Stories from Liberia: Field officer reflects on election prep in a war-torn land

Liberians, their country devastated by years of civil war, head to the polls in October 2005 in the most promising opportunity the country will have to establish a fragile, post-conflict democracy. Liberia's destroyed infrastructure, pervasive poverty, 85 percent illiteracy rate, and bitter electoral history are compounding the challenges of providing civic education and making technical arrangements for the election process.
The Carter Centre U.K. and its London-based partner, Electoral Reform International Services, are collaborating in Liberia to implement a European Commission Bi-Lateral Elections Programme on voter education initiatives, training of domestic election monitors, and building the capacity of political parties. The project will help Liberian voters channel their aspirations for the future into participation in this important transitional political process.

The project has two "Democracy Resource Officers" based in each of the three rural resource centres-Gbarnga (Bong county), Harper (Maryland county), and Voinjama (Lofa county). These officers work closely with local election officials, civil society organizations, and political party representatives, managed by team leaders at the project headquarters in Monrovia.

Democracy Resource Officer Jeff Austin, a former intern at The Carter Center, shares his experiences in the field.

June 30, 2005

Our final workshop on seat allocation for the ERIS/Carter Centre U.K.'s election programme in Liberia took Lillian and me to Grand Kru county last week. We travelled by car to the end of the sole road in Liberia's most isolated county and loaded our belongings into a canoe to cross the Nuhn River. We were lucky to be travelling with a United Nations convoy. An Ethiopian peacekeeper found us on the other side. His truck had come by helicopter three months earlier.

Grand Kru represents the end of the line in Liberia. The war drained this county's population from 200,000 to 71,000, according to U.N. estimates. The largest peacekeeping operation in the world (15,000 troops) has deployed in every part of Liberia except here. Seventy Ethiopians only guard the accordion-wire camp where a handful of expatriate U.N. civilians are promoting elections and rebuilding local government.

The party agents we met at the Grand Kru workshop were hungry for information. Without phone service, access to print media, or the chance to listen to FM radio, they are desperate to learn all they can about the elections when outsiders like us make a rare trip to see them. We gave the assistant county magistrate of the National Election Commission a chance to answer questions, and many of the partisans said it was the first time they had met anyone in that office.

Locals call Grand Kru "walking county." The U.S. ambassador recently announced that the U.S. Agency for International Development would build a bridge over the river. That may lead to the construction of new roads, but, for now, two-thirds of the county is accessible only by foot. Barclayville, the capital, has no restaurants and no stores selling food. We had to beg a can of sardines off a Belgian U.N. officer and negotiate with a villager to eat rice and potato-leaf soup from her kitchen. The U.N. was generous to us that night. We reported to headquarters over an incongruous satellite Internet connection and slept on cots in a military-issue tent.

In the morning, after discussing the elections with youth leaders and local chiefs, a hunter offered us a live baby antelope for about USD $3. We declined, and crossed back to our side of the Nuhn to start our return trip to Harper.

23 June 2005

For more than a week now, ERIS/Carter Center U.K. staff have been living and breathing "legislative seat allocation" in Liberia. Moses Pitso, our South African director of political party assistance, explained the revised process to me on June 15. I have pulled out registration data and pen and paper to run through the numbers with just about everyone I meet: the Catholic priest who opened his mission in Zwedru to us when we could find no other place to stay; the woman who serves fried eggs at the tea shop near our house; and the pack of young men who staff the local radio station. One of our security guards invited Lillian Kilwake, my Kenyan counterpart, and me to explain the mathematics behind legislative seat allocation at a weekly meeting of Barrobo District residents living in Harper.

As in the United States, Liberia's Senate represents the country's subdivisions equally, but a county earns seats in the lower chamber according to its proportion of registered voters, a proxy for population in a country that hasn't done a census in more than 20 years. The electoral reform law passed in December mandated each county have at least two seats in the House of Representatives, but left vague whether a county would receive those up front, or only if it otherwise wouldn't have earned them by virtue of population.

The very day we conducted a workshop in Harper explaining to local party offices the National Elections Commission's original interpretation of the law, as their leaders in Monrovia were complaining to the NEC that the formula placed small counties at an unfair disadvantage. It was an issue that had largely been ignored until the ERIS/CCUK programme began focusing attention on it at workshops in Gbarnga and Tubmanburg and later in Buchanan and Zwedru. When the NEC acquiesced to sudden pressure to automatically provide two seats at the start of the delimitation process (the process that determines how many seats would be allocated to each county), we wondered whether our work had encouraged the parties to make it a priority.

This week, Lillian and I quickly put together a series of workshops in each of the three southernmost counties to explain the new process. At the same time, our attention is turning toward the public exhibition period that begins June 30, when all people who registered to vote in April and May will be able to return to the registration centres and verify their inclusion in the voter rolls. We have been distributing an educational film on this topic that features Liberia's favourite comedian to movie houses around Harper and have arranged to fund the transportation costs of two awareness projects for the farthest districts of the county. In the meantime, we are travelling back to the capital to attend training on Liberia's campaign finance law governing political parties.

13 June 2005

Harper, Maryland County, Liberia

Last week, on a return trip from a series of headquarters meetings in Monrovia, Liberia's capital, our vehicle detoured through Maryland County's remote northernmost district, Barrobo. A downed bridge forced the change of route; Chinese engineers employed by the United Nations were making repairs. On the logging road through Barrobo, we found the village of Juluken, and in Juluken we saw an unfamiliar sight: a herd of cows.

"The war never came here," explained a physician's assistant catching a ride in our Nissan four-wheel drive to the Catholic clinic in Harper, a regional capital and the site of the ERIS/ Carter Centre U.K. field office where I am stationed. He was speaking really of two wars-the 1990 war that ended with the election of its leading proponent, Charles Taylor, to the presidency in 1997 and of the havoc wreaked by Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL) rebels between 2001-2003. MODEL was one of a pair of twin insurgencies that plunged the country back into chaos until a peace agreement put a fragile peace in place two years ago, a peace now supported by the largest U.N. peacekeeping force in the world. In this part of the countryside, the cows have mostly been shot. Farmers, afraid of more conflict that will destroy their land, lack enough faith in their future to plant vegetables, and refugees over the border in Côte d'Ivoire are awaiting the outcome of October's scheduled presidential and legislative elections before they decide whether to come home.

Juluken was fortunate to host a voter registration site during the four-week process that ended May 21. Villagers less fortunate had to walk two hours or more to ink their thumbs and receive photo I.D. cards. In two months of meetings across the southeast of this country with political party agents, civil society leaders and woman who sell their goods at the market, I have heard repeated concern that basic knowledge about the process never reached smaller towns and villages. The education efforts of the transitional Liberian government and the international community, through nongovernmental organizations such as The Carter Centre UK and ERIS should have been more extensive. Nevertheless, the latest figures at the air-conditioned and state-of-the-art data centre in the capital indicates 1.2 million Liberians and counting signed up to vote. The country lacks the census information to put that number in context, but it's a two-to-one margin over 1997. For all their worry, Liberians also say this year is their chance to "get it right."

In addition to civic education, the role of our six field officers, in collaboration with staff at our main office in Monrovia, is to build the capacity of local party bureaus to engage in a healthy democratic process, assist the National Elections Commission in the balloting and support the efforts of domestic monitors and observers to guarantee its credibility. Everywhere I go, I find enthusiasm but the same stories-the party agents don't know what their leaders in Monrovia are saying, civic groups desperate to take the word of elections to the countryside don't have vehicles, and youth leaders can tap into broad strata of the society if only someone would tell them how many seats their county will have in the House of Representatives. These are problems that an organization with the experience and resources of The Carter Centre U.K. and ERIS can help solve.