By John H. T. Stewart, Jr.
President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf
The drama continues - it is all fife and fiddle at the Capitol where members of the House of Representatives are pitched against each other in what appears to be Tyler’s last but desperate chance to stave off last ditch attempts by his opponents to remove him from office as Speaker of the House of Representatives. For the past few weeks now normal Legislative business has been interrupted by the continuous hauling and pulling between Legislators, some of who have vowed to remain unrelenting until Speaker Tyler recuses himself or until he is removed as Speaker by majority vote.
Speaker Tyler for his part has accused President Sirleaf of being the mastermind behind attempts to unseat him as Speaker and he has vowed to throw in his all into this fight even if it means bringing others down with him including President Sirleaf herself. How he intends to achieve such remains unclear however, in the final analysis, according to political observers Tyler will have to throw in the towel especially if his trial begins in earnest.
Meanwhile, discussions on the National Budget, a suspect source of Tyler’s sudden rise to fortune and fame, have come to a virtual halt in the House of Representatives owing to the current impasse. Further, according to media reports, President Sirleaf has withdrawn the budget claiming that her original submission had been manipulated to the extent where she felt compelled to withdraw it. Thus by a clever stroke, President Sirleaf has once again landed a crushing blow against Speaker Tyler’s budding presidential ambitions.
For instance, withdrawal of the budget means that budget hearings over which Speaker Tyler has been presiding lately, despite the impasse, has come to an effective halt. Speaker Tyler for now will have to concentrate his efforts on his legal defense against his indictment and fending off assaults by his colleagues, on his position as Speaker. As it appears, he may never again have access to the allotments provided to the office of Speaker in the 2016-2017 National Budget and observers say this may have a strangulating effect on his presidential quest.
Already his opponents have written both the Central Bank and the Ministry of Finance to freeze the accounts of the House of Representatives, a move which, when effected, means that Speaker Tyler’s lifeline of financial support has effectively been severed. Going forward, he will now have to dig into his personal kitty in order to keep his Presidential dreams alive granted he does get a reprieve from conviction in the bribery case against him.
But this impasse is proving costly as there pressing national issues at hand to which the Legislature must address itself. Aside from the budget which has yet not been passed, the 2017 elections and proposed referendum are issues which remain cloudy. And it still remains unclear whether there is concurrence by both Houses of the Legislature on the proposals for change submitted by the Constitutional Review Commission. Article 91 of the Constitution provides that the referendum be held no sooner than one-year after concurrence by the Legislature.
And so as the impasse at the House of Representatives drags on, public concerns continue to mount about the situation at the National Elections Commission, the nation’s foremost integrity institution. The current absence from the country of its Chairman, Jerome Korkoya, fellow Commissioners, Jeanette Ebba Davidson, Jonathan Weedor and Sarah Toe at a time when the Commission should be fully engaged preparing for the 2017 Presidential and legislative elections which are a mere 14 months away, is a matter that should and must not be taken lightly especially in view of the current impasse at the National Legislature.
According to sources, the NEC Chairman is requesting donor funding to the tune of 50 million U.S. dollars to hold the 2017 Presidential and Legislative elections which, according to staffers, appear exorbitant and raises questions about GOL’s own contribution to the amount requested. And rather strangely, according to sources, there is no breakdown detailing how the funds are intended to be spent. Compounding the situation is the impasse at the House of Representatives which has effectively stalled discussions on funding for the elections.
Worse still is the absence from the country of four (4) Commissioners who are either on vacation or on sick leave. Their absence means a lack of quorum to conduct the business of the Commission which includes the holding of consultative meetings, plenary, etc. Their absence also comes at a time when electoral disputes from the 2014 Senatorial elections have resurrected in the Supreme Court and are currently being heard, although rather belatedly as, it has been 2 years since NEC declared and certified winners who have long since taken their seats as members of the Legislature.
For strange reasons the Commission (NEC) took a decision to burn the ballots while the disputes were and are still lingering awaiting final disposition by the Supreme Court. As a matter of fact it was the Supreme Court who upon learning that ballots from the disputed elections were being burnt, placed a “Stay Order” on the further destruction of ballots. Just why the NEC felt a pressing need to destroy the ballots before the Supreme Court had disposed of disputed claims remains unclear
But, NEC insider sources allege that Chairman Korkoya’s decision to burn the ballots was driven by fear of a possible ballot recount which would have revealed the fraud. NEC insider sources also allege that the perpetration of fraud began immediately prior to the holding of the 2014 Special Senatorial elections when Chairman Korkoya ordered the rotation of Elections Magistrates, while his Executive Director, Lamin Lighe, for reasons that remain suspect, conducted special training sessions at his home for select poll workers in preparation for the assignment to fix the elections results.
And according to their (NEC insiders) accounts, the apparently fixed results gave rise to contentious claims about the credibility of the results, claims which eventually landed in the Supreme Court. And while those claims remained pending for disposition the NEC took the decision to burn the ballots rather than having the ballots electronically scanned and stored away for reference. This situation has given rise to public speculations about the credulity and credibility of the results of the 2014 Special Senatorial elections as well as the competence and ability of the current NEC leadership to handle the 2017 elections.
And so as the nation approaches the October 11, 2017 elections dateline, we pause to ask what is the “Readiness Condition” of the National Elections Commission to hold those elections? Have Commissioners for instance been holding planning and preparatory meetings? What has been donor’s response to the NEC proposed US$50 million funding request? Was the funding request submitted with a detailed breakdown of the budget? Also too what is GOL’s contribution to the budget?
During the 2014 Special Senatorial elections, the cost of ballots was stated in excess of US$ 275,000 double the actual costs (according to former Budget and Finance Director, Joseph Duwana), while the cost of elections materials was stated in excess of US$300,000 and the cost of vehicles overstated in excess of US$200,000. NEC actually requested and received US$1.9 for vehicles none of which went to the purchase of vehicles.
Informed NEC sources say that those funds provided could have rather been used to purchase than to rent vehicles for the use of Elections Magistrates all of who are currently without assigned vehicles to carry out their functions. And lest we forget logistics is a critical requirement for the holding of elections in Liberia especially considering the impassable road conditions existing in much of the country during the rainy season which ends in October, the very month in which elections are to be held.
It can hardly be expected that by then road conditions would have improved significantly to the point where polling stations in hard to reach areas could be accessed by road. It can be recalled that in 2011, Elections workers in some areas of Lofa in the Vahun belt had to transit through Sierra Leone to enter Liberia in order to access polling sites and deliver voting materials. In most of such cases, it was UNMIL, now departed, that provided to NEC back-up logistical capacity in the form of vehicles, helicopters, communications, etc. and made possible to a large extent the successful holding of elections in 2011.
Now that UNMIL has folded up its mission in Liberia, the question remains who how is the void created by their departure going to be filled especially when there appears to be no concrete plans in place to address what would be a logistical nightmare. Currently Elections Magistrates in the various counties are virtually unable to pay assessment visits to the various constituencies in their areas of responsibility. Such a situation strongly suggests that there is either a complete lack or there is inadequate flow of relevant information to the general electorate about ongoing developments in the Electoral process.
Perhaps even more crucial is the lack of adequate information about whether the Optical Mark Recognition (OMR) process will be used for voting and related purposes or whether NEC is going to, as is being hinted in some circles, opt for a Biometric voter registration process. It can be recalled that the National Identification Registry (NIR) had earlier proposed the adoption of a Biometric Identification process to register all Liberian citizens.
This idea had initially been floated as one intended to have all Liberians including eligible voters use Biometric Identification cards. And it was envisioned that eligible voters, during elections would simply have to present their National Identification cards in order to vote. But the idea had its drawbacks as well. For example, the Biometric National I.D. card will provide information on birth and nationality of the individual but may not include Constituency number of the individual. Further, it is highly unlikely that the roll out of such a plan could occur well before elections, which are a mere 14 months away,
Indeed, NEC is in crisis - the nation is in crisis. The possibility of peaceful and credible elections in 2017 appear imperiled and may after all, prove elusive given the current spate of things. But are our Representatives concerned and have become seized of the matter? Not so it seems for our Representatives appear to be involved in “Coco-Missy” gamesmanship, just fiddling while the nation burns. Just how long the fiddling is going to continue is anyone’s guess including yours or mine.
About the Author: Mr. John H.T. Stewart, Jr. is a Freelance Journalist and Former Commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Liberia.