Cash-Strapped Liberia Mired in Elections Quagmire in the Midst of COVID-19 Pandemic

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ELECTIONS UNCERTAINTY: As some countries like Ghana and Ivory Coast contemplate relaxing restrictions in the coming weeks, it appears the argument for postponing elections could lose some steam. For Liberia however, it could still be many weeks before any sign of closure emerges on the issue as the government struggles to find the cash while ponder negotiating with suppliers and printers of elections materials to pre-finance work for pay at a later date, one option on the table of a looming dilemma likely to keep Liberia from fulfilling its constitutional and democratic obligation.  

Monrovia – At the height of the deadly Ebola virus epidemic, Liberia had all the reasons in the world not to hold crucial Senatorial Mid-Term elections. Despite appeals from several international partners, who, at the time, advised against holding elections, pressure from the opposition, coupled with the holistic commitment by the regime of former President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf to uphold the constitution propelled the National Elections Commission to do all it could to make the elections possible without further endangering lives.

It was that election that set former world footballer of the year George Weah, who lost his first try at the presidency in 2005, on the path to his historic presidential elections victory in 2017.

Mr. Weah was elected to the Senate after defeating Sirleaf’s son, Robert with 78% of the vote.

Six years later, faced with yet another deadly pandemic, COVID-19, Liberia, under Weah is grappling with similar concerns over health issues and whether the timing is right to hold elections, while not just Liberia but the rest of the world is grappling with a killer disease.

Foregoing Voter Registration?

Supporters of the Sherman recommendation argue that because there was no updated voter roll in the recent Montserrado County Senatorial By-Elections that took Darius Dillon to the Senate and the District No. 15 legislative elections won by Abu Kamara over Telia Urey, the same should be applied to the Mid Term Senatorial elections later this years. However, under the new electoral law, there must be an updated voter roll for Mid Term elections and a new voter roll for general elections.

Over the past week, the issue has elevated to the core of the national discourse with many fearing that the global impact of the pandemic and the current government’s financial meltdown could alter not just the 2020 Senatorial Mid-Term elections but the 2023 presidential elections as well.

Senator Varney Sherman(Unity Party, Grand Cape Mount), head of the Judicial Committee in the Senate rattled a few cages when he suggested Friday that NEC foregoes the crucial voter registration process because of the impact of the killer disease on Liberia and lack of money to prepare.

Said Senator Sherman: “Is it possible that eventhough some people are eligible for voting, we forego this because of COVID-19 and for us to suspend voter registration update and insist that voter registration update is done for the Presidential and general election for 2023?”

The Grand Cape Mount Senator said: “If this is possible it could be obtained by getting the consensus of the various political parties and also the money business and the virus and plead with them to see good reason to suspend voter registration for the 2020 mid-term senatorial election.”

The NEC policy Paper No. 4 describes voter registration as the most technically complex, costly and time- consuming aspect of an election process. “Given the scale of the activity and the ‘human element’ involved, it is almost impossible to ensure the absolute accuracy of the register. If the registration process is conducted transparently and efficiently the credibility and legitimacy of the election process is enhanced. Conversely, numerous errors, omissions or dubious records can undermine confidence in the whole electoral process.”

In its final report of the 2017 presidential and legislative elections in Liberia, the National Democratic Institute, reported that during the voter registration period, ahead of the elections, logistical and technical glitches in some locations slowed or delayed the registration process and inefficient data collection and monitoring of registration rates hampered the ability of the NEC, civil society groups, and parties to target voter education efforts in areas with lower registration rates. “The combination of errors, duplications and omissions, along with the NEC’s lack of clarity and transparency in communication about these issues, impeded discussions about the Final Registration Roll (FRR) and undermined confidence in its accuracy. Lingering concerns about the FRR and the NEC’s performance, which were then compounded by problems on election day, set the stage for post- election complaints.” 

A Lot of New 18-Year-olds May Not Vote

Despite those hiccups, voter rolls went ahead. 

If the rationale for not holding the voter roll update is due to the COVID-19 pandemic, avoiding public gatherings and interactions, some are wondering, what guarantees are there that COVID-19 would not be around  by the proposed date in December 2020?

Article 77(b) of the constitution states: “All elections shall be by secret ballot as may be determined by the Elections Commission, and every Liberian citizen not less than 18 years of age, shall have the right to be registered as a voter and to vote in public elections and referenda under this Constitution. The Legislature shall enact laws indicating the category of Liberians who shall not form or become members of political parties.”

Should Senator Sherman have his way, thousands of first-time voters, those turning 18 since 2017, eligible voters who did not register in 2017 and voters who have changed their domicile will be deny the opportunity to vote for candidates of their choice.

Flashback to 2014, the National Elections Commission ensured that there was an update of the voter roll followed by elections in due due to Ebola.

In 2014, the National Elections Commission ensured that there was an update of the voter roll followed by elections in due due to Ebola.

NEC at the time was obligated under Section 3.19 of the New Election Law of Liberia which states:  “No Registration Roll may be altered within the thirty (30) days period immediately prior to an election, including Election Day, except upon order of the Honourable Supreme Court of Liberia on the determination of a manifest error.

Supporters of the Sherman recommendation argue that because there was no updated voter roll in the recent Montserrado County Senatorial By-Elections that took Darius Dillon to the Senate and the District No. 15 legislative elections won by Abu Kamara over Telia Urey, the same should be applied to the Mid Term Senatorial elections later this years. However, under the new electoral law, there must be an updated voter roll for Mid Term elections and a new voter roll for general elections.

By-Elections vs. Mid-Term – Apples & Oranges

By-elections are not planned for, even the national budget does not allocate funds for such, hence NEC cannot plan for updating a voter roll for a by election it does not know when it was happening. To the contrary, senatorial elections are stipulated by the law. NEC was fully aware that the 2020 Mid Term elections was on the horizon. Hence planning should take place for all related activities including update of the voter roll. 

Critics charge that comparing the conducting of by elections without updating the voter list with mid term senatorial elections is like comparing apples and oranges.


By-elections are not planned for, even the national budget does not allocate funds for such, hence NEC cannot plan for updating a voter roll for a by election it does not know when it was happening

To the contrary, senatorial elections are stipulated by the law. NEC was fully aware that the 2020 Mid Term elections was on the horizon. Hence planning should take place for all related activities including update of the voter roll. 

On the flip side, By-Elections are to be conducted within 90 days of receipt of notification from the Legislature on vacancy of a member. Also, Election law requires voter roll to be final 30 days before an election and only by an order from the Supreme Court can alter the roll less than 30 days to an election.

Simply put, the period for the conduct of by elections is insufficient to conduct an update to the voter roll (90 days). This is the basic reason why, election observers say, the roll is not updated during By-Elections grounded by provisions in the law.

While NEC was fully aware far in advance of its date, the writings had been on the wall for several months. 

Writings On the Wall for Months

Cllr. Jerome Korkoya, former head of the National Elections Commission, during an appearance before the Senate in February, sounded the alarm that lack of funding had prevented the commission from implementing a lot of the pre-elections activities leading to the Mid-Term Senatorial elections later this year.

In February this year, Cllr. Jerome Korkoyah, former chair of NEC expressed doubts over the possibility of conducting a “credible election” in 2020, due to the Commission being beyond schedule to implement some pre-election activities.

Cllr. Korkoya said on February 25, 2020, that NEC was yet to receive a dime from the Ministry of Finance and Development Planning of the US$17 million budget needed for the conduct of the election. 

Furthermore, the former NEC boss told the lawmakers that, since December 2019 where a commitment of US$7 million was made to get started, the Finance Ministry ministry was yet to make good on the commitment. “In my little experience, I do not believe we can achieve all that we should be doing by now effectively in keeping with transparency that should characterize the Special Senatorial Election in October of this year. And in term of how late we are, I think we are very late,” Cllr. Korkoyah said.

Like Cllr. Korkoya, Commissioner Jonathan K. Weedor, warned that if pre-election activities are not concluded by May 30, the possibility of conducting the October Special Senatorial Election could be seriously handicapped. Commissioner Weeder emphasized that, according to international best practice, 70% of a credible electoral process is complete when registration and voters roll update are done properly.

If the rationale for not holding the update is due to COVID-19, avoiding public gatherings and interactions, some are wondering, what guarantees are there that COVID-19 would not be around  by the proposed date in December 2020?

Ghana, Nigeria Working Around COVID


Across the West Africa sub-region, several countries preparing for upcoming elections are working around their respective situations to avoid postponing or cancelling elections in a bid to uphold the constitution. 

In fact, Liberia’s holding of elections during the 2014 Ebola epidemic has been used as a measuring guide by countries within the subregion as a learning point to hold electoral activities in the midst of public health pandemics.


Thus, critics say, failure to conduct registration due to pandemic when the rest of the region is watching could be detrimental.


Next door, Ghana is currently planning to conduct their voter registration, a general voter registration for all voters while Liberia is only doing an update. Ghana’s Electoral Commission (EC) has affirmed its decision to compile new voters register for the December 7, 2020 presidential and parliamentary election.


Besides Ghana and Nigeria, another next-door neighbor, Ivory Coast is also bracing for elections. Elections are also on the horizon in Nigeria, Tunisia, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Gambia and Kenya.

This is why many believe there is no real basis for Liberia to use COVID-19 as an excuse.

The challenge though remains clear that the government simply is lagging behind financially and struggling to find money to fund the activity.

ECOWAS Expresses Concern

The elections quagmire is dire not just for Liberia but several other African countries where elections are on the horizon. 


During a video conference in April, the national electoral commissions of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS)put the issue on the table

“Depending on the spread of the pandemic and its impact on the electoral commission timeframe, [ECOWAS] countries will consider maintaining or postponing those elections,” a statement put out by the commission said after the videoconference.

Two African countries, Mali and Guinea defied the pandemic to hold elections this year. 


Mali’s twice-delayed legislative elections finally took place on  March 29, 2020, despite a declared state of health emergency and the strange kidnapping of an opposition party leader. The country had recorded nine cases on the day of the elections.

Guinea, another of Liberia’s next-door neighbor, also conducted elections on March 22, 2020 for dual legislative and constitution reform elections, although they were boycotted by civil society and the opposition. 

Despite the hiccups politicians in most parts of the continent are using the pandemic to score political points.

Politicians in Liberia have been putting their photos on donated items to their constituents. In Ivory Coast, a high-ranking member of an opposition party recently accused Prime Minister Amadou Gon Coulibaly of putting photographs of himself on food packages provided to families severely affected by the pandemic. 

With so much at stake in an election year buoyed by uncertainty over health fears as a result of COVID-19, Liberians on both sides of the political divide appear to be torn over whether it is better to postpone the date of election, in this case by two months, pushing the Mid-Term to January, then all of the voters are equally affected. In this case however, the constitution would be breached.

The argument for some is that, the right to vote is a fundamental right. Liberia could be disenfranchising all voters who will turn 18 and be eligible this election cycle. It is the discrimination that the constitution will not allow. Any voting done this year – and in 2023 must ensure that all of the voters who are eligible and want to participate must be allowed to do so. 

Late US President Ronald Reagan once said in his first inaugural “….the solutions we seek must be equitable , with no one group singled out to pay a higher price .”


As some countries like Ghana and Ivory Coast contemplate relaxing restrictions in the coming weeks, it appears the argument for postponing elections could lose some steam. For Liberia however, it could still be many weeks before any sign of closure emerges on the issue as the government struggles to find the cash while ponder negotiating with suppliers and printers of elections materials to pre-finance work for pay at a later date, one option on the table of a looming dilemma likely to keep Liberia from fulfilling its constitutional and democratic obligation.  

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