edited by Terry Rayburn Mitchell, '93
The Carter Center election monitors were sent in pairs to different parts of the country. My partner was Tomsie Phillips, a South African election commission official. Of the 35 people from the Carter Center and the National Democratic Institute (an arm of the National Endowment for Democracy), about half were from other African countries and about half from the U.S., Canada, or Europe. Most were specialists on elections, several were associated with government and politics (Malik Chaka, a senior policy analyst for the U.S. House of Representatives, and Vivian Derryck Stephen, former Deputy Undersecretary of State for Africa), while several were African specialists (Stephen Ellis, from the African Studies Centre at Leiden, Jeremy Levitt, who teaches international law at Florida International University, and me), and some were human-rights advocates (Almami Cyllah, from Sierra Leone, who has been the African head of Amnesty International; John Pendergast, from the International Crisis Group; and Rebecca Tinsley, a journalist, candidate for Parliament, and refugee specialist from the UK).
I was a bit disappointed that I wasn't assigned to one of the most remote and difficult areas where deployments were by UNMIL helicopter (even though Janet made me promise I wouldn't do anything dangerous or go to any place where there was potential for unrest). Actually, I was not at all surprised to learn that I would be sent to the city of Gbarnga, in Bong County. In 1987, I had taught African history at Cuttington University, near Gbarnga so I was very familiar with the area.
On Sunday, before leaving Monrovia, we stopped to worship at Nagbe Methodist Church. We chose that church because five candidates for office (the presidency, the senate, or the house) were members there. Also, we knew that it was almost a requirement that candidates make an appearance in church, since religion is such an important part of Liberian politics. The church appeared virtually untouched by the civil war, although the hymnals were worn and coverless. As I learned from other election observers who attended services that Sunday, probably every church in the country gave special attention to the upcoming elections. One important theme was peace. Over and over, pastors and church leaders admonished everyone to be peaceful in campaigning and during the elections. A second theme was simply explaining how to vote. In some churches, pastors actually displayed ballots and explained how people could mark those ballots. From what I gathered, all pastors made a special effort to remind people that the vote was secret and that no one could influence their votes. At Nagbe Methodist, the pastor preached a sermon from the book of Micah. Micah, he said, was God's lawyer bringing charges against the unjust government of his day. God accused the government of acting in an unjust, dishonest, and self-serving manner that hurt the people, especially the poor. The same charges, he said, could be leveled against all the Liberian governments of the last several decades. The elections were an opportunity for Liberians to elect new leaders who would serve the people, not themselves. He also warned those who might become leaders that God had brought down his judgment on Liberia, as he had on Israel, and that he would do so again unless there were real changes. Perhaps the highlight of the service was an eloquent prayer, both sung and spoken, that was offered by the pastor of Monrovia's First Methodist Church. Drawing from the emotional words of Liberia's national anthem, she reminded the people that Liberia had been established out of a desire for freedom and that Liberia's founding fathers had hoped to build a shining civilization in Africa. She also lamented the fact that the words of the national anthem, "All hail, Liberia hail, great is thy name and mighty be thy power," rang hollow in a country ravished by war. Then she struck a note of hope, saying that God would not have sent his people to Africa without giving them a good place. In fact, she noted, Liberia is a very rich country, a county with rich land, minerals (iron, gold, and diamonds), and vast timber resources. The implication of her prayer was that Liberia would be a very prosperous country if only its venal politicians would behave differently. Certainly, Liberia would be far better off had her political leaders not put the country through 14 years of civil war and if they would not continue to divert public moneys into their own pockets. However, to assume that Liberians would be rich if only the political leadership changed is overly optimistic. I was also somewhat troubled by allusions to the Americo-Liberian settlers as Liberia's forefathers, an obvious dismissal of the indigenous populations.
I'm not sure if the presidential candidates heard much of the service. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, one of the main contenders, came in by a side door towards the end of the service.
After church we headed out of town on one of the country's main highways. Like all the roads, there was noticeable deterioration from the1980s and even from 1999, when I was last in Liberia. I did notice, however, a spate of building not evident in 1999. People seemed willing to invest funds in Liberia. Right across the street from Ngabe Methodist Church, an expensive luxury apartment complex, boasting a swimming pool, was being constructed. In 1999, the site was still a burned-out market area, a market where we had often shopped when we lived in Monrovia. Today, good housing in Monrovia is at a premium because of the influx of UN and NGO people in the country. An apartment almost anywhere in the city costs $1,200/month and a friend told me her three-bedroom house cost her $30,000/year (including 18 hours of electricity/day provided by a generator). There are no public utilities in Monrovia--no sewers (instead, large open manholes abound), water, or electricity. Clean water is provided by larger UN- or European Union-funded tanker trucks (also, there are many hand pumps throughout Liberia supplied by various NGOs); electricity is provided by private generators (one sees technicians stringing wires around the city as entrepreneurs sell electricity in units of 5,000 watts.) What has improved dramatically is telephone service. Private cell phone companies have come into Liberia and one can buy a phone for about $75. Small wooden kiosks offering phone scratch cards (about 3.5 cents/minute in country and 35 cents/minute to call the U.S.), phone-charging, money-changing, and phone-calling and fax services are everywhere throughout the country. They are more abundant than latt stands in the US.
The road to Gbarnga was littered with potholes, but we made quite good time. We were slowed by my insistence that we take pictures of neglected rubber trees (rubber is one of Liberia's main exports) and displaced-person camps that house refugees from the war. Several large camps, with white UN donated tarps covering the roofs of huts, were located along the road. There is some electoral controversy linked to the camps, since people who registered last summer had to indicate if they would vote in the camps or vote back in their home villages. Many indicated home villages, expecting to be relocated in time for elections. That didn't happen, and they were then permitted to vote only for presidential candidates, not for those running for the senate or house.
Except for one very bad low spot in the road, where the asphalt had completed vanished and where enormous holes testified that huge trucks had once been hopelessly stuck, the pavement was okay from Monrovia to Gbarnga. Before reaching Gbarnga, we stopped at Cuttington Universit, where I had taught in '87. The acting chief administrator, Thomas Guy, one of the few people who risked their lives to stay on campus and protect the university during the entire civil war, was happy to see me and to have the opportunity to explain the state of the university. After closing and relocating to Monrovia during the civil war, the school was now getting back on its feet. All the main buildings had new zinc roofs—the old ones had been stolen and carried off to Guinea—the campus had two large generators, and about 1,200 students were enrolled. Many were ex-combatants who had received scholarships and severance allowances in return for turning in their weapons and promising not to return to combat. Another old friend, Mr. Kamara, is now the university registrar. He talked to Tomsie and me about the political climate (he also asked when I would return to teach at CUC) and about how, in contrast to the elections of 1997, when the people elected a much-feared warlord as president, this time there was no fear, no intimidation, and very little corruption. Of course, the leading presidential candidates all had to distribute large sums of money to the parties' nominating committees (to be used personally), but in general there wasn't a lot of corruption. Some candidates may have diverted public money in order to buy large quantities of rice in order to woo voters. However, the National Election Commission was successful in informing voters that because their votes were secret, the gift of rice or anything else did not result in an enforceable contract. NGOs also promoted the message that people should take the rice if they wanted, but that they should vote as they pleased. This seemed to work very well.
On Monday, Tomsie Phillips and I began the day with a visit to the headquarters of the Bangladeshi UNMIL in charge of providing security for Bong County. Colonel Faroukh, an extremely genial and competent officer, apologized for not offering us any food or drink because this was the month of Ramadan, when he and his Muslim soldiers were fasting. Banbatt (the Bangladeshi battalion) was located on the grounds of a former Lutheran Seminar/secondary school in Gbarnga. Armored vehicles, helicopters, and trucks filled the compound. Col. Faroukh assured us that his forces would be on high alert on election-day and that they would come down hard should there be any hint of disorder. I must admit that although I am a Mennonite and thus a pacifist, the presence of such obviously well-trained and professional security forces was reassuring. It is hard to overstate how important the return of law and order has been to Liberians who have been terrorized by warlords leading companies of out-of-control teenagers armed with AK-47s and a propensity toward wanton brutality.
After the UNMIL visit, we made the rounds of some of the political-party headquarters. The Unity Party— whose standard bearer in the presidential race is Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf — was the only one that complained of mischief in the campaign. According to them, a car bearing an "Ellen" sticker had struck and killed a man on a bike. People from another party incited the people of Gbarnga, saying the incident was no accident and that the Unity Party was responsible. As a result, a mob attacked party headquarters, destroying records, a computer, and other equipment. Other sources told us the accident was actually caused by a Unity Party motorcade and that the mob attack, although not justified, was predictable.
The most interesting visit was to the headquarters of presidential candidate George Weah's party. Although an old man escorted us to the office, all the rest of the people in the room were young men, obviously ex-combatants. They were fervent in their support of Weah. In their view, he was the only uncorrupted politician and the only one who really cared about the people. Other political contenders, they said, stayed in the U.S. during the war and are only now returning to run for office. If they win, they will plunder the nation's treasury; if they lose, they will return with their green cards to their homes in the U.S. But during the war, Weah— who was once recognized as the world's best soccer player — repeatedly came to Liberia, where he gave gifts to the people, listened to their stories of woe, and offered scholarships to young people. "Weah has the people at heart," we heard. "He is a rich man who would not steal from the country and a man who does not need any more money." When asked about the fact that he does not have even a high-school education, they replied that he would appoint educated advisors. They also pointed out that the educated leaders hadused their skills and knowledge to plunder the country. What worried me most about Weah's people was their lack of concern about the mechanics and complexities of actually running government. Weah will give us all free education, they said. When I asked where would he get the money, they repeated the theme, "Liberia is a very rich country, the richest in Africa." Obviously, they believed that their surroundings, which were anything but opulent (no electricity, no running water, no functioning computer, etc.) were the fault of bad politics, not the fault of anything that the people themselves had done or of the fact that Liberia's physical environment is harsh.
People we talked to on the street echoed similar themes. Some criticized Weah as a man of little education. Winston Tubman, a highly educated economist who was a special representative for Kofi Annan; Johnson-Sirleaf; George Brumskine, a highly educated man who claims God has chosen him to be Liberia's president; and Varney Sherman, a wealthy corporate lawyer all have the knowledge and the international connections to run the country, they said. But not Weah. Others said only Weah had the people at heart. However, everyone agreed that the election would be free and fair and that there had been no violence or intimidation. In fact, they said, supporters of the various parties attended the rallies of their rivals, not in order to cause disruption, but to show support for their involvement in the political process. There was a remarkable spirit of harmony and goodwill.
We also visited Sinyea village, located near Cuttington. Arriving at Sinyea, we were conducted to the house of the village chief, who offered us chairs under the thatch awning of his mud house. Men, women, and children gathered from the village. What impressed me most was how well-informed people were about the election. Although we never so much as hinted that we wanted to know how anyone would vote, we did ask about any possible violence, intimidation, vote buying, or fraud. It was clear than nothing of the kind was going on. People were possessive and protective of their right to vote. The wife of the chief, an old woman, said fiercely, "No one can take my vote." Her husband said she wouldn't even tell him how she was going to vote. In a country where male dominance is the norm, this seemed quite remarkable. Over and over, people indicated that this was a vote for peace, that elections were the only alternative to violence, that people must settle their differences through the use of the ballot. As in Gbarnga and Monrovia, people also said they would respect the outcome of the election. (We often asked if people would accept the results even if they lost.) While some of their apparent willingness to accept the outcome stemmed from the fact that they knew the country was crawling with election monitors (international, from all the political parties, and from church and local NGO groups), they also indicated that they would accept because of fatalism. "The outcome will be determined by God," they said. And "God will chose the next president of Liberia." I also heard a bit of a threa: "And God will bring the next leader down if he or she does not have the people at heart."
On Tuesday, we got up very early to be at a polling place when the ballot boxes arrived. We did have a minor crisis when our driver came to me in a panic to tell me he had locked the keys in the car! I have previously indicated the elaborate and redundant security measures put in place by the NDI and Carter Center people. But no satellite call to Suki in Monrovia nor backup candles, flashlights, rain gear, nor MREs (meals ready to eat), extra cans of gas, Immodium, or first-aid supplies would help in this situation. Would we miss the entire election? What rescued us was careful planning and packing by Janet, who always thinks of everything. Knowing that we might be at places without clothes hangers, she had packed a few plastic-coated wire hangers in my suitcase. Running back to my room in the Catholic guest house, I found a hanger that the driver quickly fashioned into a tool to flip up the lock. We were off. (Actually, the MREs came in handy that day, too. On every other day we feasted on Liberian rice and stew. But election day was a national holiday and the guest-house staff did not come to work and no cookshops (roadside restaurants serving local food) were open.
When we arrived at the polling place (one of six in Gbarnga), several thousand people had already assembled and were standing in four orderly lines (one for each of the voting stations at that polling center).
Wearing our official monitor IDs and Carter Center-monitor shirts, Tomsie and I went into the voting rooms. The ballot boxes were brought from secure sites in UNMIL vehicles. When all the National Election Commission officers were present, the boxes were unsealed and the unmarked ballots removed. The color-coded ballots were in packets of 50, wrapped in plastic, and numbered sequentially. One set was for the presidency (that set was the same all over the country), another set for the Senate, and a third set for the House. When voters entered the room, one NEC worker checked their identification papers and registration card (there had been rumors that some parties bought and destroyed voter cards in areas that were hostile to their candidate) and located the voter's name on the voter registration roll. The worker also examined the voter's thumb to see if there were signs of the indelible marking placed there after each person voted. After crossing off the name, the voters then received the ballots and proceeded to one of three cardboard voting booths where they could mark their ballot in secret. Because many people are illiterate, the party symbols and candidates' pictures were on the ballot. Voters could mark their ballot with a check, an X, or a thumb print. Although they were supposed to place their mark in a box next to the candidate's picture, any unambiguous marking was acceptable (determine the intent of the voter, was the instruction to ballot counters). After marking the ballots, the voters folded them and inserted them into the three color coded boxes (president, senate, house). Before they left the room, the voters received an indelible mark on their hand to prevent double voting.
Both Tomsie Phillips (who is an expert on election process and election fraud) and I were enormously impressed with the electoral process. Everyone was orderly, the voters were extremely well behaved and courteous, the election officials were extremely professional, and the weather was wonderful. We visited six or seven polling sites in Bong county that day. Everywhere, the situation was the same. Both Tomsie and I were shocked, therefore, when we entered a large polling station at Suakoko high school (about 10 miles south of Cuttington) where we observed the Presiding Officer actually helping people to vote. Our immediate thought was that we were witnessing fraud. (See text, voters were illiterate).
We had an extremely long day. Throughout the day, we called in to the Carter Center people in Monrovia to give updates. Using the information reported in by the 14 teams scattered all around the country, the Carter people were compiling the report with our monitoring team, let by President Carter, would issue two days later on Thursday. Our monitoring and reporting continued well into the night because we were to observe the closing of the polls and also the vote counting. Our driver by now was very tired and hungry (he refused to eat any of the MREs because they were cold and because they did not have rice). Disobeying our instructions that the driver must always be with us (and have the vehicle pointing down the road in order to make a quick exit in case of a problem), we told him to return to the guest house and rest until midnight when we would call him on our cell phone.
After the polling station closed, the NEC workers brought the boxes to the center of the room where the seals were inspected and verified to be the same seals and boxes that began the day in the room. By now it was getting dark. The election kits contained everything necessary for the counting, tally books, table tent name cards for each of the candidates, and battery powered lamps that illuminated the entire room. In the presence o of all the workers and observers, the Presiding Officer opened the presidential box and poured all the ballots onto a large table in the middle of the room. Workers then unfolded all the ballots and placed them in stacks of 50 each. Next they reconciled the number of marked ballots with the number of ballots actually given out to voters. The next step in the process was for the presiding officer to examine each ballot, call out the intent of the voter and hand the ballot to a poll worker. The worker then placed the ballot in a stack behind the table tent with the candidate's name. Thus, as the counting proceeded, everyone in the room could tell exactly which candidates were garnering the most votes. At the end, the votes in each stack were counted, recorded, and the numbers were reconciled with the total number of ballots. The many checks and balances and the large number of observers in the room provided a high level of confidence that the entire process would be fair and above board. At the end of the night, about 2:00, the Bangladeshi UNMIL soldiers collected the resealed boxes containing the ballots and the tallies and took them to secure warehouses where they would be retrieved the next day. I walked out into the moonlit school yard and called Janet, half a world away, telling her how wonderfully well everything had gone. The entire event was a remarkable exercise in democracy and a stark contract to the years of war when Liberians had settled their differences with violence.
The next day was spent watching the vote tallying (a very boring but essential proceeding) and talking to people in Gbarnga about the aftermath. Everyone, no matter whom they had supported, was very pleased with the outcome. Because 22 people had run for president and because the winner needs 50% of the votes, there will be a runoff on Nov. 8.
Did I ever get to see Carter? Carter arrived on Sunday, the day I left Monrovia. During election day, he and his wife, Rosalynn spent the day as did all the monitoring teams. He was at the polls when they opened and remained to watch counting take place in a room dimly lit with electric lanterns. Like the rest of us, he sent in his reports to the command center that was compiling the Carter Center report. On Thursday morning, we rose very early (actually I had to be wakened) in order to arrive at the Mamba Point Hotel where the entire delegation would gather to discuss the elections and where each team would present their report. We were delayed a bit when we stopped for gas—with no electricity all gas in Gbarnga is pumped by hand—but we were making good time and would arrive at the meeting well before it began, perhaps even in time to shower and change clothes. Then, about an hour south of Gbarnga, we came upon a long line of stopped traffic. The problem was the one spot in the road where the asphalt was missing. Now, mired deep in the mud, I saw two huge trucks, one full of raw rubber, the other loaded with unplanned lumber. Sitting side by side in the road, they were both tilted precariously to one side and together they blocked the entire highway. Clearly they were not going to move for many hours, probably not even that day. Although there was a narrow path between the two trucks, just enough for a car or pickup to pass, that path was pure muck, more like quicksand than road. A single individual was using a shovel to smooth out the muck, but that did not seem encouraging. A few people on both side of the impasse were shouting Instructions or encouragement, but most were simply standing or waiting, resigned to the fact that they would not reach their destinations that day. Frantically, I tried to call the Carter Center on our cell phones. No response, we were out of range. I though of trying the satellite phones, but the dense forest on either side of the road meant that I did not have the requisite percentage of open sky to the south. Anyway, what were the Carter security people going to do? Send an UNMIL helicopter to rescue us? All looked hopeless. Then, by luck or design, a man came carrying metal tracks, the kind the military or construction crews use to cross impassible ground, and laid them across the muck. Now there was a passage. But, my hopes of getting to Monrovia were dashed when an argument broke out as to which side of the impasse would get to go through. Both sides threatened to block the entire road unless they got preference. Eventually someone assumed authority and an agreement was reached. Three cars would pass from one side, then tree cars would come from the other. And each batch would be allowed passage once they made it through.
In the end, we were on our way. Once I was in cell phone range, I called the Carter Center to tell them we would be late. I was instructed to come directly to the hotel's conference room (someone would collect our bags from the car). When Tomsie Phillips and I arrived, we were escorted into the room, ushered to two chairs near the head of the conference table, and presented with the mike. Although we came too late to hear anyone else's reports, we were able to make ours before Jimmy Carter then gave an overall summary. I'm sure I was even more disheveled than normal, but the setting was informal and everyone had been made aware of our plight. I was able to chat with Carter over lunch. We talked about his previous trips to Liberia, he was the first sitting US president to visit Africa (except for a wartime visit by FDR), something I told him made him a hero with every African expert in America. He also talked about life in Plains as a private citizen and his concern for democratization and honest elections around the world, especially Africa. Later that day, after I had a chance to clean up and change clothes, the entire delegation held a press conference (actually Carter held the conference and the delegation sat on either side). Then, in the evening we all had dinner at a fine Monrovia hotel overlooking the ocean. The high point of the evening for me was when Carter told me that were he not a Baptist, he would probably be a Mennonite because he admires their commitment to simplicity and peace.
The next morning we left Liberia on a Bellview airline flight (the same airline that experienced a crash in Nigeria the weekend of October 22.