Kenya’s cautionary tale for Liberia

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Only a matter of weeks ago, Kenya’s vote rerun had seemed a sign of real progress for democracy in the country. Now that it has come to pass, however, it is clear that it was nothing but a step backwards, with five people dying, bullets flying, and tear gas blanketing the streets of Nairobi as police and supporters of President Uhuru Kenyatta lock horns with those supporting his rival, Raila Odinga. Now, Kenyatta has been declared the winner, but given the paltry 38% turnout, and a new petition challenging the results of the latest votes, his victory is a Pyrrhic one at best.

Initially, the Kenyan Supreme Court’s decision to nullify the previous election on September 1st over widespread irregularities had been applauded as a sign of institutional independence in the fledgling democracy. However, the inflammatory behaviour of both candidates – with Kenyatta’s attempts to annul the Supreme Court’s decision and Odinga’s withdrawal from elections and call for his supporters to boycott the votes – simply exposed just how fragile the peace in Kenya is.

For instance, the ink lauding the Kenyan Supreme Court’s decision was barely dry before President Kenyatta began hurling abuse at the chief justice, David Maraga, and issuing ominous warnings that “Maraga should know that he is now dealing with the serving president.” Soon afterwards, with pitch perfect predictability, his ruling party tried to pass amendments to the country’s election law that would raise the evidentiary bar for challenging election results so high as to be impossible.

Even the Supreme Court itself has hardly been a bastion of proper behaviour. For example, hopes for a sensible resolution on the question of whether a second election should take place were dashed when not enough judges had turned up to hear the petition to postpone the vote. The consequence is that, as EU observers aptly pointed out, “democracy and the rule of law have been diminished by the election rerun.” Fears are running high that a repeat of the 2007 internecine violence that killed more than 1100 people is looming on the horizon.

The only positive, perhaps, is that Kenya’s predicament provides a case study in how not to manage elections for a country on the other side of the continent: Liberia. This week, Liberia’s Supreme Court indefinitely delayed runoff votes, ordering the electoral commission to investigate allegations of fraud in the first round of presidential elections. The development casts doubt on the October 10th round, which several losing parties charged was fraught irregularities at ballot stations and within the government itself.

As opposition leader George Weah and incumbent Vice President Joseph Boakai battle to win their place in the presidential office, three other political parties – the All Liberian Party (ALP), Alternative National Congress (ANC) and the Liberty Party – have already claimed that there may have been irregularities in the first round.

The allegations came against a restive backdrop. A post published on Facebook last week by Liberia’s National Elections Commission (NEC) urging the public to “Remember to Vote” was swiftly rejoined by a poster saying “Remember not to cheat again, NEC” in the comments. Compounding the issue, outgoing president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf said as much in premonitory remarks to political leaders and the Supreme Court before the first round of presidential elections:

“Our democracy can only be sustained through you, each and every one of you in the room … and our development can only be sustained through democracy.”

And while the grumble of smaller parties is expected in any election, tensions were cranked up to 100 when Boakai came out over the weekend saying he stands “in solidarity” with the Supreme Court complaint, and said he believes the NEC should “expeditiously review these concerns“. The ruling Unity Party has taken it a step further, by launching a virulent attack at Sirleaf, claiming that she has been sabotaging Boakai’s campaign.

However, some questions are being raised as to whether Boakai’s belated interest in these issues – he had stayed quiet for more than two weeks – is merely a ploy to distract from his own ineffectual record of governance. He has had the power to change many of the subjects of his current complaints, so surely, as leading Unity Party figure Gbehzohngar Milton Findley put it, he is being ‘insincere and hypocritical’ to pretend otherwise.

Throwing another wrench into the matter, Johnson Sirleaf’s spokesman has now denied allegations from Boakai himself that she interfered in the first round of votes, deepening the fissure splitting the ruling party. The prospect that the fragile peace that Liberia has enjoyed since its bloody civil war came to a halt in 2003 could soon be shattered.

This November 7th election could be a pivotal event in the nation’s history for all the right reasons. It is the first time since 1944 that one democratically elected government will hand over power to another, consistent with the constitutionally mandated two term limit. Yet there is also great potential for the election to go down in history for all the wrong reasons. And what Liberia can learn from Kenya is that the seeds of this chaos lie not only in the electoral process, but also in the health of its institutions and the behaviour of its political class.

What Kenya shows is that if progress is to be made, all parts of the democratic machine must work together. Even one cog out of place can make the whole machine malfunction.

Indeed, it is not enough for only one phase of elections to take place smoothly. The entire process must be transparent and verifiable for voters to accept the results – and for the president to enjoy a healthy mandate. Especially given Liberia’s history of violent conflict, election observers and judicial institutions alike must make sure the run-off is not tainted by fraud – and that the first peaceful handover of power stays that way.

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Margaret Koffman

Margaret is a London based freelance researcher and development consultant with a specific focus on the African region.

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