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Never Should We Revisit Our Undesirable Electoral History: A Reflection For The Sustenance Of Our Nascent Democracy

By Josiah F. Joekai, Jr.               Liberian Election



Governance is an important facet of human existence. Although it may vary in form from country to country, but it is an essential characteristic that countries have in common. It is through the governance process that authorities are able to exercise control and manage the state with the aim of ensuring peaceful co-existence and harmony. In essence, governance constitutes established traditions and institutions through which a leadership exercises economic, political and administrative authority to conduct a country’s affairs at all levels. The beauty of a governance process is that no matter the manner or form, it should always seek to place premium on meeting the hopes and aspirations of the governed.

In spite of the various forms of governance practiced around the world ranging from autocracy to democracy, a governance process can either be good or bad depending on how it is administered by those entrusted with the power to govern.   Thus, the governance process of a country is largely dependent upon the choice of the people of said country.

It is within this context that governance is broadly categorized into two key and simple concepts; good governance and bad governance. These concepts are the forms of governance practiced globally which has impacted economies and the way of life of people. Good governance promotes respect for the rule of law and sanctity of human life. It recognizes the supremacy of the people (The governed) and encourages them to take part in running the affairs of the state through involvement in both local and national decision-making processes. Good governance recognizes and upholds the tenets (Fair play, equality and justice) of democracy.

Conversely, bad governance is in actuality the antithesis of good governance. Bad governance is profoundly associated with corruption. It engenders social exclusion, uneven distribution of resources, inequitable growth and thus, engenders lack of trust in authorities. It signifies inefficiency in governance in general, thereby keeping majority of the governed in an oppressed, marginalized and disadvantaged state. In essence, it is the practice of bad governance that has kept many countries of the world, particularly Africa in a poor and underdeveloped state.

Obviously, bad governance is a major source of many conflicts and crisis situations that have engulfed nations of the world destroying their very existence. Like many of its contemporaries, Liberia has been a victim of bad governance since it was founded. After more than one hundred years of one party rule by the True Whig Party of the elite settlers group in Liberia, patriotic and democratic forces drawn largely  from the majority  of the indigenous groups began to mount pressure on the government for democratic rule and the just distribution of the national wealth.

Several groups emerged notably the Movement for Justice in Africa (MOJA), and the Progressive Alliance of Liberia (PAL). These two groups formally registered in keeping with government’s requirements and began to establish cells and create awareness throughout the country about the inequality and uneven distribution of the natural resources of the country. As their campaigns began to take root across the nation, they were both met with stiff resistance from the government, but with perseverance they both soon became a strong force for the government to deal with.

Although the two organizations had practically the same objective, which was to introduce a multi-party democracy, and create mass participation in the governance process, they had their own procedures and methods of proceeding.

MOJA comprised principally of university professors, teachers, students and the intellectual community who believed in gradual change process through awakening the consciousness of the down trodden masses of the Liberian people who were languishing in abject poverty in spite of the huge deposit of natural resources being poorly managed by the few elite at their expense.  The dream was that through this means “right” would rise over “wrong” and power will come to the majority through the ballot box. The group also favored communism over capitalism, a criticism that the ruling party had for its membership, using it as a tool to defeat the people-centered campaign of MOJA.

PAL, on the other hand, comprised mainly of the working class including heads of worker unions, and middle level technicians. Their approach was mainly radical in nature and was pushing for an immediate change. They were more proactive and mounted sustained pressure on the ruling power. They are noted for the pre-coup rice riot in 1979 known as the “April 14 Rice Riot”. Both groups engaged in activities bent on pressurizing the government to be responsive to the needs of the Liberian people.

For example, Dr. Amos Sawyer of MOJA declared his intention to run as an independent candidate against the True Whig Party in the 1979 Mayoral Election for the City of Monrovia. The university students joined his campaign trail and soon covered the entire city and its environs using his campaign newsletter “‘The Broom” which was widely circulated. This was obvious because the campus of the university was in actuality the cradle of opposition politics. It served as the springboard for opposition politicians. Not only were they protected there but it was the main mobilization platform that solidified and consolidated various mass action campaigns. With this development, the TWP intensified its resistant campaign, but was still no match for Sawyer given the intensity of his campaign. With all of the resources the government had to its disposal, it had to indefinitely postpone the election for fear of being defeated by an individual.

The student community under the umbrella of the Liberia National Student Union (LINSU) was no small partner in the fight for the democratization of Liberia. The University of Liberia “Spokesman” under the managing editorial leadership of Mr. James M. Fromayan became a strong opposition news organ in the absence of any opposition paper on the news stance. The New Liberia Newspaper and the Liberia Broadcasting System (LBS) entirely managed by the government were the only organs through which information was disseminated to the Liberian People. Depriving the majority access to the media was a measure to deny them a voice in decisions that affected their lives. Thus, the existence of the Spokesman was timely, and not only that but created some balance that further enhanced the citizens’ action for change.

The emergence of this structured opposition movement kept the government on its feet in a defensive position. Thus, activities of the opposition did not go without resistance from the government as through its national security networks there were arrests and molestation at different levels. The security network which comprised of the National Security Agency (NSA), Public Relation Officers (PROs), Criminal Investigation Division (CID) of the Police, Special Security Service (SSS), Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization (BIN) and others were coordinating security information for the government characteristic of a dictatorial regime. On several occasions, members of MOJA and PAL were illegally arrested and thrown behind bars as a way of silencing them.

The action of the security network was largely arbitrary in nature. This did not in any way instill fear in the movements or deter them because of their firm resolve to institute change for the good of the people. In spite of all these security networks, the screw got tighten by the day and the regime became unpopular even among some of its workers including the police and the soldiers who were among the least paid. The army in particular was treated with no respect as many of them practically served as servants in the homes of ranking officers and other officials of government doing laundry and other domestic work.

They resided in zinc shacks in various military camps across the country. Thus, rendering the army as a place for unprofessional people who had no education or career.  All of the above culminated into dissatisfaction among the vast majority of the citizenry which made rebellion or civil unrest inevitable.

The saying that “the end justifies the means” was exactly insight. It was time for change and a new political order was about to be instituted. The political organization and consciousness raising was certainly disrupted. While the intellectuals were fighting towards a smooth transfer of power through the ballot box, the army took advantage of the volatile situation and toppled the government of President William R. Tolbert, Jr. with no resistance on April 12, 1980. Enlisted men of the Armed Forces of Liberia under the command of Master Sergeant Samuel K. Doe carried out the coup.

The event of April 12 changed the status quo for the first time producing the first indigenous Head of State through the barrow of the gun. The jubilation was overwhelming echoing that the owners of the land had taken over the realm of power. People danced through the principal streets of Monrovia and other rural cities throughout the country.

The Constitution was suspended and a new government was being formed headed by Samuel Doe including other indigenous people in positions such as the Ministers of Finance and Foreign Affairs which were perceived to be reserved for the Americo-Liberian descendants or Congo people as they are commonly known. Things had truly fallen apart and the center could no longer hold in the words of the Nigerian Novelist, Chinua Achebe.

The new political order named and styled the People’s Redemption Council (PRC), was organized and started carrying on the business of governance using decrees. It took some stringent measures initially including summary execution of past government officials, the acquisition of farms owned by former officials of government, abrupt increment in the salaries of government officials among others. Some of these actions were hasty and not properly analyzed based on existing economic realities.

In no time, as Dusty Wolokollie, a leading politician in Liberia, said in an article he published in the Daily Observer during the same period that took him to prison for more than a year, entitled “Strange things are happening” in which he criticized the new regime of repeating the mistakes of the past. Indeed, strange things surely started happening.

The government after few months of rule exposed its political agenda of ethnic-oriented autocratic regime. The reality was that the military junta had no agenda to democratize the country or transform the socio-political and economic life of the country. The political barbed-wire that usually grabs African leaders began to grab the new political order.

The tenets of nepotism, tribalism, sectionalism and corruption soon engulfed the indigenous based military junta to the extent that the revolution began to eat its own children. As it is often said, “if the crocodile can eat its own flesh, then it can devour the flesh of a frog”. So was it with Mr. Doe and his revolutionary colleagues. They became prey for Mr. Doe’s elimination axe which was rapidly falling all over the place and eliminating his perceived enemies. Indeed, the nation was soon engulfed by fear that the axe could fall on anyone at any time not just the coup makers.

Head of State Doe became very powerful and started to micro manage the PRC. He succeeded in creating division within the Council with one group loyal to him while few others paid loyalty to Thomas Weh-syen, the Vice Head of State. Mr. Doe succeeded in eliminating almost all of his perceived enemies on the Council and promoted most of his Krahn tribesmen to positions of trust in the army although most of them were not educated. In the context of a well-conceived conspiracy theory, there were reports of coup and counter- coup some of them managed by Mr. Doe himself to get at his perceived enemies such as the infamous Nimba Raid which his most ruthless General, Charles Julu is noted for carrying out, the Flanzamaton Fiasco, etc.  

Mr. Doe’s government adopted a complete ethnic outlook as members of his ethnic Krahn soon dominated the political and military life of the country. This glairing ethnic dominance engendered increased level of ethnic tension leading to hostilities between the politically and militarily dominant Krahn and many other ethnic groups in the country.

Succumbing to international pressure to return the country to civilian rule, a Western style of multi-party democracy evolved as the best option. Mr. Doe immediately embarked on a Constitutional reform process that would lead to the holding of elections. Exactly after one year of the PRC’s rule, Mr. Doe constituted a twenty-five member National Constitution Committee and appointed Dr. Sawyer who was a highly respected MOJA stalwart as Chairman of the Committee.

The Sawyer Committee original draft of the Constitution was unequivocally clear among other considerations about the role of the military and police in the newly perceived democratic dispensation. The draft excluded members of the army and police from the right to belong to political parties or to vote in elections. It also proposed the thirty-five-year age qualification for the presidency which would have prevented Mr. Doe from standing in the ensuing elections at the time.

Cleverly, Mr. Doe established a Constitutional Advisory Assembly headed by Edward Beyan Kesselly. The draft Constitution was referred to the Kesselly Assembly for review. The review process took place in Gbarnga City, Bong County for an exceptional period of time with unlimited resources placed at its disposal. This was a measure Mr. Doe set up to circumvent the Sawyer Committee’s draft in order to enable him qualify to stand in the elections as he had already envisioned. Accordingly, the constitution was reviewed with his interest secured. On July 3, 1984 the revised Constitution went into a National Referendum where it was approved by 78.3% of voters.

With certainty that elections were scheduled for 1985, the rush for the registration of political parties followed. Stringent measures were laid down for the registration of parties. Obviously, the United People’s Party (UPP) of Gabriel Baccus Matthews and the Liberia People Party (LPP) of Togba-Nah Tipoteh were denied qualification on grounds that they did not meet the requirements for registration. As such, they were not recognized as political parties to stand in the 1985 elections.

This however, did not come as a surprise given the pioneering role of these two parties which actually evolved from PAL and MOJA respectively. It was quite understandable that Mr. Doe harbored fears that with the deeply rooted commitments that these parties had with the professional and student communities as well as trade union organizations and the working class, they had the potential to shatter his aspiration. Thus, they were denied access to the electoral process.

Needless to mention, in the midst of the stringent registration measures Mr. Doe’s National Democratic Party of Liberia (NDPL) met all of the requirements to be registered as political party. Ignorant of the consequences that awaited him for such suppressive action, he was not only sure of standing as a candidate in the election but that winning was inevitable.

Nevertheless, few other groups that applied for registration including the Unity Party (UP) of Edward Beyan Kesselly, the Liberia Unification Party (LUP) of a Classroom Teacher William Gabriel Kpolleh and the Liberia Action Party (LAP) of Jackson Fiah Doe were registered and allowed to participate in the elections. In the eyes of Mr. Doe, these parties were not politically harmful as UPP and LPP which were already deeply rooted in the minds of the people. Besides, their participation was quite necessary to give the elections international acclamation. He knew quite well that this verdict was critical to legitimizing his election and the return of the country to “civilian rule”.

General elections were held as planned on October 15, 1985 and Mr. Doe was declared winner by the Emmett Harmon Special Elections Commission (SECOM). The SECOM results revealed that Mr. Doe won with 50.9% just enough to avoid run-off. This win by all accounts was reflective of all the maneuverings and manipulations that characterized the entire electoral process. It was evident that the polls were widely marred by widespread fraud and rigging. Many independent observers believed that the Liberia Action Party Jackson Doe who finished second was the actual winner.

It was then revealed that Mr. Doe had the ballots counted in secret locations by his handpicked staff under compelling circumstances. This election malpractice did not only aggravate citizens and the international community but brewed serious dissatisfaction amongst the entire citizenry. The situation further fragmented the already Krahn dominated security apparatus, fueled anti-government advocacies championed by interest groups, academics and the student community.

The Doe regime started to get unpopular with the army gradually being tribalized. Corruption became the order of the day with Doe himself amassing wealth evidenced by the structures he put up in his home town Tuzon, Zwedru, Grand Gedeh County and other parts of Monrovia. Then, the economy went down, mismanagement took center stage and rumors of war set in. Thus, the December 24, 1989 uprising launched by Mr. Charles Taylor National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) became a reality.

The period 1989 to 2003 is considered by many Liberians as the darkest era in the history of the existence of Liberia. The country, for the first time since its independence experienced the bloodiest civil war launched by rebels of the NPFL led by former Mr. Charles Taylor who sought to depose former President Samuel Doe and his government. Mr. Taylor served as Director-General of the General Services Agency (GSA) under Mr. Doe before he fled to the United States. His NPFL rapidly gained the support of Liberians because of the dictatorial tenets that characterized Mr. Doe’s ten-year rule.

Taylor led-NPFL warring faction igniting the civil crisis in the small bordering cocoa-growing town of Butuo on December 24, 1989. Taylor forces crossed the Cestos River at the crossing point from Cote d’Ivoire into Butuo, Nimba County that fateful morning and launched the first attack on Liberia. When citizens found dead bodies and heard the sound of gunfire, they scattered throughout the bushes for fear of their lives.

By 1990, the war had spread to almost all parts of the country. The war which is considered one of Africa’s bloodiest, claimed the lives of about 250,000 Liberians and forcibly displaced up to million people into neighboring countries- Cote d’Ivoire, Guinea and Sierra Leone. By the late 1990s, Liberians had sought refuge across Africa, the United States of America and parts of Europe.

Accordingly, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) made an immediate intervention and succeeded in preventing Mr. Taylor from capturing Monrovia. One of Mr. Taylor’s strong fighters, Prince Y. Johnson broke away for what was considered policy difference and formed his own Independent National Patriotic Front of Liberia (INPFL). Fighting under his independent umbrella, INPFL Mr. Johnson forces captured and killed Mr. Doe on September 9, 1990.

The situation in the country became fluid with hundreds of thousands of people internally displaced and about a million seeking refuge across Africa and other parts of the world. ECOMOG, the ECOWAS military intervention force was in control of much of Monrovia with Prince Johnson’s INPFL in control of the Bushrod Island including the Freeport of Monrovia while Mr. Taylor controlled of the rest of the country.

This leadership vacuum was quickly bridged with an interim arrangement. In the Gambia, an Interim Government of National Unity (IGNU) was formed under the auspices of ECOWAS in October 1990 with Dr. Amos Sawyer serving as President. This interim arrangement was rejected by Mr. Taylor. He refused to work with the interim government and continued the war.

By 1992 the war further intensified with several warring factions emerging in different parts of the country. These factions fought Mr. Taylor and succeeded in weakening his military strength and capability considerably. The factions included the United Liberia Movement Organization (ULIMO) predominantly composed of the Krahn and Mandingo ethnic groups. The group however parted ways on ethnic lines with a Krahn faction headed by Gen. Roosevelt Johnson and the Mandingo faction headed by Mr. Alhaji G. V. Kromah. In the northern county of Lofa, the Lofa Defense Force (LDF) was established headed by Francois Massaquoi. The LDF mostly of the Lorma and Kpelle ethnic groups of Lofa operated from the county resisting Taylor’s NPFL and Mr. Kromah’s ULIMO forces. Also in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the Liberia Peace Council (LPC) under the leadership of George Boley was formed and operated parallel with the Movement for democracy in Liberia (MODEL) headed by Thomas Yaya Nimely from the southeastern region.

The war raged on between the NPFL and all of these factions in different parts of the country causing more deaths and destruction as well as imposing economic hardship on the people. Liberians had no option but to face the harsh realities of the devastating civil war. After several peace accords and the declining military power of Mr. Taylor and his NPFL, he agreed to the formation of a five-man transitional government of which he was a member.

Following considerable progress in negotiations, disarmament and demobilization of warring factions were hurriedly carried out. Special elections were organized and conducted on July 19, 1997 with Charles Taylors National Patriotic Party (NPP) declared winner. Many Liberians and political pundits from around the world believed Mr. Taylor won the election by a large majority, primarily because Liberians feared that he could go back to war had he lost.

Whether or not such justification represents the reality, of the 13 political parties that participated in the elections, Mr. Taylor won 75.33% of the total votes cast followed by Madam Ellen Johnson Sirleaf who came “a distant second” with 9.58% reflective of the percentages of votes received by the two candidates. Due to the system of Proportional Representation used in the election, Mr. Taylor’s NPP also received the highest number of seats in both Houses of the Legislature. Of the 30 seats in the Senate, NPP got 21 and 49 seats out of 64 in the House of Representatives, respectively.

After few years of Mr. Taylor’s tyrannical rule, the situation was even worsened by the continuation of the civil unrest. By 2003, another warring faction, Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) seriously challenged Taylor’s control of the country. A bloody fight ensue between Mr. Taylor’s forces and LURD which almost reached central Monrovia. The rapid advances of LURD on Taylor’s strong holds including the capital, Monrovia did not only take away many lives and further destroyed properties but significantly paralyzed Mr. Taylor’s political and military strength.

Succumbing to international pressure, especially a major call by US President George Bush for him to leave Liberia and spare his people further bloodshed, Taylor resigned and fled the country to Nigeria through a special arrangement. His Vice President, Moses Z. Blah took over as President. On August 18, 2003, all of the warring factions signed the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in Accra, Ghana marking the end of the decade and half civil war.

With this landmark accomplishment, a transitional government was set up named and styled the National Transitional Government of Liberia (NTGL) headed by Charles Gyude Bryant. Consistent with its mandate as provided for by the CPA, the NTGL transitioned Liberia to the first democratic elections in 2005. This development ultimately sealed the chapter on a series of military and transitional governments in Liberia from 1980 to 2006.

Since this historic transition, we have continued to rebuild our shattered country and enjoy the peace thereof for a little over ten years. However, as we approach the highly anticipated 2017 elections which by all accounts will be a turning point in our democratization process, we must be mindful not to repeat the mistakes of the past for which we paid for so dearly. As I have repeatedly underscored, 2017 is so very crucial to the forward march of Liberia to the extent that its management to a successful end requires all of the attention and support necessary. Obviously, I have no doubt that the government will take the much needed steps in a timely manner to safeguard the nation.


Mr. Joekai has more than 10 years of professional experience in the public sector in the areas of education management, democracy and governance. He has authored three books and several published articles. The author is a proud recepient of the ADLA/ALLIA 2015 Award in the United States of America for outstanding services.



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