Liberia: Election Commission’s Handling of Biometric Bidding Process Driving Triggers for Conflict
FOR WEEKS NOW, a silent threat has been brewing that is likely to affect the outcome of the 2023 Presidential elections in Liberia.
NOT SINCE the elections of 1927 when the result gave a controversial victory to Charles D.B. King of the True Whig Party to seal his third term; or the 1985 elections marred by allegations of widespread fraud and rigging under Samuel Doe, has a threat been so grave amid fears that one wrong turn could trigger conflict and return Liberia to a chapter in its history many would prefer to forget.
THE ELECTIONS of 1927 is forever etched in the pages of history. The result not only sealed King’s third term, after his defeat of Thomas J. Faulkner of the People’s Party but also made it into the Guinness Book of World Records as the most fraudulent and “the most rigged ever” reported in history.
THE FRAUDULENT ELECTORAL PROCESS of 1927 was simply too glaring not to detect, even for those days. Despite there being fewer than 15,000 registered voters, King received around 243,000 votes, compared to 9,000 for Faulkner.
EXACTLY 58 YEARS LATER, in 1985, Liberia erupted into turmoil after controversial but official results showed that Samuel Doe had won the presidential election with 50.9% of the vote, just enough to avoid a runoff. President Doe’s National Democratic Party of Liberia also won large majorities in both houses of the legislature.
IRONICALLY, MANY independent observers believed that the Liberia Action Party’ of the late Jackson F. Doe, who officially finished second, was the actual winner. It was later revealed that Doe had the ballots counted in a secret location by his handpicked staff.
WHAT FOLLOWED was widespread human rights abuses, corruption, and ethnic tensions, that led to the start of the first Liberian civil war in 1989 and Doe’s overthrow and murder in September 1990.
WHEN THE CURRENT PRESIDENT, George Weah was the leading opposition candidate, his Congress for Democratic Change felt disenfranchised when the results of the 2011 presidential elections were announced.
THE RESULT? That election was thrown into deadly chaos after at least two people were shot dead during volatile scenes outside the party’s headquarters.
AT THE TIME, supporters of the opposition CDC party candidate, Winston Tubman, clashed with police near his beachfront offices. Armed police responded with live rounds and teargas, killing at least one person. Tubman and his running mate, Weah, the former footballer George Weah, were trapped inside the building suffused with teargas for much of the day. “We are not only sad, but we are also very disappointed,” Weah told the Guardian. “We were holding a peaceful rally and live bullets were used. To see people being killed is shocking. We are here trapped and unarmed, and they keep shooting teargas. This is wrong.”
AHEAD OF THE crucial elections next October, a lot of the fears of the past that triggered the civil war are once more resurrecting amid concerns that the head of the National Elections Commission, Davidetta Brown-Lansanah may be favoring a controversial Chinese company to introduce a biometric system of voting in NEC’s quest to do away with the optical manual registration (OMR) system which was used in previous elections.
CRITICS SAY, the OMR system does not improve the accountability and transparency of electoral processes and is usually tainted by controversy and mistrust. In a biometric voting system, the voters are registered based on their unique physical characteristics like fingerprints and even facial recognition. Others counter that while the system may eradicate double registration, it will not solve the issue of voter trucking which is associated with vote buying, a phenomenon that is becoming institutionalized in the country’s fragile democracy.
NEC’S DECISION to award the contract to the Chinese company, EKEMP has raised a lot of eyebrows from civil society and the Public Procurement and Concessions Commission (PPCC).
THE BIOMETRIC VOTER registration materials contract in question is worth nearly US$12 million. Six companies — Waymark and Mwetana, HID Global and PSI, Electoral Services International, Network Solutions, Laxton, and Ekemp applied and participated in the evaluation process conducted by the evaluation panel, but EKEMP was considered the most responsive, something that brought about concerns from sources following the procedure.
MADAM JARGBE ROSELINE NAGBE-KOWO, executive director of the PPCC, recently wrote: “The Commission, upon overall review and scrutiny of the NEC’s justifications for reconsideration, states that the NEC’s justifications tendered cannot suffice, given that they do not address the anomalies PPCC indicated, as per the September 9, 2022, communication that established the need to re-evaluate; also considering re-demonstration of the performance and functionalities of the biometric system.”
THE PPCC EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR added that “NEC should note keenly that PPCC’s role, under its prior review obligations and mandates as prescribed by law, is to authenticate [that] the bidding processes conducted are in line with applicable procedures, fairly and transparently, and that bidders are treated equitably in terms of review and scrutiny of offers.”
THE PPCC, recently requested that bidders be reinvited to appear before the Bid Evaluation Panel of the NEC for a video-recorded redemonstration of Physical presentations, regarding bid IFB No. NEC/VRPLE/ICB/)/2022.
AT THAT PRESENTATION, each Bidder was requested to start with a PowerPoint presentation regarding the equipment and software to be used, followed by an actual demonstration of its data entry, printing and de-duplication process- using a person persons designated by the panel.
The PPCC has been insistent that NEC follow the guidelines fairly and transparently. DESPITE THE PPCC’S INSISTENCE, the NEC chair has accused the PPCC of failing to respond to concerns it (PPCC) has raised that should be addressed. NEC thinks this might create hurdles in the future if not responded to now.
AMID THE NEC BRUHAHA, the signs are all over the walls regarding the likely outcome of the 2023 elections, yet none of the stakeholders, including the disjointed opposition seem to be reading those signs or are simply disinterested at this point. Also, this is not new to Liberia, and not when the fruits of these bad seeds begin to manifest and people becomes victims, then concerns are raised which in most instances is too late!
ELECTION IS THE BRIDGE between peace and chaos. One need not look far away to recount the disastrous outcomes of poorly conducted elections.
FROM ALL INDICATIONS, Davidetta Lansanah, NEC current Chairperson has demonstrated that she lacks the wherewithal to successfully manage that institution during the conduct of 2023 elections.
DURING THE CONDUCT OF THE 2020 Senatorial elections, under her leadership she woefully failed to adjudicate all elections petitions within the prescribed constitutional timeframe. Her failure to exercise prudent leadership led to a constitutional violation where adjudication of elections went beyond stipulated period. In any serious country where there’s respect for constitutional rule, Chairperson Lansanah would be history today, yet, there were no punitive measures for such gross violation.
THE NEC CHAIRPERSON was only relieved of indictment charges by the LACC due to technical reasons. This in no way exonerate her from corruption charges as alleged by the Anti-Corruption Agency. We are heading towards a presidential election while the Head of the election body is yet to clear herself of corruption charges to build public confidence.
WHILE THOSE CRITICAL issues are still pending, she is yet again embroiled into another procurement scandal, biometric registration tender. From all indications, it’s clear that Chairperson Davidetta Lansanah has personal interest in awarding the contract to the Chinese at the detriment of the NEC and Liberia as a whole. What more are we waiting for this Chairperson to do to inform the decision makers that enough is enough and that her actions are counterproductive to democratic process in Liberia?
ARE WE WAITING FOR A DISASTROUS outcome of the October 2023 elections before we act? Sure, by then he’ll would break lose and it would be too late to savage the process.
IT IS BECOMING INCREASINGLY CLEAR that the NEC under Browne-Lansanah has failed demonstrate leadership among her fellow commissioners, running a one person show at NEC. This is also counterproductive for the institution and its mandate of delivery credible and free elections. The NEC has gradually sunk into decadent, yet we expect credible and transparent elections in 2023. Unfortunately, political stakeholders and others are busy putting the cart before the house – and waiting to get burned before crying foul!