Opinion

Election Risk Assessment: Liberia 2017

Election Risk Assessment: Liberia 2017

Georgetown University

Democracy and Governance Program

Elizabeth Lievens

Fall 2016

Executive Summary

On October 10, 2017, fourteen years after its second civil war ended, Liberia will hold presidential and legislative elections that could lead to a peaceful democratic transfer of power for the first time in its history.  Liberia is inexperienced with both democracy and peace; if its upcoming election is successful, it will help to consolidate its post-war democracy and establish a precedent for peaceful and legitimate elections.

Liberia’s 2017 election is unlikely to occur without incident.  Its history of electoral violence and the context in which it approaches the election indicate that the country will almost certainly experience some level of electoral violence.

This risk assessment determines that there are four areas of concern in the upcoming election: security forces, political parties’ campaigns, the National Election Commission (NEC), and specific voter grievances.  Security forces are a likely source of violence, as they are underfunded, unstable, and have a long history of electoral and political violence.  They are not likely to show restraint if provoked by an unruly crowd at a protest or even at polling stations.  However, they can also mitigate violence by quieting crowds and stopping incidents before they escalate.

Political parties are another potential source of violence, as the election’s high stakes make opposition parties determined to unseat the ruling Unity Party, and the Unity Party desperate to stop them.  Campaigns are the most competitive in voter-rich Montserrado, Nimba, and Bong counties, where clashes between campaigns or supporters is most likely.  The high tensions and hateful rhetoric of the campaign increases the likelihood of violence.

The underfunded NEC can indirectly cause violence if it fails to properly train and prepare its staff to conduct the election.  Frustrated voters in long lines at polling stations can lead to unruly crowds, and a poorly managed election can lead to accusations of fraud.  But the NEC can also be a strong mitigating force, by working with international organizations to conduct voter education programs, by properly handling dispute adjudication, and by determining the validity of the election.  In these ways, it can provide legitimacy to the election and the new president.

Finally, voter grievances can inspire isolated or group incidents of violence.  Feelings of marginalization from an entrenched elite and inevitability about the outcomes of elections can provoke individuals or small groups to attack parties’ headquarters, steal ballot boxes, or commit similar crimes.  Accusations of fraud from unsuccessful parties can inspire supporters to protest or riot.  Severe incidents like the deadly opposition riot in 2011 could destroy the legitimacy of the election and damage the democratic process for future elections as well.

Introduction

This report examines Liberia’s upcoming elections according to USAID’s electoral violence risk assessment framework.  It aims to analyze the risks for violence in Liberia’s presidential and legislative elections, scheduled for October 10, 2017, and to identify stakeholders who are likely to perpetrate violence or become targets of violence in different locations and times throughout the election period.  It also identifies several potential mitigating forces that could reduce the likelihood of violence.

A contextual analysis for Liberia’s elections is given below, including security, political, economic, social, and state institution risk factors, as well as election-specific risk factors.  Next, the historical conflict analysis describes Liberia’s civil wars, election history and recent political climate.  The stakeholder analysis examines state and non-state stakeholders to determine likely sources and targets of violence.  Findings are discussed in the conclusion.

 Contextual Analysis

This section analyzes Liberia’s current electoral context to determine the likelihood of violent behavior.  The first level of contextual analysis involves identifying broad risk factors in the security, political, economic, social, and state institution sectors.  The second level of analysis examines election-specific risk factors.  This section will determine potential triggers or concerns for violence in the different phases of the election.

Security Risk Factors

Liberia’s security forces will be a key factor in the upcoming election.  They have the potential to be the perpetrators or the victims of electoral violence.  They can also serve as mitigating forces to prevent violence from occurring.

The United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL), which helped Liberia negotiate a peace agreement in 2003 at the end of its second civil war, is nearing completion.  On June 30, 2016, the UN reduced its number of uniformed personnel from 3,745 to 1,200 soldiers and 600 police, which the UN will maintain through the election.[1] In doing so, UNMIL is transferring security responsibility back into the hands of the Liberian National Police (LNP) and army. This will cause a period of instability as the LNP adjusts to the change.  Liberians have very low confidence in their security forces, in part because of their involvement in human rights violations in the past. Many worry that actors may be emboldened to violence in the face of a new, unstable, and underfunded electoral security force.[2]

UNMIL has assisted Liberia with election security in the past, but the 2017 election will be the first Liberian election held with its own national security forces since the end of its civil wars.  Funding for the LNP is running dangerously low, partly due to the Ebola crisis of 2013-2015.  This is likely to decrease the effectiveness of the LNP and Ministry of Justice’s violence prevention plans, which include assessments and reaching out to stakeholders and youth party leaders. [3]  UNMIL and the Ministry of Justice have worked together to develop a transition plan, but that too may be disadvantaged by a lack of funding.[4]

Liberian politicians are desperately appealing to the UN to leave more forces to help with security, or to send in foreign troops or aid.  The most recent estimates show that Liberian armed forces have 2,050 personnel and 5,170 police. In addition, the LNP’s current situation is grim; they have a bad reputation among Liberians, very low salaries, and most are not armed.[5]  Security forces are also plagued by internal conflicts as leaders try to usurp others’ positions and operations, which will further decrease their effectiveness.  As campaigning begins in the country, they must demonstrate visibility, non-partisanship, and restraint if they are to be an effective electoral security force.[6]

Another risk for Liberia’s security forces is politicization.  Unity Party candidate Vice President Joseph Boakai has been endorsed by Defense Minister Brownie Samukai.[7]  This may affect the armed forces’ alliances and how they behave or overlook the behavior of others during the election.

The LNP may perpetrate violence itself, as it has done in the past.  Liberia’s precedence for the involvement of security forces in electoral violence is explored further in the historical conflict factors portion of the risk assessment.  However, it also can mitigate violence by quieting crowds and stopping incidents before they escalate.  This as well as its violence prevention programs, makes the LNP an important potential mitigating factor.

Political Risk Factors              

This section discusses Liberia’s regime type, governance style, and condition of democracy in order to analyze its systemic vulnerability to electoral violence.

Liberia’s government is a democratic republic modeled after the United States.  However, it is very highly centralized with no federal districts or elected local officials.[8]  This, along with the two six-year terms that a president is allowed, gives presidential elections very high stakes, which could make tensions high enough to spark violence.  Additionally, much of President Sirleaf’s governance style has had authoritarian characteristics, including censorship and attacks on the media, mysterious deaths of government critics, and allegations of nepotism and corruption.  This has given recent Liberian governance a culture of impunity.  She has managed to reform political culture to a certain extent, but not democratic practices.  This is dangerous because elections in unconsolidated democracies like Liberia’s can be at a greater risk for violence.[9]

            Liberia’s government is still in transition after its last civil war, which ended in 2003.  This will be the first transfer of power since the war ended, and the first time that a president has willingly left office in Liberia since 1944.[10]  The newness of Liberia’s government and its transition away from violence leave it vulnerable to violent incidents in its upcoming election.

Economic Risk Factors

Poverty and the possibility of wealth can be incentives for violence during elections.  This section analyzes Liberia’s financial situation to find areas of vulnerability.

Liberia is an incredibly poor nation, in great need of development and still suffering financially from its recent Ebola crisis.[11]  The country’s GDP in 2015 was US$2.053 billion, with a growth rate of 0.3%.[12]  Countries with a very low GDP and growth rate like Liberia’s have been connected to greater electoral violence.[13]  Similarly, Liberia’s GNI per capita for 2015 is only US$380,[14] which is statistically likely to increase conflict.[15]

Liberia’s GINI coefficient for distribution of wealth is at 38.2,[16] which is low enough to not put the country at increased risk of violence.[17]  However, 54% of Liberians currently live below the poverty line, 18% of which lives in extreme poverty. The highest percentages of poverty are in rural areas, but similar numbers of impoverished people live in rural and urban areas.  The highest poverty areas are Maryland, River Gee, and Grand Kru Counties, while the lowest are in Montserrado County and the central and southeast regions that have the majority of the country’s iron ore and logging industries.[18]  The poorer rural areas and high concentration of urban poor could contribute to the likelihood of electoral violence.  Centers of Liberia’s natural resource industries may be scenes of conflict as well; during the Liberian civil wars, competing factions fought for control of natural resources to fund their militias.[19]  The upcoming election could increase tensions by providing opportunities for Liberians to gain or lose control of these resources.

Social Risk Factors

This section analyzes social cleavages and demographics that may put Liberia at a greater risk of election violence, especially concerning the lasting impact that the Liberian Civil Wars had on society.

Liberian society has many cleavages that may lead to heightened tensions and violence during the election.  Tribal and ethnic tensions have led to violence in the past, including Samuel Doe’s rule showing favoritism toward his own Krahn ethnic group and a failed coup led by the Gio and Mano ethnic groups.[20]  Some political parties are also ethnic-based, such as the Kpelle-led People’s Unification Party (PUP), which could exacerbate ethnic tensions.[21]  Additionally, cleavages still remain from Liberia’s recent civil wars, which ended in 2003.  Citizens and politicians often accuse elites of supporting one side or another during the civil wars, which alienates people and reinvigorates tensions.[22]  Furthermore, some of the candidates running for president have ties to or were directly involved in the civil wars, polarizing Liberians as they form opinions about candidates.

Liberia’s population is approximately 65% youths, who experience a particularly high rate of unemployment.  A large population of young, dissatisfied and idle people can increase the likelihood of violence.  During the Liberian Civil Wars, politicians mobilized similar groups of young people to participate in violence.  In addition, Liberia has over 84,000 veterans of the civil wars, who are particularly impoverished, unemployed, and desperate.[23]  This group could be especially prone to violence during the election.

State Institution Risk Factors

The perception of the legitimacy and effectiveness of Liberian institutions is a potential risk factor for tension and violence, especially if Liberians feel dissatisfied or cheated out of their expected outcomes.  Legitimacy is defined as the perception that the institution is using its power fairly and for the best interests of all.  Effectiveness is defined as the capability of the institution to carry out its tasks of providing order and goods and services.

Liberians have very low confidence in their security forces, which are largely ineffective and poorly managed.[24]  Their bad reputation comes in part from their history of human rights violations.  Not only do Liberians not view their security forces as effective, but they may also question their legitimacy, after questions of partisanship arise.[25]  The LNP has made efforts to counter their poor image, conducting confidence patrols in different towns and increasing citizens’ knowledge of their rights and security forces.[26]

However, Liberians have much more faith in their electoral management body, the National Election Commission (NEC).  The NEC is generally perceived as competent, credible, and nonbiased.  It is a useful, if underfunded, tool for decreasing electoral tensions; it regularly contributes to civic education and holds weekly Inter-Party Consultative Committee meetings.[27]  But in order to more effectively counter electoral violence, it must focus on its staff capacity, gender sensitization, and both political parties and security forces in order to help prevent conflict.[28]

Most Liberians generally see their government and courts as legitimate institutions, although they do not place much trust in either the courts or in the president.[29]  While President Sirleaf is currently unpopular with Liberians, it is a good sign that they view the institution as legitimate, and will therefore be more likely to respect it.

Election-Specific Risk Factors

This section analyzes different aspects of Liberia’s electoral system, including its election type, decentralization, political party system, electoral management body, election timing, confrontations, fraud, hate speech, and new media.   Areas of concern in these categories will be identified as potential for electoral violence.

Liberia holds elections only at the national level, since they have no federal or local elected government.  Presidential elections are conducted in two rounds; the second is a run-off election between the top two candidates from the first, if none received a majority.  The legislature is divided into the Senate and House of Representatives, members of which are elected in a winner-take-all system.  Presidential and legislative elections will be held on October 10, 2017, and the run-off election will be held on the second Tuesday after the results of the first round are finalized, likely about a month later.[30]

This system increases the stakes of winning elections; with no local elected officials, the government is highly centralized and very powerful.  UNDP is working with Liberia on the Liberia Decentralization Support Programme (LDSP), which grants more responsibilities, capacity, and accountability to local governments.  The LDSP has also gotten a bill for the election of local officials into the legislature, where it is being deliberated.[31]  However, these changes still leave the national government highly centralized, and any change toward electing local officials will not take place before the 2017 elections.

Additionally, a winner-take-all system in the legislature means less representation for smaller groups, although Liberia has a multiparty system and dozens of political parties.  This, along with Liberia’s highly centralized government, may make parties and candidates more competitive and desperate to win, and more frustrated if they lose, all of which may contribute to electoral violence.

Liberia’s party system also may increase the likelihood of electoral violence.  Most politicians form parties so that they can join alliances with stronger parties and be given political positions when that party wins.  Parties then tend to dissolve after elections, and members that get positions with the ruling party then abandon their original party.  A strong and institutionalized political party system would help Liberia in its post-war transition by ensuring that the results of elections are accepted and that citizens are engaged in politics.  The country has been attempting to institutionalize their party system for this reason; the NEC requires parties to keep permanent headquarters in Monrovia to prevent the temporary creation of parties around election years.[32]

Although the country has a multiparty system, it is not inclusive for all Liberians.  Although there are over 40 parties expected to compete in the 2017 election,[33] for a campaign to have a real chance of winning, it must spend US$5-8 million, which is far out of reach for most Liberians, even many politicians and successful business owners.[34]  Because of this, many presidential hopefuls had been relying on securing the support of President Sirleaf and her government for help with finances and resources to run a campaign.  However, when she endorsed her vice president Joseph Boakai, they were frustrated and felt that President Sirleaf’s administration and the ruling Unity Party were taking advantage of their position to ensure that Vice President Boakai will be reelected.[35]  This leads to the sense that running a campaign in Liberia is not inclusive or accessible, and that the ruling elites dominate the process enough that others do not have a real chance.  This frustration has contributed to riots, boycotts, and violence in the past.

Because of the number of political parties participating in elections, coalitions are often necessary in order to win.  The ruling Unity Party is considering forming a coalition for the 2017 election in order to ensure a victory, as are many other parties.[36]  This may increase the competitiveness of the campaign period.

Many of the Liberian political parties at play in this election are fairly new, having been created after the end of the civil wars.  Most parties are still led by the people who created them, and some politicians have created multiple parties, abandoning their other attempts when they are unsuccessful.  This gives a personalistic nature to many parties, combined with a lack of experience, as most parties have existed through only one or two election cycles.  Some struggle with disorganization and disunity, allowing for the rise of other parties to convert away their voter base.  Liberia’s parties are very competitive, especially in the three counties with the highest voting strength: Nimba, Montserrado, and Bong, in that order.  A party that stands a chance at winning the presidential election must win at least Nimba and Montserrado counties.[37]  These locations could be the sites of rallies, protests, or violence as the election continues, especially in Montserrado around Monrovia and in Gbarnga, the capital of Bong.

Liberia’s election dispute adjudication mechanisms are allotted to the National Election Commission (NEC), which conducts, enforces, and judges elections.  The 2005 elections were Liberia’s first with an Electoral Management Body (EMB), so the NEC is new and inexperienced.  Due to electoral conflict in recent elections, Liberians do not have confidence in the capability of the NEC to handle election disputes, despite their general favorable attitude toward the organization.  Liberians view dispute resolution mechanisms as inaccessible to the average person, especially to youths.[38]  In order to prepare for the 2017 elections and mitigate potential violence, the EU and UNDP are conducting workshops with NEC staff members, as well as political parties, civil society, and the Liberian National Bar Association to learn about dispute adjudication mechanisms.  Additionally, they are holding workshops with stakeholders to learn how to file complaints.[39]  The NEC has also recently updated its complaints and appeals process in order to prepare for the upcoming election, [40] although its lack of funding may hinder its ability to enforce its regulations.  Despite this, it remains an independent, impartial and legitimate organization that could serve as a mitigating factor to Liberia’s electoral violence.

The timing of Liberia’s election may foster electoral violence as well.  The presidential and legislative elections are being held simultaneously (although Senate elections are staggered) which means that security forces and the NEC will be stretched thin attempting to monitor elections, instead of being able to focus on certain hotspots throughout the country.  The election also comes as UNMIL is withdrawing from Liberia and transferring security responsibilities to the LNP.  This transition is not an ideal time to hold an election, and will likely encourage actors to become violent in the absence of a strong and respected security force.

This is the first post-war election that will see a transfer of power in Liberia, since President Sirleaf won both of the country’s prior elections in 2005 and 2011.  The first transfer of power after a civil war is absolutely crucial for the country to begin a democratic legacy.  No elected leader has peacefully left office in Liberia since 1944.[41]  And while African leaders have a tendency to violate their term limits and remain in office,[42] President Sirleaf shows little signs of doing so herself.  This is a historic election for Liberia, and the country cannot afford it to be fraught with violence, illegitimacy, or fraud.

Liberia’s post-war elections have had accusations of fraud in the past, as well as vote boycotting and deadly riots,[43] discussed in more detail in the historical conflict factors section.  This election may have similar suspicions of fraud, as many Liberians feel that President Sirleaf is unfairly exercising governmental power to help Vice President Boakai to replace her.  She is accused not only of rampant corruption during her administration, but of helping to continue corrupt practices into Boakai’s presidency.[44]

The possibility of a boycott or a riot is heightened by the tensions between the first and second rounds of voting, when candidates and their supporters may be frustrated with the results and make accusations of fraud.  Confrontations between opponents and or candidates is likely to occur on the campaign trail, especially in highly contested areas like Nimba, Montserrado, and Bong, since these counties will likely determine the outcome of the presidential election.

Tensions in the upcoming election are heightened by hate speech and inflammatory rhetoric.  Competition between political parties is fierce, but most of this rhetoric is being directed at Vice President Boakai, who most other candidates perceive as the biggest threat to their chances of winning the election with his help from President Sirleaf and his access to state resources.  Candidates and voters alike have attacked his age and capability to be president; he would be 74 years old upon his inauguration, facing a six-year term and possibility of reelection.  His avoidance of social media furthers the impression that he is old and out-of-touch.  He has also been caught on film sleeping during public meetings, encouraging insulting and hateful rumors about his frailty and inability to be an effective president.[45]

The dangers of hateful rhetoric depend partly on the freedom and independence of the media.  Liberia’s media has often been silenced by President Sirleaf and her administration; which has arrested journalists for libel and shut down radio stations and media outlets, including one owned by Benoni Urey, a political opponent.[46]  This precedent could lead to more censorship of media that is critical of the government during the upcoming election.

The use of new media, such as the internet, social media, and cell phones, as a way to spread ideologies and encourage or document violence is not a great concern in Liberia, as it may be in other at-risk elections.  As of 2015, only 5.9% of Liberians are internet users, although that number is growing,[47] and 81% have cell phones.

Historical Conflict Factors

This section explores Liberia’s history of electoral violence and how this, along with its recent civil wars, may affect the 2017 election.  Liberia’s civil wars and few post-conflict elections will lead to heightened tensions in the upcoming election as well as special considerations when predicting violent incidents.  The country’s recent history of electoral violence can help predict when and where violence may occur in 2017, as well as its likely perpetrators and victims.

The Liberian Civil Wars and post-conflict environment make the country’s upcoming elections more complicated but absolutely essential for a peaceful, democratic future.  Post-war elections have high stakes and increased tensions because they determine which groups will be included in the post-conflict political structure.[48]  This is especially relevant in Liberia where citizens are feeling increasingly marginalized by seemingly inaccessible politics dominated by entrenched elites.  The election will also help set a precedent for Liberia’s democratic future; this is only its third election after the civil wars ended, and the first that will involve a transfer of power.  No elected leader has peacefully left office in Liberia since 1944,[49] and especially in a post-war setting it is vital for Liberia to have a peaceful and democratic change of government.  The country’s inexperience with peaceful elections and democratic leadership change could threaten the 2017 election; Liberia’s democracy is unconsolidated and new enough that Liberians may not respect its legitimacy if any part of the election is called into question.  Furthermore, pervious conflict intensity can be a predictor of the intensity of electoral violence.  The extreme intensity of Liberia’s civil wars indicates the potential for a very high degree of electoral violence.

The post-war environment brings new challenges that other potentially violent elections do not experience.  For instance, there are over 84,000 veterans of Liberia’s civil wars, most of whom are living in poverty and have high levels of unemployment and dissatisfaction and who pose a risk of violence.[50]  Former combatants have led deadly riots in 2004 in Monrovia.[51]  Additionally, former ties to the conflict can deepen social divides; some presidential candidates have controversial ties to divisive civil war figures or are warlords themselves.  President Sirleaf has admitted to backing Charles Taylor’s coup that started the first civil war, which has led many to call for her removal from political life.[52]  Militarized politics is a symptom of post-war elections and can increase tensions among voters and politicians.

            The Liberian Civil Wars themselves may help to predict electoral violence, especially in regards to ethnic violence, security forces, and reactions to unfavorable outcomes.  The first civil war was dominated by ethnic conflicts.  Samuel Doe’s military regime, beginning in 1980, was dominated by his own Krahn-dominated ethnic group.  Widespread fraud in the 1985 election inspired a failed coup from the Gio and Mano ethnic groups, who then faced severe reprisals.  In 1989 when Charles Taylor and the National Patriotic Front for Liberia (NPFL) began a violent insurgency in northern Liberia, they were responsible for widespread ethnic killings.  As the war progressed, different factions and militias fought each other for control of resources and resource-rich areas in order to gain the finances to support themselves.  Furthermore, escalating in 1995, fighting and looting targeted civil society, humanitarian organizations, and government offices in Monrovia.  This all but destroyed Liberia’s weak civil society and made international humanitarian efforts evacuate the country.[53]  This indicates that election violence may take an ethnic or resource-based lens, and may target government offices, civil society, and humanitarian organizations.

Multiple ceasefires were declared in the mid-1990s, helped by ECOWAS and other international organizations, but most did not last long.  In some cases, a ceasefire was declared and then violated, but peacekeepers decided to ignore the violations instead of imposing sanctions in fear of escalating the situation.[54]  This prioritization of ending the conflict over solving minor disputes may carry on into Liberia’s election culture.

Liberia had a single party government until Samuel Doe’s military coup in 1980.  Each election since then will be examined briefly to understand Liberia’s history of tensions and violence in competitive elections.

The 1985 elections, held by Doe’s heavily authoritarian government were mired by fraud, which inspired an attempted coup and helped build the foundation for the first civil war.  Election cycles were disrupted by war until 1997, as part of the peace settlement ending the civil war.  Liberia lacked an EMB at the time, and so the elections were arranged by an independent commission made up of representatives from the three major factions of the war, along with civilian groups, women and youth organizations, and unions.  The commission had very little time to organize the election and low funds.  Additionally, over 800,000 refugees living outside the country could not return to vote and so were disenfranchised.  Tensions ran high as factions from the war converted themselves into parties.  Charles Taylor with the National Patriotic Party and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf with the Unity Party were the two major candidates, although voters highly favored Taylor, viewing the Unity Party as a party of elites.  Voters were also pressured to vote for Taylor, fearing that he would restart the war if he was not elected.  He received 75% of the vote in a high-turnout election, and Sirleaf came in a distant second at 10%.  She and several other parties made accusations of fraud, but largely backtracked as international election monitors judged it to be a free, fair, and credible election.[55]  The tendency to call elections fraudulent when the results are unfavorable is common in Liberia, and will likely be a part of the 2017 elections.  Additionally, the fear of a return to war is still present in Liberia today, and may influence voters’ choices to pick an otherwise unfavorable candidate.

            Elections were postponed again in the second civil war, resuming as part of the peacebuilding process in 2005.  This was Liberia’s first election with an EMB (although the NEC did not fully administer an election until 2011), which had a very short time to prepare for the event, and did so with minimal experience or precedent.  International organizations helped with voter education projects to combat illiteracy and unfamiliarity with the election process, including how to register to vote, find polling stations, fill out ballots, and register complaints with the NEC.  NEC staff also needed training in how to conduct elections, what behavior was appropriate and legal, and how to help confused voters.  Some polling centers failed to open on time, some voting materials did not arrive at the centers by election day, and a high turnout of voters caused long lines; however, there were few cases of violence or intimidation, and the election proceeded without incident.  Some crowds became unruly and the LNP and UNMIL had to step in to quiet them.  Additionally, poll workers often had to enter booths to assist voters who were confused by the ballots, which may have led to voter intimidation.  In the runoff election, an observer from both parties was present at polling places, and these representatives were occasionally hostile or interfered with voters.  Civil society monitored the runoff election much less than they did the first round.  Tensions and hateful rhetoric increased in the time before the runoff.  There were four different reports of stabbings on the day of the runoff election, and 200 people participated in a riot in Grand Gedeh County the day after.  The NEC received several complaints of fraud after the elections, including that polling officers encouraged voters to choose certain candidates.[56]  However, overall it was a well-run, peaceful, credible, and successful election, which began President Sirleaf’s post-conflict administration.  The 2017 election is likely to have similar minor incidents, including fraud and inexperienced or biased poll workers.

The most recent election took place in 2011, and saw no major incidents of election violence until the runoff election.  The pre-election period involved isolated incidents including the theft of voter registration materials from a registration center, reports of intimidation, arguments and fights between members of the Unity Party, the destruction of political paraphernalia, and the burning of a House of Representative candidate’s car.  In between the first round and runoff elections, two houses were hit with petrol bombs, one the residence of a Unity Party chair member.  Around this time, demonstrators attacked a soldier in the Congo town area.  During the runoff election, there were two instances of groups of people stealing ballot boxes, before UNMIL and security forces were able to retrieve them. [57]  These incidents reflect the high tensions in the election, especially as the runoff election approached and the certainty that President Sirleaf would be reelected grew stronger.

After the first round of elections, Sirleaf was endorsed by third place candidate Prince Johnson, a former warlord who tortured, mutilated, and killed President Samuel Doe in 1990 and committed rampant human rights violations throughout the war.  He received over 11% of the vote in 2011.[58]  Johnson’s appearance in the election reanimated old divisions from which Liberia is desperate to move on.  He is running for president again in 2017, although he is unlikely to get the majority he needs to win.

The runoff election was between Sirleaf and Congress for Democratic Change (CDC) candidate Winston Tubman, neither of whom had managed to get a majority of votes in the first round.  However, the biggest incident election violence in 2011 occurred the day before the runoff, when Tubman announced an election boycott, claiming fraud in the first round.  His supporters led a protest in Monrovia that quickly became violent as the LNP fired on the unarmed protesters.  Some protesters claimed to have been peaceful, but others report them provoking the LNP by throwing stones.  UNMIL forces attempted to prevent the LNP from firing into the crowd as a battle formed outside the CDC headquarters.  Five CDC supporters were killed and many more were injured.  The incident marred the runoff; Tubman essentially conceded the election to Sirleaf when he dropped out, and the runoff election saw a very low turnout.[59]  The election was ruled to be free and fair, but reflected societal divisions, a sense of exclusion among many Liberians, and the weakness of opposition parties that still exist in Liberia and are likely to affect the upcoming election.[60]

President Sirleaf is well-liked internationally, but unpopular in Liberia.  Her eleven-year administration has involved authoritarian characteristics that could have negative consequences for this election.  Under her presidency, security forces have conducted violent raids, journalists have been arrested for libel, and critics of the government have met mysterious deaths.  She originally promised not to seek a second term, but broke that promise to run in 2011, fueling her image as a corrupt elite.  During the Ebola crisis, she ordered the quarantining of a slum which led to a deadly riot.[61]  President Sirleaf has not managed tensions well, and has not done enough to reverse the feelings of marginalization and frustration in her citizens, and these feelings may manifest in electoral violence as many are determined not to have another Unity Party candidate elected to the presidency.

Stakeholder Analysis

This section analyzes state, non-state, and international stakeholders for the Liberian election and their potential as perpetrators or targets of election violence, as well as their potential to mitigate violence.  The state stakeholders discussed below include the NEC, national and international security forces, and election monitors.  The non-state stakeholders discussed include civil society organizations and citizen groups, political parties, and media organizations.  International stakeholders are cooperating with state and non-state stakeholders and include the UN, the EU, the United States, and ECOWAS.  Perpetrators’ motives and capabilities are discussed, as well as the likely times and locations of incidents.

The NEC is a state stakeholder that can be a potential mitigating factor, perpetrator of violence, or even a target depending on how it conducts the upcoming election.  It fulfills many judicial roles as well, adjudicating disputes and determining the eligibility of candidates, and so is an especially important stakeholder for the election.  If it is well-run and organized, if it remains nonpartisan, and if it succeeds in its voter education programs, it can decrease tensions among voters and political parties and make the election process run smoothly.  It is currently receiving help from international organizations, including the EU, for this purpose.  A well-run election with trained, competent and non-partisan poll workers will help give a sense of legitimacy to the election and decrease the likelihood of tense moments caused by long lines and unruly crowds or inappropriate behavior at polling stations.

However, the NEC also has the potential to cause the same problems that affected the 2005 election: frustrated crowds, confused voters, and hostile party representatives acting as monitors.  Good organization and training from the NEC can also prevent individual NEC staff from becoming perpetrators.  Teaching and enforcing proper behavior and ensuring that no poll worker is intimidating or influencing voters will keep citizens from becoming angry or feeling that the election was fraudulent.  Similarly, the NEC’s ability to handle dispute adjudication, vet the eligibility of candidates, and determine the validity of election results can determine whether people are likely to accept the election results or form protests and riots.  Individual poll workers may even become targets of violence if individuals feel that they are not doing their jobs correctly.

The problem lies in the NEC’s capabilities to prevent these incidents and sentiments.  Their budget is incredibly tight, and they lack experience.  International organizations, including the EU, are working with the NEC to implement civic education programs, but their help might not be enough.  There will likely be isolated incidents of fraud, intimidation, or even violence from unruly crowds during the election, during the first round of elections when crowds are larger and wait times may be longer, and during the runoff, when tensions are much higher.  Incidents may occur in more remote rural areas such as Maryland, River Gee, and Grand Kru counties where NEC staff and polling stations may not be as closely monitored.  They may also occur in counties that are high priorities for candidates to win, most notably Nimba, Montserrado, and Bong counties.

The second major state stakeholder is Liberia’s security forces.  While soldiers or police officers have the potential to become the victims of election violence, as occurred in an isolated incident in the 2011 election, they are far more likely to become perpetrators of violence.  There is overwhelming precedent for the military to become involved in violence; people have not forgotten the military’s participation in devastating atrocities and human rights violations during the Liberian Civil Wars.  They have also been involved in what may be the worst case of electoral violence that Liberia has seen; killing five CDC protesters and wounding many more just days before the runoff election.  National police forces also clashed with UN security forces during the incident. If a protest escalates in the upcoming election, a similar confrontation between rioters and police may occur, with potentially devastating consequences.  Such an incident may affect perceptions of legitimacy of the election and jeopardize Liberia’s democracy.

However, security forces can also act as a mitigating factor.  The LNP is working with the Ministry of Justice to conduct violence prevention programs which include assessments and outreach to other stakeholders as well as women and youth groups.  The LNP is also conducting confidence patrols and educating voters about security forces and citizens’ rights in an attempt to increase confidence in Liberia’s security forces.[62]  In previous elections they have resolved minor incidents that could have become much worse, including in the 2005 elections when they stepped in to calm crowds and a riot that could have escalated into violence, or in 2011 when they helped retrieve stolen ballot boxes.  The amount of training, funding, and international help that the military receives will help determine whether it will mitigate violence or perpetrate it; as past elections have shown, it is likely to do both.  At least some of the military or police may have a partisan bias toward the Unity Party and Joseph Boakai, who was endorsed by the Defense Minister.  This could provide the motivation to treat opposition protesters with violence.  However, their means of enacting violence are hindered by their lack of funding and weapons; many security forces are unarmed.  High risk areas include Monrovia and the surrounding areas in Montserrado, as well as other voter- or resource-rich counties that may become contentious. Incidents involving the military are likely to occur in and around the elections themselves, especially the runoff election when protests and riots are most likely to take place.

International reinforcements would serve as an additional mitigating factor for Liberia’s security forces, ensuring that they follow proper procedures and that high risk areas have enough security to prevent incidents.  It may also help Liberians to have more trust in their security forces.  However, international help may increase tensions within the LNP, as the police director does not want foreign troops sent in, preferring monetary aid so that the LNP can build its own forces and become more independent.[63]  Despite his wishes the LNP and military are likely to receive international reinforcements from the UN, increasing its capacity as a mitigating force.

International election monitors are another mitigating factor for the election.  Electoral violence against observers and monitors is unprecedented, although international humanitarians were targeted during the civil wars.  Generally, Liberians trust international observers and their judgements about the quality and fairness of elections; in 1997 their declarations that the election was free and fair helped quiet accusations of fraud from the Unity Party and other opposition parties.[64]  The 2017 election has captured international attention as crucial for Liberia’s democratic future and so will likely have monitors, observers, and security backup from the United States, UN, EU, and ECOWAS.

Civil society organizations (CSOs) are other non-state stakeholders and can mitigate election violence.  They will likely serve as national and local election observers as they have done in previous elections, although in the past their activities decreased leading up to runoff elections.  International help may make CSOs more effective at deescalating tensions between parties and educating voters, and especially in keeping the period between the first and second rounds of elections peaceful and calm.  CSOs in Monrovia were targets of violence during the civil wars, and may be so again.

Political parties and their candidates and supporters are significant threats of violence in the upcoming election, and may be targets as well.  In the 2005 election, political party representatives at polling stations intimidated voters;[65] if they do so again, this could increase tensions and even trigger violence from opposing voters.  In the 2011 pre-election period, inter-party violence was a symptom of poor organization and divisions within political parties; arguments and physical fights broke out among rival Unity Party members.[66]  The Unity Party has broken alliances in the past, creating tensions among political parties that must form coalitions in order to have a chance at winning the presidential election.  This longstanding desperation to win against an entrenched elite may fuel violence between parties on the campaign trail.  This is most evident in Montserrado, Nimba, and Bong counties, where voting strength is the highest.  For example, the Liberty Party and its candidate Charles Brumskine is competing with the Unity Party and Boakai for Bong County, where local leaders have endorsed both candidates evenly.  Supporters are forming groups such as the Bong Chapter of the Movement to Support Boakai (NAMBO) which may end up clashing with each opposition groups as the election intensifies.[67]

Candidates and party members have also been victims of electoral violence and may be targeted in the upcoming election as well.  In the 2011 pre-election phase, a Montserrado Unity Party candidate for the House of Representatives was targeted and his car burned; the headquarters of both the Unity Party and the National Democratic Party were burglarized, and a Unity Party chair member’s house was petrol bombed.  The perpetrators of these acts seemed to be individuals or small groups acting on their own as supporters of rival parties, which makes them difficult to predict.  This is why reducing the number of small incidents of voter intimidation and fraud is important; an election that seems more trustworthy and legitimate will provoke fewer people to take action.

However, more organized groups of party supporters can also cause election violence.  Groups of opposition supporters have formed protests and riots that needed LNP intervention.  However, these incidents could have escalated much farther if the protesters had provoked the police toward violence, as occurred in the CDC riot in 2011 when protesters threw stones at the LNP.  Protesters conducting themselves well will not prevent violence altogether, but will reduce the chances of security forces beginning or escalating violence.

Media organizations are other non-state stakeholders that could be perpetrators or targets of violence.  The police have shut down radio stations that support opposition candidates in the past accusing them of inciting violence, although it is unclear whether they were actually doing so.  President Sirleaf’s administration has also made a habit of shutting down radio stations and arresting journalists for libel.  Media interference is a precedent in Liberia, and will likely occur during the upcoming election.  Radio stations are some of Liberia’s most popular news sources, since Internet access is uncommon in much of the country, so shutting them down could spark outrage.

Conclusion

This report’s findings are condensed below.  They focus on four categories: security forces, political parties, the NEC, and specific voter grievances.

First, Liberia’s security forces are a likely source of violence during the election, particularly on and around polling day and as the runoff approaches in early November 2017.  The LNP is underfunded, untrusted by citizens, and volatile, as shown in past elections.  UNMIL’s transfer of security responsibilities back to the national police is poorly timed and will cause a period of instability as the LNP adjusts to the change.  Considering these factors, security forces are unlikely to show restraint when provoked by an unruly crowd, whether they are waiting in long lines at polling stations or forming a protest.  However, the LNP could help mitigate electoral violence by quieting crowds and resolving incidents before they escalate.

Security forces using violence against crowds of voters is likely to occur during the first round of elections, when turnout is higher and polling stations will have more difficulty managing the crowds.  Violence against protesters or opposition supporters is more likely as the runoff election approaches, as supporters become more determined to get their candidate elected, and as anger about the outcome of the first round of elections surfaces or candidates make accusations of fraud.  Monrovia is the most likely location, but rural areas where polling stations may be poorly prepared to handle crowds could be another, as could voter-rich Montserrado, Nimba, and Bong counties where opposition supporters could also protest or hold rallies.

Second, the high stakes of Liberia’s political system can contribute to campaign violence from political parties as they compete.  The country’s highly centralized system means that the president is very politically powerful, which raises the stakes of the election.  Coalitions are almost always necessary to win an election, and opposition parties are determined to unseat the incumbent Unity Party from power.  They will focus their campaigns in Montserrado, Nimba, and Bong counties, where there may be incidents of violence.  Hate speech and rhetoric is rampant during the election already, although official campaigning does not start until August 8, 2017.  Tensions are high and may provoke supporters of the Unity Party and opposition groups to clash.

Third, the NEC can indirectly cause violence if it does not have the funds to sufficiently prepare and train its staff before the election.  Past incidents have occurred when poll workers intimidated or influenced voters, and underprepared polling stations can lead to long lines and frustrated crowds.  To many Liberians, these are indicators of a fraudulent election, which could inspire protests or riots.  The NEC may also act as a mitigating factor, leading voter education programs, handling dispute adjudication, and determining the validity of election results.  It is a respected institution that can help give legitimacy to the election and the next president.

Finally, voter grievances can inspire individual or group actions of violence.  These grievances are usually related to feelings of marginalization or suspicions of election fraud.  The Unity Party for many Liberians represents an entrenched elite that does not represent them and uses government resources and power to continue its rule.  Feelings of inevitability of about the outcome of the election and frustration about the weakness of opposition parties may inspire individuals to become violent or destructive in isolated incidents including bombing parties’ headquarters, destroying campaign materials, or stealing ballot boxes.  Groups may also be inspired to form riots or protests as the election approaches and in the period between the first and second rounds of elections.  These actions may occur throughout Liberia but particularly around Monrovia.

Accusations of fraud also inspires protests and riots from opposition supporters who believe that they are being prevented from winning the election.  Liberia has never had widespread voter fraud, and international monitors have ruled recent elections free and fair, but the perception of fraud remains, and with it the threat of violence.  This is especially dangerous after the results of the first round of elections are distributed and candidates that did poorly may make accusations of fraud.

Liberia’s elections are crucial for the future of its democracy, with the ability to consolidate and legitimize its new democratic system.  This ability depends on whether the election is free and fair and whether there are any significant incidents of violence that may delegitimize the results.  The country has a difficult road toward ensuring that its election is held without incident and that it has a peaceful, democratic transfer of power for the first time in its history.

 

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[1] Brooks, 2016

[2] Brooks, 2016

[3] Claes and Muliru, 2016

[4] Sieh (2), 2016

[5] Genoway Jr., 2016

[6] Sieh (2), 2016

[7] Sieh (1), 2016

[8] Marmon, 2016

[9] Sisk, 2008

[10] Marmon, 2016

[11] Liberia: Conflict Profile, 2015

[12] Liberia, 2016

[13] Straus and Taylor, 2009

[14] Liberia, 2016

[15] Collier, 2009

[16] Income Gini Coefficient, 2015

[17] Straus and Taylor, 2009

[18] Koinyeneh, 2016

[19] Liberia: Conflict Profile, 2015

[20] Liberia: Conflict Profile, 2015

[21] Lomax, 2016

[22] Marmon, 2016

[23] Kollie, 2016

[24] Genoway Jr., 2016

[25] Sieh (1), 2016

[26] Addressing Election Violence in Liberia, 2016

[27] Claes and Muliru, 2016

[28] Election Project Document, 2015

[29] Afrobarometer, 2016

[30] Menjor, 2016

[31] The Liberia Decentralization Support Programme, 2016

[32] Political Parties, 2013

[33] Brooks, 2016

[34] Sieh (3), 2016

[35] Sieh (3), 2016

[36] Sieh (1), 2016

[37] Lomax, 2016

[38] Addressing Election Violence in Liberia, 2016

[39] EU, UNDP Support Election Complaints Resolution Training, 2016

[40] Regulations on Complaints and Appeals, 2016

[41] Marmon, 20166

[42] Cheeseman, 2016

[43] Liberia Election, 2011

[44] Liberia President, 2016

[45] Sleepy Joe, 2016

[46] Marmon, 2016

[47] Liberia Profile, 2016

[48] Addressing Election Violence in Liberia, 2016

[49] Marmon, 2016

[50] Kollie, 2016

[51] Liberia Country Profile, 2016

[52] Liberia Country Profile, 2016

[53] Lyons, 1998

[54] Lyons, 1998

[55] Lyons, 1998

[56] Election Observation Mission Final Report, 2005

[57] Liberia: Reports, 2011

[58] Akam and Schmall, 2011

[59] Akam and Schmall, 2011

[60] Addressing Election Violence in Liberia, 2016

[61] Marmon, 2016

[62] Addressing Electoral Violence in Liberia, 2016

[63] Genoway Jr., 2026

[64] Lyons, 1998

[65] Election Observation Mission Final Report, 2005

[66] Liberia: Reports, 2011

[67] Lomax, 2016

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