Where We Slipped: Choosing Electoral Board Members in Liberia


“ Elections are central to competitive politics. They are central because, ideally, they should provide the opportunity for yesterday’s winners to become today’s losers, and for yesterday ‘ s losers to become today’s winners. The model of democracy on which this theory of elections is based is liberal democratic. The centrality of elections to liberal democratic politics also presupposes the importance particularly of impartial electoral administration. This is because the indeterminacy of elections the possibility of erstwhile winners becoming losers and erstwhile losers becoming winners-which is an inherent and necessary prerequisite of liberal democratic politics is to a large extent a function of an impartial administration of elections’. – L. Adele . Jinadu (African Journal of Political Science)

Jackie N. Sayegh, Alum, University of Liberia

Do not look where you fell, look where you slipped is a Liberian maxim which perhaps is as old as the country itself.  Time and time again we seem to have the knack for finding the slippery places. So it is with this recent outcry about the president’s appointment of the National Elections Commissioner.

The establishment of the National Elections Commission (NEC) is provided for in  Chapter X, Article 89. (CHAPTER X AUTONOMOUS PUBLIC COMMISSIONS Article 89 of the constitution provides that: “ The following Autonomous Public Commissions are hereby established. A. CIVIL SERVICE COMMISSION; B. ELECTIONS COMMISSION; and C. GENERAL AUDITING COMMISSION.  The constitution further provides that the Legislature shall enact laws for the governance of these Commissions and create other agencies as may be necessary for the effective operation of Government).

NEC is tasked with “administering and enforcing all laws related to the conduct of elections throughout the Republic of Liberia.” The commissioner and members are appointed by the president of Liberia, with the advice and consent of the senate, for a period of seven years and can only be removed from office for misconduct.  

The current issue being debated in Liberia is President Weah’s appointment of a naturalized citizen to head the NEC. This has become a hot topic on all Liberian outlets.  Why should it?   When we slipped by providing in the constitution that the president appoints the Chair of the Electoral Commission and the election commissioners, why should the outcry come now when we have fallen?  The problem with unilateral appointment is that it does not guarantee the appointment of an independent Chair and commissioners. Elections are a contest between political parties.  Evidence from all regions of the world shows that 80% of all democracies elections are run by independent electoral commissions. – Rafael Lopez-Pinto. The Liberian approach is criticized by analysts arguing that it could favor political bias toward the Head of State as a prerequisite for members’ nomination.

 “The composition of the EMB (Electoral Members Board) should be representative of the society. . . Consideration should be given to appointing independent persons known within the society for their integrity. It is recommended that the chair of the commission should be a person who holds or has held high judicial office (a high court or supreme court judge). That is the practice in several countries. (Taken from the Southern African Development Community’s “Principles for Election Management, Monitoring, and Observation in the SADC Region”, as adopted by SADC in Johannesburg 2003.)

 In order to ensure that persons appointed to the commission are independent and competent the process of appointment s must be transparent.  It should be spelt out in the electoral laws which is not the case in the present Liberia laws.

There are many ways to select members of the election board. The recruitment and selection can be from nomination procedures or open advertising. The process should include a public interview of prospective commissioners to ensure that they are competent and possess the necessary integrity.  . . . . An advantage of using open advertising for recruiting these posts may be that such a process creates transparency and good screening of merits of the candidates. Contrary to the present system where appointments are made soley by the President, it opens up opportunities for candidates outside the normally favored elites to apply.“ according to Jinada. 

Liberian remains one of few countries that give the power to the president to appoint the NEC commissioner without any input from stakeholders.  The electoral management design is where we slipped. Therefore, regarding our laws, the president is within the law to appoint whomever he feels is fit for the position.  Absent any exclusionary criteria, no law has been broken. What we need to focus on is to propose a change in the way commissioners and members of the commission are selected and appointed. 

On the issue of naturalization, the Liberian Constitution permits individuals to be naturalized as Liberians. So if he has dual citizenship, does that disqualify him from holding this position?  Is there an  exclusionary law?   Yes, there is. As Nigeria accepts dual citizenship, the present nominee would have to renounce one of his two citizenship as required by Liberian law to be appointed to such a position. The Proposition to go to the proposed Liberian referendum states that  A natural born citizen of Liberia may hold another/additional citizenship but shall not qualify for elected national or public service positions and the following appointive positions: 1.Chief Justice and Associate Justices of the Supreme Court of Liberia; 2.Cabinet Ministers and Deputy Ministers; 3.All Heads of Autonomous Commissions, Agencies and Nonacademic/Research/Scientific Institutions; 4.Ambassadors Extraordinary and Plenipotentiaries; and 5.Chief of Staff and Deputy Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces of Liberia A Liberian with dual citizenship shall have certain rights, including the right to hold elected national or public service positions and all appointive positions if he relinquishes the other citizenship. 

Rather than focus on a non-issues, what we need to focus on is to ensure that the NEC does not fall prey to manipulation . What measures can Liberian civil society put in place to ensure and uphold a transparent process? How can budget allocation to the NEC be exempt from politicization?  Who should be qualified to be nominated to the commission?  These are the issues that will advance the independence of the Electoral Commission, a body that worldwide has been held to be of critical importance to the holding of free and fair elections.    

In many new African constitutions, the appointment of the electoral board chair and members is given primary importance.  Kenya 2010 constitution provides for a public interview process after the nomination.  The Selection Panel invites applications and publishes names of the   applicants. Televised interviews give the public the opportunity to ask about qualifications. The Panel is mandated to evaluate , shortlist and interview the applicants and then selects three persons qualified to be appointed as chairperson and thirteen persons qualified to be appointed as members of the Commission. The Kenyan president does not have the discretion to unilaterally appoint. The names are forwarded to the President for the nomination of a chairperson and members.  The Kenyan president then forwards the names to the National Assembly for approval. Upon consideration and approval, the National Assembly forwards the names to the President for appointment.The Kenyan Constitution states that someone is ineligible for appointment as a member of the Commission if he or she has, at any time within the preceding five years, held office, or stood for election as:- a Member of Parliament or of a County Assembly; or a member of the governing body of a political party; or holds any State office. (The Electoral Knowledge Project) 

In South Africa’s 1986 constitution, one of the five members of the Electoral Commission of South Africa (IEC) must be a judge. Members of the IEC are appointed by the President on the recommendation of the National Assembly, following nominations by a National Assembly inter-party committee. The National Assembly inter-party committee consists of the President of the Constitutional Court (Chair) and representatives of the Human Rights Commission, the Commission on Gender Equality and the Public Protector (Electoral Commission Act 51 1996, 6(2)).Members of the IEC may be removed for misconduct, incapacity or incompetence by the President on a resolution of the National Assembly. The removal must be initiated by the Electoral Court and the member must be found in violation by  a committee of the National Assembly before the Assembly itself entertains the resolution of removal (Electoral Commission Act 51 1996, 7(3)(a)).

Liberians need to be invested in a participatory process to ensure that  “ yesterday’s winners become today’s losers, and for yesterday ‘s losers to become today’s winners’ in a system that is transparent and one in which all stakeholders know and trust that the system works.  Without that, the fall is guaranteed.