Refugee Rights News
Volume 2, Issue 4
Liberian Elections Exclude IDPs
On October 11, 2005, Liberia held its first elections since 1997. This election has spurred many refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) to return to their homes in order to vote for their future leaders. Unfortunately, however, the way that the involvement of returnees in the elections was facilitated by the National Election Commission (NEC) left many without the opportunity to vote for their local parliamentarian. This resultant disenfranchisement could threaten efforts to reintegrate this population as well as the overall effort to build a representative and stable government in Liberia.
The Legacy of Charles Taylor and Background to Elections
In Liberia’s last election in 1997, Charles Taylor, a rebel warlord, won the elections and used his power to terrorize the country and fuel regional instability, including through his backing of the Sierra Leonean Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels. His exit from power in 2003 paved the way for a comprehensive peace agreement and the return of thousands of his countrymen. Since then Liberia has been governed by Gyude Bryant, the president of a temporary power-sharing government, further to a peace was negotiated with Liberian rebels.
However, even as those who fled his regime are now being encouraged to return home, from his base in Calabar, Nigeria, Taylor has allegedly continued to meddle in Liberian politics, funneling money to political candidates. Since his removal from power in 2003 Taylor has enjoyed protection in Nigeria, sheltered from prosecution for his crimes despite the existence of a warrant for his arrest issued by the Special Court for Sierra Leone.
The October 11 elections marked the first elections since the 14 year civil war ended. Voters cast their ballots for 22 presidential candidates in addition to candidates for the two houses of the legislature, the Senate and the House of Representatives. The presidential race ultimately favored Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, following a run off with soccer star George Weah and tension following allegations from Weah of fraud.
According to UNHCR, half a million Liberians fled the country during Taylor’s rule, while another half a million were displaced within Liberia. It is reported that thousands of refugees from Cote d’Ivoire, Sierra Leone, Ghana and Guinea returned to Liberia to participate in the elections. In addition UNHCR reported that by July 9, 2005, approximately 190,000 IDPs who had fled the fighting but stayed within the borders of Liberia had managed to return home to their areas of origin. For those IDPs who could not return home to their part of the country in time for the elections (whether as a result of downpours which flooded Liberia’s dirt roads or a lack of funding to facilitate return) special polling places were established. According to the NEC in Liberia, approximately 61,000 IDPs registered to vote in the election.
IDPs were only permitted to vote for presidential candidates. It was argued by the NEC that lack of residence in their home areas disqualified IDPs unable to return by the elections from voting for local parliamentary representatives. At the same time the NEC also refused to consider IDPs as voters in the areas where their camps were located. Despite initial threats by IDPs in camps throughout Liberia that they would boycott the elections if denied full voting rights, most did exercise their right to vote for a presidential candidate.
Implications of Restricting Voting Rights
Both the refusal of full voting rights to IDPs coupled with a continuing population of Liberian refugees unable to return home to cast their ballots may have been significant factors in allowing Taylor’s supporters to regain power and secure a large number Senatorial seats in those counties from which many people had fled during the war. It is likely that if refugees and IDPs had been allowed to vote they would have cast their ballots against the former warlords who terrorized their families and communities and forced their flight.
According to the NEC, Taylor’s wife, Mrs. Jewel Howard-Taylor, secured 50,452 votes and a seat in the Senate, in Bong Country, accounting for 28.4% of the total votes tallied. In Margibi County, Roland Kaine, an ex-warlord under Taylor and formerly a member of Taylor’s National Patriotic Party (NPP), ran on the Congress for Democratic Change (CDC) Party ticket, and maintained his seat in the Senate. Prince Johnson, another ex-warlord under Taylor who participated in the faction that murdered Liberia’s previous president Doe, secured the most votes in Nimba County, with 81,820 votes, comprising 33.8% of the total, for a seat in the Senate. The other senatorial seat in this county went to ex-warlord Saye Taayor Adolphus Dolo, now of the Coalition for Transformation of Liberia (COTOL), who came in second with 17.4% of the vote and 42,229 votes.
Not only does the reelection of Taylor’s supporters raise questions about the return of IDPs and refugees to their homes of origin, the very fact that IDPs were prevented from voting for the senators who will govern them when they are repatriated could compromise the legitimacy of the new government, and present an obstacle to the willingness of this group to return to their homes. Further, as Liberia forms a new government, the parliament will play a crucial role in countering the historically over-powerful executive and ensuring that Liberia’s trajectory for development is unhampered by further civil strife and the interference of exiled Charles Taylor. The presence of Taylor’s supporters in the legislature could threaten the future development of Liberia by allowing Taylor to wield power over the government by proxy from Nigeria.
Lastly, the presence of Taylor’s peers in Senate may serve as an obstacle to bringing him to justice. Despite the fierce advocacy of many across Africa (see our previous article, “Is Charles Taylor’s Time Up?”), Nigeria has stated that if will not hand over Taylor, who faces 17 indictments for crimes against humanity and war crimes by the UN-backed Special Court of Sierra Leone, unless a democratically-elected Liberian government requests his surrender. The presence of these senators is likely to hinder efforts to bring Taylor to trial and render justice to the Liberian victims of one of Africa’s most despotic rulers.