Liberia Local Elections & the Challenges of Building Democracy

By Abdoulaye W. Dukulé

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
Sept 6, 2007


Not too long ago, Liberia had the capacity to organize elections on its own, without going out, looking for aid and advises. However, that was before “democracy” and before electoral processes turned into an industry, with the coterie of international observers, the network of computers, a bureaucracy called “Elections Commission” and thousands of paid workers to tabulate votes.

In the past few weeks, newspapers were filled with stories about the need for local elections, government’s response and the reaction from some opposition parties. Almost 18 months after the legislative and presidential elections of November 2005, Liberia has yet to complete the electoral process by holding local elections for mayors and chieftaincies. According to the government, the process could cost up to US $30 millions it claims not to have. President Sirleaf is said to have asked the legislature to give her the power to appoint officials needed in those positions.

The reactions from the opposition to President Sirleaf request were swift. It was an occasion for both Liberty Party of Counselor Charles Brumskine and the Congress for Democratic Change (CDC) of George Opong Weah to show their teeth and become the defenders of “democracy.” CDC warned against the birth of an “imperial presidency.” Later on the Elections Commission said that it might need only half of the money and that international partners would also participate in footing the bill.

Just a few years ago, when we interviewed candidate Charles Brumskine and raised the issue of primaries and their expenses, he said that we needed to be creative when talking about elections. He said that in many small places throughout the country, we did not need a complex system to choose leaders. For example, electing a chief in a small community may not require SUVs driven-observers, computers, ballot boxes made in Pakistan and ballots printed in Accra. It could all be done very simply, the only thing that matters in the end, is that the two hundred people in that town would decide who their leaders are. And that is the essence of democracy.

Allowing people of local communities to decide on how they want to choose their leaders and devise the mechanism to do so could be the first step in empowering them and also finding our own path to electioneering. Over the years, Liberians of every political wing have called for decentralization. They have wanted the local people to take control of their destiny, without the central government running their daily lives. The lack of money to hold one-day nationwide local elections could serve as a starting point.

First, not all mayoral and chieftaincy elections need to be held on the same day throughout the country. Second, in many cases, the people could elect their leaders in the simplest way, as they did in the past. Third, the role of the government is to simply recognize the leaders chosen by the people. The role of the elections commission can and must be reduced to that of an observer. This will give the people a sense of ownership of the process.

In large cities like Monrovia, Buchanan or Kakata, the problems could be resolved by starting the process at the level of the boroughs and ending with elected leaders of the different boroughs choosing a mayor amongst them.

In small towns like Clay Ashland, Fishtown or Careysburg where every one in town knows every single detail about every family, what would be the role of the Elections Commission? How many ballot boxes and flyers would be needed to choose a mayor or a chief in a town where less than 300 people will show up to vote? Mostly likely, the people would all meet at city hall or in the school building or under the cotton tree and decide who is a mayor and for how long and have a big party.

Unlike pizza or a car, democracy is not something than can be delivered and consumed or used as prepared or made elsewhere. Election seems to have become an end in itself, as if it were the only thing that matters in democracy, when it is actually simply an expression of the democratic process. Colorful banners and ballots, computers and observers do not make a democracy, rather it is the freedom of the people in deciding, and amongst themselves how they want to be governed. Empowerment should not be a gift from the government, but rather a process through which the people have ownership of their life processes.

If Liberia is going to keep an expensive bureaucracy such as an election commission – highly paid and doing little or nothing between elections – it must define a new role for it. Elections commissioners, rather than sitting in Monrovia, should be around the country and educating the people on the meaning of elections and come up with new ways as to conduct elections in a country such as Liberia. Is choosing a leader a job in itself?

Rather than pointing finger at the government and blaming the president, the opposition should ensure that the electoral process is not highjacked by any political group, be it the government in place or the Elections Commission. It must and can therefore involve itself in the process by finding mechanisms that give the people total control of the process. They cannot sit idly, waiting for the government to take the initiative in the electoral process and complain when things don’t go their way. Local elections are in their best interests and they should not wait for government to do it. The opposition should not just sit by and criticize government.

Simplifying the electoral process is not just about saving money - that could be used to buy textbooks and chloroquine for the children, - it means essentially to give the people the power to make their own choices the most natural way. They will start to take ownership of their lives and little by little, they would stop expecting everything to come from the government and believe in their capacity to govern themselves. And in turn, the government will stop begging the international community for things it doesn’t really need. Democracy is a grassroots thing, from the huts to the Mansion. In the end, progressively, Liberians could make an argument about sovereignty... And be taken seriously. Sometimes, things can be that simple.

© 2007 by The Perspective

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