The Futility and End of Elections
By Tom Kamara
August 21, 2000
Rapid political and security developments in Liberia and pronouncements from President Charles Taylor signal doubts of democratic transition in 2003, thus laying the foundations for continued violence in the contest for power and change. The former warlord's dubious pledge not to resume war if he lost the elections, and his party's announcement that it intends to hang to power for the next 20 years, leave doubts of fair election within three years.
Prospects of transparent elections are further marred by continued insecurity with regional implications. With daily threats against neighbours, Taylor, who now declares himself "The first major rebel in West Africa", warned Guinea's President Lansanah Conte' to stop playing "rebel games with me" and learn lessons from Sierra Leone, where he now admits sending his rebels in 1991 into the commercial-border town of Koindu, sparking the burning flames of war now engulfing that country. This is his first direct and open admission of launching Sierra Leone's brutal war which has brought that country on its knees, leaving over a 100,000 dead and thousands of amputated children, men and women, while thousands more continue to flee to neighbouring Guinea, now swamped with both Liberian and Sierra Leonean refugees in ever multiplying numbers.
Meanwhile, fearing the prospects of genuine elections dumping him out of office, all major opposition leaders, many of them in exile, have been linked to the current fighting in the north of the country, thus effectively barred from the elections with threats of their arrest once they land in Liberia:
"Look, let me tell you something, and the Liberian people know that I don't joke, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf arriving in this country will be arrested and if she is not arrested then I am not Dahkpannah," an emotionally charged Taylor told frightened civil groups who have been lining up daily to express their solidarity against the dissidents in the midst of scores of arrests of suspected dissident supporters, mainly Krahns and Mandingoes. The latest arrest is that of the former Governor of the Bank of Liberia and founding member of Ulimo-J, Raleigh Seekie, who joined Taylor after the elections. In a letter to The Perspective, a brother of the detained man said his home was looted and ransacked by Taylor's notorious security, a common model used on all suspected enemies of the president. Several other Krahn leaders are now languishing in prison following similar incidents and charges in 1998.
With increasing paranoia, Taylor has been discovering enemies everywhere, and has alleged an international conspiracy led by the US and Britain to get him out of power.
"I know free and fair elections mean for America and Britain to control them, we'll not allow that to happen," he declared recently, indicating fears that the involvement of the two countries, now avowed archenemy states, could deprive him of his coveted presidency for which he spearheaded the killing of 250,000 people and is determined to keep at all costs, and by all means.
The fears come after credible reports the Taylor had planned annulling elections, instead deploying Liberia's age-old system of orchestrated resolutions from "the people" pleading for the president to perpetuate himself in the perceived absence of a comparable alternative to continue "a job well done". It was a system introduced and perfected by the Americo-Liberian oligarchy for decades to suffocate change and suppress democratic institutions and values.
But Taylor's fears of an American-British conspiracy are grossly unwarranted. Had he spent his time, while in the United States for so many years, studying how America determines its allies and strategic interests around our troubled world as opposed to mastering the mechanisms Al Capone's underworld, he would have known that Washington has no interest in Liberia's elections because it has long since lost interest in this backyard country. Several examples point to how the US invests heavily in candidates of countries within its sphere of interest. Since the end of the Cold War, such interests have evaporated in Liberia, and Washington does not care who becomes king in this country founded by ex-American slaves sent back to Africa to search for freedom in the 1800s. Furthermore, President Taylor is blessed with powerful friends within the American political establishment to ensure America's "neutrality" against his government. Men like the Rev. Jesse Jackson, a man who condemns Police brutality at home but endorses amputations and diamond theft as "positive" factors for democratization in Africa, has successfully campaigned to block American moves that would have made life difficult for Taylor. In Liberia months ago, Rev. Jackson vowed he would ensure Taylor's Liberia's acceptance within and comity of nations, while defying international opinion by informing journalists that the Liberian President "is not" encouraging the war in Sierra Leone.
But where America has its heart and mind, its involvement in determining the outcome of elections can be lethal, and men like Rev. Jackson have no say. For example, in Angola, the US spent millions on Unita's intransigent and demagogic rebel Jonas Savimbi's 1992 presidential electoral bid. Says the outstanding British journalist Victoria Brittain (who covered troubled Angola and its war extensively, in her book "The Death of Dignity") about American duplicity in that country:
"The US intended to keep up their funding for Unita so that Savimbi could campaign effectively. Such a continuation of open backing for their side by the US was entirely predictable and consistent with everything successive US administrations had done since 1975 (Angola's year of independence). The long years of US military and diplomatic support for Savimbi's overthrow of the MPLA government had by no means come to an end with the (1991 Bicesse) peace treaty."
Despite the massive funding for Unita, he lost, and US frustrations were made clear when the Assistant Secretary of State for Africa, Herman Cohen, (the very Herman Cohen that now advises Charles Taylor on hire) defended Savimbi's repudiation of the results and opting for continued war by criticising the Angola government for "its seeming winner-take-all post election attitude and that the confrontational posture of its police force exacerbated tension..." But Brittain adds that, "This was a positively Orwellian presentation of reality with a clear political message to Savimbi that the Americans were still backing him despite everything"
So, 25 years after independence, Angola is living the aftermath of Savimbi's electoral defeat and his US backing, with the country now virtually forgotten since the end of the Cold War. Millions of Angolans continue to perish; the country is in terrible ruins as Savimbi insists on becoming president even if the Angolans don't want him. South Africa, which along with the US stood firmly behind Savimbi, is awash with Angolan refugees. Life for these people is made more difficult through constant arrests since black Africans, including South Africans, must still move around with identity papers or be arrested as illegal immigrants. Whites are excluded from this regulation.
In Zimbabwe, then Rhodesia, the West's favorite was the Bishop Abel Muzorewa, the so-called moderate who would manage their interests if he became president. So with vested interests, they pumped in millions of dollars in his electoral campaign designed to defeat the "Communist-terrorist" Robert Mugabe in the 1980 elections. Again, the Boer South Africans (allies of the Americans) who were butchering blacks in the thousands for demanding franchise, saw it fit to finance an election in Zimbabwe for the preservation of their interests, which was the maintenance of Apartheid. In the end, Mugabe won with a landslide. Economic suffocation ensued. Although Mugabe must take blame for a number of economic failures and clinging on to power, he was to soon realize (like the ANC may over time) that meeting black economic aspirations while economic power is entrenched in the hands of whites, is a political mines field. Ian Smith, the Rhodesian prime minister who vowed black majority rule would never come in his life time, and tried to ensure this through a series of massacres of Africans, has become a folk hero for dissatisfied Africans, now expected to create a better tomorrow for those he butchered yesterday to preserve white economic privileges.
The same story of American support where their interest lays runs through in places like Nicaragua, the Philippines, Russia, etc. Times have changed in today's Liberia, the U.S. would care less who becomes president, confident in the knowledge that whoever wins, there will be incessant knocks at their doors for help.
There was a key difference during the 1985 elections in Liberia when the US picked its candidate. Reagan's Washington preferred Samuel Doe not because it cared about democracy or human rights in this dark African corner, but because it needed him as an ally in the war in Angola, Chad, etc., against "the Communist plague". Liberia became a convenient transit point for arms, and as such, a dependable ally in Reagan's war to make the world a "better place." Although Doe lost the elections by many calculations, (Evidence included destroyed and burnt ballots all around and counting of ballots done by selected loyalists and family members contrary to the electoral laws.) Reagan's America endorsed the results, hailing them as fair because, it said among others, contrary to previous Liberian electoral results in which the winners claimed 99.9 of the votes, or the voters outnumbered the entire population, the "magnanimous" Doe claimed something like 52 percent even if he may have received far less. In Washington's eyes, this was a remarkable improvement, although the percentage changed nothing: a president through whatever percentage is a president, and in the case of Liberia, his powers are not diminished by the margin of the votes. He still determines who eats and who goes hungry; who dies and who lives.
The same policy was repeated in 1997 although the conditions were different. America may have had its reservations about Taylor, but the Communist threat was now history with the fall of the "Evil Empire" (Soviet Union). Furthermore, apart from his appalling human rights record, Washington knew that the man was a little hustler and no danger to American interests. However, they failed to calculate that this little hustler had the capacity to spark destabilization in West Africa and transform it into a criminal enclave, something which could affect Western interests in terms of drug trafficking, money laundering, gun running and the resulting endless production of refugees flocking into Europe and America, along with the high costs of eternal peacekeeping. But other Americans, such as former President Jimmy Carter had personal interests in the outcome of the elections, and this is what counted. When President Carter declared the elections free and fair, "God's" stamped of approval was placed on them. Whether these "free and fair" elections were influenced by fear, well-calculated destruction of independent media institutions by Taylor, the unprecedented looting of national resources by one man for his own use, along with the theft of Sierra Leone diamonds which made Taylor by far the wealthiest man around did not count in the definition of how "free and fair" the elections were. All Liberians were told by the former American president that they should now rest in peace because human rights abuses and other evils were now "inconceivable" under this "family man".
Nevertheless, Taylor's paranoia about America's longhand in denying him his presidency dates back to the elections of 1997 when he cleverly launched a bitter anti-American propaganda, insisting and claiming that he had evidence of Washington's backing for Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. The intensity of the propaganda convinced the real power brokers in Liberia at the time, the Nigerians, that the US was about to impose their stooge to reap the benefits of their efforts in Liberia when Taylor had promised heaven and earth if they made him president. Of course, the late Sani Abacha made many promises, including one made to fellow Muslim Alhaji Kromah. According to sources, Kromah was invited to Abuja, along with his family, where he was convinced to believe that he was Abacha's choice. When it became obvious that Abacha's real choice was Taylor based on overt signals during the campaign, Kromah began shouting foul, but his voice was swallowed in the wilderness of cynicism because he had aligned himself with Taylor when expediency dictated. But Taylor's intense claims of America's preference for Mrs. Sirleaf led to an official American denial of backing any candidate. This somewhat relaxed Taylor, but his fears remained, prompting him to threaten war if he lost.
In any case, Taylor's fears of losing the 2003 elections (if indeed truly free, fair and transparent) are real, but for the wrong reasons of dreamy American and British conspiracy. In three years, he has convinced every one of his ineptitude as a leader. In additional, he may be chased out with brooms and sticks if he is lucky. He has failed on every promise made if he got the job. To the delight of ever dancing Liberians, he said he would reintroduce the US Dollar as legal tender, but printed a batch of useless notes breeding hyperinflation. He said he would give every child a computer, but the schools are without paid, qualified teachers, without water, lights or benches. He said he was the insurance for peace, but he has offered continued insecurity. He promised reconciliation, and opted for revenge, butchering opponents or driving the lucky ones out of the country. Instead of the prosperity, poverty is stamped. Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs) have become the real government with the responsibility of providing basic services such as repairing schools, and distributing safe drinking water in the midst of aid cuts and sanctions threats. For instance, US aid to NGOs fell from $38 million in 1998 to barely $14 million in 1999. The EU, the country's largest donor, has suspended badly needed $50 million aid package resulting into the closure of resettlement and reintegration programmes. Corruption is rife, more cancerous than at any time in Liberian history. Stupidity in foreign policy and local government has become his trademarks turning Liberia into a pariah despised by the rest of the world except Libya and Burkina Faso along with Taiwan (Taiwan would do anything for a diplomatic recognition even from Mars). His involvement in Sierra Leone may be fattening his bank account, but the repercussions on the country, now isolated, are hurting. The list of failures and inadequacies is infinite. So why would such a man win an election?
Although Taylor's fears indicate how vulnerable and worried he is at the polls, those bent on seeking public office in 2003 would do well to put integrity before desire by depriving Taylor all-vital players to play his futile game. The truth is that under the prevailing circumstances, jumping into a race with Mr. Taylor would be feeding with the much-needed oxygen of legitimacy that he needs. He needs players to play a game that he must win. He determines the size of the field. He pays the referees or they are his houseboys. He owns the Police that control the crowd. In the end, he controls the crowd because he has the means of control.
The appalling security, political and economic conditions in the country make any talk of an election a tragic joke. Summary executions and disappearances, clampdown on the media, exile of leading opposition politicians and threats of their arrest if they land in the country, intimidation and exile of pro-democracy activists, deployment of the Small Boys Unit with instructions to harass opponents are only few of the factors that make elections in 2003 laughable.
The single most important mistake made by the Opposition in 1997 was not, as Liberians constantly claim, their failure to provide a united front against Taylor and the warlords. Even if they had, the results would not have changed much, and the combined Opposition would have had the same number of seats as now. But the mistake was jumping into a race to legitimize a well-planned farce. If Liberian Opposition parties had called Nigeria's rules and games a bluff, Taylor would have been left on the field alone to play his game. Okay, maybe Alhaji Kromah (who was reportedly relying on Abacha's midnight promise) would have been on the field. Maybe other fly-by-night opposition parties would have led their third division teams in the game convinced they would lose with few rewards of cabinet appointments they would lose once the dust settled, as we have seen May be the mercurial and vacillating Baccus Matthews (who indirectly campaigned vigorously for Taylor by defending his war and abuses) would have played. May be Taylor would have paid other players, such as the unknown "Labour Party", to give the game a competitive look. But a boycott by leading Opposition figures would have placed an irrecoverable dent on the legitimacy of the elections. They didn't. They accepted the rules however stupid and unfair they were. They played the game, and they lost, thus making Taylor a "democratically, freely elected leader", a song he and his followers have sang so frequently in disbelief that every 5-year old Liberian child now remembers it.
The Opposition greatest disservice to democracy and to Liberians is to again jump in a race with a man who is determined to hang on power no matter the consequences. Taylor's pledge that he would not resume war if he lost is a signal of what he will do even if by miracle he was declared a loser. If not, why would he even contemplate war if he lost? In 1997, he threatened war if lost. The electorate justifiably believed him and out of fear of continued terror, gave him what he wanted. This time around, it is better to let him play his game alone and carry the title of the only student in the class and therefore the smartest. There is greater harm in endorsing a farce. The 1997 elections were described as perhaps the most internationally observed in Africa's recent history, even if many of the "observers" were in fact in locked up hotel rooms observing other actions.
Imagine the 2003 elections with threats of not allowing this
or that country to exercise control. Imagine also that in 1997,
ECOMOG soldiers were around to provide security, even if psychological.
Imagine now being left at mercy of the Small Boys Unit while openly
campaigning to remove their father from power. Imagine a candidate
making pronouncements, asking supporters to gather but cannot
find a single newspaper to publish the pronouncements or a radio
station to air them since credible media entities have been shutdown
while those around are either intimidated or subsidized by the
Government. This time around, the lyric will be far more menacing
than the infamous "You killed my ma; you killed my pa, I
will vote for you."
Let Taylor play his game alone and carry the burden!