FARMINGTON, Margibi County – Tuesday, April 4th was a momentous occasion in Liberia, as key political parties gearing up for Liberia’s crucial Presidential and Legislative Elections signed a landmark agreement affirming their commitment to peaceful, transparent, and credible elections.
By: Gerald C. Koinyeneh – [email protected]
President George Manneh Weah, representing the Liberian Government and the ruling Coalition for Democratic Change, led over 20 political parties, including the opposition Unity Party and Collaborating Political Parties (CPP), in affixing their signatures to the document dubbed the Farmington River Declaration 2023.
Tuesday’s signing ceremony was organized under the auspices of the Liberia’s National Election Commission, ECOWAS and the United Nations with the UN and ECOWAS signing the agreement as witnesses. On behalf of the UN, Ms. Giovanie Biha, Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary-General, and acting head of The UN office for West Africa and the Sahel, signed the agreement, and Dr. Omar Alieu Touray, President of the ECOWAS Commission signed on behalf of ECOWAS.
Addressing the conference, President Weah called on political party leaders and stakeholders in the upcoming elections to avoid vices that have the tendency to cause violence and disrupt Liberia’s hard-earned peace.
“Let me therefore use this occasion to urge all stakeholders who have a vested interest in the October elections to avoid incendiary language and what I perceive to be a growing culture of militancy, which can have the propensity to quickly spill over into violence,” President Weah said.
The President’s comments come amid a surge in violent altercations between rival political parties’ militant groups, something that was prevalent in the 2022 Lofa County by-election. His own party, the ruling CDC, has formed several militant-styled auxiliary groups uniquely identified with their blue and red berets. Other political parties have followed suit and formed their counter-militant groups.
The President, in his speech, which was much more conciliatory, called on political leaders to prevail on their members to embrace peace and act in accordance with the spirit of the Farmington Agreement.
He said: “Rhetoric that whips up old divisions and puts tribes and regions against one another must be discouraged. We, as political leaders, must have a duty and responsibility to prevail on all the members within the ranks of our various institutions to desist from actions that could lead to violence. While we all support different causes and interests, there is one cause that must bring every one of us together, in spite of our differences, and that is the cause of maintaining the peace of our Nation.”
Continuing, he said: “I am not only referring to the parties and stakeholders in this room. Liberians everywhere have an obligation to ensure that we do not reverse the gains that have been made. And so today, as we sign the 2023 Farmington River Declaration, I call upon all political leaders in this room to ensure that our supporters, and the wider electorate who follow us, will also adhere to the spirit of this Agreement that we have signed before God and the whole World, as we jointly work to fulfill the promises that we have made therein.”
The Farmington River Declaration of 2023 was modeled after the 2017 Farmington Agreement, which was convened by then President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf through the Inter-Religious Council. In June 2017, twenty of Liberia’s 22 registered political parties met at the Farmington Hotel and signed the agreement, pledging before the ECOWAS Heads of State to promote an orderly and peaceful elections process in October 2017.
Six years later, President Weah, whose party won the presidential race, lauded the political parties for keeping true to their word and ensuring free, fair, transparent, and violence-free elections, and most importantly, settling their differences through the justice system of Liberia. As Liberia prepares for the polls in October, he called on political leaders to do the same.
President Weah emphasized that the 2023 presidential and legislative elections present a significant opportunity not only to consolidate Liberia’s democratic gains, but also to entrench and build upon them. He added that they also provide an opportunity to strengthen a deepening political culture that has at its core the principles of freedom, justice, and equality, and the respect of human rights, including the rights of women and children.
“They will also provide the occasion for the Government of Liberia to continue to demonstrate its unreserved commitment to the protection of the rights of all citizens, as enshrined in our Constitution,” he said.
Speaking on behalf of the opposition bloc, the standard-bearer of the Unity Party, former Vice President Joseph N. Boakai, affirmed the party’s commitment to a peaceful and credible elections process.
“The Unity Party, even more than our international partners and the NEC, want an election that will be free of any form of physical or emotional violence. While we are all ensuring that the October 10, 2023 polls will be violence-free, fair, and transparent, we would like to remind our partners and the NEC that the mere absence of violence is not the only requirement for a satisfactory election,” VP Boakai said.
Taking the CDC-led government to task, former Vice President Boakai said that after the 2017 legislative and presidential elections, a comprehensive report was made outlining several recommendations that would reform and standardize Liberia’s electoral process.
“Sadly, all of the very brilliant recommendations that were proffered by our Supreme Court, ECOWAS, International and Local Partners were left to rot in the dustbin. It would appear that our government does not care about reforming the electoral process,” he said.
He noted that the National Elections Commission is not the only institution involved in Liberia’s elections; rather, the judiciary plays a critical role in expeditiously and lawfully concluding elections disputes, to ensure peaceful elections and discourage violence.
The former Vice President was also emphatic in holding the CDC responsible for a series of violence against the legislative candidates and supporters of the UP since the inception of the Weah-Taylor administration. He recounted several instances, including the by-election in Montserrado County District #13 to replace former Representative Saah Joseph, where the UP candidate Cornelia Kruah-Togba was violently attacked by people believed to have been partisans of the CDC. He also mentioned the attack on Telia Urey during the by-election to replace the late Rep. Adolf Lawrence and the Senatorial election of Gbarpolu Counties. Despite the injuries inflicted by these attackers, they continue to go with impunity.
“It has become a common practice in Liberia not to investigate electoral violence. Hence, no investigation was commissioned into any of these violent incidents, and they were all left to slide under the umbrella of impunity. We still have the perpetrators roaming in the streets freely waiting for future orders to commit electoral violence repeatedly.”
A call to extend BVR exercise
The signing of the Farmington declaration comes as the NEC has commenced the electoral process with the nation’s first-ever biometric voter registration process in six of Liberia’s 15 counties, including Bomi, Gbarpolu, Grand Bassa, Grand Cape Mount, Margibi, and Montserrado Counties. While the NEC is being applauded by some for introducing the BVR system, it has been criticized for the slow pace at which the process is being conducted. Many people complained of waiting in long queues for hours before being processed. The UP-standard bearer named the malfunctioning or shortage of BVR equipment and sluggishness of some voter registration staff as some of the factors leading to the long queue and slowness of the exercise.
“As we pen our signatures to this Farmington River Declaration that will commit us to a NON-VIOLENT, FREE, FAIR, and TRANSPARENT Legislative and Presidential elections, we call on the National Elections Commission to consider extending the registration process in the first six counties. This is intended to make up for the delays and technical problems that have led to many not being able to register. Not doing so will be an act of deliberately disenfranchising Liberian citizens from participating in the elections.”