More on Liberian Local Elections and the Challenges of Building Democracy

By Theodore T. Hodge

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
Sept 12, 2007


My colleague Abdoulaye Dukule must be commended for his last article addressing the issue of mayoral and chieftain elections. It belongs in the category, “Food for thought”. I hope the movers and shakers of the political arena of Liberia will give his ideas some consideration.

I was caught off balance when I read the newspaper story stating that the president had requested the legislature to grant her special powers to appoint mayors and paramount chiefs because the government could not afford the hefty estimated price tag of $30 million.

Two things surprised me: First of all, I didn’t know that holding local elections would actually cost so much money; $30 million? Apparently, I’m not the only one to have thought that the price was a bit on the expensive side --- the Elections Commission, the bureaucratic agency set up to arrange and supervise elections, estimated it would cost half as much as the president had declared. This raises a question of credibility. One wonders, with whom did the president discuss to derive this figure? Shouldn’t the Elections Commission be the primary source for advice and consultancy on this issue?

The second issue that concerns me is one of political strategy. Why did the president rush to request the legislature to allow her these special powers? I think she should have discussed the matter with appropriate cabinet officers and her close advisors and made a formal report to the legislature. The rationale for approaching it this way is to give the legislature a sense of power-sharing instead of seeming to want too much power bestowed on the presidency. As it is, the issue of the imperial presidency --- a president wanting too much power was raised.

Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that it is true that the government does not have enough money to bankroll local elections. Should we jump to the conclusion that the only solution is to grant the president special powers to make the necessary appointments? How effective is such a solution? Does it make sense that the president desires this extra burden? Strategically, I think it is bad policy for the president to have made this request without studying other alternatives. Sadly, it gives some credence to critics who accuse her of wanting to create an imperial presidency.

We know the dire needs Liberia has when it comes to the availability of funds. To this end, our international partners have been of great assistance. Our international partners have made pledges and donated cash and other technical assistance to aid us in rebuilding our crumbled infrastructure. But should we be relying on them to underwrite projects that we ourselves could undertake? With just a bit of innovation and initiative, Liberians can arrange and conduct their own local elections. This will accomplish two things: Firstly, the people themselves will experience a sense of pride that comes with being actual stakeholders in the franchise of democratic nation-building. Secondly, our international partners will appreciate our efforts in self-reliance --- a win-win situation, I suppose.

Again, I give credit to my colleague Abdoulaye Dukule for raising this topic and giving us some excellent ideas and insight. I only come to elaborate and reiterate what he proposes. He is right when he says that these local elections don’t have to be held nation-wide on the same day. They could probably be conducted within a few short weeks.

Here’s one way to conduct them: I propose that the National Elections Commission takes the lead and works with social scientists and students from the University of Liberia along with opposition partisans (who will serve as observers) and a host of national and local volunteers along with county, city and local leaders. Since the NEC has become a permanent agency, its employees will not necessarily require too much extra expense, maybe some additional per diem will suffice. As for the volunteers from the university, some accommodation and food allowance may be necessary and the opposition team members should foot their own bill; after all, they do have a vested interest in the process and outcome of these elections.

Several goals will be accomplished. The NEC will have established immense credibility. There are those who wonder whether the commission should be run as a permanent or seasonal agency --- conducting such massive national elections without the infusion of foreign aid will go a long way in enhancing its credibility.

The folks from the university will also have an invaluable experience in dealing with a real live experiment. Such an experience will also enhance the stature of the social sciences, political science in particular, at the university. A text book or two could be written afterwards for the university curriculum and for other practical purposes.

The opposition party members, especially those who challenged the president’s proposal, will defeat her on a national issue and also ensure the population that Liberia is indeed ready for multi-party democracy. Their actions will go a long way to defeat what they call the ambition for “imperial presidency”. But this requires action, instead of expedient rhetoric.

Most importantly, such a practical exercise will do wonders for the psyche of the people. It is still true that democracy is most effective and desirable when the citizens see themselves as participants in the process, as opposed to being subjects or pawns acted upon and dictated to. I don’t believe we need $30 million for this project --- we don’t even need $15 million. I believe that this worthwhile project could be undertaken using just a small fraction of the proposed cost. Let’s try it.

SPECIAL NOTE: I hope administration officials, opposition partisans and other mentioned stakeholders can respond to this issue and foster a much needed dialogue.

© 2007 by The Perspective

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