Liberians will head to the polls on 23 August to vote in a Constitutional referendum called for by the Government of President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. The Referendum aims to amend four articles of the country's constitution a mere month before Liberia is scheduled to hold general elections in October. There has already been strong disapproval of the referendum with opposition parties calling on their supporters to boycott the vote. Issues causing controversy include accusations that Johnson-Sirleaf's Government has squandered funds, decreased the political involvement of smaller parties and has failed to supply a credible referendum chairman. As recent events in Guinea and Cote d'Ivoire have shown, West Africa has had a tumultuous history as far as elections are concerned. These developments coupled with a large influx of Ivorian refugees, following the crisis in that country has the potential to destabilise Liberia during its upcoming referendum. This CAI paper discusses the threats and consequences of Liberia's upcoming national referendum.
The proposed Constitutional amendments
President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf's administration has presented four Articles of the country's constitution to the National Electoral Commission (NEC), tasked with conducting the referendum.(7) The Articles which are up for amendment are 52(c), 72(b), 83(a) and (b).
- Proposed amendments
- Article 52(c): Reduces the residency requirements for Presidential and Vice-Presidential candidates, from 10 years to 5 years prior to the election.
- Article 72(b): An increase in the mandatory retirement age for all judges from 70 to 75 years of age.
- Article 83(a): A change in the date of national elections from the second Tuesday in October to the second Tuesday of November.
- Article 83(b): The introduction of single round first-past-the-post voting for all legislative and municipal elections.
Included in these four amendments is the infamous residency clause 52(c), which currently requires a presidential candidate to have been resident in Liberia for at least ten years prior to election. The amendment to the Constitution will limit the residency requirement for presidential candidate to five years, thus allowing Johnson-Sirleaf to run for another term as President. In addition to allowing Johnson-Sirleaf to run, a change in this particular cause will open the political field to a number of other candidates too. Changing political events and economic conditions in Liberia have led to mass population movements. This in turn has created large populations of expatriates who have been excluded for the political process in their home countries but who would be able to take part in Liberian politics after 5 years of residency.
Background to the residency requirement clause
The residency clause was first introduced into the Liberian Constitution at the behest of the military junta which ruled Liberia in 1984.(3) Following the 1980 overthrow of William Tolbert, the last American-Liberian President, Samuel Doe promised to return the country to civilian rule. Before this happened however, his regime instigated a reign of terror, intimidating and publically executing Tolbert supporters. In response to Doe's oppressive regime many of Liberia's elite fled the country, fearing prosecution. To deal with the large and influential population of expatriate Liberians before the 1985 election, the military junta called for a national referendum which changed the residency time required by a presidential aspirant to ten years prior to an election. The move effectively prevented hundreds of Liberians, including current President Johnson-Sirleaf, from taking part in the political process.(4)
Doe's efforts proved superfluous as the 1985 election were fraudulent. Doe was consequently elected as President and, with his harsh stance against communism, garnered the support of the United States,(5) in turn allowing him to follow a ruthless domestic policy. This policy was instrumental in driving away thousands of Liberians and the question of who qualifies for Liberian citizenship was raised. Doe's regime also heightened ethnic tensions which directly led to the first Liberian civil war in which Doe was eventually killed by Prince Yormie Johnson in the country's capital, Monrovia. However, Liberia was to endure years more of war as rival rebel factions fought for control of the country.
The onset of violence in neighbouring countries, most notably Sierra Leone, and the support supplied to rebel factions both in Liberia and its neighbouring countries led to a cycle of violence and the anarchy which prevailed from the onset of war in 1989 was marked by a profound loss of life, social decline and institutional breakdown. The war eventually ended in 2003 with the help of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the United States and United Nations (UN) peacekeeping forces. Following the end of the war, the Constitution was suspended under the Accra Comprehensive Peace Accord in order to facilitate smooth elections which were eventually held in 2005.(6) The 2005 polls brought Ellen Sirleaf Johnson-Sirleaf, the first female head of state in Africa, and the Unity Party to power.(7) However, the absence of a transparent democratic process in years preceding the 2005 election, gave the Liberian people precious little time to make alterations to an ineffective system.
The amendment of Article 52(c) is probably the most important on the agenda as the failure in its implementation would result in the disqualification of many Liberians, including incumbent President Johnson-Sirleaf, from the 2011 elections.
Of the four Articles, 72(b) has thus far avoided controversy. However, the remaining proposals have been slammed by opposition groups who feel they would provide an unfair advantage to Johnson-Sirleaf's Unity Party. Johnson-Sirleaf's administration has stated that the amendments are necessary in order to facilitate a smooth election process with more inclusivity. Article 83(a) seeks to change the current election date from the second Tuesday in October to the second Tuesday in November in order to avoid the rainy season which hinders electoral campaigning due to many roads becoming impassable.(8) With respect to 83(b), Johnson-Sirleaf's Government aims to change the absolute majority requirement for elective positions, with the exception of the President and Vice -resident, to simple majority. Arguments in favour of the amendments of Articles 83(a) and (b) are that the proposed articles provide a better logistical backdrop whereby parties can campaign for votes and that they decrease the cost of conducting elections. According to James Fromayan, chairman of the NEC, run-off elections consume up to 65% of an electoral budget.(9) Consequently, the decision has been presented by the Johnson-Sirleaf administration as a move to lessen the financial strain that the electoral process puts on the country.
Proposed constitutional amendments criticised by opposition
Various opposition parties have called the referendum premature, describing it as a waste of precious resources. Foremost among the antagonists is the Congress for Democratic Change (CDC), the leader of which, George Weah, lost out to Johnson-Sirleaf in the 2005 Presidential election by a narrow margin. The party has filed a 12-count petition with a civil law court hoping for an injunction to be issued to the National Elections Commission to stop it from organising the referendum. It has also called on its supporters to boycott the process.(10) Opposition groups have called the referendum unconstitutional on the basis that the current administration had not consulted Liberia's citizens to discuss the objectives of the referendum as required by law.(11) According to the former head of Liberia's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Jerome Verdier, a referendum before a general election in October is a waste of scare state resources which would be better directed at logistical planning for the Presidential and Legislative elections. The capacity of the NEC has already been brought into question during a series of by-elections in 2010 whereby only 1.8 million of an anticipated 2.7 million voters could register.(12) Criticism has also been levelled at Johnson-Sirleaf's Government for their attempt to amend Article 83(b) claiming that this would enable candidates representing large tribal blocs to monopolise legislative seats perpetually. They argue that tribal leaders would vote in this amendment as it effectively makes their hold on power easier to beget. Former Foreign minister, Lewis Brown, specifically questions this amendment,(13) claiming that it has the capacity to increase ethnic tensions and perpetuate the presence of larger ethnic groups in power.
Many smaller parties question the amendment of Article 52(c) as they argue it is self-serving, ultimately benefitting Johnson-Sirleaf. However, as Fromayan correctly argues; the ten year residency clause affects most of the running candidates, including Johnson-Sirleaf and the biggest opposition leader, George Weah.(14) (It should be noted that Fromayan, a long-time supporter of Johnson-Sirleaf,(16) is not considered a neutral observer by numerous opposition groups.) Article 52(c) is also proving contentious in that smaller opposition parties will be at a disadvantage as they have less funding than the larger political blocs and so will hold back campaigning until they know their candidate is eligible to run for the Presidential election.(15)
Voting population not sufficiently informed
In addition to the political wrangling that has been going on since May 1 when Fromayan opened up the floor for debate,(17) Liberia still suffers from poor communication infrastructure. Decades of ineffective government has led to severe infrastructural decay which makes information distribution extremely difficult. The problem is further compounded by the fact that Liberia has high rates of illiteracy. A 2008 census revealed that 75% of a target group of over 3.4 million Liberians were illiterate.(18) A consequence of the poor communication infrastructure coupled with high rates of illiteracy effectively means that the referendum and the consequences thereof have not been appropriately explained to the population.
Regional instability and increased violence
The crisis in neighbouring Cote d'Ivoire has forced thousands of Ivorian refugees to flee to the border regions of Liberia. The UN have been asked to increase security along the shared border regions, owing to the large numbers of refugees.(19) The primary concern about the influx of Ivorians, is the return of alleged Liberian mercenaries used by Cote d'Ivoire's Presidential claimant Laurent Gbagbo. The presence of some 150,000 Ivorian refugees has already changed election dynamic of the region while the presence of several mercenaries have been recorded in refugee camps.(20) There are fears that returning refugees and returning mercenaries could disrupt the polls. Poor communication networks and the fact that not all returning Liberians or fleeing Ivorian's can be scrutinised makes election violence a real possibility in that these groups can easily be mobilised should various stakeholders see fit to do so.
The upcoming referendum asks many questions of the NEC which will have to be answered in order to avoid confusion, maintain peace and rebuild the country's democracy. Whether it is wise to conduct such important elections back to back is questionable. Liberia's infrastructure has been severely damaged in the 14 year intermittent civil war and lack of communication is a serious concern to the referendum and eventual general election process. This being said, the national referendum is vitally important to the political process in the country and to healing the wounds of previous self-serving administrations. Liberia is on a long road to recovery with numerous social concerns still hindering its process. Thus far, the election process has been peaceful but as events in Guinea and more recently Cote d'Ivoire have shown, interethnic violence is a real concern in West African elections. If violence is to be averted, the referendum process should be used as a blue print for elections later in the year. The problems that arise during the upcoming vote could potentially be offset by careful planning ahead of the revised November Presidential poll.
(1) Contact Emil Bischoff through Consultancy Africa Intelligence's Election Reflection unit ( firstname.lastname@example.org ).
(2) Scott Stearns, 'Liberian opposition party challenges electoral commission neutrality', Voice of America, 2 August 2011, http://www.voanews.com.
(3) TLC Africa, 'Constitution of the Republic of Liberia', July 2011, http://www.tlcafrica.com.
(4) James Kpanneh Doe, 'Col says no to the Liberian national referendum', The Liberian Journal, 7 July 2011, http://www.theliberianjournal.com.
(5) Liberian Forum, 'Samuel K Doe', http://www.liberianforum.com.
(6) Nathan Mulbah, 'Liberia to conduct national referendum ahead of 2011 elections', Shout Africa, 22 September 2010, http://www.shout-africa.com.
(7) Alphonso Toweh, 'Liberia's Jonhnson-Sirleaf confident of winning new term,' Reuters, 26 July 2011, http://www.reuters.com.
(8) Alphonso Toweh, 'Liberia's Jonhnson-Sirleaf confident of winning new term,' Reuters, 26 July 2011, http://www.reuters.com.
(9) Nathan Mulbah, 'Liberia to conduct national referendum ahead of 2011 elections', Shout Africa, 22 September 2010, http://www.shout-africa.com.
(10) Jean-Mathew Tamba, 'Liberia opposition calls for referendum boycott', Africa Review, 2 August 2011, http://www.africareview.com.
(11) 'Liberia: Referendum heats up', The Analyst, 5 April 2011.
(12) Alvin Yelloway, '2011 referendum and Liberia's future', Africa Online, 13 April 2011, http://frontpageafricaonline.blogspot.com.
(13) 'Liberia: Referendum heats up', The Analyst, 5 April 2011.
(14) James Butty, 'Liberian referendum gets underway Sunday', Voice of America, 29 April 2011, http://www.voanews.com.
(15) Jean-Mathew Tamba, 'Liberia opposition calls for referendum boycott', Africa Review, 2 August 2011, http://www.africareview.com.
(16) Scott Stearns, 'Liberian opposition party challenges electoral commission neutrality', Voice of America, 2 August 2011, http://www.voanews.com.
(17) 'Liberia: Referendum heats up', The Analyst, 5 April 2011.
(18) Nathan Mulbah, 'Liberia to conduct national referendum ahead of 2011 elections', Shout Africa, 22 September 2010, http://www.shout-africa.com.
(19) Reuters, 'UN urged to boost Liberia-Ivory border monitoring', 8 July 2011, http://af.reuters.com.
(20) Scott Stearns, 'Liberia prepares for voting amid security concerns, refugee crisis', Voice of America, 4 August 2011, http://www.voanews.com.