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Liberia: Elections mark historic turning point

 

Liberians made history in November when they voted into office Africa’s first elected woman head of state, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, under the watchful eye of UN peacekeepers. The elections, described by international observers as generally free and fair, marked an important landmark in the struggle for peace in this war-ravaged country as people opted for ballots over bullets.

 

The 11 October national elections and the subsequent presidential run-off on 8 November, which pitted Johnson- Sirleaf, a former World Bank economist and George Weah, a one-time FIFA International Footballer of the Year, were the result of a peace process that began with the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in August 2003, bringing to an end a 14- year civil war that had turned a once prosperous country into one of the world’s poorest.

 

Voter turnout was overwhelming. In the first round, 75 percent of the 1.35 million registered voters showed up at the polls, with the figure dropping slightly in the run-off presidential elections, which Johnson-Sirleaf won convincingly, taking 60 per cent of the total votes cast. The huge voter turnout was a rousing testimony to the people’s desire for peace and an end to the cycle of violence and instability.

 

The UN Mission in Liberia (UNMIL), with a 15,000-strong peacekeeping force, played a critical role in all facets of the elections. It provided the National Elections Commission (NEC), which conducted the elections, with technical advice and gave extensive logistical assistance, which enabled the NEC to cover all parts of the country in the face of a destroyed infrastructure and virtually no means of communication. UNMIL provided security throughout the elections process. Despite security concerns as well as lack of accommodation and office space in areas where electoral staff were deployed, UNMIL gradually overcame these difficulties, setting up electoral offices throughout the country.

 

Due to the high illiteracy rate in the country, the next major challenge was educating the electorate on registering to vote and then on voting in the elections. Civic educators fanned out to all parts of the country equipped with flip charts, flyers and posters explaining the voting process. So did cultural groups (musicians, dancers and comedians), entertaining village and townspeople while at the same time conveying crucial messages. Sporting events organized by UNMIL, especially football matches, and major musical concerts with artists from Liberia and neighbouring countries attracted large crowds, offering a perfect setting for passing on critical messages. UNMIL distributed thousands of Tshirts, flyers and posters depicting election messages.

 

Throughout the process, the Mission’s 24-hour radio station filled Liberia’s airwaves with information and educational messages, galvanizing the population to welcome the elections as an opportunity to chart a new course for the country. Skits, drama performances, live audience and magazine shows, talks and discussions as well as features and documentaries were among the daily fare.

 

Despite the numerous challenges faced by electoral officials, the registration exercise was completed with a record 1.35 million voters, half of whom were women, out of a population of an estimated 3 million. They included more than 61,000 internally displaced persons.

 

For the elections, UNMIL hired and trained thousands of Liberian poll workers as crowd controllers, identification officers, ballot paper issuers, ballot box controllers and ink providers to assist at the 3,070 polling places scattered across the country. It was a daunting task, made more challenging by the high illiteracy rate, particularly in rural areas.

 

UNMIL’s peacekeepers helped move election materials to polling places across the country by truck, helicopter and even ship to coastal areas that could not be reached by land. In some areas, porters carried ballots for miles in wheel barrows. The peacekeepers, along with the Mission’s police officers and the local police force trained by UNMIL, also kept round-the-clock vigil to maintain a secure environment on the election days.

 

On 11 October, voters began queuing as early as 2 a.m. to cast their ballots at polling stations set up in churches, schools, dilapidated public buildings and even tents and rural huts. Some carried benches to sit on and umbrellas to shield themselves from rain and sun. Queues spilled out of the voting precincts winding through streets. More than 3,500 national and 421 international observers, including former US President Jimmy Carter, who monitored Liberia’s first postwar elections, endorsed the exercise as free and fair.

 

“At all polling places I visited, I was struck by the patience, the determination, and the friendliness displayed by all Liberians as they set about exercising this most precious right and responsibility,” said Alan Doss, head of UNMIL and UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative, after visiting polling stations across the country.

 

By ushering in participatory democracy through free and fair elections, Liberia has turned a new page in its history. For a country that has known only war for a long time, this was is an extraordinary political breakthrough, and a tribute to the international rescue operation led by the UN.

 

However, the economic challenges in 2006 facing Liberians are enormous. The national budget has shrunk to a fraction of its pre-war levels. Liberia owes about $3 billion in foreign debt. Four in five Liberians are unemployed. The infrastructure is so badly damaged that even the capital Monrovia has had no piped water or electricity for more than a decade. It will take huge international investments to rebuild the country. And no one appreciates the magnitude of the problem more than its newly elected leader, who spent most of her career helping other countries develop their economies. Her country is now in urgent need of her experience.

 

 


Prepared by the Peace and Security Section, United Nations Department of Public Information.

© United Nations 2006