in the print and electronic media. This financial support can go a long way in strengthening editorial independence, crucial during an election year.

Like everywhere in the world, elections in Liberia will be determined by money and ideas and how they are disseminated. Liberians in the Diaspora could muster plenty of both and therefore decide the quality and outcome of Liberia 2005.

A friend said last week that it is time that the good people win one in Liberia. It will take lot of money, ideas and a serious commitment to stop the bad guys from walking away with the next elections.