“In Our Opinion, The 2023 Elections Was Neither Free Nor Fair, Nor Was it Constitutional”—FIND Says of 2023 General and Presidential Elections

The Executive Director of the Foundation for International Dignity (FIND), Aaron Juakollie has revealed that on a larger scale, we see the need to review the legal framework governing our elections in Liberia.

FIND is a pro-democracy and human rights organization working to promote good governance, access to justice, and the rule of law in Liberia. FIND’s mission is to promote human rights and dignity by empowering people through education, awareness-raising, and capacity-building in collaboration with national and international partners.

“Although the past elections can be considered democratic, in the sense that all citizens of voting age had the right to vote, in our opinion the election was neither free nor fair, nor was it constitutional,” Mr. Juakollie said.

First of all, government resources were used for campaigning on a massive scale, giving candidates of the governing party an unfair advantage (e.g. ministers using government vehicles and resources to conduct campaign activities). 

This is a blatant disregard for the Code of Conduct for government officials. Secondly, according to the 1986 Liberia Constitution, articles 80 (d) and (e) state that “a constituency shall have an approximately equal population”. 

This was not the case in these elections. It also states that the “Election Commission shall reapportion the constituency in accordance with the new population figures so that every constituency shall have as close to the same population as possible provided however that a constituency must be solely within a county”. 

It can be recalled that on August 16, 2010, the 52nd Legislature in a Joint Resolution of the Senate and the House of Representatives of the Republic of Liberia on the Setting of an Electoral Threshold for the conduct of the 2011 Presidential and Legislative election in Liberia was published. 

This Joint resolution compromised the 1986 Liberia Constitution, thus questioning the legitimacy of the 73 representatives of the 53rd, 54th, and the incoming 55th legislatures of the House of Representatives.

The FIND Executive Director said they therefore, strongly recommend that NEC and the legislature lay the groundwork for the new demarcation of constituencies by setting new population thresholds for future representation.

However, Juakollie told a news conference on December 19, 2023, that overall, NEC did a good job, considering the countless challenges facing our country. However, at some polling stations, we observed that some NEC volunteers were simply not qualified or not trained sufficiently to do the job required, especially, since the most critical task of counting votes cannot be assigned to volunteers who are not able to do simple addition. We strongly recommend that all poll workers be screened to fulfill minimum requirements. 

Moreover, we need to ensure that NEC staff are neutral actors. Unfortunately, this was not always the case, with some exhibiting their affiliation with certain parties or candidates before election day. We need to strengthen NEC’s ability to conduct future elections, Mr. Juakollie continued. 

This means allocating more funds on time, inorder for them to conduct better training and to provide better equipment for staffers to perform the task at hand. In addition to this, allowances for NEC staff and volunteers need to be proportionate to the duration of field assignments and distance of travel to polling places – it is not only unfair to presume that volunteers can conduct their work without adequate payment, but is also a liability, making them more susceptible to bribes.

Voter education is the key!

Voter turnout was very high during the General Elections on October 10 – this was encouraging and should be seen as a positive outcome. However, we also observed lots of confusion over voting procedures at all polling stations. The challenges were many. Among the most alarming issues was that many voters did not understand how to mark their ballot papers correctly, leading to a high number of invalid votes. We cannot put this down to illiteracy alone – this is a question of civic competence. We strongly recommend that voter education be incorporated into the school curriculum, in order to build prospective voters’ capacity to participate fully in the democratic decision-making process.

However, ignorance of rules and procedures did not stop at the level of the voters. Many political party agents and even national election observers were also not well informed about procedures or the role they were supposed to play – for example, they were not there to tell poll workers what to do. Although there is an official Complaint Form, through which issues were supposed to be addressed, several conflicts ensued between NEC staff and party agents at polling stations. 

This was highly unprofessional and undermined trust in the electoral process. We should also not forget the many persons with disabilities (PWD), who equally have the right to participate in the democratic process, but who face a multitude of difficulties. For example, tactile ballots were not available at all voting stations, forcing some voters to rely on family members or friends to cast their votes for them – which defeats the purpose of a secret ballot. 

Voters with hearing disabilities could often not understand poll workers’ instructions, which led to confusion. And most voting centers were not suitable for people with physical disabilities. We need to do better.

Additionally, the Executive Director of the Foundation for International Dignity (FIND) further urged Liberians to unite after a divisive 2023 election campaign.

“The General and Presidential Elections of 2023 have come and gone. Now it is time for Liberians to overcome their political divisions and work together to address the many challenges facing our country,” said Juakollie.

FIND also congratulated President-Elect, Joseph N. Boakai on being elected as the next President of the Republic of Liberia and commended outgoing President George M. Weah for accepting his defeat graciously, thereby allowing for the peaceful transition of power. 

FIND also commends the National Election Commission (NEC) for organizing the election process. And most of all, we commend the Liberian people for making use of their democratic rights by selecting their leaders for the next six and nine years, respectively.

FIND, a pro-democracy group, said it monitored the General Elections on October 10 and the run-off Presidential Election, on November 14, 2023, respectively in Bong, Lofa, Nimba and Grand Gedeh Counties, adding that it wants to share some of its observations and provide recommendations on what it believes are substantial issues that need to be addressed before the next election cycle, in order to strengthen our democratic process in the future.

Role of the Media

We should cherish our freedom of speech, but not at the cost of polarizing the society. In the lead-up to the elections, we observed numerous instances of falsehoods, hate speech and intimidation being perpetrated over the air and on social media. Rumors were allowed to spread, which created unnecessary conflicts in places like Lofa and Nimba Counties (for example over alleged pre-marked ballots).

Moreover, we observed that many media institutions and social media outlets were biased towards certain candidates. For instance, the state media (ELBC) provided more time to the ruling party than any other party or independent candidates. We recommend that even private radio stations should be compelled to provide adequate time for equal coverage, and community radios should be allocated funds to cover the election period.

Post-Election – Don’t let Politics divide us!

What these past elections revealed once again, is that tribal affiliations and unconditional loyalty to individuals, despite their track records, have caused divisions among community members and families. Many voters did not examine candidates based on their competence, but rather on kingsmanship. Now, more than a month after the elections, dissatisfaction with the results is leading to open conflicts in some communities across the country. 

There is an urgent need for dialogue. In response to this, FIND held a first peace-building dialogue in Palala, Kpai District (Electoral District #1) Bong County on December 11th, where citizens were allowed to freely express their disagreement with the way the counting process was conducted by NEC (a petition was filed to the Supreme Court by one of the candidates, and citizens are demanding a recount in the district). We invited religious and traditional leaders to talk to the community about the importance of living together peacefully after the elections. 

Moreover, the panelists emphasized the importance of following legal procedures instead of resorting to violence which will only hinder development. This situation is symptomatic for many communities in Liberia. There is a need for government and civil society actors to continue to support these endeavors around the country and to resolve conflicts peacefully.

In Conclusion

Despite all of the challenges faced during the 2023 elections, we would like to congratulate the Liberian people and all actors for their resilience in exercising their democratic and civic rights to vote on October 10 and November 14, 2023 during the General and Presidential Elections. We hope that all relevant actors will consider our concerns and recommendations. The incoming government should consider the legal framework by setting appropriate thresholds for constituencies, implementing the code of conduct by appointing an ombudsman and creating a level playing field for future elections in Liberia. 

NEC should be given adequate funding to execute her mandate. Funds should also be allocated in the national budget for community radio stations to ensure that all voters receive unbiased information about prospective candidates.

We call on all political actors, community leaders and citizens to come together to tackle the real issues that are hindering development in Liberia. Let us overcome our grievances and continue to build our nation. FIND is willing to play its part to support the incoming government to uphold the rule of law and protect the rights of its citizens. However, as a civil society organization, we will also hold the incoming government accountable the pro-democracy group concluded.

By Patrick Stephan Tokpah

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