Liberia: History of Fraudulent Elections Resurrecting Concerns as President Closes in on NEC Appointment
Monrovia – The Liberian Presidential elections of 1927 is forever etched in the pages of history. The result gave a controversial victory to Charles D.B. King of the True Whig Party to seal his third term, after King’s defeat of Thomas J. Faulkner of the People’s Party. That result made it into the Guinness Book of World Records as the most fraudulent and “the most rigged ever” reported in history.
No other election has come close. It was not until 93 years later that any election would mirror the fraud of 1927.
Emmett Harmon’s ’85 Scheme
It was 1985 and Cllr. Emmett Harmon was at the helm of the National Elections Commission.
The first elections since the April 12, 1980 military coup set the stage as Master sergeant Samuel Doe, completed his transformation from a military man to a civilian.
A year earlier in 1984, a new draft constitution was approved in a referendum, which provided for a 58-member civilian and military Interim National Assembly, headed by Doe as president and after a ban on political parties was lifted, four parties – Doe’s National Democratic Party of Liberia, Jackson Doe’s Liberia Action Party, Edward Kesselly’s Unity Party and Gabriel Kpolleh’s Liberia Unification Party – contested the elections.
Despite the polling being marred by allegations of widespread fraud and rigging, the final results announced by Cllr. Harmon showed Doe won with 50.9% of the vote, just enough to avoid a runoff.
Doe’s NDPL also won majority of the seats in both houses of the Legislature even as many believed the elections were actually won by LAP’s Jackson F. Doe, who officially finished second.
Numerous stories surfaced at the time that Doe had the ballots counted in a secret location and Harmon delivered what he was instructed to.
The aftermath of the ’85 elections saw Liberia drift further into chaos and uncertainty and witnessed an increase in human rights abuses, corruption and ethnic tensions, ultimately leading to the start of the first civil war in 1989 and Doe’s overthrow and murder in 1990.
Harmon, would later admit that there were irregularities but appealed to Liberians to accept the results, which he described as “sincere and just.”
Jackson F. Doe and LAP announced boycott of the results immediately. “We do not intend to participate in a government which does not represent the dreams and aspirations of the Liberian people,” he said.
The LAP standard bearer at the time argued that the elections commission lacked impartiality — that 20 of its members came from Samuel Doe’s home county and the rest were his professional supporters or relatives of Cabinet ministers.
In what was seen at that time as a replica of 1927, many political watchers raised issue and expressed concerns as why it took 15 days to count only 500,000 votes. According to the election committee, delay was due to “logistical problems” and the complexity of counting votes for four candidates.
The opposition complained at the time that Doe created improvised voting centers at army barracks and multiple voting by soldiers, their wives, and children and alleged interference by county superintendents and election officials.
Declaring that the election results were “destined by God,” Cllr. Harmon declared that Doe won with 264,362 votes, or 50.9% of the popular vote. Opposition parties, whose estimates were backed by Western diplomats, asserted that Doe actually received no more than 25% of the vote.
Cllr. Harmon also reported that Doe’s party won 21 of the 26 seats in the new Senate and 51 of the 64 seats in the House of Representatives. He said the Liberia Action Party presidential candidate, Jackson Doe, won 137,270 votes or 26% of the total. The other two presidential candidates received about 11% each.
US: Doe ‘Allocated Himself 51% of Votes’
“They really have to work hard to live up to the tradition of democracy in Africa. The fact that he (Doe) only allocated himself 51% of the vote showed remarkable restraint.”US State Department in the aftermath of the 1985 elections
The US State Department at the time declared that “there were some irregularities” during the election, but said: “the voting on the whole was well conducted with a large voter participation.”
Said the US State Department at the time: “These were the first multiparty elections ever held in Liberia on the basis of universal adult suffrage. . . . We have no independent information on vote tallies. The Liberian courts will have to assess charges of misconduct in the tabulation of votes which have been levied by both the government and the opposition. For our part, we have urged all Liberians to try to work together to meet the challenges which confront their country.”
A State Department official, who asked not to be identified by name, said sardonically: “They really have to work hard to live up to the tradition of democracy in Africa. The fact that he (Doe) only allocated himself 51% of the vote showed remarkable restraint,” the Washington Post reported at the time.
Thirty-five years later, many remain skeptical about the election process in Liberia.
As an opposition leader, the current President George Weah cried foul in the aftermath of the 2005 presidential and legislative elections, declaring that the results were fraud after official voting returns showed he lost a November 8 run-off presidential poll by a wide margin to Johnson-Sirleaf, a 67-year-old Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf.
Sirleaf retaliated to the claims saying: “This is all trumped up, this is all something just to delay the inevitable.”
Although the Carter Center and the National Democratic Institute’s assessment of the electoral process was positive, the two observers acknowledged that there were several minor instances when polling officials did not follow procedures in completing record of count forms, as well as instances of several other irregularities, the Center and NDI have not seen evidence of systematic fraud or problems that would materially affect the election results.
Sirleaf argued at the time that Weah and his party lost because they were overconfident and complacent. “They were complacent … their simple calculation was that their percentage in the first round would just be added to the percentage of the leaders (who backed them) in the second round and they would win conclusively. But they were wrong. Because while they were sitting waiting for victory, we were out there. So we earned it, we really earned it.”
A lot has changed since 1927’s fraudulent elections and the Doe-inspired dubious elections of 2005.
According to Dr. Fred van der Kraaij, a Dutch economist, researcher, historian and expert on African affiars, whose dissertation on the role of foreign investments in the development of Liberia 1900-1977 published as “The Open Door Policy of Liberia – An Economic History of Modern Liberia” (Bremen, 1983), in 1927, “Suffrage was constitutionally limited to some 15,000 citizens, all Americo-Liberians, but according to the official election results some 240,000 votes were cast in favor of the incumbent, King. “The following year, Faulkner accused the King Administration of permitting slavery, slave trade and forced labour within the borders of the Republic. Eventually this led to King’s resignation in 1930,” Van der Kraaij told FrontPageAfrica.
Ironically, in the elections of ’85, there were no party observers at the polls from the participating parties to monitor the count.
Late President Doe’s choice of Harmon to head the elections commission was seen at the time as a good move.
Cllr. Harmon’s Mystique
Cllr. Harmon was born on February 5, 1913, in Lower Buchanan in Grand Bassa County and was the grandson of Sir Samuel George Harmon, the Secretary to the Treasury.
He was educated in Grand Bassa then at Cuttington College, Cape Palmas in Maryland County.
In 1928 he entered the Treasury, as a cadet, under his grandfather, before going to the College of West Africa, leaving in August 1932 for Howard University in the USA, where he took a BSc in Economics and Business Administration.
On his return home in 1936, he rejoined the Treasury department as a clerk and rose to the position of Acting Paymaster, the Acting Collector of Customs in Marshall Port, before being transferred to Monrovia as Chief of the Division of Statistics. In 1938 he went back into the Bureau of Revenues, rising to Inspector in 1941, and in 1944 becoming the first Social Secretary President W. V. S. Tubman.
In 1949 he resigned to study law Harvard Law School and returned to Liberia in 1951 to become executive secretary of the Joint Liberian United States Commission for Economic Development, which he held until 1971.
With such a stellar background in law, the opposition had no reason to challenge his appointment.
It was not until months after the elections and the November 12, 1985 invasion led by Thomas Quiwonkpa that Cllr. Harmon’s NDPL ties came to light. At a program honoring Doe in 1986, then NDPL chairman, Kekura Kpoto asked all NDPL supporters in the crowd to stand up, and Harmon stood, triggering a wave of criticisms from the opposition.
What the Law Says About Criteria for NEC Chair
Since the end of the civil war, an apparently unwritten rule has painted he perception that the head of the elections commission must be a Counselor at law. However, Section 2.3 of the Final Amended Election Law states:
The Commissioners shall be Liberian citizens and shall not be less than 35 years of age. They shall be of good moral character, and no two(2)Commissioners shall be from the same county.”
Section 2.3 of the same law does however stipulate the following:
“No Commissioner, election officer or any employee of the Commission shall be a member, or an affiliate of any political party, or of an association or organization; nor shall any Commissioner, election or any employee of the Commission canvas for any elective public office directly or indirectly. Before assuming office, each Commissioner, election officer and every employee of the Commission shall solemnly subscribe to an oath renouncing allegiance to, and severing all connection, affiliation and relationship with his/her own, or any political party during his/her service or tenure with the Commission.”
President Weah’s Choice
In the aftermath of the civil war, with several factions and political parties bracing for a shot at the power, Cllr. Frances Johnson-Morris was tipped to steer the affairs of the elections commission.
Prior to her appointment, Johnson-Morris had served in 1997, was Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. She had been the national director of the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission from 2004 to 2005. She was also a resident circuit judge from 1989-1997. She obtained a degree in law from the Louis Arthur Grimmes School of Law, Monrovia, as well as a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Liberia, Monrovia.
Her role on the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission gave Johnson-Morris the pedigree to win acceptance from the various political parties contesting in 2005.
It was not until after she left the position, she served in several capacities in the Sirleaf administration – including minister of commerce and industry, Attorney General and head of the Liberia Anti-Corruption Commission.
In fact, when she was appointed as head of the LAAC, she was heavily criticized by opposition politicians who accused her of delivering the 2005 elections to Sirleaf, when she headed the elections commission.
Her successor, James Fromayan, although not a lawyer, also came with similar pedigree. Besides being the vice chair of NEC, Fromayan came from the progressive background, and had served as Executive Director of the Liberia Democracy Resource Center and a former Project Manager, Seeds and Tools Project for the Catholic Relief Services. He had previously served as Assistant Minister for Administration, Ministry of Education; taught at the University of Liberia and served as Vice Principal of the Voinjama Multilateral High School.
Fromayan’s successor, Cllr. Jerome Korkoyah was a lawyer. Although there were concerns about his affiliation to the opposition Liberty Party, the noise over Korkoyah’s appointment was short-lived and he served two-terms until it expired in March.
President Weah briefly flirted with the idea of keeping Korkoya on but settled with the controversial appointment of the Nigerian-born, Cllr. A. Ndubusi Nwabudike who ran into a roadblock at his Senate confirmation.
The issue of whether or not a NEC Chair has to be a lawyer was mooted twice. Besides Fromayan, Mr. G. Henry Andrews, a former sports journalist, who went on to become Minister of Tourism and Cultural Affairs, presided over a pivotal election in the 1997 that brought Charles Taylor to power.
Across Africa, there have been several heads of elections commissions that were not lawyers.
In Sierra Leone, Christiana Thorpe, who had served as education minister under Valentine Strasser, served two-terms as elections chief; Afari Gyaun a political scientist served as elections administrator in 1992 which saw the election of Jerry Rawlings as President of Ghana while in Nigeria, Professor Attahiru Muhammadu Jega, an academic and former Vice-Chancellor of Bayero University in Kano was appointed in June 2010 by then President Goodluck Jonathan as Chair of the Independent National Elections Commission(INEC).
Since the Nwabudike debacle, President Weah, according to aides have been weighing a lot of suggested names thrown his way. But over the last week, close aides to the President say it has now come down to Cllr. Syrennius Cephus, the current Solicitor General and Rep. J. Fonati Koffa(Grand Kru County), head of the Judiciary Committee of the lower house.
Cephus, Koffa, Gaye? President to Decide
For the foreseeable future, NEC appears, at least for now, to be on its own. The US government no longer has a technical team working with the commission while the United Nations Development Program(UNDP) has a small team offering very limited technical assistance. This means, a lot of local expertise will be counted upon to ensure that the Liberia’s checkered elections history is not repeated in both the Senatorial Mid Term elections later this year and the 2023 Presidential and legislative elections.”
Both Koffa and Cephus have their own share of controversy and Senator Alphonso Gaye(Unity Party, Grand Gedeh, who will likely not be contesting is also being thrown in the mix at the last minute.
Cllr. Cephus was suspended by the Supreme Court from practicing law for three months (April 7, 2015 to July 7, 2015) after he was found guilty of misconduct and for misleading his clients. The Court described his action as “contemptuous” and “grave”, although his name was not among the original case sheet.
The only mention on the case sheet was: When the case was called for hearing, Counselor Joseph N. Blidi, In-House Counsel, appeared for the National Elections Commission, Informant. Counsellors Saymah Syrenius Cephus and james N. Kumeh, appeared for Respondent, National Patriotic Party. Counselor Yamie Gbeisay appeared for the Congress for Democratic Change.”
Cllr. Cephus was arrested and jailed on charges of sedition, criminal libel, and malevolence in December 2009 after accusing ex-President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf of supplying arms to dissident forces in Guinea.
Cllr. Koffa, a former member of the opposition Liberty Party crossed over to the ruling Coalition for Democratic Change(CDC) shortly after winning his seat in the 2017 legislative elections. Under elections law, he will have to renounce his membership before taking office.
As for Gaye, who was suspended by the former ruling party following his vote in favor of former Associate Justice Kabineh J’aneh’s impeachment, his future remains unclear. He has said he will seek reelection later this year and some say his recent close alliance to the CDC could put him in the driver’s seat for the post, a possible reward for his role in the Ja’neh impeachment.
As President Weah ponders his decision, political watchers say, given the inherent deficiencies both at the board level and Secretariat, any chairman lacking requisite electoral experience, competence and skills may run into roadblocks down the road.
While a lot of attention is placed on fraud and rigging, some argue that an election that is poorly conducted and flawed with errors and mistakes might not be due to an intend to cheat; but simply due to the lack of know how; that in itself presents the same outcome as a rigged election, public rejection of the result.
For the foreseeable future, NEC appears, at least for now, to be on its own. The US government no longer has a technical team working with the commission while the United Nations Development Program(UNDP) has a small team offering very limited technical assistance. This means, a lot of local expertise will be counted upon to ensure that the Liberia’s checkered elections history is not repeated in both the Senatorial Mid Term elections later this year and the 2023 Presidential and legislative elections.